What do you live for? What most in this world gives your life meaning and purpose and joy? I suspect many people would answer those questions with the word ‘love’.
I’m beginning to read the philosopher Simon May’s Love: a History. Published in 2011, it has rave reviews. His prose is outstanding. Here’s a taster.
In the wasteland of Western idols, only love survives intact. (4)
Elsewhere he sums up exactly what he means by this. And what he says below is bang on – the worship of love itself; love the goal to deliver our hopes and dreams; love as that which lives on after death, giving meaning to life.
In my book – Love: A History – I attempt to trace how love came to be the new god. And not any old god – say, one of those self-seeking, lustful, capricious and frankly evil Greek gods – but rather the spitting image of the Christian God. In other words, love – genuine love – has come to be seen as all-good, unconditioned, unchanging, selfless in showing concern for the wellbeing of loved ones, and our chief bulwark against suffering and loss. Today love has arguably become the only truly universal religion in the West – including in the United States.
I can remember well the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana in 1997 – the national and public outpouring of grief and simultaneous divinisation of love as that which gave her sudden death eternal significance. But you could pick any big public funeral – perhaps you can think of some? ‘Love’ takes over: on its own it is everywhere invoked in the face of death as that in itself which gives hope and meaning.
And this zinger from May,
Whereas becoming even a fairly competent artist or gardener or editor or plumber or banker or singer is dearly purchased with long effort and then only by the few with sufficient talent, love is a democracy of salvation open to all.
May’s book has three (ambitious) aims:
1. To show how, in Western thought, love came to play God; to be understood as the virtue that gives ultimate meaningful and significance to life.
2. To trace historically how genuine love came to be seen as unconditional.
3. To develop and present an alternative theory of love that sees it
“as a harbinger of the sacred without pretending that it is an all powerful solution to the problem of finding meaning, security and happiness in life.” (13)
Looks promising and provocative. I’m not going to post through it but will check in now and then.
This is the final post on Jamie Smith’s sparklingly written You Are What You Love (YAWYL for short).
I say sparkling since it shines with elegant prose that simultaneously delivers original, creative and often dazzling insights.
And he’s on top form when it comes to teaching for formation.
Smith talks about his becoming a heretic regarding teaching at higher level. He was coming at it from post-graduate study, implictly assuming that his 18 year old students were “graduate-students-in-waiting.” As a teacher his was never to impose on their independence (and culturally accepted goal “to become prodigious consumers”)
Smith’s ‘conversion’ was to realise that his approach to teaching these young people was inimical to formation. They were not remotely ready suddently to be who he had assumed they were. His ‘heresy’ was to come to the point where he saw teaching as having “a sense of what the students ought to be.”
Smith does not reference Stanley Hauerwas here, but he has much to say on this theme (as with many others – and that’s meant at a compliment!).
“As a way to challenge such a [liberal] view of freedom, I start my classes by telling my students that I do not teach in a manner that is meant to help them make up their own minds. Instead, I tell them that I do not believe they have minds worth making up until they have been trained by me. I realize such a statement is deeply offensive to students since it exhibits a complete lack of pedagogic sensitivities. Yet I cannot imagine any teacher who is serious who would allow students to make up their own minds.”
But this of course is a whole new ball game compared to most higher education for it immediately involves the teacher in a much higher and demanding goal – the formation of people of virtue.
Since education is a formative project, aimed at the Good, the True and the Beautiful, then the teacher is a steward of transcendence who needs not only to know the Good but also to teach from that conviction. (159)
And yet most teachers have gone through their own formation process – an intensive secular “novitate”. One that assumes education is ‘for’ very specific things:
implicit in the dominant models of education is a modern, secuarlist narrative that prizes autonomy as the ultimate good. Thus the goal of education is reduced to “critical thinking,” which only turns out to be an empty, vacuous way of saying that education will simply enable young people to choose whatever “good” they see fit. In this picture, “freedom” requires the loss of a telos, since any stipulation of “the Good” impinges on the autonomy of the individual. In other words, such a model of education actually precludes virtue. (159)
This is of direct and urgent relevance into the UK and Irish university sector, just as much as in the USA. Pragmatism, employability, value for money, and raising as much income from students (and their families) as possible is what education is in danger (or has already) of becoming all about. An instrumental vision of education as purely a means to an end.
These depressing programmes (no longer available online) on ‘Queen’s: A University Challenged’ were broadcast on the BBC on the decline of Queen’s University of Belfast. A combination of a lack of Govt funding and ruthlessly pragmatic educrats who value education only by its monetary worth are eviserating the original vision of a once fine University.
Rather than academic life being valued by how much funding the teacher can attract, what if the primary task of the teacher is to be a former of people? And if this is the case, teachers first need be formed themselves. In other words, says Smith, educational reform begins with the teachers.
