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Review: Worship and the Reality of God by John Jefferson Davis

Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of John Jefferson Davis’s Worship and the Reality of God: An Evangelical Theology of Real Presence (IVP, 2010).

★★☆☆☆

I had a difficult time assigning a final score to this book. On the one hand, I picked it up ready to be convinced by its basic argument: evangelical worship is often theologically shallow and driven by pragmatism and experientialism.  And, indeed, Davis offers much food for thought in this direction. But, on the other hand, I found many of Davis’s core arguments unconvincing and his criticisms of evangelical worship either unfair or insufficiently explained. So, although the book provided a useful occasion for thinking through what God’s “presence” in worship actually means and why evangelical worship is often frustrating and shallow, I’m not convinced that Davis offers the kind of meaningful engagement necessary to provide a helpful way forward.

Summary

Davis opens the book by laying out his fundamental concern: evangelical worship focuses more on “worshedutainment” (great word!) than on fostering “a vivid awareness of God’s presence as the central reality in worship” (9). This lack constitutes “the growing God-vacuum in modern American evangelical worship” (12).

And, this problem stems from our failure to understand (1) the importance and priority of worship; (2) the nature of worship; (3) the participants of worship; (4)  the elements of worship; (5)  the “ontologies” of modernity and postmodernity and how they undermine true worship; (6) the need to learn new behaviors and new ‘doxological skills’ for the enjoyment of true worship.” Thus, evangelical worship suffers from a terminal shallowness and captivity to non-Christian ways of thinking and acting in the world.

In response to those problems, Davis calls for us to develop churches that are deep, thick, and different:

that is, a deep church that is marked by the depth of its encounter with God in worship and the spiritual disciplines, rather than a church oriented toward numerical growth; a thick church characterized by thick relationships and commitments rather than thin personal relationships of consumerist and postmodern culture; and a different church of ‘resident aliens’ (Hauerwas) that is unashamedly distinct from the culture in its ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior. (32).

Such a church will be very different in its beliefs and practices from any group formed by one of the competing ideologies of the modern world: scientific materialism and digital virtualism. As Davis explains,

The real problem lies at the level of ontology—that is, at the level of a fundamental background theory of the real that is operating in the hearts and the minds of the people, the preacher and the praise band, even before they walk through the door of the church or onto the stage. (14)

So, any real solution to our problem requires that we ground ourselves in ways of thinking and being that orient us around the true ontology – Trinitarian theism.

Each of the four main chapters of the book focuses on helping us accomplish this very task. In chapter two, Davis explains three key problems in evangelical worship: Your ‘God’ is too ‘light’; your vision of the church is too low; your view of your self is too high, and consequently, your worship is too shallow” (38). Instead of being grounded in a robust theology, Davis contends that our worship is pragmatic and shallow:

The personal presence of God in the ecclesia, by virtue of his covenant promises, his Word, sacraments and Spirit, invests the ecclesia with an ontic weight that does not obtain with merely  human organizations and assemblies. In practice, it seems that ordinary evangelical Protestant concepts of the church reflect notions that are more sociological than theological, more functional and pragmatic than ‘mystical’ and ontological, more Pelagian that Pauline and pneumatic—that is, an eviscerated ecclesiology in which the church is viewed as a voluntary human organization gathered for certain activities. (63)

Chapter three focuses more particularly on the question of God’s presence in worship.

Christian churches need to constitute in their practices—especially in their practices of worship—alternative plausibility structures that can embody and experience the presence of the divine in a way that directly challenges the suffocating naturalism of the dominant culture. (83)

Davis argues that the revivalist background of modern evangelicalism often causes us to focus more on bringing the individual to a point of decision than on the centrality of God’s presence in worship, regardless of how Trinitarian or orthodox our theology might be.  So, in place of this individualistic revivalism, Davis calls for and understanding of worship that orients space and time around God and his Kingdom.

