Man’s Need For Ritual

March 28, 2010

This morning my kids participated in our church’s Palm Sunday service which includes their walking between the line of pews waving palm fronds to mimic the New Testament documentation of Jesus’ triumphal entry while riding on a donkey. Parental pride aside, I was so happy to see my children carrying on one of the few remaining traditions of the Christian church in an age that judges, despises then rejects the need for Christian symbolism. But what’s the big deal? Why do I feel so moved now when so many other Palm Sunday rituals have passed with nary a thought?

I was amazed at God. Now when I say “God” I don’t mean some abstract thing, invented by culture or my own preferences. If there’s any proof to me that this is not a God of my own creation it’s that at the very least, He isn’t the sort of God I would prefer to create. This should be one of our first tests about an authentic search for the one true God is that He should strike us as inhuman.

God does strange things, and the Christian story, while familiar to many of us, should not be in danger of becoming so familiar that it loses its inhuman nature. That’s why I’m careful not to baptize the Christian story with my culture’s preferences. If there’s one thing I know about my culture it’s that it gets many things wrong, often the most important things. It would make sense that my culture would be at war with an inhuman God so the atheists or pluralists who shake their fist at the Orthodox God only serve to strengthen my own weak, perhaps non-existent faith.

Man is a fickle being. We know enough to know that we are lost but we aren’t sure exactly how we got lost. When some religions or world views offer answers our skeptical age is quick to throw out platitudes against authority figures and truth claims of every sort. That’s part of our culture. It’s a relatively new development, though there have always been skeptics here and there even before the Age of Reason. But God plows on.

Christ, if he wasn’t the Christian Christ, didn’t have to endorse rituals. He didn’t have to raise bodily from the dead. He didn’t have to ride triumphant on a donkey to fulfill a few (okay, hundreds) obscure Old Testament prophecies that he would come in on a donkey to crowds of cheering fans the week before those same fans shouted “Crucify Him”! But God uses ritual to speak to forgetful humans.

I would go even farther and say that the crowds of adoring fans of Christ only threw their palms at his feet because they thought he was a Christ that endorsed their version of him. The conquering warrior who would knock Rome on its ass. Like our times, we are all too willing to follow religions so long as they basically agrees with our culture’s preferences of that religion. But the true test of a follower isn’t during the Triumphal Entry, it’s the week after… and that’s a different post altogether. Suffice it to say that I get a lot of heat for simply following my religion as the Bible tells me to. I could remove all of the heat regarding my religion if only I were willing to submit Christ to my culture’s preferences, only in doing so, I would break my previous rule that God’s ways must first be inhuman to be true.

Christ could have died on the cross, then resurrected in spirit only. That’s the gnostic claim that believes the materials in themselves are lesser than or evil. If Christ didn’t resurrect bodily then it could all be a philosophical victory. God would admit that the materials are unimportant, a bogus part of life and therefore that not only would his abandonment of materials be trivial, but that our current lives would not be tied in any way to this world. But God once called the materials, “Good”. After making everything long ago, God looked on the earth and said, “It is good.” He doesn’t appear to be that thrilled with abandoning what He thinks is good. Instead, He got into the business of resurrecting dead things from the grave. The materials. His son. Me.

I don’t believe that our coatings are trivial and our life on earth experiencing a physics-based sequential time is a joke and that’s at least part of why I’m an artist by trade. The arts use physical media like movies, paintings, printed word, actors in a theater, designed cars, iphone apps etc. to arrange the particles into beautiful, truth bearing forms. Not bad for a bunch of fallen apes when you consider just how complicated an array everything is from Star Wars to The Bill of Rights turns out to be. Man conquers and manipulates materials.

I don’t think this is any kind of accident, nor a genetically mandated event because there are forms of material manipulation that go directly against our own survival of species. I am reminded of men who played pop tunes in Iraq, though if they were caught playing such music they would be killed and their genetic line would be snuffed out. I am reminded of the Jews in the holocaust making secret paintings that not only mocked their captors but showed beautiful depictions of women, God and mankind.

I am also reminded of first century followers of Christ who would only have to recant their beliefs to live to save their own lives and those of their families whom they watched die before their eyes. Their children burned first, then their wives raped and burned, before they themselves were consumed by fire. This is why my own faith being the cause of a few lost jobs in Hollywood should not qualify as persecution. We Americans have it pretty good these days, and that includes some of our biggest victims.