Smith offers some practical suggestions for (Christian) faculty development:
be committed to communities of formative Christian worship
build communal (team) practices
live life together – rejoice and grieve and walk with one another.
think and read together (It’s actually this one that is the most difficult. Business is ever demanding – there is rarely time to share ideas, discuss and learn what each member of the teaching team has been learning and reading and writing, visit each other’s classes to hear another teacher’s heart and passion (not just teaching ability).
Serve students – lead by example. Show hospitality. Pray for them and with them.
I’m very glad to be part of a team and work in a College that does much of this – that students and observers continually notice the depth of community and warmth of relationships at work. Smith would say (rightly) that such a context does not happen by accident – it is a habit that takes practice (and can’t be taken for granted).
We left Jamie Smith last time delivering a rocket at contemporary American youth ministry. His alternative to expressivist extrovert entertainment is to go back to the future – to formative practices rooted in the historic worship of the church. Namely:
Enfold youth within a congregation committed to historic Christian worship and multigenerational gathering. There is no difference, young and old are formed by “the ordinary means of grace offered in the Word and at the Table” (152). He quotes Christian Smith’s 2005 study of how critical it is for discipleship of young people to have a network of non-parental adults who know and care about them.
Invite young people into formative disciplines “as rhythms of the Spirit”. To see formative worship practices as the heart of discipleship.
To reject entertainment for service – that unites all in a common outward focused service of others. (He rightly comments how the entertainment model, often at high level and high cost provision of services to young people – are actually often segregationist, dividing people across socio-economic, class and even race lines.
We’re not at the end of the book – and there is one more post on great stuff about teaching – but I’m going to jump ahead with some overall critique.
I find myself with complex reactions to this book.
One the one hand …
First, I’ve loved and find myself drawn to and in very substantial agreement with most of what he is saying. It is largely ‘where I am at’. He says it elegantly and persuasively. Again and again what he says rings true to life. Such as :
that discipleship is about the heart first; about the richness and freedom of the liturgy; the need for formative worship; that so much of our teaching remains abstract and rational; embedding ourselves daily in the Great Tradition of the church; being part of the church catholic; intentionally building in habits that run counter to the secular liturgies of pervasive consumerism; of the immeasurable value of multi-generational worship; of the thinness and superficiality of evangelical entertainment ministries; that we are formed primarily by habits and spirituality at home; that there is a hunger and thirst among many evangelicals I know (and I include myself) for a deeper, historically and theologically shaped spirituality than they currently experience …..
Even as I have enjoyed the book, learnt lots, will continue to value much of what is in it (especially about us being affective worshippers) … I have three major problems with the book.
First, I am afraid it is effectively sectarian in a reverse sort of way. By this I mean that Jamie Smith’s disenchantment with much of low church non-liturgical non-denominational evangelicals results in a very erudite, imaginative and heartfelt manifesto to leave that world behind. He’s effectively writing that sector of the church off.
More than once he states that if you want formative worship find a liturgical community. It is basically a call to leave low-church worship and find a community that is practicing the historic Christian liturgy and the church calendar; ideally in a building that is in keeping with ancient Christian tradition.
In other words, this is a polemical “post-evangelical-low-church” manifesto.
Within our context in Ireland it would take the form of a call to Anglicanism or Catholicism. Methodism perhaps? But Presbyterians don’t do liturgy much if at all, independent evangelicals neither, nor Baptists nor charismatics nor Pentecostals. Most in fact, rightly or wrongly, are intentionally never going to go there …
It brings to mind John Stott and Martyn Lloyd Jones’ head-to-head back in the late 1960s (I’ve read about this in books I hasten to add) … L-Jones was all for evangelical purity and leave the ‘compromised’ historic denominations behind if you want to be a ‘true’ evangelical. Stott, the Anglican, rejected this saying evangelical teaching and worship can be found within and without the historic churches. They parted ways on that one.
Smith, for me, is taking the Lloyd-Jones line in reverse. Now this is a very interesting reflection of where evangelicalism is at, but it is still a sectarian move. Just as ‘pure’ low-church worship has run away from ‘dead liturgy’, here is Smith extolling liturgy and criticising the dead-end of non-liturgical worship.
Second, the book is not attempting to build bridges, or to suggest reform of low-church worship. His “all or nothing” approach is unfortunate.
Third, there is something unconvincing about the appeal to the power of liturgy within a historically embedded community. Too much weight is put on it here. It simply has not sustained authentic Christian discipleship within many historic churches. They sadly have often been lacking life, love, passion, heart, mission, and concern for the poor. There is more at play here than Smith allows.
