Paul’s gospel is the proclamation of the free gift, Messiah Jesus, that exceeds every debt, that explodes the very calculus of debt and retribution and sets in its place an aneconomic circulation of charity that recovers life in the mode of donation and lavish generosity. Here is the promise of true liberty from capital. As we share Israel’s election in Christ, we are set free from an economy whose circulation is ruled by scarcity, debt, retribution and finally death. In Christ, we share in the abundant life of the Immortal, which is not the solitude of self-sufficiency, but life lived as donation, as the ceaseless giving (and receiving) of the gift of love. In Christ, a path is opened up beyond the iron cage of sin, of capitalism, and of the Hobbesian/Weberian world where both appear to rule. In Christ we are liberated from all that would prevent us from giving, that would interrupt the flow of divine plenitude that continues through our enactment of love. We are freed from captivity to an economic order that would subject us to scarcity, competition, dominion, and debt, that would distort human desire into a proprietary and acquisitive power.
This is to say, the only way to defeat capitalism is to embrace the gift given in Christ, which is nothing less than the superabundance of grace that repositions our lives within the aneconomic order of love. So repositioned (redeemed) by love, we are enabled to give ourselves, to sacrifice without loss or end, even in the face of an economy that would eclipse gift and plenitude through the imposition of a regime of scarcity, debt, and dominion. Christ defeats capitalism as Christ heals human relations of their economic distortions and renews their circulation as donation, perpetual generosity. Capitalism is overcome as human relations are redeemed from the agony of competition and dominion and revived as the joyous conviviality of love that is the fruit of the proliferation of non-proprietary (that is, participatory) relations. Capitalism is defeated as fear is cast out—the fear of my neighbor that compels me to possess more tightly and acquire more compulsively, the fear that in giving I can only lose, the fear that death and the cross are the end of every sacrifice.
An aneconomic order of love, grace, generosity that subverts the self-interest, power, fear and ruthless competition of capitalism.
A gospel which has searching implications for our wallets, time and priorities.
The church has long been haunted by a dualism … But the Bible eschews every dualism and asserts the materiality of creation over which God generously presides. That pernicious dualism has readily produced a religion that is disconnected from public realty and has sanctioned predatory economic practices that go hand in hand with intense and pious religion. Thus the earlier robber barons were card-carrying Christians in good standing; and in our time the church is mostly silent in the face of a predatory economy that reduces many persons to second-class humanity. That deceptive misreading is aided and abetted by a lectionary that mostly disregards the hard texts on money and possessions. xxi
The quote above reveals a big concern of this book: the church has generally ‘bottled it’ when it comes to speaking of money and possessions within a highly acquisitive culture. To do this requires putting on blinkers in how we read the Bible because from Genesis to Revelation the Bible has an enormous amount to say on the material world.
Do you agree that Christianity tends to be dualistic when it comes to money and possessions? Heard any good sermons on money recently?
He outlines 6 theses concerning money and possessions in the Bible and further proposes that at each point the Bible flatly contradicts the global market economy which now so totally dominates our lives.
I’ve cannibalised what he says along with bits of my own commentary into a wee table:
The greatest achievement of capitalism’s advance is that somehow it is seen as ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’.
It also has claimed to be the best way for economic and social progress – but endless crises and crashes tell another story – one we know rather a lot about in Ireland. Over 8 years on from the crash of 2008, the EU is still trying (and failing) to fight its way out of insurmountable debt.
The Bible certainly envisages a different way of handling limited resources. Capitalism is simply a man-made construction – it is not natural and it is certainly unsustainable.
God’s will is for justice and for his people to embody a different way of life. As Brueggemann says his will “contradicts much of our preferred, uncritized practice.” 13.
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?
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 ….
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 …
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?
This blog has been known to talk about consumerism now and then ..
What’s fascinating about this piece is how it opens up how architecture is evolving in relationship to contemporary consumerism in the development of ‘brandscapes’
The impact of the market on the built environment is ubiquitous – so much so we do not even notice how pervasively the physical landscape is shaped by corporate identities. To a point where streets become ‘managed experiences’ and ‘brands’ to market the city …
The book listed in the article by Anna Klingmann is a creative and compelling read:
(2007) Brandscapes: Architecture in the Experience Economy, Cambridge: The MIT Press.