Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments (Johnson)

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Puritanboard Clerk
Johnson, Dru. Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments.

Thesis: Rituals symbolically encode our deepest thoughts and desires into a storyline.

Definition: A ritual or rite is a regular action that has been scripted for another use.

Dru Johnson, Hebrew professor at King’s College New York, exposes the daily rituals in our lives. Rituals and rites, and for some the term, sacraments, conjures up the smoky atmosphere of mystery religions. The reality of rituals, however, is quite different. Stated plainly, rituals teach our bodies when our minds are not always aware. This book is not about “rituals for church,” nor is it prescribing a set of rituals for one’s spiritual life. The truth is probably the opposite: getting rid, or at least becoming aware, of bad rituals.

The symbolism of a ritual is important, but we should not always expect a one-to-one correspondence. God told the Israelites to pretend they were camping out in tents and booths for one week a year. This was to remind them of the wilderness years. That symbolism seems obvious enough. Not all of them are, though. God told Israel to sometimes sacrifice a red heifer. Why that particular heifer and not another? There really is not a good reason and looking for one probably misses the point.

Rituals are scripted by someone. God scripted rituals for Old Covenant Israel for reasons sometimes beyond the obvious. It is easy for us to “feel out of place” or confused even when we have not sinned. If an Israelite kills a man in battle, he does not sin (especially if God commanded the battle!). Nevertheless, it is easy to feel confused. It is no light thing to kill someone. God knows that, which is why he prescribed purification rituals that give the man a script and a purpose and prevent a falling into despair.

The same applies for married life, including sex. This is especially true for young couples. Emotions are high. Becoming one flesh; not really having a clue what is going on. That’s normal. God prescribed some minor rituals to “script that part of life.”

There is an excellent section on technology and rituals. If you have read neuroscience regarding technology’s, especially smart phones, impact on the brain, then you know what he is saying.

The reason rituals are powerful is that habits are encoded in our flesh. Simply talking them out does not work (which is what psychologists learned in the early days of PTSD). Rituals rewire the body.

Concluding Comments

One minor criticism is that there is no hard and fast line between “rites” and “rituals.” Using one is just as good as the other. Other than that, the book was very informative, maybe even “formative.”


Staff member
I like to be aware of my rituals--in the sense of habits that make my life orderly. When they get disrupted, I figuratively see age-old entropy (aka disorder) beckoning me like an ancient siren.

The funny thing is how domestic animals get into the groove too. The cats understand when the sun goes down it is time for meat. And, surprisingly, they know from my activities when the Lord's Day comes around. Instead of demanding to go out--they retreat to the bedroom knowing I will be gone for the day.
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