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Desiring the Kingdom 9 – concluding reflections

We’ve been discussing James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom for a while now, and I wanted to wrap everything up by offering some concluding reflections. Let me begin by saying that I thought this was an outstanding book that was well worth spending some extra time on. Here are some of the things that I appreciated in particular.

1. I loved his emphasis on embodied practice. Too much evangelical worship focuses on the “intellectual” and/or “spiritual” dimensions of the human person, with an almost total neglect of our physicality. What little we do get tends to be nothing more than you could hear from any non-Christian health expert (e.g. eating better and getting more exercise is good for you). Smith presses us to realize that what we do regularly with our bodies actually shapes and forms who we are as people. Our bodies matter.

2. Like the critique of worldview. Wonder if he hasn’t gone a little too far, but still very important.

3. I really enjoyed his discussion of cultural liturgies (e.g. the mall). I thought his discussion of the formative nature of such practices was much more insightful than the usual discussion on the “worldview” lying behind them. I find that many people seem to think that as long as you are aware of the underlying worldview, you don’t have to worry about participating in the practice. And, we are often too quick to suppose that we can “baptize” a cultural practice by infusing it with a Christian worldview and then participate in it without harmful effect. On both points, Smith’s argument suggests otherwise.

4. Along the same lines, I appreciated his view of Christian worship as “counter-formation.” He paid close attention to the ways in which the practice of Christian worship works (or should work) against prevailing cultural forces. And, as he points out, the formative nature of Christian worship practices has particular value for understanding how these practices shape the lives of those with limited cognitive ability (e.g. children).

5. Finally, I liked his argument that we can shape our hearts and desires through formative practices. I’ll raise a question about this in a second, but for now I’ll just say that I think one of the weaknesses of some Augustinian anthropologies is that they can leave you feeling like you have no say in what kind of person you will be. In these anthropologies, the heart is the basic force that drives human behavior, and it is fundamentally mysterious and uncontrollable. After all, how can you make yourself “want” or “love” something. Although this may be true with respect to some things (e.g. loving God), it is clearly not true with respect to others. As many marriage counselors will tell you, one great way to begin loving your spouse more is to start acting more lovingly toward your spouse. We are embodied beings, so what we do with our bodies does have an impact on how we think and feel.

Having reached the end of the book, I am still left with a few questions. 

1. What is the relationship between practice and cognition? Smith places almost his exclusive emphasis on the formative nature of practice. And, though I agree that practices can and should be formative, if we don’t emphasize the importance of reflective practice, I think we’re missing out one something. (I don’t think Smith would actually disagree with this; it’s not just a prominent part of the book.) I’m concerned that some might take these ideas and concludes that practices alone are sufficient. Instead, we should see them as fundamental, but recognize that something important is added when we are able to reflect on the significance and meaning of the practices (among other things) as well.

2. What is the relationship between practice and the empowering work of the Spirit? Will Willimon raises this concern in a Christian Century article, arguing that too strong an emphasis on human practices can lead us to “take control” of spiritual formation and worship, losing sight of God in the process. In other words, he seems concerned that an emphasis on practice will lead to a naturalizing of the Christian life. I think this is a legitimate concern and should serve as a warning against those who might press Smith’s arguments in a direction that he never intended (see Smith’s response to Willimon here). Nonetheless, we need to be careful about thinking that emphasizing the role of the human in spiritual formation necessarily excludes the role of the divine. Although I think Smith needs to do more work unpacking the relationship between these, as evidenced by the near lack of discussion about the role of the Spirit in formation, I don’t see anything in his approach that necessarily naturalizes spiritual formation.

3. Finally, and related to my first point, how do we reflect critically on our worship practices? Smith helpfully takes us through the different elements of his church’s worship life, showing how each serves to shape the human person toward being a lover of God’s kingdom. That’s nice, but what’s to prevent us from simply taking an aspect of the service and reading into it a formative significance that really isn’t there (or missing a negative formative influence that is there). I think a good example of this is his discussion of the practice of “greeting the person next to you.” He offers an interesting discussion of why he sees this as forming us for the kingdom, but wouldn’t it be just as easy to offer an interpretation that sees this practice as an expression of the shallow community so often on display in the evangelical church? By what criteria and through what process do we evaluate our worship practices? Unless we have some discussion of this, we run the risk of assuming (or worse, justifying) the rightness of our worship practices.

Nonetheless, as I indicated at the beginning of this post, Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is an excellent book for reflecting deeply on the nature of humanity, culture, the church, discipleship, and education, among other things.

Next week I will begin my long-awaited review of David Kelsey’s Eccentric Existence.

The tech talk continues – Steven Pinker on your brain and technology

I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing debate regarding how technology impacts the way that we think and learn (“Testing Your Techno Depravity” and “Wired for Distraction“). Now, I’m not a technophobe arguing that Mark Zuckerberg is the Antichrist or that Twitter is going to bring about the Technocalypse. I just think that everyone involved in any kind of education needs to stay informed about the discussion.