Theologically – and ironically for a book on love – I think he does not give the presence of love within the community in the power of the Spirit a prominent enough role. In other words, where there is the Spirit at work, love will be evident. A church may have hit-or-miss worship, flimsy teaching, haphazard discipleship etc … but if there is a deep love for God, an outward focused love for others – the poor, the wider community, love across boundaries – then there is life, mission, and an embodied witness to the presence of God
Does not love cover a multitude of sins?
So, for all my personal attraction to the forms of Christian life that Smith espouses (I guess I’m a closet Anglican charismatic anabaptist if there can be such a thing), I’d take that flawed Christian community over one that has all the liturgical depth you like but little heart-love for God and others …
In chapter 6 of his passionate book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith takes his argument (we are what we love) and asks some very relevant questions about how Christians tend to do education – right across schools, youth groups, Sunday School, youth ministries etc
How can we form and educate young people so that they know the gospel in their bones?
What if education weren’t first and foremost about what we know but what we love?
He’s inviting readers to see young people (and all of us) as ‘ritual creatures’ – hungry for rites that give them rhythms of life to live by.
His passion here is education as moral formation – forming not just informing. An engaged, embodied type of learning that catches imaginations, hearts and minds and lodges deep within.
This is the longest chapter in the book and most of it is a fairly devastating critique of a lot of contemporary American youth ministry (and it is very American here).
Smith is scathing of the formulaic alternative youth ministry services, detached from the rest of the church in a cool hangout loft, upbeat band, triumphant praise songs, introspective closed-eye meditation sections, fronted by comedic hip leaders and teachers with a vaguely moralistic or therapeutic message.
All of this, says Smith, is in the (desperate) attempt to make Christianity not seem boring and that following Jesus can be fun. The culture is an enforced
“unrelenting scripted happiness, trying hard to be a place people want to be.”
The wrappings of the latest technology, use of film, Christianised music around a vaguely biblical content are in effect trying to get people to swallow Christianity in a palatable wrapping .. like a medicine.
The whole programme, he argues, is “run on fear” (144). Of fear that children will grow up and leave the church out of boredom.
This turn in modern youth ministry, he argues, was based on two disastrous decisions.
1. To stratify the body of Christ into generational segments. It moved youth ministry into effectively a parachurch setting even within the church. Such a shift denied the catholicity and unity of the body of Christ as described in Ephesians 4:4-6. It has fostered destructive habits as the youth segment meets by itself detached from the richness and diversity of the wider body.
2. Contemporary youth ministry has become almost entirely expressivist. It actually reflects a pragmatic last ditch effort to keep members of the evangelical club. It has ceded formation to secular liturgies (146). It reflects a dichotomy: a formulaic emotive experience followed by a short message that in effect demonstrates a lack of confidence in the gospel and Bible to form people. It is still entrapped in a Cartesian framework of assuming formation happens via depositing of the message in people’s brains. The preliminaries are just to get people there to listen briefly to the message.
This is back to Taylor’s ‘excarnation’
Underneath such ‘liturgies’ is in effect a secular vision of the good life. Desires are not being formed for God and his kingdom, but are framed around consumerist rituals and self-concern. These are liturgies of narcissism and egoism.
This is a form of Christian ministry that has given up on incarnation in liturgy and spiritual disciplines. Discipleship in much American youth ministry equals “being fired up for Jesus” (146). Where the ideal disciple is by definition an extrovert.
“As if discipleship were synonymous with fostering an exuberant, perky, cheerful, hurray-for-jesus disposition” 147
Did I mention he is scathing?
His bugbear here is that such undimensional ministry excludes and misinforms and disenchants – anyone who does not fit in cannot be a proper disciple.
I’d add that this sort of cultural conformity (to upbeat relentless optimism) is particularly American. It reminds me of one of the many great lines by Dumbledore in Harry Potter where talking to Uncle Vernon he says
“I would assume that you were going to offer me refreshment, but the evidence so far suggests that that would be optimistic to the point of foolishness.”
And from here Smith goes to liturgy and Book of Common prayer. I’ll come back to that in another post.
Good point to pause and ask ..
Does this picture of youth ministry sound familiar to you? Do you agree that a lot of youth ministry can be run by fear? That it has, in effect, sold its soul to the world in an attempt to be relevant? And actually does not work in forming disciples?
I’m doing some reading and writing on love and have been reflecting on the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-5
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.
I don’t know about you, but pretty well no-one that I know or have talked to is against the idea of love. I mean who wants to be seen as a cynical old curmudgeon or a psycho like Billy Bob Thornton’s violent predator Lorne Malvo in the series Fargo?
But push a wee bit further and questions start to emerge:
What is love?
Who or what is it that we are loving? (love always has a focus, we have to love something)
What is the outcome or consequences of our love? How is love made visible in practice?