With the strong emphasis on God’s presence in worship, it is no surprise that chapter four focuses its attention on the nature of God’s presence in the Eucharist. Davis deals briefly with some of the major perspectives on real presence, but focuses on the reality of God’s special presence in the Eucharist (however it is understood) as the focus for most Christian traditions. So, Eucharist should be a key focus as we seek to retrieve a sense of God’s presence in worship today.

And, the final chapter focuses on identifying some practical applications for the theological and theoretical insights developed throughout the book. So, he focuses in this chapter on offering some specific thoughts for developing churches that recognize and manifest the real presence of God in worship by being deep, thick, and different.

Strengths

Probably my favorite part of the book was his emphasis on how the way that we view ourselves, our churches, and reality as a whole affects worship. To put it another way, ontology matters.

Davis also joined the growing chorus of voices criticizing the evangelical church for an unhealthy focusing on preaching as the almost exclusive focus of the service. Although I think he goes too far in his critique of preaching-centered services, he does do a nice job pointing out the danger of becoming unbalanced in this area. It does seem interesting that seminaries typically requires multiple preaching courses but few classes on worship (if any). Without a robust theology of worship, a “worship” service can easily lose its way and find its focus in some other purpose (e.g. instruction, entertainment, outreach).

I also liked his call for us to think through each aspect of our worship services and wrestle with what these practices really signify in the life of the congregation. I didn’t think his presentation was as theologically nuanced as that offered by James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom, but he still presents some interesting ideas worth considering. I particularly appreciated his emphasis on understanding the formative nature of technology:

Such cultural artifacts are real and have ontic weight to the extent that they display internal structures and coherence, embody intentions, meanings and symbolic references, encode information, have stable existence over time, and have the power to shape and influence behaviors and institutions. (109)

I’ll make some more critical comments on this point in the next section, but we do need to realize that such technologies are value-laden.

Weaknesses

One of my greatest frustrations with the book was the fact that Davis repeatedly claimed that evangelical worship lacks an awareness of God’s “presence,” but he makes very little attempt to explain or justify this conclusion. For example, after attending one evangelical service, he comments: “A sense of the presence of the holy in the administration of holy Communion was  obvious that morning” (113). But he offers no justification for this conclusion. He routinely points to liturgical practices as offering a deeper sense of God’s presence and at one point compares American evangelicalism unfavorably to the more Pentecostal worship of the global south. But, in neither place does he explain why these different worship practices necessarily evidence God’s presence better than those he is criticizing. Indeed, he leaves himself open to the charge that it is merely his preference for liturgical worship that causes him to find other forms of worship unsatisfying. (I don’t think this is the case, but the shape of the argument makes it look like it.) So, at the end of the day, his central conclusion – “contemporary evangelical Christians have lost their awareness of the presence of the living and holy God as the central reality of all true worship” (100) – seems unjustified.

Additionally, he failed to provide any explanation for why liturgical acts are better suited for shaping Christian worship and identity. Like many proponents of liturgical worship, Davis claims that such practices shape time/space in particularly Christian ways and are, therefore, more conducive to truly Christian worship. Regardless of whether I agree or disagree with this, his failure to provide any meaningful argument for this liturgical perspective seriously undermined the value of the book. If he is going to suggest that liturgical practice is a key part of the solution to the lack of God’s presence in modern worship, I would have liked to see a much stronger  defense of that conclusion.

I also didn’t like the fact that all six of his areas of deficiency were phrased in entirely cognitive ways. I teach for a living, so obviously I think understanding things is important. But, I don’t think it’s sufficient to say that the weakness of contemporary worship is simply a failure to understand. I also found the emphasis on cognitive failure rather odd given his similar strong emphasis on liturgical practice as the solution.

His discussions of technology could also be more nuanced. While I appreciated some of his comments (see above), he consistently painted technology in a very negative light, often neglecting even to mention that there are other perspectives. For example, he commented at one point that technology is “altering the nature of human consciousness itself” (15). This is a highly contentious statement that should be defended rather than asserted. And, even if true, it fails to engage the fact that this would be true for all technological development – not just the recent ones. This may seem like a small matter, but since he made technology central to one of this three primary worldviews, digital virtualism, this actually became a real weakness.

