Blog Archives

Patriotism, nationalism, and Christian worship (a roundup)

The last few days have seen quite a number of posts on the question of whether nationalistic symbols (e.g. flags) should be displayed in worship services and/or whether Christian churches should celebrate/recognize national holidays like the 4th of July. Here are some of the more interesting posts:

I’m sure there will be other posts over the next couple of days, but this seems like more than enough for now.

Should we celebrate national holidays in church?

Since the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year, it raises the question even more pointedly than normal about whether (or how) churches should recognize national holidays in their worship services. For some, celebrating the Fourth of July is an important (almost vital) expression of the fact that we are still in the world and our gratitude for the blessings that come from living in a country like America. For others, this serves as yet another manifestation of the church’s captivity to nationalistic ideals and its inability to realize fully that the Kingdom of God and America are not the same thing. And, I’m sure that many fall somewhere in between.

I got into an interesting discussion with some of the other faculty yesterday about what their respective churches would be doing. The answers spanned a pretty wide range. In one church, the pastor will be preaching on “freedom” from Galatians 5 and will be using the Fourth of July as a segue into that topic. Otherwise, the holiday will not be addressed in the service. In another church, the holiday won’t come up at all. But, several large churches in the Portland area make a very big day out of the Fourth , with services complete with flags, uniforms, and patriotic music.

This also connects with the issue of whether Christian churches should display national flags in their services. Mike Bird blogged on this a couple of weeks ago, calling for n annual “remove flags from your church sanctuary day” and arguing that this is akin to idolatry.  Nick Norelli, on the other hand, has argued that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with flags in church and that it’s not idolatry as long as you don’t worship them.

In both cases, the question seems to be about the extent to which churches should or should not participate in public displays of patriotism and/or nationalism. (I think Nick is right that we should be much more careful about throwing around the word “idolatry” in this context.)

What do you think? Are flags and national holidays legitimate in a Christian assembly, should they be banished entirely, or do you have a via media? And, what will your church be doing on Sunday? (Or, if you don’t know, what do you hope that your church will do on Sunday?)

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.