Book Review – Human Rites: The Power of Rituals, Habits, and Sacraments by Joshua Cockayne

Stephanie Nicole Nordby
Wednesday 3 April 2019

The dim-lit screen lights up my face as I desperately check whether that journal has finished reviewing my article yet, or if I’ve received another rejection letter from a job application (it’s got to be 9am somewhere, right?). Swiping my finger down, I wonder whether the Twittersphere has spewed any more insightful word vomit about the ever so simple problems of world politics since I got into bed. And just one more check of my fantasy football team to make sure I’ve not got the Cardiff city keeper in before they face Liverpool on Sunday. Putting my phone down, I lie awake, staring at the ceiling. Why have I got so little work done this week? When will I ever find time to get to the gym? I wish I prayed more. I wish life had more purpose.

You might have better technology boundaries than me, but you too have your own rituals—whether these be the formalised rituals of religious worship, or the mundane rituals of oral hygiene, Netflix viewing, or the work commute. Our lives are saturated with rituals, whether we reflect on these or not.  While the vast majority of academic research (including my own, of course) at times feels out of touch with the questions many of us stay up thinking about, and the activities which become ritualised into our own bedtime routines, it is difficult to raise this same criticism to Dru Johnson’s recent book, Human Rites.

Johnson (a biblical scholar and theologian at The King’s College, New York, and former Logos colleague), has written a number of excellent books on the topic of ritual, and particularly its role in scripture. His latest offering, Human Rites, has that rare quality of being genuinely accessible, while making profound important points with scholarly care. More importantly, perhaps, the questions Johnson raises cannot but relate to the every day rites we each find ourselves performing.

The book doesn’t spend long giving an account of what ritual is or arguing for the claim that our lives are ritualised; this much is taken for granted. Rituals, Johnson tells us, ‘are ordinary practices strategically changed and improvised for another purpose’ (21). Instead, the key challenge of the book is to ask: ‘Who scripted this ritual? What is the goal of the ritual? Who must practice it?’, and ‘What is necessary for perform the ritual, and what can be improvised?’ (99). The answer to this who question might be found by looking at the family and cultural norms which have so far guided our ritual behaviour for better or worse. Or, more worryingly, as chapter 5 considers, the ‘who’ might sometimes be the global technology giants who offer us the dopamine inducing gadgets which keep us up at night, ritualising our behaviour to value the immediate and tweetable, over the long term and truly valuable.

The antidote to these potentially detrimental rituals, and indeed, the key to understanding our ritual lives in general, is not, as many of us might be tempted to think, to fully understand each of the rituals in our own lives. Often, as chapter 4 explores, the ultimate aim or purpose of rituals is not easily discerned in the immediate situation. Some of the most powerful and life transforming rituals are those in which the change is hardly discernible at all, until we have the value of months and years of hindsight. Instead, Johnson invites each of us to take part in the activity of ‘ritual inventory’ (115), in which we take stock of the things we allow influence over our daily rhythms of life. This may not lead to a greater control over our lives, and it may not ‘emancipate’ us from rituals, but it can, he suggests, allow us to see more clearly who and what shapes our behaviour.

Human Rites is not a technical or complex book, and Johnson’s use of wit and narrative help to press home the relevance and importance of its central message. If it leaves you wanting more substance, or more detailed arguments, this is no real criticism and one could do worse than looking to Johnson’s own back catalogue to explore these ideas in their full richness. In sum, Human Rites is an easy and entertaining book to read, but one which is less easy to digest and put into practice. I shut the last page reflecting back on my sleepless night staring into the back-lit abyss of online drivel, determined to put into practice the challenge of reflecting seriously on what and who shapes the rituals which demand my time.


Dr. Joshua Cockayne is currently working on the philosophy of spiritual practice. He is writing about the role of the community in our knowledge and experience of God, our ability to engage with God and the way we understand the actions of the Church. He completed his PhD in 2016 in the Department of Philosophy at the University of York. His research focused on the spiritual life and the writings of Søren Kierkegaard. Prior to coming to St. Andrews, he worked as an associate lecturer in Philosophy at the University of York. He has published on Kierkegaard, the philosophy of spiritual practice and Christian spirituality. He was awarded the Religious Studies essay prize twice, in 2014 and 2015.

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