As a result of all these weaknesses, his suggestions for practical application remained unconvincing. He concludes that we need to move toward an “ancient-modern blended worship” that highlights: (1) liturgy, tradition and ritual, (2) visual arts; (3) right use of electronic media; (4) promotion of spiritual gifts; (5) ancient-modern musical canon; (6) weekly Eucharist. I’m not against any of these things, but he did not succeed in convincing me that these come from theological conviction rather than personal preference. And, it’s hard to see how we can deepen our worship practices by moving from newer personal preferences to older ones.

Conclusion

Overall, Worship and the Reality of God gave me a lot to think about and some interesting ideas to chew on. But, in the end, I found its basic argument unsatisfying and insufficiently nuanced at key places. It is probably best suited for someone wanting to become more familiar with some of the ideas behind recent criticisms of evangelical worship.

Incorporating Lyotard’s Narratives: How Does the Gospel Stand Out?

[This is a guest post by Andy Peloquin and is part of a series that the Th.M. students at Western Seminary are doing this semester on understanding the relationship between philosophy and theology.]

James K. A. Smith in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? outlines the implications of Jean-Francois Lyotard’s definition of postmodern as the “incredulity toward metanarratives” on Christianity.  Smith states that Lyotard’s definition has been “bumper stickered” into a misconception of his critique of modernity, especially by Christians who see a threat to the Christian narrative of God’s overreaching purpose found in scripture.  He states that this misconception is to be found in misunderstanding what Lyotard means by metanarrative.  It is often thought to regard a story great in scope, but Smith indicates that this was not Lyotard’s concern.  Rather it was the nature of the narrative’s claims: “metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: they are stories that not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this) but also claim to be able to legitimate or prove the story’s claim by an appeal to universal reason.” (65)  Thus there exist grand stories in non-modern periods but the distinguishing fact in modernism is legitimization to a universal.  This concept of legitimacy is what Smith indicates is the focal point for Lyotard to demark between modern and postmodern.  For modernity, it is science (universal reason) that legitimates its claim. Science is in opposition to narrative which does not attempt to legitimize its claims but only declare them in a story (65).  This point is important for Smith to draw out in order to claim that Lyotard’s denunciation of metanarratives is good for the church.  In brief summary, Smith indicates the Church has co-opted the modern methodology and so attempts to rationalize scripture through the use of reason.  Instead the church should simply proclaim the narrative of scripture on its own terms without worrying about legitimization.  Thus the church can legitimately speak of the grand story of scripture on its own grounds without compromising that story.  The problem that Smith notes, however, is that you then have a plurality of these narratives which are in themselves all legitimate, with none able to appeal to a higher judge of legitimacy.

How does this then affect our proclamation and defense of the gospel?  Smith critiques what he calls the classic view of apologetics as being modern in its use of reasoning.  He advocates for a ‘presuppositional’ style in which all presuppositions are laid out and then the gospel is proclaimed in its narrative through the power of the Holy Spirit.  I think this is the greatest difficulty to overcome and I was a little disappointed in the lack of explanation/exposition of this.

If the Christian story is one of many other equally legitimate stories and there cannot be an appeal to a higher judge to show one better than the other, than how can we speak clearly the message of the gospel among so many voices?  I like Smith’s appeal to the Holy Spirit but I would have liked a more robust defense and explanation here of what this looks like in the everyday.  What do we do with a culture (such as in Portland) that evaluates all these stories as equally legitimate (‘what works for you’) and/or thinks they are just the same story leading to the same end (religious pluralism)?  What is more, what do we do with this apologetic in the context of a culture (such as Chinese) that already easily syncretizes various religious systems and so would have no problem with accepting the gospel or just parts, into their narrative – especially if they see them as equally legitimate?  How do you adequately address the uniqueness of the Christian faith story as we see given in it (i.e. Jn. 14:6) in this system?

