Culture / Discernment / Pluralistic World

Discerning Cultural Liturgies

In Desiring the Kingdom, philosopher James K. A. Smith says that to be culturally discerning we need to view and respond Christianly to our world in terms of both worldview and liturgy. Worldview analysis identifies cultural ideas, beliefs and values and then examines them in light of the ideas, beliefs and values revealed in the gospel. Liturgical analysis identifies cultural practice—rituals that tend to subtly shape one’s view of human flourishing—and then examines them in terms of what we love most.

Smith asks us to think in a fresh way about going to a shopping mall. We do a bit of shopping, buying a new shirt to replace the one that got torn last week, we check the wedding registry in a store for a possible gift for a niece that is getting married, and then we take in a movie at the theater that is just beyond the food court.

During our time at the mall we will pass by numerous ads that include, implicitly or explicitly, cultural ideas and values. The movie will also include all sorts of ideas and values—some implied by the flow of the story and others explicitly explored in the dialogue and plot. The discerning Christian can identify these ideas and values and can note how they stack up against biblical ideas and values. Perhaps, for example, the movie is a thriller, exciting but one in which the hero claims to be seeking justice but in the end is only really interested in vengeance. Whatever the specifics, this is worldview analysis, and is an exercise of the mind.

Dr. Smith argues, correctly, that this is helpful and important for cultural discernment but it is also insufficient. Human culture doesn’t just express ideas and values; it also contains rituals and practices that work on a deeper, subconscious level, subtly shaping our desires.

I’ve been suggesting that a Christian analysis and critique of culture will be insufficient if it only looks at culture through the lens of the worldview paradigm. I’m inviting us to try on another pair of glasses for looking at culture, considering it through the lens of identity-forming practices, or what we’re now calling liturgy. So the question we bring to culture is not primarily or only, What does this or that institution have to say? Or, What is the message being communicated in this film? Or, What ideas or values are contained in this or that policy? Rather, the questions we should be asking are quite different and will often be aimed at sectors of culture that have hitherto received little attention. We should be asking: What vision of human flourishing is implicit in this or that practice? What does the good life look like as embedded in cultural rituals? What sort of person will I become after being immersed in this or that cultural liturgy? This is a process that we can describe as cultural exegesis. The first question in cultural exegesis is discerning the shape of the kingdom toward which cultural practices and institutions are aimed. If we read through such cultural practices—if we read between the lines, so to speak, and discern their teleological aim—what do we see? What do these practices and institutions envision as the good life? What picture of human flourishing is implicit or “carried” in the practices?…

But then we also need to ask the same question regarding the practices of Christian worship: How do the practices of Christian worship inscribe a desire for the kingdom within us in a way that is more affective than grasping doctrines or beliefs? In what sense does worship precede a worldview? What picture of the kingdom is embedded in Christian liturgy? What vision of the good life is being “automated” in us when we participate in Christian worship? And how does this compare with the visions of human flourishing implicit in other cultural practices?…

I want to give you a heightened awareness of the religious nature of many of the cultural institutions we inhabit that you might not otherwise think of as having anything to do with Christian discipleship. By religious, I mean that they are institutions that command our allegiance, that vie for our passion, and that aim to capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life. They don’t want to just give us entertainment or an education; they want to make us into certain kinds of people. So one of the most important aspects of this theology of culture is first a moment of recognition: recognizing cultural practices and rituals as liturgies. We need to recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people—to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.[pages 89-91]

Imagine again our time at the mall—far more is going on with and in us than the ideas and values in the ads on the walls and the movie we watch. We may not be aware of it most of the time, but our heart is engaged as well as our mind; what we love and consider ultimate in life is being shaped. When our loves and desires are being shaped it tends to occur not by asking us to adopt certain ideas, beliefs and values but more subtly by shaping how we feel about life as we participate in the institutions and practices of our world. We don’t think about the fact that we feel better when we buy something, for example, but because we do feel better at such moments we are over time shaped into becoming better consumers. And later when we are culling what we own we find we have stuff that we don’t really need but that we purchased after a hard week when we were feeling a bit down.

So Dr. Smith argues that though we don’t tend to think about cultural liturgies, we should—and when we do we gain deeper insight into what faithfulness looks like in a broken world. At the mall we are in a space carefully designed for a specific purpose that is defined by a particular view of what it means to flourish as a person. The mall itself gives expression to a cultural understanding of the good life. This touches on our deepest desires, many of which may be unexpressed and that in turn shape what it is we love and feel we need. Think, for example, of the wedding registry we browsed looking for a gift for our niece. On the one hand it’s a very helpful tool—Margie and I received five (5!) clocks at our wedding 51 years ago and so had to return four of them. On the other hand, is it not true that the registry’s very existence suggests that things, stuff are essential to the good life? Is it not seductively easy to register for things we don’t need but simply want because owning them makes us feel better about ourselves? The point here is not to refuse using wedding registries—they provide a good and helpful service—but to realize they also are a form of cultural liturgy that touches on the desires of the heart, and so are a proper focus for Christian discernment.

