Dazzling Bodies: Rethinking Spirituality and Community Formation.
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014.
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Reviewed by Kyle A. Schenkewitz
In Dazzling Bodies, Richard Valantasis develops a remarkable vision for Christian communities through engagement with critical theory, theological discourse, and diverse ministerial contexts. His thesis is as fresh and innovative as it is steeped in the liturgical and spiritual traditions of ancient Christianity. His concern is to unbind contemporary spirituality from its individualistic tendencies and reconnect the basis of spirituality to the worshipping community. He argues that Christian spiritual practices arose out of communal life, fed and formed the community, and linked the individual members to the communal identity. The disconnect between community and spirituality has been detrimental to contemporary congregations. Dazzling Bodies proposes methods for analyzing parishes as communities in order to understand their corporate life. One aspect of this analysis is how communities use words, gestures, sounds and other signs to communicate with one another. Applying social semiotic theory, he argues, helps identify the systems of solidarity and power in the parish setting. These “diagnostic tools enable us all to understand the process of developing a spirituality while staying closely connected to our religious communities.” (xii) For Valantasis, communal spirituality is primarily communicated and shared in the liturgical worship of a parish. In the liturgy, individuals meet and are gathered together into a corporate identity, “a complex locus of individual and corporate spiritualities.” (xiii) In the rich density of the corporate liturgical performance, individual bodies become dazzling with the energetic life of the Spirit at work in the corporate body. These dazzling bodies shine forth from within the life of the community to transform the world around them.
The first chapter utilizes the Eucharistic celebrations of a family approaching the death love a loved one to elucidate the complex interrelationships between religious culture, social relationships, and individual formation. These categories provide the lenses through which to examine the individual and corporate spiritual formation in the liturgy. As the spirituality of the ailing family member is shared with attending members, the liturgy engages the family in a spiritual performance while the minister functions as a conduit and agent of religious culture. These intersecting categories create an internal system of communication and unify the individuals into a corporate whole, a community. The role of prayer as the heart and communicative foundation of a spiritual community is the focus of Chapter 2. Valantasis presents a simple theory of communication that demonstrates the movement from participant to liturgy through the encoded elements of the liturgy as a “multifaceted text.” (20) The participants help fill the liturgy with meaning while the liturgy reflects meaning back onto the participants through the common context from which the liturgy and the participants draw. The liturgy engages individuals at multiple levels, identified as the personal, corporate, and spiritual “bodies.” Spiritual formation in a community occurs when these bodies are unified in prayer, hence the term “praying the bodies.” (30)
The words that a community speaks and the life they envision are mutually reflective. In Chapter 3, the liturgy provides a setting where language can be developed communally, the language of angels. Forming this language depends upon intentional preparation for liturgy, regular intimate discourse among members, and commitment to an authoritative context or tradition. Gradually a parish can cultivate a language system with depth and specificity that is cultured in the particularities of that community and formed around its story and experience of God. Chapter 4 describes how the language of the community is clarified in the liturgy and especially the sermon. In the worshipping assembly, power and authority play an important role. From the reading of texts to the seating of leaders, power and solidarity vacillate. In the sermon, one person is authorized to speak univocally to the community on behalf of the community. This powerful act “takes the text that has been read and makes it part of the lives of the assembled people.” (64) The space created by the sermon is carefully negotiated for the exercise of power and authority, as well as creating solidarity among the community, challenging while edifying. The sermon rises from the discourse of the community and empowers the individuals within the corporate spiritual body.
The final two chapters address the proactive features of spiritual formation through asceticism. As an analog to the creation of a kind of person in a spiritual community, Valantasis points to the intentional formation of gang members. In a similar manner, gangs and religious communities train individuals to be a new person, to take on a new identity, to redefine social relationships and have a transformed symbolic universe. Their minds, bodies, and lives are shaped by performances that “inaugurate a new subjectivity.” (73) Drawing on Christian monastic life, Valantasis characterizes how a way of living can transform one into a new person through “malleable bits of experience.” (79) These experiences shape the kind of person one becomes and must, therefore, be analyzed and reflected on with serious intention. Through the intentionality of the community’s self-formation, the reality of God is enabled to break into the world in amazing new ways. In a series of anecdotes, Valantasis reveals how “focusing on the practice and the performances, we infuse the physical world with the reality of God.” (101) The community becomes resplendent with the divine presence and their lives glisten with the divine light. The result is a community of dazzling bodies.
Dazzling Bodies is a gift to the church and classroom. Valantasis shares his wisdom in a crisp and precise prose, while his vision of the parish as a spiritual community crosses denominational lines. This book is highly recommended for anyone in the church, but especially those wondering how to develop the church into a spiritual community, a congregation that shines forth with brilliance.