Human ritual and spiritual formation: antithesis or synergy?

Yesterday Brian LePort commented on The Ecclesiology of Starbucks. He was specifically referring to Starbuck’s new ad campaign, “Take Comfort in Rituals.” Brian quickly noted the strong parallels between this add and the kind of language that we use to describe the church, a place where ritual (liturgical practices) are both comforting and formative. And, Brian noted that this way of thinking also had resonance with James K. A. Smith’s recent book, Desiring the Kingdom, which we discussed some time ago.

Brian’s post has sparked a lively discussion, particularly between Halden (who blogs at Inhabitatio Dei) and Smith, as they’ve traded jabs on the nature and purpose transformation, the role of ritual, and the nature of theological discourse in the blogosphere. Several others have contributed their thoughts as well, making this a fascinating discussion to check out.

So, if you have any interesting the the church, worship, ritual practices, and the nature of spiritual formation, you should definitely head over there and check out Brian’s post and the comments that follow.

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.

Desiring the Kingdom 8

Moving into the final chapter of the book, James K. A. Smith deals with the question of what all of this emphasis on “liturgy” has to do with Christian education. He begins by continuing his critique of the traditional “worldview” approach to education. He sees this as trying “to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective’, and perhaps with the goal of transforming culture or redeeming society” (218).  But, he thinks that this approach leaves their desires untouched. ” So, he asks, “Could it be the case that…while I might be able to think about the world from a Christian perspective, at the end of the day I love not the kingdom of God but rather the kingdom of the market?” (218).

Instead of this “domestication of Christianity” (220) that does little to disrupt or transform our way of being in the world, he argues that Christian education should have the same goal as Christian worship: “to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being god’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s cruciform cultural labor” (220). Thus, Christian education needs to be seen as “extensions of the mission of the church.”

He then walks through three specific practices that he thinks would help make this happen. First, we need to reconnect “Church, Chapel, and Classroom.” Tapping into his argument that we are shaped by liturgical practices, he sees the chapel as an excellent way to connect the practices of the church with the everyday world of the university, so that Christian teaching is formed by “a Christian social imaginary” (225).

Second, we need to reconnect “Classroom, Dorm Room, and Neighborhood” as providing the proper environment for learning. He argues that residential universities provide unique opportunities for creating “intentional communities” shaped by “full-bodied Christian practices,” which could then be extended into the surrounding community. In this way, what is learned in the classroom stays vitally connected to the lived practices of people in community.

Third, we need to reconnect body and mind. He doesn’t comment on this one very much because it’s really been the argument of the whole book. We don’t learn as disembodied minds, but as embodied persons. A truly Christian education should be shaped by this anthropology.

When self-control just isn’t enough

“I’ve just started reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Toward the beginning of the book, they use the analogy of a man riding an elephant to explain human behavior. The man represents our more rational side and the elephant our passionate, emotional side. They go on to explain:

 Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmached.

This is actually a bit overstated because the authors go on to argue that if the Rider pulls on the reins hard enough, he can get the Elephant to change directions temporarily. But, eventually the Rider will grow tired and the Elephant will go its own way. In other words, we can rationally conclude that X is in our best interests, and exert significant will power to achieve X, but if our passions and emotions really want Y, we’re in trouble. If you’re riding on an Elephant that’s going the wrong way, the solution is not a stronger Rider. The solution is convincing the Elephant that it really wants to go the other way.

What I found particularly interesting about this analogy was the way that they applied it to the use of self-discipline. They pointed to a study that placed two groups of college students in two different rooms, who were told that the researchers were studying “taste.” In each room they placed  a tray of fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies and a bowl of radishes.  One group of students was told to eat several cookies and no radishes; the other group was told to eat several radishes but no cookies. Despite the temptation, and probably because they knew the researchers were watching, the second group resisted the temptation to eat any of the cookies. After a while, the students were informed that the study was done, but they were now invited to participate in another, “unrelated” study. The students were given a puzzle that was impossible to solve. The researchers then counted how many attempts each student made before giving up. The chocolate chip cookie group made an average of 34 attempts (19 minutes) before giving up. The radish group, on the other hand, gave up after only 19 attempts (8 minutes).

