Archives For James K. A. Smith

In my last post, I argued that repetition isn’t as bad as we make it out to be. In fact, repetition is important. We are shaped by repetition—and that’s true whether we are aware of the formative power of repetition or not. James K. A. Smith argues that we are immersed in “secular liturgies” every day and that these shape us deeply without our conscious knowledge. Smith’s solution is capitalizing on repetition in a healthy way within the church. This is part of counterformation: intentionally shaping ourselves through saturating our lives and practices and worship with the story of what God has done in Christ.

While we’re usually allergic to repetition in worship, Smith argues that we need to engage in healthy repetition. What this does not mean, however, is that all repetition is equally helpful. In fact, some types of repetition are harmful.

For example, I remember a time in my life when the song “Lord, I Lift Your Name on High” was incredibly meaningful. I would get teary singing it. I had never felt closer to God or more passionate for his mission than when I was singing those words. So I sang the song. And I sang it. And sang it. Over. And over. And over again. Until the lyrics became meaningless. The song died for me. But I kept singing it in church and chapel and youth group. And it continued to mean nothing to me. But I continued to sing it.

The end result is that a song that had been a meaningful form of repetition for me, that was instrumental in shaping me for God’s kingdom, now became a harmful form of repetition and became instrumental in shaping me to be the kind of person who proclaims powerful truths without meaning them. In other words, “Lord, I Life Your Name on High” became a training ground for my hypocrisy.

This little example probably summarizes much of what people fear when they hear about repetition in worship. If we don’t keep things fresh and ever-changing, we’ll just be singing songs and repeating rituals that have lost their meaning.

But it doesn’t need to be like this.

One ritual that every church repeats regularly is the Lord’s Supper. Within 30 years of Jesus instituting the Lord’s Supper, Paul had to challenge the Corinthian Church to treat it as a meaningful practice—which indicates that it had become a dead ceremony to many in a short amount of time. Who among us has held the profound meaning of Communion in mind every single time we have participated? And yet none of our churches is ready to give up on repeating this practice. We recognize that repetition is essential in this area. And here’s why.

Communion 2Imagine how much it shapes us to regularly hold the bread and cup in our hands. We are reminded that Jesus shed his blood and broke his body in order to redeem us. We hold the symbolic evidence of that sacrifice in our hands regularly: weekly or monthly or whatever. We taste the bread on our tongues and our bodies participate in remembering Jesus’ sacrifice. We drink the cup and our taste buds get involved in the repeated memory. We take this meal together and remember that Jesus’ body has placed us within his body—these people who worship alongside us. And we do this again and again and again because this act is central to our life in Jesus. The repetition cements the action in our conscious and preconscious selves. It sinks more deeply and shapes us in ways we don’t understand.

Can people allow the repetition of Communion to shrink into a dead practice? Absolutely. Does this make the repetition of Communion bad? Absolutely not. It’s still important, and that’s why Paul calls the Corinthians back to a sincere and meaningful celebration of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11. By continually eating this meal, we repeatedly “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26). He attacks the misshapen and misdirected practice of Communion, not the meaningful repetition of it.

I believe it is important for us to incorporate thoughtful, meaningful repetition into our church gatherings. This might mean singing certain songs repeatedly as anthems. We’ll want to help each other avoid the hypocrisy of singing truths we don’t mean, but the pull should be back into the significance of singing these songs jointly rather than abandoning the songs we’ve been singing for more than a month. It might mean repeating a benediction in the service, or praying regularly, or reciting the Lord’s prayer together, or engaging in corporate confession, or incorporating bits of ancient liturgy that have shaped the life of the Church for centuries.

Communion 1When we sense that the repetition has devolved into cold gesturing, it’s time to revisit the significance of the action. Maybe there’s a better way to enact the story of what God has done in Christ. Maybe we just need a reminder of what we’re doing when we do ___________.

I’m not trying to argue for a particular form of liturgy. But we are being shaped by the repeated, embodied practices in the world around us, whether it be going to the gym, going to the mall, scrolling through Facebook, clicking our remote controls, or whatever. Unless we see the value of repetition in our church gatherings, we will be neglecting a vital form of counterformation that will help us combat the consumerism and individualism and whatever else seeps into our bones through these secular liturgies. We don’t have to be liturgical in an old, confusing sense. But our worship should be liturgical in the sense that we find powerful ways of embodying the Story in actions, words, songs, and symbols that can shape our life together. And when we find these powerful practices, we should repeat them.

Hymnals

We all know what it’s like to be bored with worship. Anyone who has been around the church for a while knows what it is to sing a praise song so many times that it becomes almost painful. Our worship services can become boring, predictable, numbing. And that’s not good. Boring, predictable, numbing practices can rob us of our passion and make God seem like something he is certainly not: boring.

While I’m convinced of this point, I don’t believe the answer to boredom lies in constant novelty. Certain church paradigms believe this. Change it up, keep everything moving, shift gears incessantly or we’ll lose their tiny attention spans.

But passion in worship is not the inevitable byproduct of constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our worship:

“We, especially we Protestants, have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, though we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (Imagining the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, 181).

