A Review of ‘For the Life of the World’ by Alexander Schmemann

A Review of ‘For the Life of the World’ by Alexander Schmemann

In ‘For the Life of the World’, a contemporary Orthodox classic, Fr Alexander Schmemann sets out to “remind its readers that in Christ, life – life in all its totality – was returned to man, given again as sacrament and communion, made Eucharist. And it is to show – be it only partially and superficially – the meaning of this for our mission in the world.”

To put it in layman’s terms, Fr Schmemann was trying to explain life and living from the perspective of Orthodox worship. For modern people who have neatly divided their lives into self-contained compartments (family, job, church, etc.), this may seem a curious endeavor. After all, how many of us have seriously considered what our corporate worship practices (whether the public reading of scripture, communion, or the altar) mean for the way we pursue our career… or relate to our spouse… or train our children?

My guess is, most of us haven’t given it much thought – even if we’re serious about our faith.

Underlying Schmemann’s argument is the idea that we are, at our core, worshiping creatures. He puts it this way: “…whatever the degree of his secularism or even atheism, man remains essentially a ‘worshiping being,’ forever nostalgic for rites and rituals no matter how empty and artificial is the ersatz offered to him.” (By the way, ‘ersatz’ means ‘substitute.’ I had to look it up too.) This is the same concept James K. A. Smith brings out in his ‘Cultural Liturgies’ project where he discusses the way we fill our lives with rituals that shape us without even realizing it – including the liturgy of the shopping mall, the liturgy of the baseball park, etc.

We may try to paper over our ‘liturgical’ nature, but it will come out one way or another.

And if it’s true that we are inherently worshipers, then wouldn’t it make sense to examine our lives in light of worship? Of course! And that’s Schmemann’s big idea in a nutshell.

But as I’ve already mentioned, he isn’t looking from the perspective of worship in general. He’s looking at life as an Orthodox Christian who weekly experiences the Orthodox liturgy (or worship service).

Listen to the way he begins talking about this… “The liturgy of the Eucharist is best understood as a journey or procession. It is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the Kingdom… The journey begins when Christians leave their homes and beds. They leave, indeed, their life in this present and concrete world, and whether they have to drive fifteen miles or walk a few blocks, a sacramental act is already taking place, an act which is the very condition of everything else that is to happen. For they are now on their way to constitute the Church, or to be more exact, to be transformed into the church of God.”

From there, he examines each element of the Orthodox worship service, from the opening doxology to the final prayer. But he doesn’t just look at what is said or even the theology behind what is said, he examines how every word is shaping the worshiper into a particular kind of person – a person who is ready to go out into the world and to accomplish the mission God has given.

In the following chapters, Schmemann looks at the Christian calendar, baptism, marriage, death/healing, and the Church’s mission. And in each of those discussions, he moves past the theory to critique culture and point believers beyond it, to the Kingdom.

Two of Schmemann’s essays are included as appendices, one called ‘Worship in a Secular Age’ and another called ‘Sacrament and Symbol.’ In these essays, he defines secularism as “a negation of Worship” and attempts to shed important light on the whole idea of “sacraments.” Both of these essays are excellent – and, in my opinion, worth the price of admission all by themselves (though, admittedly, my price of admission was rather low since I checked it out from a library).

This isn’t a book that I would necessarily recommend to everyone, especially if discussions about theology and worship aren’t your thing. But for those who are interested in seriously thinking about what worship might say about us (or for those who’d like to learn more about Orthodoxy)… it’s a must-read.

I think my biggest takeaway is how impoverished our discussions about worship and worship services are. I’m afraid that, when it comes to our talk about worship, we often “tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions…” (Matthew 23:23).

Maybe it’s time to move past any residual worship wars to a worship revolution that takes up our whole lives and allows God to transform them.

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