Why did they quite so easily? The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource….The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task – it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this – their Riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than eight minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for nineteen minutes.

So, when we exhort people to change through appeals to their self-discipline, we are actually encouraging them down a road that leads inevitably to exhaustion, frustration, and failure. Instead, they argue that the real path to meaningful change requires educating the rider and motivating the elephant.

This has interesting parallels to the argument that we’ve been following in James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. Although Smith uses very different language, he is also arguing that the elephant runs the show more than we like to belive. So, instead of focusing all our efforts on educating the rider, we need to train the elephant. And, how do we do that? Liturgies, of course. You train your elephant – your passionate, affective, desiring, side – through regular, formative practices that shape your desires toward good ends.

Right now my elephant is telling me to get some ice cream. I’d resist, but I did that earlier today when my elephant wanted another piece of cake. Clearly my self-control is worn out after all of that elephant-wrestling. So, it’s really out of my hands.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship,  gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 7

Chapter 5 is really the heart of the book. Here Smith walks through the embodied practices of a typical into people whose loves are directed toward the Kingdom of God: the space of worship, gathering together, greeting one another, singing, reading the law, confession, baptism, reading the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, Scripture and sermon, eucharist, offering, and the sending out

I won’t take the time to walk you through each of the various practices that he discusses. Instead, I’ll mention just a few to give you a sense of how his argument develops.

1. The space of worship.

He begins by talking about how the physical space of worship can itself be used to create a “space of worship” that changes according to the liturgical calendar. In this way, “just the space of worship would tell a story that actually organizes time – an indication that here dwells a people with a unique sense of temporality, who inhabit a time that is out of joint with the regular, mundane ticking of commercial time or the standard shape of the academic year” (156). Such a practice would serve as a “counter-formation to the incessant 24/7-ness of our frenetic commercial culture” (157), by shaping us as a people formd by an eschatological imagination.

2. The gathering.

Smith argues that the very act of gathering together for worship is an embodied practice. At the very least, we could be at home doing something else that would be shaping us in very different ways. More importantly, gathering expresses our identity as those who have been called from the world to be constituted as the community that praises God. And, the gathering of the community expresses the conviction that this is the place in which human flourishing truly takes place – we are fully human beings insofar as we are worshipping beings.

3. Greeting one another

One of my favorite parts of the chapter was his section on the greeting as a formative practice. Looked at one way, nothing in the service is more trivial and awkward than the practice of “shaking hands with the person next to you.” But, Smith argues that we should see this is as practice that shapes us into a people that appreciates the importance of the community. We are not here as individual and isolated worshippers, but we are here as the people of God.

4. Baptism

Unsurprisingly, Smith sees this as a critical practice for the church. Indeed, “it is a microcosm of the entirety of Christian worship and the story of God, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (182). More interesting was his emphasis that because baptism serves as the constitution of the people of God, it also serves as a counter-formation to the “idolization of the family” (186). He thinks that modern, liberal society has placed too much emphasis on the family as the primary locus of human flourishing. And, thus, we’ve placed a burden on the family that it was never meant to handle. Instead, baptism reminds us that the family should be a part of the larger people of God. It thus “opens the home, liberating it from the burden of impossible self-sufficiency, while also opening it to the ‘disruptive friendships’ that are the mark of the kingdom of God” (186-7).

Through each of the different discussions, Smith wants us to understand two things. First, each of these practices serves as a counter-formation to other formative practices, directing us toward true human flourishing in the world. And, second, although it’s good for us to understand the theological significance of these practices, it is not necessary for them to have a formative influence. Indeed, the whole idea of a “practice” as he understands it is that its formative significance is pre-cognitive; it shapes us even if we don’t understand precisely how it does so. And, that’s why he argues that these are formative practices even for children or handicapped individuals who would not otherwise be able to grasp the theology embedded in the practices.

