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’s Stalker – 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)
- Architecture (see back to this post on ‘Brandscapes’):
- 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?