Good Old Fashioned Religion Part 1: Chopticks, Beer, and Liturgy

The last few months I’ve been on a huge Chinese-American food kick (you’ll be not so surprised to know it’s different from Chinese food: Check out the documentary “The Search For General Tso” for insight into the interesting history of Chinese-American food).  We even purchased an electric wok at our house so that I can stir fry all the time.  My wife and I each own our own pair of chopsticks and use them whenever we’re eating stir fry or rice based dishes.

I discovered something very interesting over the course of this time.  It all tastes better with chopsticks!  But on our ordinary understanding of perception this doesn’t seem to make sense.  How is the fact that I’m using a different implement supposed to change how the combination of noodles, protein, and vegetables effects my taste buds?  How is it possible for the same thing to taste differently with a slightly different delivery method?

There are a few possibilities.  The first, and most troubling, way to understand how chopsticks make it better is by appeal to the theory-ladenness of observation.  That is, it is often argued that our theories or views of the world change the way we see things in a very real way.  As an example of how this is supposed to work, consider how two different people might experience a series of magic tricks.  Suppose that Bobby believes sorcery is real, but Penn Jillette believes that there is no such thing as sorcery and in fact has a very sophisticated theory of how magic tricks work.  Watching the same magic trick might result in Bobby and Penn having very different experiences, but only because Bobby and Penn have different theories of what’s going on in the situation.  While Bobby might see the trick and experience a person appealing to occult powers to engage in augury, Penn might see the trick as a clever combination of slight-of-hand and and theatrics.  Penn and Bobby, in virtue of having different theories of how magic works, will have very different experiences of the magic trick they witness.  Or think of the way that your experience of accidentally touching someone’s hand is different when you think of the person as a possible romantic partner compared to when you do not so think of them.  Perhaps this is why stir fry tastes better with chopsticks.  Maybe we think about eating with chopsticks differently than we think about eating with a fork, and this makes us experience eating with chopsticks in this different and more pleasurable way.

It’s also possible that this is an ordinary case of the interaction of our different senses and other more ordinary ways in which our sensory perceptions can be altered.  Cold lemonade tastes better when you’re hot and thirsty.  Sight also seems to have a big effect on how we experience things like touch.  Think about those television shows in which people are required to reach their hands into boxes and feel things in the dark.  When a person looks about to die of fright from touching a teddy bear while blindfolded it’s reasonable to think they are having a different experience from the one you have when you touch a visible teddy bear.  This could be why stir fry tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.

Or perhaps, it could just be something subtle about the method of delivery that physically makes the flavors different when eaten with chopsticks than when eaten with a fork.  To see how this might work consider Trappist beer.  Trappist beer is a complex malty beer brewed by Catholic monks.  Now, it’s said that the best kind of glass with which to enjoy Trappist beer is a chalice.  The story goes that this type of beer was developed and the only implements that were around, historically, with which to test their beer was a chalice.  It’s further thought that it’s something about how the narrowing top of a chalice traps the scents of the beer in the chalice which effects its bouquet, but perhaps there are other facts about chalices that effected the development of trappist beer in such a way that there are all sorts of subtle aspects of chalices that effect the flavor of the beer in the correct way.

In any case we should see that it’s perfectly reasonable to think that stir fry tastes better when eaten with chopsticks.  But who cares?  What does this matter?  Well, there is an interesting fact about religion which I’d like to talk about in connection with this issue.  Now, I’m a Catholic, formerly a Baptist.  I’d like to talk about an issue in the Catholic liturgy and the issue of getting people to connect with the worship.

At around the time that 60’s and 70’s folk music was beginning to leave its indelible mark on Christian music and evangelical worship, there was push in Catholicism (this is a first-pass attempt at history, so give me a bit or a break here on details) beginning to move toward this folky kind of worship.  My reconstruction of what happened was something like this.  People looked at evangelical protestant worship and saw what I experienced when I was in the evangelical movement.  They saw people really engaging with the worship emotionally and coveted that for their catholic services, which were perceived as somehow stuffy, boring, with music that is dirge-like.

So parishes  began paring down the liturgy.  The specifically catholic aspects of the liturgy began to wane.  Now, when you pick a random Catholic parish on a Sunday, you’ll find something somewhere in between the old fashioned Catholic service of days of old and a modern evangelical service with folk music and visual and olfactory sparseness.

For example, my parish (due partially monetary constraints) consists of a large open room with a stone floor, with temporary pew seats throughout.  There are no icons.  There are no statues (apart from the one crucifix in the center of the room).  There aren’t even any kneelers.  It’s just a big open room, with a piano and a very evangelical-style worship leading team.  Compare this to another parish in my town.  This parish has intricate architecture which integrates beautiful statuary.  There are kneelers.

Now, I’m not here to judge newer parishes for failing to put out the incredible mountain of cash it would take to make every parish like some of the more beautiful parishes in our various areas.  It’s very expensive (although, I wonder if priorities are where they need be in some cases).

The point I’m trying to make is that even with roughly the same ingredients (Catholic liturgy remains largely the same from parish to parish), Catholic liturgy is better and more fulfilling when it’s done in an environment that moves the other senses as well.  The same liturgy is experienced much differently depending on the environment in which it takes place (as a side note, I have never experienced a liturgy performed in latin or ad orientem but have long dreamed of doing so for the same reason).  It’s better when it’s served in the chalice which was the vessel for tasting it over the many years it was developed.  Catholic liturgy tastes better with chopsticks.

In the coming months we’ll speak more about Catholic spirituality and how it relates to the worship of evangelicalism and the worship of other religions as part of a series of posts focusing on good old fashioned catholic liturgy and what it’s like.

Check back every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for new content!

Peace be with you.