How have ideas of love developed and changed in history?
What are the dominant popular notions of love in our contemporary western culture?
Are all religions essentially about love? Are they simply different expressions of a universal human impulse to love?
This post isn’t going to answer any of those questions! It is going to link to that last one though.
Here’s a fact about love in the Old Testament – and the Bible in general.
If love always has to have a focus, in the Shema, Israel’s love is directed at a very particular person – YHWH – not an ill defined divine reality or some sort of faceless god.
A religious pluralism that suggests that an abstract form of love lies at the core of all (or most) religions, reduces love to a de-personalised philosophical idea.
This is very far cry from the Shema. Love for God in the Bible is love for a very specific Lord who has revealed himself in history, has chosen Israel as his people, given them the Law and the Land, and is redeeming the world through the continuing story of that nation and its Messiah.
I came across this quote by Chris Wright
.. the sharp precision of the Shema cannot be evaporated into a philosophical abstraction or relegated to a penultimate level of truth. Its majestic declaration of a monotheism defined by the history-laden, character-rich, covenant-related, dynamic personhood of “Yahweh our God”, shows that the abstract and definitionally undefinable “being” of religious pluralism is really a monism without meaning or message.
 Chris Wright, Deuteronomy, New International Biblical Commentary. p.98
In chapter 5 ‘Guard your heart’ of his provocative book You Are What You Love, Jamie Smith moves the focus to how to build in ‘habits of love’ into our home lives (‘liturgies of home’)
To recap: God is love; we are made in his image; we are only able to love because God first loved us; we are lovers before we are thinkers; our loves are much more the core of our being – they order and orientate our lives; but our love needs training and directing, especially in a culture of ever demanding competition for our loves.
I wondered earlier if Smith was putting too much weight on Christian liturgy reforming our loves … in this chapter he deals head on with that sort of criticism by proposing that household liturgies are vital in recalibrating our hearts. And, he proposes, as they work well ‘household liturgies’ will “propel us back into the Liturgy of the body of Christ.”
What’s he mean by ‘household liturgies’? In brief, Christian practices that can give shape to how we order our home. He discusses two practices – baptism and marriage.
Baptism: a sign and seal of God’s loving initiative and grace; bringing us into the household (people) of God. A people where all boundaries are broken of social class, money, bloodlines etc. It signals a new social reality.
Baptism and families – Smith is Reformed and works at Calvin College. Here he takes the paedobaptist approach of how the congregation promise to love, pray, instruct and encourage the baby being baptised. The church has a solemn responsibility to be a family community.
So the ‘Christian family’ is drastically relativised – it ‘belongs’ within – and exists for – the wider community of the church. The real sin of family life today, says Smith, is
“the idolization of the family itself, the refusal to understand marriage as directed toward the Kingdom of God.” (116)
Does this sound a bit weird to you? Perhaps it does, but I am with him 100%. The modern family is the ideal, the marketer’s target, the route to happiness and fulfilment, the self-sufficient unit of consumption, the core of the American dream of independence. It is to be alone, the means by which to inculcate values and produce good citizens ….
But a Christian view of the family releases a lot of that unrealistic burden – it takes a loving community to raise a child. So, says Smith, one of the biggest decisions Christian parents can take around faith formation is being part of a Church that lives by the gospel narrative.
A personal note here from a parent who has just become an empty nester … we have a profound sense of gratitude to the community of our local church which has been, and is, a wonderful community in which our children were raised.
Similarly with Christian marriage: it needs to speak of a radically subversive story to that of our consumer culture. The rising stats of marriage are not somehow a sign that marriage is being more deeply valued. Quite the opposite. The modern wedding industry speaks of narcissistic self-obsession. In the USA it generates c $50 billion annually. [Here in Ireland I read recently that the average cost of a wedding is €25,000, including the honeymoon].
I’d better avoid starting a sentence here with “In my day ..” .. Smith himself has a nice ability to pen withering prose .. the boom in the marriage industry is matched by the boom in the divorce industry.
Our interest is in the spectacle of the wedding – the event in which we get to be center stage, display our love, and invite others into our romance in a way they’ll never forget … weddings are caught up in the dynamics of “mutual display”: what’s important is beingseen. It’s why we spend more time fixate on the spectacular flash of the wedding event than on the long slog of sustaining a marriage.
But the implicit mythology of Wedding Inc. also reflects how we approach marriage. Indeed, the myths we load into weddings almost doom marriages to fail. Weddings are centered on the romantic ‘coupling’ of two star-crossed lovers, as if marriage were an extended exercise of staring deep into one another’s eyes – with benefits. But even then, a spouse is one who sees me, will meet my needs, will fulfil my wants, will “complete me”. Even our romantic coupling becomes a form of self-love. (120)
He refers to Banksy’s image of the modern married couple
In contrast, a properly theological view of marriage is as locating human love within God’s love; existing for him and for others – marriage as mission, marriage as witness together to God’s kingdom; marriage as a calling and vocation that involves self-giving and sacrifice.
