Research

The Labyrinth – Ritualisation as Strategic Practice in Postmodern Times

Ian Mobsby talks to Jonny Baker about his research dissertation for his MA at Kings College London.

How to get hold of it:
You should be able to get it at Kings Library. You can borrow my copy. The whole dissertation is available to download free from my blog as a pdf file.
Blog – http://jonnybaker.blogs.com
Download – http://www.yehright.com/files/laby.pdf
I also published the ideas of the dissertation in a less academic format as a chapter in the book The Rite Stuff edited by Pete Ward published by BRF. That’s probably the way it is most accessible.

What did you gain from researching & writing this?
I had been involved in youth ministry for about 10 years so the process of doing the MA was a wonderful way to reflect on some of the practice and experiences of those 10 years. I found the discipline of writing a really good way to pull thoughts together. The interest I had specifically with the dissertation was to explore why the labyrinth and ritual in general seemed so powerful. The connections between ritual studies (which I had never heard of before doing the research), postmodern culture, and alternative worship proved to be a creative combination.

What is there in it that has most helped you and would benefit emerging-types?
It is in three sections. The first two are quite technical – on labyrinths and ritual studies. So I doubt they are of much interest! But the third (chapter 4 actually) is the most interesting I expect. I attempt to describe the postmodern landscape and then explore why alternative worship (and the labyrinth in particular) is a strategic response in postmodern times. I think I make a good case. I use the work of Catherine Bell in particular who has a notion of ritual as creating a ritualised agent who is able to employ a set of schemes from ritual back in everyday life. This is when ritual works well – it transforms our lives in practice as we carry its effects with us. One of the big challenges we face is how faith is being reshaped in consumer culture and what that means in terms of mission. This notion of a ritualised agent weaving meaning in everyday life connects with consumer culture I think. I guess I am suggesting that whilst it might feel risky, if we could enable people to see and use the resources of the Christian faith and tradition as a cultural resource it might help people map meaning routes through the postmodern times we live in and their everyday lives in practice. I think the instinct we have in churches about consumption is always focused on the negative and we resist it (which of course we need to in some sense) but people have been rewired in how they approach life so we need to engage with that rather than just focus on the negatives (church always seems good at focusing on nagatives in culture!). One of the appendices has the text of the labyrinth meditations in so some people may just want to use those and ignore the academic bit!

What do you think are its main findings?
I don’t know if I found anything new. It more confirmed and clarified my hunches. It gave me a language to describe what was happening in ritual and its connection with everyday life. Actually that’s too vague. Let me try a more positive answer:

  1. I discovered a whole lot about labyrinths in various cultures and ages.

  2. I found that ritual studies offers some very helpful ways of thinking about the role ritual plays in meaning making in cultures. A lot of this is from an anthropological point of view – studying tribal cultures and so on.

  3. I found Catherine Bell’s work to be very helpful in giving a framework for thinking about the role of ritual

  4. I found the descriptions of postmodern culture combined with an understanding of contextual mission helped me realise why the church is struggling – put bluntly it is wedded to a bygone era. But contextual mission offers some clues as to how the church could reconnect.

  5. I found that the behaviour/instincts people have are shaped by consumption and that if we could risk working with rather than against that enabling people to use religion as a cultural resource we might be surprised by how relevant it is.

  6. I found that alternative worship’s instincts contain creative and good strategies for faith in postmodern times.

  7. I found that ritual is transformative (which was the hunch I wanted to pursue).

What questions were you left with as you wrote it up?
I think that I have plenty of questions around alternative worship as a strategic practice. I love it and it has empowered me in terms of my faith. But if it’s so strategic why don’t more people adopt its strategies? I still believe the insights and discoveries of alternative worship are really important for the whole church. But I sometimes wonder if I’m just deluded! Having said that the labyrinth itself has been an amazing resource that is still being used to help people encounter God and connect with spiritual seekers.

What other reflections do you have now looking back now on it?
I think it still makes a lot of sense six years on which is encouraging. The one thing I think I would add in terms of the postmodern landscape is about cultural diversity. I think our context (certainly in London anyway) is shaped by different ethnic groups, nationalities, cultures and religions. Part of the challenge for Christian faith in postmodern times has to include some sense of how to negotiate this plural context.


Jonny is National Youth Coordinator for CMS, coordinator of worship for Greenbelt and director of independent record label Proost