Thursday, August 10, 2006

Abductive thinking & worship

One of the books which I read for my Eucharist comp was Graham Hughes' Worship as Meaning: A Liturgical Theology for Late Modernity. He examines the theories of the semiotician Charles Peirce and applies them to worship. I highly recommend it, even for those of you who hate semiotics or have never studied them—he explains Peirce's theories well, and the conclusions he draws regarding worship are thought-provoking, even if you might not agree with all of them (just try to ignore the fact that his sentences have an average of about 60 words in length).

Some of the themes Hughes establishes are especially interesting. First, he establishes that meaning is produced in the interaction between the sign producer and the interpretant. Regardless of the giver's understanding of meaning, the interpretant's understanding, based upon what understandings are available to him or her, will affect the meaning intended into a third meaning, one different from the producer and the interpretant's original ideas.

Second, Hughes spends some time discussing the notion that humans like to go to the edge of chaos. He notes people's proclivity to enjoy roller coasters, horror movies, extreme sports, etc. He then calls upon the designers of worship to make the worship service such an experience—bringing people to the edge of chaos in that they are approaching the holy God.

Third, Hughes draws upon Peirce's understandings of meaning production to say that abduction produces the most meaningful meanings, as opposed to induction or deduction. By abduction, he means that some information is given, but not enough to know for certain what is truly the meaning of a situation. Therefore, imagination is necessary to create meaning, since not enough information was given to induce or deduce the meaning. In a given situation, for this purpose a worship service, thousands of tiny signs lead the worshiper to create meaning based upon them, whether consciously or not.

So, we see that worship leaders should be mindful that the worshipers might interpret a bit differently the signs that are given in worship; that worshipers like to be brought to the edge of chaos; and that the best method of giving meaning is allowing for the imaginative, abductive process. What that indicates could be different in different places and situations, because meaning can only be produced based on the cultural situations which produce it (one critique of Hughes is that he seemingly leaves aside the work of the Holy Spirit, instead relying on human agents for meaning production).

However, can we rely on contemporary people to be abductive in their thinking? An examination of recent Hollywood movies seems to indicate not, yet, many forwardthinking churches are using movies to outreach to their congregations. The church which some of my family attends just had a couple of services in which they watched the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line—an enjoyable movie, but interesting to show in worship.

Amy and I watched 16 Blocks last night, and it seems fairly representative. No room was left for abductive thinking, in which every tiny plot detail was spelled out in excruciating detail. The entire plot was fairly obvious from about minute 15 of the 102-minute feature, but, the filmmakers felt it necessary to be doubly sure that everyone would be able to comprehend the straightforward, clich├ęd story. I would fault them for my boredom, but, going to movies in the theater makes me wonder about our moviegoing public.

In Lady in the Water, what had been explained fairly well, although not fully, was finally mostly spelled out in the last few minutes. Some was new information, but some of it had been left for our imagination—although with much guidance. However, what had seemed fairly obvious left the lady behind me gasping in shock. Further, when Amy and Amanda Drury saw The Devil Wears Prada, a movie with much less to reveal, one of their fellow moviegoers was left in shock at the revelation of another obvious plot detail that had finally been spelled out.

Other movies that leave much unexplained have been unpopular, such as Unbreakable, which apparently I and three people I'm friends with liked. However, too much left undone is unsatisfying to me, such as Winter Light, part of Ingmar Bergman's "faith" trilogy.

So, is the simplified spelling out of every detail, like in 16 Blocks, really all we can expect of people? If so, can we depend on the abductive reasoning of worshipers? And, what could we do to encourage abductive thinking? How can we bring people to the boundary with chaos?


millinerd said...

At the risk of putting it too sharply, I'd much prefer to be abducted by the Holy Spirit through the classic liturgical formulae through which He flows best than by a Graham Hughes' roller coaster rite.

As for "how we can bring people to the boundary without chaos?" I commend the words of Peirce:

"It must be remembered that abduction, although it is very little hampered by logical rules, nevertheless is logical inference, asserting its conclusion only problematically or conjecturally, it is true, but nevertheless having a perfectly definite logical form"
(Harvard Lectures on Pragmatism, CP 5.188-189, 1903).

Lance said...

Ah, I remember the appropriate millinerd post well.

True, though, abductive reasoning is still reasoning.

Which of the "classic liturgical formulae" do you like? There's many from which to choose, although I like most of them (I'm especially fond of James, personally).

Or, perhaps, maybe our focus would be better on the Holy Spirit in your statement, rather than the formulae. Maybe we should sing a Pentecost hymn!

It is a good critique, however, in that the Holy Spirit is largely absent from Hughes' work, and one which I was not alone in making. So, millinerd, how can we help people to listen to the Holy Spirit, rather than simply seeking the next experience on the edge of chaos? And, as per our prior Pentecost discussion, when the Holy Spirit does speak, will that not be the edge of chaos (although orderly, too)?

millinerd said...

Well, if the Latin Mass was good enough for Jesus...

But seriously, I pick any with roots that are over 1000 years old. Is that a foolproof test? Of course not. But there's a lot less fool in it than the alternative.

To quote American church historian James Nichols on Mercersberg,

"Rather than seeking novel forms of expression, Nevin held public prayer should repeat itself to a great extent, for the spirit of devotion flows best through long consectrated channels. Herein lay the secret of the special satisfaction felt by thousands in the Book of Common Prayer. The great bulk of material it contained were not Anglican but derived from remote antiquity. They were the common heritage of all Christians, and no liturgy informed by the ancient spirit of Christian worhship would find it easy to dispense with them" (293).

Anonymous said...

On people wanting 'chaos' -

This is a curious term to use, as it appears in Scripture as something opposed to God, something which God conquers and subdues. I understand our experience of God may seem to us to be an encounter with chaos; but the reality is that is we are encountering true order (it is we who are in the chaotic state).

And on people wanting a taste of chaos; from my experience, that is not a constant nor a universal desire. The use of set rites and liturgy points in the other direction. As the old adage goees, 'comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable'.

<>< Ron Troup;

Lance said...


I do like most of the older liturgies, although you do have to watch for the Nestorian ones and the like. However, that in itself is a problem for free churches, in which no written liturgy is used, even though often the same things happen every week. When at Hightstown we were discussing a church statement of faith, I suggested the Apostles' Creed. After having to explain what it was, I was then told that that was much too old to be relevant to our church today.

And, I appreciate the Mercersburg theology! We should make a pilgrimage to Mercersburg sometime. By "repetition" I suppose you mean the repeition of ancient forms, rather than simply "mindless repetition," like some songs I know (and parables about such).


By "chaos" Hughes means more of the edge of the unknown, the edge of danger than what we would think of chaos as the opposite of the God of order. You are right, people like the familiar. But, people also seek the unknown. Finding that balance is, I think, what he's asking us to do.

Lance said...

Although, I should also make clear that the people who didn't like the Apostle's Creed are no longer at Hightstown (in case you'd want to visit).