SACRED GAMES by Bernhard Lang


A History of Christian Worship
Email this review


 A thoughtfully conceived, thoroughly researched history that posits pagan origins for the rituals of Christian worship. Lang (Religion/Univ. of Paderborn, Germany) may be building a reputation for tackling enormous subjects--he co-authored Heaven: A History in 1988. Here, he economically uses a mere 450 pages to describe Christianity's six ``sacred games,'' or elements of worship: praise, prayer, sermons, sacrifices, sacraments, and spiritual ecstasy. Each section of the book offers a useful summary of the game in question, a feature made necessary by the almost encyclopedic detail of Lang's research. He begins not with the Bible but with ancient Greek texts, arguing especially for a cross- fertilization of ideas between Christian and neo-Platonic thinkers in late antiquity (the third century a.d.). For instance, the neo- Platonist practice of a ritual magic that Lang calls ``theurgy'' provided the foundation for Christian theology's doctrine of Christ's ``real presence'' in the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Lang is interested not only in theology, but in praxis; he strives to see his six ``sacred games'' alive in Christian ritual today, which makes for some provocative connections to our world. For example, in considering spiritual ecstasy, Lang includes the ``rebirth'' of Pentecostal worship at the turn of the 20th century. He claims that Pentecostalism should be understood as an ancient, ecstatic impulse. (This is, in fact, how Pentecostals themselves view their history, although they mark their origins with the New Testament ``gifts of the spirit,'' and not the pagan rituals Lang describes.) Lang chooses some beautiful art to accompany his text and doesn't shy away from including illuminative kitsch among the highbrow works. One wishes, however, that he'd included some Eastern Orthodox icons and that he'd paid more attention generally to the Orthodox tradition. An extraordinary resource for scholars, and a lasting contribution to the fields of Christian history and ritual studies.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1997
ISBN: 0-300-06932-4
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1997