And therefore, Christian marriages need to be recalibrated and redirected back to their calling and purpose – and this happens within the community of believers of which they are a part, and withi which the couple serve – sharing their love with others.
I like to think of a healthy Christian marriage as ‘porous’ … allowing and welcoming others in. Not impermeable, shutting others out in a selfish hermetic community.
In the last few pages of this chapter Smith then sketches his ideas and experiences of inculcating these values within family life. He asks
What does it look like to parent lovers? What does it look like to curate a household as a formative space to direct our desires? How can a home be a place to (re)calibrat our hearts? (127)
Christian calendar: family rituals linked to the cycle of the Christian year
Serving others together
Creativity – a Sabbath slow down from hyper-consumerism and technology
Obviously all of this is contextual to each family. But the point is that ‘heart formation’ is far deeper than a surface bit of religion now and then ….
All of this is to build connections to the ‘liturgy of the home’ with the liturgy of the church in which the home belongs. Without this sort of integration there will be a lack of authenticity … and ‘doing a bit of church’ on a Sunday is mere nominalism unless it is embedded in daily life liturgies that flow from the gospel story that we claim to believe ….
Chapter 4 of Jamie Smith’s You are What you Love focuses is ‘The Narrative Arc of Formative Christian Worship’
The argument should be familiar by now: Christian worship is about re-calibrating hearts. We don’t do that with information but with reforming desire through embodied liturgy shaped by the biblical story line that inscribes that story into our hearts.
He wants the Scriptures to ‘seep into us’ through the intentional, communal rituals of worship (84)
There is unique imagination-forming power in the communal, repeated, and poetic cadences of historic Christian worship
The goal is for God’s word to be the orienting centre of our imagination and desires – working on a subconscious level, engaging the body as well as the mind.
A biblical vision for humanity is discovering what it is to be truly human – to engage in the process of becoming like Christ, the perfect image of God. This happens from the inside-out, via the Spirit whose work and objective it is to restore the image. This renewal involves a change of character – a character of wisdom and love and maturity.
But this renewed character has a bigger context – to take up our role as a character within God’s bigger narrative. This is our telos, our purpose – to become like Jesus. This is what it means to be fully human.
It is this gospel plot that we have constantly to recalibrate our lives around. Christian worship should be about capturing our imagination because we are aesthetic creatures
Our hearts are like stringed instruments that are plucked by story, poetry, metaphor, images. We tap our existential feet to the rhythm of imaginative drums. (91)
We need worship to captivate us. Inspire us. Setting a vision of what could be – what will be. Regular Christian worship locates us in this grand story. The aim is for this story to become so engrained that it becomes the way we think, and feel, and act in the world.
This storied worship has 4 chapters:
GATHERING: a call to worship. We are being called into God’s holy presence, not the other way around. We are being called to confession of sins week after week. To recognise constantly how our desires become disordered and twisted.
Without weekly confession what is Christian worship? What messages are being communicated if our need of forgiveness and need of reforming our desires and lives is not central to our meetings?
LISTENING: we gather to hear God, not ourselves. To hear the gospel, to hear his Word. To hear how to live.
COMMUNING: we meet with God and with each other in worship. We come to eat the Lord’s Supper together – to commune with Him and with his body the church. This is profoundly counter cultural – here is no hierarchy, no division, no social or political or economic boundaries.
SENDING: In worship we meet with the Triune God, are re-formed in Christ, counseled by his Word, and nourished by bread of life. We are then sent out into the world to look after God’s creation and to make disciples of all nations. To invite others to find their true purpose and identity in becoming fully human in Christ Jesus.
It is this training in narrative that is at the heart of worship says Smith.
He addresses some questions here – look for this narrative in your church’s worship. Try to be part of the solution to improve things. If absolutely necessary and as a last resort it might be you go worship elsewhere. Why? Because “the future of orthodox, faithful, roust Christianity hinges on the renewal of worship.” (101)
What Smith is writing here is anti-seeker-service Christianity. It’s an appeal for ‘full-on’ embodied, sacramental, sacred, reverent, ‘culturally-other’ Christian worship. Willow Creek this is most definitely not.
But it’s also an appeal against the sort of background I come from – a branch of Protestant Reformed Christianity that, following the logic of the Reformer’s suspicion of Catholic fusion of grace and nature, developed into a ‘disenchantment’ with the world; a caution about the full implications of the Word become flesh; God mediated in human form; that “creation itself is charged with the Spirit’s presence” (101).