So, to continue the conversation, I thought I’d point out Steven Pinker’s NYT piece today arguing that a lot of the discussion is driven more by media hype that science. (Could that possibly be?) He leads with the observation that “New forms of media have always caused moral panics: the printing press, newspapers, paperbacks and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers’ brainpower and moral fiber.” And, such claims are rampant in the media about modern technology as well. But Pinker argues that we need a reality check. Instead of declining attention spans and decreased mental capacity, he contends that the sciences and the humanities are flourishing today. So, we simply lack any real evidence that increased technology corresponds to decreased mental capacity.

He also pushes back against claims about how experiences change brain structure. While such changes do occur, he seems to see them as rather superficial and not affecting “the basic information-processing capacities of the brain.”

And so, he concludes his argument with the following suggestions:

Yes, the constant arrival of information packets can be distracting or addictive, especially to people with attention deficit disorder. But distraction is not a new phenomenon. The solution is not to bemoan technology but to develop strategies of self-control, as we do with every other temptation in life. Turn off e-mail or Twitter when you work, put away your Blackberry at dinner time, ask your spouse to call you to bed at a designated hour.

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

Clearly then, the discussion continues. As I commented in interaction with another person, the issue isn’t so much whether technology is changing the way that we learn and think. That is clear even if we are still debating whether the changes are neurological, behavioral, or something else. The more important questions for us have to do with which of those changes are positive and which are negative (there are surely some of both), as well as how this needs to affect the way that we conduct ourselves as educators.

Testing your techno depravity

The New York Times post an article yesterday, “Your Brain on Computers,”  summarizing the debate about whether our constant use of technology is affecting in mostly positive or negative ways. I commented on this a while back, suggesting that anyone involved in any kind of education/formation needed to be keeping an eye on this discussion. So, if you’re looking for a primer on the debate, this should be helpful.

Although the article is well written and worth reading, I mostly wanted to point out that the article also links to a couple of games designed to test how much you have already been twisted and corrupted by the neurological affects of technological overexposure. (Technically, they just test how much of a multitasker you are; but I like my version better.) One game tests your ability to concentrate  in the face of distractions, and another your ability to switch between tasks quickly. According to both tests, my current level of techno depravity is actually rather low (i.e. I don’t distract easily and I switch easily between tasks). Apparently I still spend too much time doing old school things like reading books and talking to people.

Desiring the Kingdom 2

Continuing with our series on James K. A. Smith’s Desiring in the Kingdom, this post will consider Smith’s understanding of the relationship between pedagogy and anthropology.

One of the more helpful parts of the introduction to Smith’s work is his argument that every pedagogy is fundamentally shaped by a philosophical anthropology – i.e. some view of what it means to be human, what human flourishing looks like, and what it takes to get there. And, he argues that most contemporary pedagogies are grounded in modernistic assumptions about the human person that overemphasize our rational nature. To a large extent, our modern educational institutions and practices are grounded in a philosophical anthropology that sees the human person as a “thinking animal.” So, it should come as no surprise that we view education as primarily passing along knowledge.

But, he argues that since this modernistic anthropology is fundamentally antithetical to the biblical picture of the human person (we’ll unpack that a bit more in the next post), we need to reject both it and the educational models that are based on it. “We need to think further about how a Christian understanding of human persons should also shape how we teach, not just what we teach.” (p. 33) A Christian pedagogy should be grounded in the conviction that human persons are shaped by their desires which are in turn shaped by formative practices. Christian education, then, should focus on developing people who love the right things by training the desires through the right kinds of practices. So, Smith offers the following as a much better definition of education.

“An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices.” (p. 26)

This doesn’t mean that we neglect the cognitive side of formation, but that we see it as secondary rather than primary.

I’m still processing what I think about his argument regarding the fundamental role of formative practices, though at the moment I’m pretty sympathetic. But, I love Smith’s emphasis on being attuned to the philosophical and theological anthropologies that lie behind our educational practices—and, consequently, everything that we do to shape people (discipleship, teaching, mentoring, evangelism, etc.). How much of what we do in our churches to raise up God’s people is actually informed by cultural concepts and practices that may be antithetical to the good news that we proclaim? That’s really how I developed my interest in theological anthropology to begin with. It seemed to me that we needed more intentional theological reflection on what it means to be human so that we can self-critically assess our ecclesial practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.

What is interesting about the book is the way in which Smith applies this core claim to several “cultural liturgies” (e.g. shopping at the mall) and how this reveals the power of “ritual” in shaping personal and corporate identity. How he does this should become clearer in subsequent posts.

Desiring the Kingdom 1

I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it. Link to other blogs on this book.

The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.

Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.

He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.

Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.

So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.