Does that strike you as odd? You’ll never become a musician if you don’t value repetition. You’d be stabbing yourself in the cheek with your fork without a lifetime of repetition. You wouldn’t speak English if it weren’t for repetition. We know that repetition is important for mastering a skill, for getting a practice to sink deeply into our being.

BasketballTo use a basketball analogy: being a good basketball player requires the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen, and block out without giving a second’s thought to these activities. You’ll only be a solid player when these practices are second nature, automatic, natural. You push the ball towards the court, your fingers receive the ball when it bounces back up. You push it back down again. The shot goes up, your body immediately gets into position for the rebound. It just happens. You’re not letting your eyes be distracted with these actions, you’re not wasting your brain power on them, this is simply how you’ve trained your body to behave on the court. You’ve spent countless hours repeating these skills, forcing your body to learn these practices without the conscious assistance of your brain.

So it is with worship. You won’t be good at worshiping God in the moment that you lose your biggest client or get cut off in traffic or lose your temper with your child unless you’ve trained yourself to be a worshiper. And this requires repetition. Our corporate worship services and church gatherings are, in a sense, our basketball practices. We listen to sermons to hear the story of what God has done in Christ. We speak and sing and exult in this story with our songs. We acknowledge our need for this story in our prayers. We enact this story in taking Communion. We incarnate this story in the words and actions we do in fellowship and service with and for one another. With repetition, the story sinks into our bones.

We enact the story of what God has done in Christ as if by second nature. It has become part of us, it has come to shape us. And thus it shows up unexpectedly in actions that we would not have thought have anything to do with worship.

In comparing our church gatherings to “practice” I don’t mean to imply that what we do in church is not serious. It is. And it’s these serious (yet joyful) times of intentionally saturating ourselves in God’s story that make the story a natural part of who we are.

The world around us knows the value of repetition for shaping the human soul: think of how deep-seated consumerism has become in our society, our churches, and our hearts. Smith recognizes how effective the advertisers are at shaping us and laments how weak the church is at countering this formation that we receive from the world:

“It is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition…Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies” (183, emphasis added).

In other words, if our worship experiences remain fixated on novelty while our society engages in effective repetition, our Christian formation will take a back seat to our secular formation.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what healthy repetition might look like in our church gatherings.

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.

 

Christians talk a lot about being “filled with the Spirit,” but what does that actually mean? And how is it accomplished?

Paul’s command to “be filled with the Spirit” in Ephesians 5:18 is intriguing. The form of the verb “filled” that Paul uses is what’s called a present passive imperative. Without getting nerdy, that means it’s a command that we are to obey in the present tense (present + imperative). But the odd thing is that it’s in the passive voice. We are commanded to “be filled.” Are you seeing the significance? Paul is commanding us to be doing something that must be done to us.

This raises an important question: How do I receive something that is outside of my control? If it’s the Spirit who fills me, then why is Paul directing that command to me?

I find this deeply mysterious and often frustrating. It’s easier if there’s a procedure I can follow, something I can simply do to fulfill this command. But it seems more mysterious than this—a realization that should not surprise us when we are discussing the workings of the Spirit.

James K. A. Smith is often helpful with this sort of thing. In the following quotation, Smith is exploring French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of how a person “falls” asleep. Smith suggests that this account might help us in thinking about being filled with the Spirit:

“I cannot ‘choose’ to fall asleep. The best I can do is choose to put myself in a posture and rhythm that welcomes sleep. ‘I lie down in bed, on my left side, with my knees drawn up; I close my eyes and breathe slowly, putting my plans out of my mind. But the power of my will or consciousness stops there’ (PP 189)[1]. I want to go to sleep, and I’ve chosen to climb into bed—but in another sense sleep is not something under my control or at my beckoned call. ‘I call up the visitation of sleep by imitating the breathing and posture of the sleeper…There is a moment when sleep “comes,” settling on this imitation of itself which I have been offering to it, and I succeed in becoming what I was trying to be” (PP 189–90, emphasis added). Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome. What if being filled with the Spirit had the same dynamic? What if Christian practices are what Craig Dykstra calls ‘habitations of the Spirit’ precisely because they posture us to be filled and sanctified? What if we need to first adopt a bodily posture in order to become what we are trying to be?”[2]

Bed

Smith is suggesting that our embodied practices (“liturgies” is Smith’s broad term for these practices, whether they be “sacred” or “secular”) might prepare us to receive the Spirit’s filling. We ourselves are not doing the filling—that is the Spirit’s work. But by engaging in specific embodied practices—the eating and drinking of communion, the posture of our knees on the floor in prayer, the raising of our hands in worship, the use of our vocal cords in praying, singing, or reading Scripture—we are training our bodies, and thus our whole selves, to be receptive to the Spirit’s filling. The power of our bodies and of embodied practices (liturgies, broadly conceived) is the subject of Smith’s book (and an important earlier book), and he convincingly argues that human beings do not primarily consist of the thoughts in our heads, but of the desires—the love—that fills our being and is directed at objects around us.

