Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Worship Reshaping Desire

It was published only six years ago, but still I am late to the discussion of James K. A. Smith, Desiringthe Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. I started the book with eagerness a year or so ago, but only just now read it as part of the syllabus for a seminar I am in this summer. Nothing like a firm deadline, externally imposed, to focus my reading!

I wish I had read it when it came out. It may not have made a difference in the direction my vocation has taken, but it would have helped me be more articulate as I tried to express my values for gathered worship in the life of the church. Still, I really do believe that the Spirit directs even the timing of the things I read, and I am almost certainly more ready now to track Smith’s thesis.

Desiring the Kingdom was written primarily for students and faculty in Christian higher education. Given that, it is surprising that the shortest chapter, and the least “instructive” (in a way) is the last one, “A Christian University is for Lovers: The Education of Desire.” The discussion yesterday in a seminar of new faculty at Trinity International University agreed that—my words here—there wasn’t the expected payoff for the long set-up to that chapter.

On the other hand, I found this to be a compelling cultural analysis with many implications for (and explications of) gathered worship. I am adding this to all my required reading lists regarding worship.

Because I will fall short of a good prĂ©cis of Smith’s work, I am only going to try to summarize the implications for how I think about worship. I may misunderstand, I may misrepresent Smith’s argument. If you take issue, take issue with me . . . or better yet, read Desiring the Kingdom and think it through.

1. Smith argues that before we are thinkers or believers, we are lovers. Before we think or believe, we desire. He does not deny the value, the importance, of belief and thought; he adds desire to them—as prior among the three.
a. Thus, when we educate (in any form) with the aim of shaping Christians, we will fall short if we address understanding and faith without addressing the fundamental desire(s) that we build our lives around.
b. And, if I want to know what I really believe, I should examine my desires.

2. Desire, by the way, is short-hand for the vision of the best life, for ideal human flourishing. For the Christian, that is meant to be the kingdom of God.

3. Our desire, our ideal of human flourishing, is being shaped by what Smith calls “cultural liturgies”—activities and ways of engaging the world, which shape our desires. He offers three examples; I will mention only one: the mall (shorthand for consumer culture). Read yourself for the specifics. Here I simply record some of my observations:
a. Smith describes how desire is shaped by consumer liturgies.
b. It seems to me that what the “church growth movement” [is that still a thing?] does/did (as well as many a church who would not self-describe as “seeker sensitive”) is to say, “hey, that works, let’s do that!”
c. What Smith says is, “Let’s see what desire is being promoted by the mall. Why is the church not addressing a desire for God’s kingdom, and training God’s people for that?” In other words, shouldn’t the church (and, to Smith’s focus, Christian higher education) be re-shaping young peoples’ idea of human flourishing?

4. This is what worship can do, what it is meant to do, and what we must be careful to allow it to do. “Liturgy” does not necessarily mean the forms of worship associated with historical denominations. All Christian traditions have a form of worship, and Smith neatly describes the key components that are generally, in varying ways, part of such disparate expressions as (for example) Anglican, Reformed, and Charismatic churches.
a.  When we tinker with the structure and core content of worship, or change it up at will, we lose the shaping power of liturgy.
b. If we fail to offer an alternative vision of “the Kingdom,” we will (we do) lose people, even those who can articulate orthodox belief.
c. Is this why young people are leaving the evangelical church? (a) Leaving the church altogether because they see no difference in the end offered? (b) Leaving for historical liturgies because there their desires for the Kingdom are consistently fostered?

Well, I only finished reading this a week ago. I am still in process with it. I need to go over my marks and notes, and engage more conversation with it. I am eager to have it read in and for classes, so I can learn from students’ interactions with it.