The Liturgy of our World
According to James K.A. Smith, our desires are formed not primarily from knowledge and intellect but rather from daily practices. We become who we are based upon the habits of our lives. The term “liturgy” as Smith uses it, is not merely concerned with the practices and rituals that take place in the Church. Rather, he is talking about the practices and rituals that take place in the world. Our culture is full of liturgies that move and shape us.
James K.A. Smith introduces several arenas in our society that we are all familiar with but he presents them with a new perspective. In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, he uses two examples in particular: the mall and the university. These are just a couple of the places where we are formed and shaped to be who we are.
Although universities would like us to think that they are primarily a place of learning, Smith shows that this is not the case at all.
“The University’s formative, liturgical power extends well beyond the classroom and the lecture hall; indeed, it might be that the dorms, stadium, and frat houses are even more powerful liturgical sites within the university – shaping students into certain kinds of people, who develop certain loves, bent on certain ends” (Desiring the Kingdom, 115).
What “ends” are being formed within the students?
Smith asks us to consider “Fresher’s Week,” the week of initiation that has very little to do with learning. Older students show the new students what is valued at the university, that is, “carefree social interaction lubricated by alcohol, cult-like devotion to the football team, and the solidification of social networks that will be instrumental and instrumentalized for the sake of personal benefit and gain” (Ibid., 116).
Between dorm life, sports, and fraternities – those practices that occur outside of the classroom – the university is really a place where students are taught to pursue personal pleasure, be passionately committed to the team (football, fraternities), and value learning only when it helps achieve personal prosperity and power. In other words, universities do a very good job at creating people who will survive in the “’real world’ of corporate ladder climbing and white-collar overtime needed in order to secure the cottage, the boat, and the private education for the kids” (Ibid., 117).
One would think this would be a very different story at Christian University. Afterall, parents eagerly send their kids to a Christian university because they believe it is a “safe” place for the their students to learn. However, Smith believes most Christian Universities are just a Jesufied version of the secular university. The practices are essentially the same. The only difference is that education is done through a Christian perspective. The problem with this? The Christian University creates people who look very much the same as the people who have attended a secular university.
“Our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUV’s, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder ‘from a Christian perspective’” (Ibid., 219).
If the practices are the same in the secular and the Christian university, it doesn’t really matter if math and art is being taught from a Christian perspective, the result is still going to be a people who value consumerism as the idea of the good life rather that a life like Christ’s.
Smith also uses the mall as an example of liturgy in our culture that forms and shapes us.
According to Smith, the rituals of the mall form and shape us over time. For instance, the mall tells us a story about ourselves. It tells us we are broken. Each advertising billboard at the mall shows us a glimpse of the good life. The people shown on billboards have it all together. They’re happy and smiling – perhaps because of the things that surround them: the new barbeque for dad or minivan for mom, the lady with the bright smile with straight teeth, and the kid with the newest Nintendo device.
According to Smith, implicit within these billboards that show a family of success and happiness is a “recognition that that’s not me. . . . The insinuation is that there’s something wrong with us, which only exacerbates what we often already feel about ourselves” (Ibid., 96-97).
If the market is subtly telling us what is wrong with us, then it’s liturgies are there to rectify the problem (Ibid., 99). The market of goods and service are there to help us solve our problems and flaws. You lack white teeth? Try these whitening strips! Your wardrobe is old and drab? Buy these new clothes. And yet, even after buying these new items, we still find it doesn’t solve our problem. We return home to our mundane lives and what was once new becomes drab to us so we go back to the marketplace again and again, trying to obtain this picture of the good life.
Culture, whether it be in the university or the mall, is molding and shaping us through it’s practices to desire it’s vision of the good life. Often that plays out to be consumerism, materialism, immediate fulfillment of desires, among other things. However, the good life that we ought to desire is one that is Christ centered.
Secular liturgies cannot be avoided. However, we need to be thinking critically about the liturgies we practice in church and in the christian university because these are the liturgies that are counter cultural. If we want to raise children that desire a Christ shaped kingdom, then we have to be intentional about what church looks like.
Part one: Culture as Liturgy
Part two: Social Media as Liturgy