The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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The Liturgy of our World

PrintAccording 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

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7 thoughts on “The Liturgy of our World

  1. thanks for posting this, sounds like a good read.

  2. Well done, Sarah! I understand your point now. Now I want to learn what a church is supposed to look like. My question, though, is how can a church look and be different when all the leaders are molded by the secular culture and universities? We bring our learned values or liturgies into church with us.

    • Thanks Mom! I’m thinking reading the book helped :). That’s a great question. I’d say two things in response. 1. I think we have to distinguish between how we model the kingdom come now and the kingdom come itself. This will be better articulated when I post again but it’s important to note that although the Church is meant to form us towards the kingdom come, it is also a place where sinners meet. That’s why God’s redemption is important. Our worship will never be perfect and our idea of the kingdom come might not be either, but we come in confession and in assurance of Christ’s forgiveness. 2. Smith would say that this is why it’s important to use the liturgies that have been created and shaped over the history of the church. Our own culture and families mold and shape each of us and we bring that to the table. It was no different in the early church – they too were shaped by their own culture. Thus, the liturgies of either culture will be shaped by that culture. We can see that plainly today. The liturgies of many of our churches today involve concert style worship using songs written within our time. There has been no time for discussion or critique of these songs to see if they align with what we believe. That’s why using liturgies that have been developed over the centuries, over the course of many cultures, is important. They have been discussed and critiqued and shaped with the help of many great theologians over the course of many time periods and cultures.

  3. So, getting to the practical, if “…our desires are formed not primarily from knowledge and intellect but rather from daily practices…”

    What should our daily practices be? I mean, I feel like I don’t have time for more than taking care of ourselves (showering, eating, working, spending time with family, reading, paying the bills, trying to make your lawn not be the worst looking lawn on the block, and puttering around on the computer commenting on your sister’s blog post). What should we be doing different?

    • Forgot a “)” So sorry.

    • Hey Ben,

      Good question, unfortunately Jamie Smith doesn’t delve too much into what the “home” should look like (at least not as far as I can find). He does, however, give practical advise on what the church and christian university should look like. I’ll be addressing those in upcoming posts. I think we can probably take his advice about the university and apply it on a smaller level to the home, though it’d be beneficial if he addressed it specifically.

      That being said, Smith’s idea isn’t to over burden the family with practices, I don’t think. Rather, he wants us to be critical of the formative habits we have in the home. So for instance, Smith is not really concerned about the habit of brushing your teeth, it’s a very minor practice that isn’t all that formative. However, there are habits that are formative and play a role in shaping our identity. I’ll quote Smith to give some examples: “Here’s where we would often locate religious habits and practices: going to Sunday worship, engaging in daily prayer, meeting with others for support and encouragement. But they might also include other kinds of habits and practices: for instance, if I regularly ride public transit, that might be habit that not only says something significant about me, but also is a practice that could be regularly formative (or transformative) for me.” He goes on to talk about how the end goal of the habit is important. For instance, I might exercise “because I ‘want to look good naked,’. . .and I want that because being a hedonistic playboy is a central, meaningful aspect of who I am. . . . On the other hand, I might engage in regular exercise because I want to stay healthy so that I can enjoy myself, see my children grow, spend many years of friendship with my wife, and so on.” The question we should ask of every habit we practice is this: “Just what kind of person is this habit or practice trying to produce, and to what end is such a practice aimed?” (Quotes from Desiring the Kingdom, 82-83).

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