Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments

Dru Johnson

Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2019. 176 pages. Softcover. $13.00.

Reviewed by Geoffrey R. Boyle on 09/18/2019

Ours is a ritual-eat-ritual-world and it is not always clear who we can trust to shape our habits and lives. Human Rites, by Dru Johnson, is a common-sense argument about why thinking about ritual is important. As far as it goes, it is incredibly persuasive and can easily be placed into the hands of our lay-members to great benefit.

Johnson recognizes the unity of the human person: we are not just minds or souls, but bodies operating in a physical world. Everywhere we go and everything we do is marked by ritual: what you have for breakfast, what clothing you find in your closet, what you listen to in the car, which pew you sit in at church, and what you do with your phone. It is all ritualized—sometimes wittingly, but more often unwittingly. This book calls us to be more witting ritualists, even if we do not exactly understand the ritual (think: Mr. Miyagi, “wax on, wax off”).

And that brings us to the book’s short-coming—if we can call it that: it does not go far enough. Though Johnson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and Old Testament faculty member at King’s College, NYC, he was asked to write this book for anyone from the layman in our pews to the atheist on the bar-stool beside us. (There is an extended, more academic version: Knowledge by Ritual: A Biblical Prolegomenon to Sacramental Theology, Eisenbrauns, 2016.) Admittedly, he wrote this book primarily to call attention to the ritualization of daily life, not specifically that of the church. But, as Lutherans, we have been gifted with such a profound and robust ritual heritage liturgically speaking—that we are left wanting more, especially when it comes to the sacraments.

For that “more,” I would urge you to read John Kleinig’s fine article, “Witting or Unwitting Ritualists” (Lutheran Theological Journal 22/1 [1988], 13-22). What Johnson hints at and scratches the surface of, Kleinig gives in full measure; and he does so in just ten pages.

Nevertheless, I heartily recommend Johnson’s book for the sake of its clarity, easy reading, and accessibility for the average layman. It wonderfully provides the groundwork for a through examination of our own ritualized lives—warning us to discern who prescribes it, to what end, and how the ritual can turn “dark” or “flimsy”—and then invites us to teach the beauty and power of ritual offered to us in the Divine Service. Use it for a book club or Bible study. But make sure you read Kleinig alongside.