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Flotsam and jetsam (9/5)

N.T. Wright on the worldwide hunger for worship

Here’s an interesting video from N.T. Wright on the tremendous hunger that exists in the world for worship and what we can do about it. Specifically, he calls on us to work on two things:

  1. More regular worship. As he says, “frankly, one day a week ain’t good enough.” We need to educate people on individual and family worship so that worship can become a regular part of their daily lives.
  2. More emphasis on liturgy. Wright argues that liturgy can be very helpful in educating people for worship, especially when they are just learning how to do it. He rightly points out that the “imperative to be spontaneous” can be a terrible burden, constraining people from engaging in individual and family worship.

HT

Flotsam and jetsam (8/9)

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.

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.

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.

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.

Flotsam and jetsam (6/14)

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.