Desiring the Kingdom 6

In the first half of the book, Smith develops his claim that “human persons are not primarily thinking things, or even believing things, but rather imaginative, desiring animals who are defined fundamentally by love” (133). In other words, we are embodied beings whose imaginations and desires are shaped by the things that we do with our bodies, and the most formative of these bodily practices are our cultural liturgies. With that claim in mind, Smith is ready to move into the second half of the book and develop his argument that Christian worship is a powerful liturgy, and consequently, we must attend to the ways in which the bodily practices of worship shape our imaginations and desires.

Smith begins chapter four by arguing that worship comes before doctrine. He contends that this is at least true historically – i.e. the church’s official theology often came as an articulation of the theology embedded in its worship practices. But, more importantly, he sees worship as a process that “educates our hearts through our bodies” (137). Thus, worship does not simply express previously held beliefs, but it serves to shape those beliefs.  (He unpacks this claim more in the next chapter.)

The real focus of the chapter, though, is on developing the idea that worship should be viewed as a “sacramental” practice. He points out that human worship is an embodied, and therefore, a material practice: “The rhythms and rituals of Christian worship invoke and feed off of our embodiment and traffic in the stuff of a material world” (139). Thus, we should reject any implicit Gnosticism which sees worship as an essentially “spiritual” practice, and instead see it as a material practice in which God manifests his presence in and through material things – a sacramental practice.

He concludes by warning against two mistakes that we could make by viewing worship as a sacramental practice. First, he wants to make sure that understanding the sacramentality of physical things doesn’t lead to marginalizing the church. Although he wants us to see that the entire physical universe can and should be viewed in sacramental terms (i.e. God can and does manifest his presence through all of it), that does not preclude us from affirming a higher degree of sacramental presence in the material practices of the worshipping community.

Similarly, his second concern is that we would come to see worship as just another embodied practice, akin to all other formative practices. Instead, he argues, “Wile worship is entirely embodied, it is not only material; and though worship is wholly natural, it is never only natural. Thus, unlike the embodied practice of going to the mall that we discussed in the last post, worship is a practice that involves the presence and activity of the triune God.

Desiring the Kingdom 5

As we discussed in the last post, Smith understands a “liturgy” as a particular kind of practice (ritual) that seeks to inculcate a certain vision of human flourishing that will trump competing visions. Unlike a worldview, these practices shape us in pre-cognitive, affective ways; they shape us into lovers before they form us into thinkers. So, he wants to explore the ways in which repeated actions (rituals) can fundamentally shape us when tied to a particular way of understanding what it means to be truly human. And, he doesn’t have in mind just the obviously formative rituals that we do on purpose for the sake of being formed in certain ways (e.g. spiritual disciplines). No, he thinks that many things that we do regularly without even thinking about them can be liturgies when linked to a certain vision of what it means to be human. Thus, “I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us….Through the repeated ritual, a daily microliturgy, our very loyalties are aimed and shaped.” (109) In chapter 3, Smith unpacks this understanding of “cultural liturgies” by applying it to three case studies.

In the first, Smith deals with the mall as a cultural liturgy. And, of the three, I found this to be the most interesting. By looking closely at how shopping at the mall shapes us, Smith concludes that shopping at the mall is not just something that we do to fill time. Here you have cultural liturgy that presents a model of human flourishing with the following aspects.

  1. It makes us into people who see themselves as broken (i.e. “I don’t look like that”).
  2. It fosters a kind of sociality/relationality, but one that is grounded in competition rather than community.
  3. It shapes us to be fundamentally “consumers” – we always need to purchase more solutions to our brokenness.
  4. It creates in us a need not to see the harmful consequences of our consumerism (individually and globally).