We are prone to forget, and that’s why we are urged to participate in communion. It’s not that God is obsessed with wine and bread. There is nothing special about the wine and bread particles. It is always the arrangement and meaning of the particles that is significant. In fact, the arts, the meaning, the beauty, the things that do not come naturally to randomly colliding particles that bring us the most satisfaction, freedom and ultimately salvation.

In the end, it’s not God who is on trial and in need of a church to remember him. God didn’t need to resurrect bodily from the dead. We needed it. God does not need children to wave palm fronds, we need it. It’s not to remind us that we are trapped within the particles, but that though we are partially made up of physical things, that the arrangement of physical things by creative minds can point us to the truly valuable things. The things worth dying for. Heck, the only things worth living for.


15 Responses to “Man’s Need For Ritual”

  1. Ian Says:

    The theological question then becomes, what WOULD the god you create yourself be, and how would that be different than the exterior force? You might meet your maker one day, see his eyes are different sizes with an iris only in the larger one, and be very surprised…

  2. tennapel Says:

    I have no doubt I’ll be completely surprised.

  3. Damon Says:


  4. Bob McGowan Says:

    and Amen.

  5. Kathy Fullerton Says:

    Being made in God’s image, mankind is the only creature compelled to create and manipulate the material, as you state. You make an excellent point that we are also the only creatures who NEED ritual, symbolism, storytelling, etc. to remind us of the God in whose image we are made. Scripture shows us that God loves symbolism, ritual, pictures, images and stories. I love that Jesus utilizes all of these in his earthly ministry. I also love that his own training as a carpenter is a visual of a person who is manipulating the material.

    Part of our purpose in glorifying our Creator here on earth is the endless urge to create. If we are faithful to use the gifts we’ve been given, He is glorified. No matter what, He is glorified because that is how He set up the system.

  6. Austin Says:

    Great post, Doug! I think you touched on a lot of important points.

  7. Mark Says:

    This is a fascinating post to me. I sit in my cubicle listening to “The Neverhood” original soundtrack and reading to find out what it’s creator is up to lately.

    And I find a discussion on the Christian religion and some of its trappings.

    The faith thing is the toughest part for me, even though I grew up in a Christian church. Perhaps because it tried to strip away most of the ritual of which you speak (fundamentalist Church of Christ), there was something missing for me. Perhaps the rituals would have helped make it more “real” for me. Hmm… interesting thought.

    • tennapel Says:

      Most of the rituals have been stripped out of almost all of Christianity. There was a backlash against our dominance in culture, iconography and ritual. In throwing out ritual, we threw the baby out with the bath-water. Today you’ll find whole congregations of Christians who can’t make a connection between their beliefs and their actions. Further, in undermining iconography we completely abandoned the arts. Now the religious mourn our lack of presence in movies, theater, literature and painting.

      We used to dominate culture and influence society but we abdicated that throne so much that now the church is far more influenced by culture than the other way around.

  8. Ben Says:

    Doug, what rituals are you speaking of? What rituals does the church no longer practice that you believe it should?

    • tennapel Says:

      This isn’t a defense of protecting any one ritual. It’s a defense of all ritual. There is no specific one that has gone that I’m mourning and wishing back. I don’t make a case for incense or kneeling while praying. But when I walk into most churches (including my own) and there is a disconnect between the worshipper and his every day life, I wish there were more opportunities for real life connection.

      I would go even farther by saying that when Christ commands us to take care of the poor, the widow and the orphan that those are no less of a ritual than going to church in the first place.

  9. Luke Keith Says:

    I am particularly encouraged by this for several reasons. Earthworm Jim is one of my all time favorite characters… ever, and I have put my trust in the God of the Bible and His son Jesus Christ. Creative expression is what I live for! I would love nothing more than to work on a legitimate comic book, movie, graphic novel, or whatever. It can be a little scary standing up for your Faith at times because the world, and Hollywood especially, has very little tolerance for Christian ideals. Not to mention our politics.

    It is encouraging to me to see a successful artist such as yourself who is outspoken about his faith in Christ. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Bill Doors Says:

    Thank you, Mr. TenNapel. I really needed for somebody to say something like this to me right now. I especially needed to hear it from a successful, creative person like yourself.

  11. Stuff Says:

    Saying atheists shake their fists at God is like saying grown-ups shake their fists at Santa Claus…

  12. Randy Says:

    was just surfing by when I caught this article.. I really liked it. Good point(s)

    I agree with your premise.. He doesn’t fit any box I acn fashion regardless how profound or noble I might think my conceptual box to be..

    for example: 2Ti 1:7 for God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind;

    If I had written it, probably would have been something like ‘.. a spirit of love, a sound and power..’

    Very good thing I didn’t write it..

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