What Dr. Smith is proposing here is a somewhat radical notion. Most of us don’t think of liturgy outside a specifically religious or church setting. Liturgies occur or are used in services of worship. Even non-liturgical churches tend to follow orders of service that are repeated each week, and though which aren’t considered sacrosanct would cause discomfort, if not uproar if some Sunday they were replaced with something new. Smith is saying this is too narrow a view. Yes, liturgies are found in church, but they can also be found in other cultural institutions.

Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall—the liturgies of mall and market—that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos, or goal, of our own desires and actions. That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. These quasi-liturgies effect an education of desire, a pedagogy of the heart…

The core claim of this book is that liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects. In short, every liturgy constitutes a pedagogy that teaches us, in all sorts of precognitive ways, to be a certain kind of person. Hence every liturgy is an education, and embedded in every liturgy is an implicit worldview or “understanding” of the world. And by this I don’t mean that implanted in the liturgies are all kind of ideas to be culled from them; rather, implicit in them is an understanding of the world that is pretheoretical, that is on a different register than ideas. That is why the education of desire requires a project that aims below the head; it requires the pedagogical formation of our imagination, which, we might say, lies closer to our gut [or heart] (kardia) than our head. [pages 25-26]

Smith is arguing for the cumulative effect of cultural liturgies. He is not suggesting that a visit to the mall to buy a shirt will transform our heart and change our deepest desires. He is suggesting that going to the mall is a secular liturgy—a repeated practice or ritual that takes us into a space that is designed around a specific view of the good life and that functions in a way designed to draw us into a pursuit of that life by desiring it. We don’t need to be aware of it for it to be effective, and in fact, it works most powerfully when we remain unaware of how our desires are being subtly shaped by our surroundings.

Once we start looking for rituals in culture it’s easy to spot them. I have several friends who love going to trendy bars for carefully crafted cocktails. They do it for the fellowship with friends, not to get drunk. Mixing the cocktails is an elaborate ritual performed by a professional that uses utensils set aside exclusively for this special use. The ritual, an expression of practiced repetition and creativity, along with the shared beverage causes them to enjoy the evening together in a fresh way. That’s not simply from the expected buzz from the alcohol—even alcohol-free cocktails mixed for pregnant or non-drinking friends take on a similar significance. Somehow an ordinary time together is made to feel a bit extraordinary, meaningful and special. Pointing this out doesn’t make the experience bad or questionable—it’s just that human beings cannot live without rituals and liturgies, and so they will be found within their shared culture.

Smith relates this to Charles Taylor’s notion of social imaginary that he proposed in A Secular Age (2007). By that he meant the image people have about life and reality before they even begin thinking much about it. It’s the way ordinary people imagine things to be, and is formed not by being convinced of certain philosophical or theological concepts and arguments but is rather absorbed from stories, images and experiences. As people mature, they may develop reasons and arguments for what they assume life is about, but that comes later. As they grow up indwelling various cultural liturgies, their desires are shaped and a way of imagining life is formed.

Smith is pointing out that people are not just thinking beings; we are worshipping beings. Even secularists who reject both organized religion and belief in the supernatural hold to some notion of the good life. They imagine what it means to flourish as a person and have some idea of the ultimate nature of reality. And though they may resist the notion that this brings them solidly into the realm of religion—especially since our culture adheres to the dubious notion of being None—that is exactly what has transpired. The difference between the secularist and me as a Christian is merely that we provide very different definitions of the good life, of reality, and of human flourishing. We desire different things and our deepest love is directed to very different ends.

One practical step that can help in this process is to spend more time at the mall. This is not a joke—I mean it. To go to the mall, not to shop or to consume, but to walk and sit, look and feel, observe and sense how we feel, what we imagine, what is made attractive and desirable. And when we do go to shop, to slow ourselves down enough to become more aware of what we are participating in so we get a better sense of the liturgy involved.

And of course, cultural liturgies are not just limited to the mall. Places like political rallies, museums and galleries, concert halls, the Internet, coffee shops, sports venues, discussion groups—all the places we inhabit that, unbeknownst to us help to shape our desires about the good life.

We should be certain we are part of a church that takes it’s liturgy seriously, intentionally shaping our deepest desires and loves with the gospel of Christ. And I recommend you read  and discuss Desiring the Kingdom.

So, living in a fallen world means we should expect that the cultural liturgies in which we participate will not necessarily deepen our love of God. There is no conspiracy here—this is the way things are and will remain until the king returns to consummate his kingdom.

The point is not to be fearful living in such a world, but to be discerning, so we can be faithful, and so that our deepest desire, our most profound love is Christ, and Christ alone.

Source: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic; 2009).

Photo by Neisan Massarrat on Unsplash