This led within Presbyterianism to (in my opinion) a sort of rationalist theology embodied in starkly simple worship; a dominating focus on the mind – ‘right doctrine’ and the Word preached; all within a rigid formality and relationally cold context. (This is broad brush historical deveopment, not a descripion of every local Presbyterian church! Where things are improving, I think it is by overcoming these hurdles)
Smith quotes Charles Taylor in calling this ‘excarnation’ – the opposite to incarnation.
And here’s a controversial and interesting prediction from Smith below – what do you think? Is he right? Do we need to ‘go back to the future’ when it comes to our churches and the structure of our worship? Or is he being naive and idealistic about what Christian worship can achieve in terms of being paradoxially ‘attractive’ by being counter-cultural?
And does this impact physically as well? For example in our local context we are thinking about a new church building, which would be our first, so we have a ‘blank slate’ . I imagine for Smith the choice of design is of major importance since a building speaks of a ‘liturgy’ in and of itself. What sort of choice would you go for? A ‘culturally relevant’ church building or an ‘ancient’ and ‘culturally-other’ traditionally historic one? How much does local context shape that choice? (Smith is writing in an American one).
I expect it will be forms of reenchanted Christianity that actually have a future. Protestant excarnation has basically ceded its business to others: if you are looking for a message, an inspirational idea, some top-up fuel for your intellectual receptacle – well, there are entire cultural industries happy to provide that. Why would you need the church? You can watch Ellen or Oprah or a TED talk.
But what might stop people short – what might truly haunt them – will be encounters with religious communities who have punched skylights in our brass heavens. It will be “ancient” Christian communities – drawing on the wells of historic, “incarnate” Christian worship with its smells and bells and all its Gothic peculiarity, embodying a spirituality that carries whiffs of transcendence – that will be strange and therefore all the more enticing … Because when the thin gruel of do-it-yourself spirituality turns out to be isolating, lonely, and unable to endure crises, the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd might find itself surprisingly open to something entirely different. (102)
In chapter 3 of Jamie Smith’s creative and thought-provoking book is called ‘The Spirit meets you where you are: historic worship for a postmodern age’.
The argument so far: we are what we love; our hearts need constant recalibrating and redirecting; we live in a culture of competing loves or ‘secular liturgies’; we need to train our hearts to keep them rightly directed at a certain telos – the kingdom of God. We can do this by counter-liturgies, embodied communal practices.
In the words of the boss ‘Everyone’s got a hungry heart’. The question is what our hearts are hungry for. The Bible is full of this sort of imagery. Take Is 55:1-2
Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.
Jesus uses similar language in the Beatitudes
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”.
And in John 6:35
“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.“
But we can’t, says Smith, necessarily think our ways to new appetites. What we currently desire has been acquired over time and has been habituated by routines and customs.
Changing desires takes practice. Counterformative practice. (61) Smith tells the story of his slow intellectual assent to the need to eat and exercise more healthily. But it was only with discipline, with others, with enforced new practices, that slowly his desires changed.
Old habits die hard. Change means submitting ourselves to practices that confront and change our most engrained habits.
Our sanctification – the process of becoming holy and Christlike – is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape (65)
Leaving aside the question of who on earth listens to a book on tape any more (!) Smith shifts to give some practical suggestions for spiritual change of appetites. And I really like the focus here because he links to the Spirit of God. He calls this ‘Habituations of the Spirit’. Liturgical practices that the Spirit can use to retrain our loves. But Smith want to emphasise this is no lone process but happens best within the worship of the church.
He anticipates objections here. Liturgy is a bad word for many Protestants. Worship is seen as little more than singing. But the response says Smith is to be properly liturgical. The point of liturgy is to create a space for the Spirit to meet with his people. Worship is about God, his activity and our response.
Liturgy gives form to our response to God’s love and grace. In classic Reformed language, Smith argues that even our response is made possible by God’s Spirit.
He’s critical of much contemporary evangelical worship which reduces participants to passive spectators, where humans are the only actors. This is worship as expressivism – we express ourselves and we are at the centre making worship happen. This sort of worship also usually happens in a context that is designed to make us feel comfortable and at home. So the church looks like a mall or a coffee shop.
But, says Smith, this misses how these forms are not somehow neutral – they are embedded in secular liturgies of consumption, desire for more, with me at the centre. And such human expressivism cannot grasp what liturgy is about – it seems to be insincere pre-planned and tantamount to earning God’s favour. The problem here says Smith is that they cannot see how they have put ‘us’ at the heart of worship rather than God.
He calls a lot of modern worship services little more that “Jesufied versions of secular liturgies.” The focus on experience reinforces the gospel of consumerism and makes Jesus one more commodity. Amen to that.
