Freedom & Propriety

Rituals of Spontaneity: Sentiment & Secularism from Free Prayer to Wordsworth by Lori Branch

reviewed by Peter J. Leithart

We have Erasmus to thank not only for the word “ceremony” but also for the derogatory connotations attached to it. His Latin neologism, ceremonialae, has been translated as “trivial little ritual nonsenses.” Early English occurrences of “ceremony” follow the Erasmian usage. Gentility, one sixteenth-century critic wrote, is no more than a “meer flash, a ceremony, a toy, a thing of nought.”

Medieval Christians would have found these sentiments bewildering. Rituals were not toys but powerful tools that performed a kind of magic. So powerful was the ritual . . .

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Peter J. Leithart is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and the president of Trinity House Institute for Biblical, Liturgical & Cultural Studies in Birmingham, Alabama. His many books include Defending Constantine (InterVarsity), Between Babel and Beast (Cascade), and, most recently, Gratitude: An Intellectual History (Baylor University Press). His weblog can be found at www.leithart.com. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

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