Examining Cultural Liturgies

I mentioned in my introduction that I recently finished reading James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. This is the first volume in his Cultural Liturgies project, which aims to show that the secular cultural practices in which we engage are the major shapers of our identities. These practices affect us whether we are conscious of them or not, and they are largely antithetical to the Christian understanding of the world. In this and the next several posts, I will analyze and comment on Dr. Smith’s work, beginning with Desiring the Kingdom.

In the introduction, Dr. Smith asks,

What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if we begin by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut – what the New Testament refers to as kardia, ‘the heart’? What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions – our visions of the ‘good life’ – and not merely the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? And what if this has as much to do with our bodies as with our minds?

What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?

Dr. Smith believes it is about shaping our loves. He tells us that the primary goal of this book is to get us (the Church) to rethink our approach to Christian education. In his view, we have instituted programs that aim merely towards informing minds with Christian ideas and beliefs, whereas we ought to be forming hearts to love Christ, virtue, truth, and beauty. If he is right, if education is chiefly formative, not informative, then two things follow: first, we need to examine the methods utilized in Christian educational settings to see whether or not they reflect this view of human learning, and second, we must expand our understanding of what constitutes education.

To help us understand his view, Dr. Smith asks us to imagine, for a moment, that we are “Martian anthropologists” on a mission to earth, where we will study one of the religious institutions of the natives. He begins guiding us through this experience, describing the surroundings of the earthling temple, the interior design, the rituals which are performed therein, when it dawns on us that he isn’t talking about a temple at all, but the mall. I won’t try to recreate the experience here. (I strongly encourage you to buy the book from your local, independent bookstore.) Suffice it to say that I, as someone who is a part of the worldview crowd that Dr. Smith is constructively critiquing, am convinced by his analogy. He illustrates that the method of the mall’s education, its “pedagogy of desire,” is not to capture our mind. It aims for our heart, our “gut,” and gets our mind in the process. Images of models in front of the clothing boutiques, scents from the perfumery, and other stimuli don’t register on the cognitive level, at least, not in the same way a lecture does. Rather, these sensory inputs help us imagine ourselves in an ostensibly better state. We sense a shortcoming on our part, that we don’t look as good as that model, and then seek to remedy it by purchasing absolution in the form of a nifty sweater. Each time we perform this ritual, we build more of an identity, a set of appetites, a series of desires, that has its living, moving, and being in consumption.

Part of the genius of this system is that we aren’t conscious that we are being formed into a certain kind of person. Because it bypasses our head and goes straight for the heart, our mind isn’t on guard. This sort of education is by no means unique to the mall. (The “mall” is shorthand for the entire consumer economy, by the way.) The university, the State, the entertainment industry, and the Church all educate in the same manner. That is not to say those institutions are equivalent or that they don’t operate didactically, as well. Simply, each institution has a set of practices and rituals that helps shape participants’ imaginations and desires toward a particular understanding of human flourishing. This sort of understanding is intuition, not cognition.

I will admit that at the end of my reading of the introduction, I was conflicted about the content. On the one hand, Dr. Smith’s argument was compelling, even in its abbreviated form. Indeed, it was an idea that my family held in an unsophisticated, only partially realized way, so I had an intuitive predilection towards it. On the other, because I owe an awful lot to it, I wasn’t pleased by the tossing aside of worldview thinking. I’m a Summit alumnus, and vice president of the apologetics club at my university. Reflecting on worldview is why I picked up Dr. Smith’s book in the first place. However, though he sounds disparaging of “worldview talk” in the introduction (and first few chapters, admittedly), by the end of the book I saw that his wasn’t so much a tossing aside of worldview as it was a reordering. He has built a better foundation for it, I think.

I hope that at this point you are interested in this work. If you have a general idea of where this could go, but still have a lot of questions, then I have done well. In the next post I will begin discussing part one, which is titled “Desiring, Imaginative Animals: We Are What We Love.” The first chapter is concerned with anthropology; it proposes a model of human being that undergirds this whole enterprise.

May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.

A Brief Introduction

Welcome, dear reader.

At this point, I’m not sure how much personal information I want to post here. Later I may decide to reveal more intimate details about myself, but this post will be fairly general.

What can you expect here topic-wise? Well, I’m a Christian, a lay theologian/apologist, an engineering student, a gardener, a bibliophile, a Southerner, and a musician. Any idea I have that has even a tangential connection to any of these topics is fair game. My goal in writing here is to flesh out my understanding of God, the Christian faith, social imaginary1 and worldview, and the praxis those entail.

I read online material like Mere Orthodoxy, Rod Dreher’s and Gracy Olmstead’s blogs at the American Conservative, and RedState. I just finished James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation and have just begun Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. I have been discipled by the works of George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, John Calvin, Augustine, and many others.

Hopefully I’ll post at least once a week, but that is not a hard rule.

I do hope you enjoy reading along, and if you do, please comment. I welcome disagreement; I only ask that you be respectful and keep your replies clean. I reserve the right to delete any comments I find unworthy.

[1] Social imaginary is a concept that I will discuss in forthcoming posts. I first learned of it in Jamie Smith’s work.