Traditional liturgical practices are not just old, they are rooted in a different understanding of worship. God is at the centre, we encounter him. It is top down rather than bottom up. Smith calls this the gymnasium where God retrains our hearts (77)
What he is saying here is that the form or worship matters. This is not about ‘style’ – this is not a discussion about ‘traditional’ versus ‘contemporary’ worship. Smith’s point is that historic liturgical worship, forged over centuries, has a depth, biblical shape and content that helps to form its participants. It connects us to the church catholic and reinforces oneness and unity.
This can all be summed up as expressivist ‘showing’ versus humble ‘submitting’.
“The liturgy of Christian worship is the litany of love we pray over and over again, given to us by the Spirit precisely in order to cultivate the love he sheds abroad in our hearts.” (81)
I wonder what you make of this?
Where are you in terms of worship as primarily human expression ‘up’ to God, or humble submission around God’s revelation of himself ‘down’ to us?
Does the idea of a ‘Jesufied’ secular liturgy ring true to you about a lot of Christian worship services?
Is this an age thing? I am more and more with Smith. At times I imagine that I could happily be an Anglican. The older I get the more and more I love and appreciate the consistency, depth and richness of historic liturgy. And the more and more I find it difficult to cope with the unpredictable evangelical lottery of contemporary worship songs and services.
Having said all that, I’m not convinced as yet that even well practiced liturgy has the capacity to reform us in the way that Smith seems to be suggesting. There are a lot of dead churches who have been practicing a lot of good liturgy for a long time …
Not of course that he probably cares less (?) or that it needs the artificial exercise of a prize to somehow affirm true greatness 🙂
His catalogue is so rich there is always more to discover and fall in love with – my current one is the epic song ‘Tempest’ about the sinking of the Titanic from the 2012 Album of the same name (his 35th). For some reason I just love playing it for the last 14 minutes or so of a road trip … turned into a little ritual.
Chapter 2 of James K A Smith’s book is ‘You might not love what you think’
If the first question of discipleship is ‘What do you love?’, a possible problem arises: ‘Do you actually love what you think you love?’
He tells the story of Andrei Tarkovsky’sStalker – where characters are given the terrifying choice of entering the Room where their deepest desires will be revealed. What if their conscious choice is not what they are given? The lesson being explored is whether what we think actually aligns with what we want. What we really desire is revealed in our daily life and habits not necessarily in what we say or think we love.
And Smith also goes to Sam Mendes’ American Beauty where Kevin Spacey’s Lester Burnham (why are all Lester’s ‘losers’? – see Fargo) pursues ‘freedom’ – including in the form of Angela, the teenage friend of his daughter. Without ruining the plot, at a critical moment, Lester finds out that he doesn’t actually want what he thought he wanted.
In essence, Smith is arguing that a holistic approach to discipleship needs to appreciate how we are formed by all sorts of unconscious influences, desires and habits that “orientate our being-in-the-world.” (33). He refers to modern psychology that suggests that 95% of what we do in the world is unconscious habit (‘second nature’), only 5% is the result of deliberate choices.
He argues that ‘virtues’ are on the unconscious register – these are acquired habits that dispose to act in certain ways (36). Good character isn’t accidental – it is a web of accumulated dispositions. These can be acquired intentionally by upbringing, training and practice, but also unintentionally.
Smith says we engage in formative routines and habits all that time but rarely recognize what is going on – indeed we are surrounded and immersed in environments (‘liturgies’) that have their own formative power to train our loves.
So, he argues, we learn to love rival kingdoms because we are participating in rival liturgies. Just assuming that ‘we are what we think’ is reductionistic and naïve – it misses the reality of who we are and how we love.
So Smith is writing as a sort of ‘wake up call’ – to see things as they really are. The rest of the chapter is about how to read these secular liturgies. He unpacks the spirituality of the shopping mall – an intensely religious centre at the heart of everyday life.
(I get my students to do an assignment around visiting a big shopping centre and analyzing the beliefs and practices at work. It seems utterly normal and benign, yet is full of ‘theology’ and ‘liturgy’ and the attracting power of ‘loves’).
Back to Smith: in brief what is going on in the mall?
It is not trying to engage our thinking, but it is not neutral
It is interested in what we love – it is aimed at our hearts. Nice line – “Victoria’s secret is that she’s actually after your heart.” (41)
familiar and homogenous – we feel at home whatever city or even country we are in (the picture above in Turkey could be virtually anywhere)
large atriums and foyers welcome the faithful pilgrims; funneling them into the worship centre
High vaulted ceilings, open to the sky, bright lights, calming music draw people into a space cut off from the outside world – he makes a nice point about how the walls hide the surrounding moat of cars and distractions of the outside world. You are brought into a sanctuary, retreat and escape. (42)
You are ushered into a sort of timeless zone, comfortable peaceful space with its own rhythm.
