It has been fun to teach a couple of sections of Practical Theology this semester. Often in the church we practice faith without a whole lot of theological reflection or we do theological reflection without figuring out what impact that theology has on day-to-day Christian living. So it has been fun to mess with students a little bit and get them to reflect on how good theology gets put into practice.
The class just finished reading together a great book - Desiring the Kingdom: Worshp, Worldview, and Cultural Formation - by James K. A. (Jamie) Smith.
In the book Jamie is concerned about Christian education - really Christian formation - and how that formation takes place in both the academy and the church. He argues that much of education (in both the school and parish) has moved away from the idea of formation to the distribution of information. It is not surprising in that shift that there is often a focus on the development of a "Christian worldview" in students and disciples.
The problem, argues Jamie, is that the rhetoric of a Christian worldview is connected to information and thus becomes centered in thinking differently about the world. Smith believes this tendency to focus on the rational aspects of the gospel radically misunderstands the nature of how we are formed as humans. Although thinking and rationality is an important quality of humanness, Jamie proposes that we are not so much homo sapien (man/woman the thinker) but homo liturgicus (man/woman the worshiper or the desirer). In other words, human action is not oriented toward our thoughts as much as it is oriented toward what we love. Our lives are always pointed or oriented toward our ultimate loves and those loves or desires are formed in us through habits and practices that shape those desires.
"Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it's a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly - who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love. We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship - through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine" (p. 32-33).
To say that ultimately we are what we love is an incredibly profound idea. But central to the thesis is the idea that our loves or desires are formed through practices and habits - both intentionally and unintentionally. Jamie spends a good deal of time pointing out how most social and cultural practices are not value-neutral but carry within them pictures, ideas, and visions of the good life.
The students' favorite section of the book was when Jamie analyzes what he calls the liturgies of the mall, of nationalism, and of higher education. I think his description of an alien athropologist's analysis of the mall as a place of worship is incredibly profound and worth the price of the book alone. Smith does an amazing job of helping the reader think critically (and apocalyptically) about how our desires are shaped by practices that are very different from the kingdom of God.
I couldn't help as I read the book to think about Kierkegaard's story of the town of ducks that waddle everywhere they go. Each day they waddle to and from the store, the school, places of work, and home. But every Sunday they waddle to the duck church, sit in the duck pews, and hear a sermon from the duck pastor. Each Sabbath the duck preacher proclaims from the duck bible about God's gift of wings. The preacher passionately orates how ducks have been given wings so that they can fly above the earth and see things from a different and untethered perspective. As the sermon about wings flows on the congregation of ducks get blessed and quack their "amens" loudly. But when the sermon is over they simply stand up and waddle home.
The point being that if the church (and the Chrsitian college) tries to do formation through information then congregations and students may give their mental ascent - and might even quack an "amen" - to the ideas about the kingdom of God, but having been formed in their bodies by habits and visions of the good life informed by the market or the nation, they (we) will simply go back to the actions framed by desires formed in the practices of the culture. (We will quack "amen" to the kingdom, but waddle home to the empire).
What is required therefore is a church and academy that recognizes how to create counter-practices that shape in worshipers and students the desire for the kingdom of God.
So my favorite section of the book is Jamie's description of the various practices of worship and how they can become counter-formative in the lives of believers. I especially like his description of what a Christian university should look like. (Although I find it troubling how little local churches and Christian universities actually look like his description).
One of Jamie's gifts is his ability to interact with film, literature, and popular culture. Not only are the frequent illustrations in the book helpful for the reader but they also help form us into people able to exegete the culture and the way that it shapes us toward and away from the desires of the kingdom.
I think this is a book every pastor and Christian college professor or administrator should read. And not just because I am referenced in a footnote on page 91. Although that doesn't hurt.