For my final exam in American Literature, I held a 90-minute seminar on Thornton Wilder’s drama, Our Town (1938). Here was my question:
The hymn “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds” (1782) appears four times in the drama: the choir practice in the Congregational Church (Act I), the whistling of Mr. Webb (Act I), the wedding of George Gibbs and Emily Webb (Act II), and the funeral of Emily Webb (Act III). What is the tie that binds the village people of Grover’s Corners—and is it blessed?
Answers varied, including time, nature, charity (agape), and God. I maintain that liturgy is the tie that binds the village people of Grover’s Corners. This answer should be no surprise to those who know me because I am a liturgical creature in the Anglican tradition. I have in mind what Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith means by cultural liturgies—those “formative pedagogies of desire that try to make us a certain kind of person,” those habituated rituals that inspire and order life.* His examples are consumerism in the shopping malls or the market, nationalism at sporting events or public schools, and worship in the Christian community. In Wilder’s drama, the cultural liturgies are birthdays, child rearing, romance, marriages, and funerals—all designed to hallow time and retard its ferocious speed. Liturgy, it seems, can turn the enemy of time into a friend.
* Footnote: In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, Smith writes:
Liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects. In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding” of the world. And by this I don’t meant that implanted in them is an understanding of the world that is pretheoretical, that is on a different register than ideas. That is why the education of desire requires a project hat aims below the head: it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination, which, we might say, lies closer to our gut (kardia) than our head.
- NEA Big Read: Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Our Town