The space has its own calendar of remembrances and festivals – one morphing into the other during the year: a ceaseless litany of holidays and special days (with new ones being created regularly) in order to draw in more pilgrims.
The structure parallels the great Medieval Cathedrals with side chapels for devotion
Rich iconography lines the walls and windows – manniquins inviting us to imitate them – ideals of perfection representing the good life.
This is all packaged in themes of compelling beauty – inviting us to participate in this life that can be ours.
Inside the ‘chapels’, us ‘seekers’ are welcomed unconditionally as we look for something that will give us joy, satisfaction and pleasure
The consummation of our worship is a transaction of exchange and communion – we leave with something ‘concrete’, more tangible than feelings
“Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?” (45).
We are not intellectually reasoning ‘this stuff will make me happy’ because, if we did think about it much, we would quickly know that no it won’t. But by endless repetition I’m ‘covertly conscripted’ / my loves have been automated / I have been formed by secular liturgies that are loaded with meaning.
And Smith says similar ‘liturgical’ unpacking can be done of all sorts of everyday rituals
A stadium as a temple of nationalism and militarism
Smartphones – in terms of content we look at and the rituals that tie us umbilicially to them – we see how they are loaded with an egocentric vision of life where I am the centre of the universe.
So what is the ‘ultimate story’ (or I would say gospel) of consumerism in the mall?
[much of what he says here about the ‘good news’ of consumerism is not new (see posts on consumerism here and especially those on William Cavanaugh) – but it is helpfully and creatively put together with the idea of liturgy
1. I’m broken, therefore I shop.
Consumerism pretends to offer a picture of unbridled endless optimism. Far from it – underneath the message is you are imperfect (‘sinner’) who needs fixing. These visions of happiness, friendship, sexiness, contentment and joy (the good life) – are not yours. You know it and so do we. You need redemption and we can provide it.
2. I shop with others.
While consumerism is associated with individualism and self-interest, it also, says Smith, is a social phenomenon – but one that fosters competition not community; objectification rather than other-regarding love. We compare ourselves to others as measured against mall’s perfect image of what we ‘should’ be.
3. I shop (and shop and shop) and therefore I am.
The market’s liturgy is an invitation to redemption – to a solution to our brokenness. Shopping as therapy and healing, a path to joy and overcoming sadness and ourselves – whether body shape, looks, clothes, cool technology. But, as Smith reminds us, the ‘secret’ of bright shiny happy consumerism is that nothing it offers is meant to last. The thrill dissipates fast – and we are back in the cycle of the next fix. A pattern not only of aquisition but of relentless consumption. The ‘unseen’ side of the story is all the discarded ‘good’s that are now useless. Consumerism reduces things to nothingness. Nothing has lasting value. In the process we are being trained to overinvest in things than cannot deliver, while at the same time wastefully devaluing things that become tomorrow’s rubbish.
4. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
By this Smith means the dark side of consumerism. The mall deliberately insulates the pilgrims from the inconvenient truths about their worship. Behind the perfect shiny mythic façade is a way of life that is unsustainable globally, as well as being built on the backs of the poor in the majority world. The image is as if the goods on sale have magically arrived from nowhere and been made by no-one. The mall cuts all connections between consumer and the person who actually made the thing in question. Issues of ethics and fair treatment of workers are airbrushed out of existence. The dream is an unending and ‘costless’ provision of absolutetly anything we desire. This is the American way after all. The vast waste and environmental cost is hidden away out of sight. Don’t ask, don’t tell, just consume – be happy.
None of this ‘gospel’ is announced or explained in written form. It is ‘caught rather than taught’. Because we like to think we are thinking beings, we imagine sin and temptation as a rational choice that we will have time and space to decide upon. Rather, says Smith, we have disordered loves and poorly shaped habits. We need –re-formation in our lives.
Smith suggests a couple of ways to approach this:
We need to reimagine temptation and sin – not just as rational intentional choices – but often sin is the result of vices – badly ordered habits and practices.
To begin to reorder our love lives, we first need to become aware of the daily liturgies in our lives. He mentions the Ignatian Daily Examen :
Find time to pause for reflection on the rituals and rhythms of your life
What are the things that do something to you?
What vision of the good life is carried in those liturgies?
What story if embedded in those cultural practices?
What kind of person do they want you to become?
To what kingdom are they orientated?
What does this cultural liturgy want you to love?
And as we become more attuned to the presence and power of these liturgies, we then can begin to consider engaging in counter-liturgies within Christian worship … as a powerful way to be reformed in our loves and imaginations.
Any examples of a daily liturgy in your life come to mind?