Imagining the KingdomCould it be that just as sleep “settles on the imitation of itself which I have been offering to it,” so our obedience to practices like singing to one another, giving thanks verbally, and performing acts of mutual submission actually make us receptive to the Spirit’s filling in our lives? These activities are listed, after all, along with the command to be filled with the Spirit in Ephesians 5.

We could try so hard to be filled with the Spirit, and in a certain sense we should. Be the sleep analogy helps me to step into the mystery a bit. As Smith says, “Sleep is a gift to be received, not a decision to be made. And yet it is a gift that requires a posture of reception—a kind of active welcome.”

Smith’s analogy does not lessen the mystery of being filled with the Spirit for me. I still can’t say that I know precisely what to do. But I find the analogy helpful, and I find myself motivated to actively welcome the Spirit, to engage in those postures that make me receptive to the gift.


 

[1] Smith uses the abbreviation “PP” to refer to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s work Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).

[2] James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013) 65.

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the seriesBook of the Month

To this point, the books we’ve recommended as our book of the “month” have been popular level books—books that the average reader can get through without too much difficulty. This “month,” I’m recommending a book that will require more effort from the average reader, but I think it’s worth it.

The book is Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith and it’s the first in his “Cultural Liturgies” series. I think this is an important book, especially for those of us who are convinced of the importance of “worldview.” Here’s why.

Smith invites his readers to view our familiar world in an unfamiliar way. One poignant example he explores is the shopping mall. We believe the mall is a purely secular location that we visit on our terms to pick up items we need for our own reasons. But Smith paints the mall in a religious light (or rather, reveals the inherently religious nature of the mall, hence the term “cultural liturgies”).

Mall Cathedral

The moment we enter the mall, we gain a sense of transcendence from the vaulted architecture, the skylights, and the lack of windows, which divert our attention from the sea of cars outside and the mundanities of daily life. In this place, time is marked not by the ticking of the clock (which you’ll be hard pressed to find) but by cycle of festivals and celebrations for which the “cathedral” is regularly re-adorned. Oversized photographs on the walls and mannequins in shop windows function as icons, embodying for us a vision of the “good life,” reminding us of what our “worship” will produce and calling us inside to “taste and see.” When we decide to partake of this vision of the good life, we approach the altar, item(s) in hand, and the priestly salesclerk guides us in consummating our worship, sending us out with a benediction (“Thanks, have a great day”).

On one level, this is all nonsense—the mall is not a church. But Desiring the Kingdom argues that this interpretation of the mall is profoundly realistic. The world around us shapes us, not simply at the level of our intellect, but at the level of our desires. Commercials don’t convince us of the logic of buying their products, they appeal to our desires. They make us want it. And in doing so, Smith argues, the marketers are exhibiting a more biblical view of humanity than most churches hold.

Our society recognizes that we are not primarily thinkers. Rather, we are primarily lovers. We do what we do not because we follow our logic in every case, but because we are driven by desire. Think about it: Do you drink Starbucks coffee (or the more obscure and therefore more trendy type of coffee that you consider far superior to Starbucks) because you intellectually believe it is so much better than the alternative that you’re wiling to spend $2 for a small coffee and $5+ for other drinks? No. You drink Starbucks because your desires have been trained, not just for the flavor, but for the atmosphere and experience. It’s not necessarily illogical, but it’s deeper than logic. It’s about a vision of the good life that resides more in our gut than in our brain.

PrintAnd here’s where Smith’s argument gets very important. The world is busy shaping our desires. Meanwhile, the church fights back by filling our minds. We fight love with facts. This is where the worldview approach often falls short. Descartes famous saying, “I think therefore I am,” summarizes our default view of humanity. We are thinking beings. So put the right knowledge into a person’s head and he or she will behave accordingly. And there is some truth here. But we all know it’s not the whole picture. We don’t upgrade to the new iPhone because we believe the new features are worth the price. Our desires have been trained to despise our (months) old iPhone and long for the newest.

Smith’s solution is worship. Our desires are trained through worship, not just ideas. We need to shape our worldview, but we also need to shape our longings. We need formation, not just informationWe need to desire the kingdom. In this regard, Smith advocates liturgy, but in a broad sense. He’s not saying we all have to become “high church” in the sense that we all do responsive reading and observe lent. But he does argue that those things can play an important role in shaping our desires. Biblically speaking, we are whole beings. We’re not disembodied minds, we are embodied creatures. So involving our senses in worship, engraining deep habits and rituals into our routines can help to train our desires. It’s not just about thinking, it’s about worship. It’s about love. The marketers understand this, the church should as well.

That’s Smith’s overall contention, and I’ll warn you that he’s persuasive. As I said, it’s not the easiest book to read, but it’s also not the hardest. Smith intentionally took a middle path: the most scholarly discussions are moved to the footnotes, but the overall discussion is still meant to contribute to higher-level debates. Anyone who has had a year or more of college education should be able to hang with Smith’s arguments, and his writing style continually emphasizes key points.

This book has been very influential for me, and it’s shaping the way I view my role as a Christian, as a parent, as a church member, and as an educator. I would say this is one of the most important books I’ve read in a long time. Give it a shot.

 

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...