He then goes on to critique very briefly the inadequacies of the Christian response to this cultural liturgy. Basically, he thinks that we simply replace secular commodities with “Christian” commodities without realizing that we are actually perpetuating the “Gospel of consumerism” in the process. I think his critique of the Christian response could have been even sharper here by drawing on his critique of worldview-thinking. The primary Christian response to such consumerism is to teach a more authentic Christian worldview (e.g. selflessness, justice, moderation, etc.). But, as Smith points us, this kind of worldview response simply will not carry the day against the formative influence of such a prevalent cultural liturgy. That would be the equivalent of telling a rock not to be shaped by the river running constantly over it because God wants the rock to look different. I thought the Gospel of consumerism was the best example of a cultural liturgy that cannot be battled by ideas alone.

The second case study addresses the “military-entertainment complex.” In other word, the strong elements of nationalism and patriotism that pervade popular entertainment (think Armageddon or Independence Day). This liturgy presents a vision of human flourishing based on notions of materialism, ownership, competition, individualism, freedom, and even violence. And, it does so it a way that captures our imaginations before it captures our minds. That’s what makes the “worldview” approach to movies (i.e. “What message is this movie trying to convey?) so inadequate. It’s not so much a question of understanding the movie’s message is it is recognizing its formative power in its ability to shape our imagination and our vision of human flourishing.

Finally, he considers liturgies associated with the university. Probably the most interesting part of this section was his argument that what is most formative about attending a university is what happens outside the classroom. (I found this section to be the least engaging of the three, which is surprising given that he has more interesting discussions of this subject elsewhere in the book.)

Through all three of these, he presses us to consider the ways in which everyday rituals can be liturgies if they have a particular telos – a vision of human flourishing that seeks to trump competing visions. And, these liturgies cannot be counteracted merely by providing better teaching. A person can believe all the right things and still be shaped by a Gospel of consumerism into pursuing a vision of human flourishing that is antithetical to the Gospel.

Desiring the Kingdom 4

Continuing with our series on Desiring the Kingdom, Smith is now ready to move into the heart of his argument. So, he contends in the second chapter that contrary to our common conception of ourselves, the majority of our behavior is driven by our habits rather than our choices. Indeed, he cites research supporting the idea that only 5% of of human behavior flows from conscious choice. And, this means two things. (1) “Automatic” processes exercise tremendous influence in our lives. And, (2) we’re deceiving ourselves if we think these are limited to mundane or routine behaviors. So, we need to consider how these automatic processes are shaped and the impact that this has on us.

Smith recognizes that we need to distinguish between “thin” cultural practices (mundane, everyday actions with less impact on identity) and “thick” cultural practices (habits that shape who we are). To that end, Smith offers the following definitions of certain key terms:

  • A “ritual” is any action performed routinely.
  • A “practice” is any action performed routinely that is directed toward a particular end.
  • A “liturgy” is a “ritual of ultimate concern” (p. 86)

These definitions are clearly sequential with the latter two embedded in the first. That is, something could be a ritual without being a practice, but all practices are necessarily rituals. What makes the difference is that all practices are intentionally directed toward some end. They are not mundane actions with little or no real significance (e.g. tying my shoes in a certain way), but they are actions that are specifically designed to form us in certain ways so that we will desire certain ends. Thus, there can be no neutral practices, they are all “meaning-laden, identity-forming practices that subtly shape us precisely they grab hold of our loves – they are automating our desire and action without our conscious recognition” (p. 83). Thus, my practice of kissing my wife every morning before I leave for work is a ritual that forms me to be a certain kind of person – i.e. one who desires his wife. And, much of this happens at a pre-conscious level. I’m not aware that my desires are being shaped and reinforced every time that I do this, but they are.

And, for Smith, liturgies go one step further. They are not simply rituals directed toward a particular end, but they are rituals directed toward an ultimate end. In other words, practices designed to form in us a desire for something that should be our ultimate concern. They are “rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations” (p. 86). So, a Christian worship service is a liturgy because it is designed to make us into beings who desire God above all else. And, we’ll discuss in the next post that going to the mall is also a liturgy in the way that it shapes our identities and ultimate concerns.