Are we shaped by the theology of Scripture and the patterns of Christian worship, or by the ideas of our increasingly secular culture and the patterns, habits, and routines associated with it? While many Christians in our day seem to understand the importance of acquiring a biblical worldview, James K.A. Smith argues that we often overlook the fact that more often than not we’re persuaded by alternative stories of the world, not through overt argumentation, but by what he calls “secular liturgies.”
On this program, Michael Horton talks with James K.A. Smith, author of You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, and Desiring the Kingdom. Join us on this new edition of the White Horse Inn.
“Instead of just discerning culture in terms of the messages and worldviews that are out there, the competing ideas to the gospel, what we have to do is kind of learn to read the rituals of our culture, the places and sites of these rhythms and routines and practices that aren’t just something that we do. They’re doing something to us. And when you bring that kind of lens to our everyday life, you start to see that there’s more at stake than you would have realized and things that you might have thought were benign and neutral are actually really loaded and kind of dangerous. My example, that I often talk about, when I started thinking about this my kids were teenagers and whenever they would ask me if I would take them to the mall, they would say, ‘Dad, will you take us to the temple? Ha-ha-ha!’ and they would be sort of mocking me as we did it. But it was because we have had a conversation in which I tried to get them to see that the mall is actually an intensely religious site.
“Of course, it doesn’t mean it’s a Christian site, but it is the cathedral of consumerism that is really trying to capture their love and longings and desires; not because when you walk into the mall, the mall says this is what you should believe or here is what we think. The last thing the mall wants you to do is think. It’s because it invites you into this very tactile, visual, sensible set of routines and rituals that, at their root, and in all kinds of covert ways, are trying to tell you happiness is found in stuff and meaning is found in acquisition. And so, the way we become consumers is not because somebody argues us to that conclusion, it’s because our hearts are captured by these cultural liturgies that pull us into a rival story of the world. And you can bring that kind of liturgical lens into a stadium. I actually think stadiums are where we learn to be nationalists, that there is this very potent display of symbol and story and narrative about the nation. I think you can analyze the university. I think you could talk about social media and even our smart phones in this way. We need a kind of retooling of our cultural analysis.”
–James K.A. Smith
Term to Learn
While some of our habits are acquired by choosing to engage in certain practices (e.g., signing up for drivers’ ed. or registering for piano lessons), many are acquired without out our knowing it. And this might happen especially when we are unaware of it. If we are inattentive to the formative role of practices, or if we treat some practices as thin when they are thick, then we will be inattentive to all the ways that such practices unwittingly and unintentionally become automated. We will fail to recognize that they are forming in us habits and desires, oriented to particular ends that function to draw us toward those ends at an affective, unconscious level such that we become certain kinds of people without even being aware of it.
Liturgies are rituals of ultimate concern: 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. Our thickest practices – which are not necessarily linked to institutional religion – have a liturgical function insofar as they are a certain species of ritual practice that aim to do nothing less than shape our identity by shaping our desire for what we envision as the kingdom – the ideal of human flourishing.
(James K.A. Smith, “Love Takes Practice” in Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 85-87)