Tag Archives: james k.a. smith

Disruptive Witness: a review

Alan Noble is one of the founders of Christ and Pop Culture; a few years ago I decided to throw some dollars at a subscription to Christ and Pop Culture because I think good content is worth paying money for, and I wanted to support the approach he, and the stable of writers who produce content for the site, take to cultural artefacts. I made this decision without knowing that it came with a new digital community — access to a forum where nuanced discussions are celebrated and disagreement is predominantly civil. I’ve been part of this online community since, and have benefited from the wisdom of the community but also from the first hand insight it has provided to the growing platforms of its founders, and contributors, particularly Alan. His voice during the Trump election was profound (especially this piece), and I still think this piece on lust and a theology of beauty is exceptionally pastorally helpful (I link to it often).

His book Disruptive Witness has been on my ‘must read’ list for a very long time; its seemingly endless ‘pre-release’ whet my appetite back when he published this piece on the ‘disruptive witness of art‘ last year; long time readers will know I’ve played a little bit with the idea of ‘disruption’ off the back of Paul’s appearance in Ephesus in Acts 19 — where Paul causes a ‘great disturbance’ to the idol-worshipping status quo by hollowing out the value of the idol market; I’ve suggested a Christian ‘political theology’ should be built around the idea of challenging and disturbing ‘beastly’ idolatrous regimes (mostly just channeling Brian Walsh’s Subversive Christianity). The Gospel should disturb and disrupt. It should invert and ‘crucify’ our sinful, power-hungry, self interested, defaults both individually and corporately. The challenge for us as we seek to ‘disrupt’ the world we live in is that we face the twin obstacles of ‘the secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’; Alan’s book brings together these diagnoses and proposes a series of solutions — practices — for Christians as individuals, the church, and in culture.

Disruptive Witness applies James K.A Smith’s vision of Christian formation (from his Cultural Liturgies trilogy) to Noble’s diagnosis of the present age; which is Charles Taylor’s ‘secular age’ diagnosis paired with Noble’s articulation of what one might call ‘the age of distraction’. The particular elements of Taylor’s work that he draws on, beyond the ‘immanent frame’ we now live in where belief in the supernatural is contested more than in previous ages and the ‘buffered self’ that comes with it (where we view ourselves as individuals cut off from some transcendent source of meaning or being), are Taylor’s insights about where that leaves us individuals in a quest for meaning and identity (unpacked more in his less cited work Sources of the Self). If we no longer find meaning external to ourselves we start seeking meaning from within (think every recent Disney movie). We’re left constructing our identity not from a relationship with a creator, or with the supernatural, but with the various ‘immanent’ things we adopt and cling to — we turn to the marketplace of ideas to define ourselves authentically. As Noble says (summarising Taylor):

“So the quest for authenticity has become a central narrative of the contemporary West. To be fully human, we must discover who we are, actualize our identity, express ourselves, be true to ourselves, and so on.”

Noble’s challenge is for those of us who find our identity in Christ, and so through a connection to the transcendent, to think carefully about how we live and act in our witness to this reality so that we aren’t presenting Christianity as one ‘market’ solution; one ‘identity’ option amongst the smorgasbord of other options on the table (especially the digital table). He identifies several challenges in the digital age — our inability to escape distraction prime among them; I read this book on my kindle while driving through outback Australia — even with very sporadic connectivity I still found myself habitually opening my phone to look for a signal, and being drawn away from concentrating on the book and these thoughts at every available opportunity. His diagnosis was convicting and clear; and his synthesis of the ‘secular age’ and the ‘age of distraction’ is worth meditating on, especially when it comes to how it shapes our life and witness.

The challenge of identities that are shaped by the pursuit of some internal desire — where those desires shift as we change circumstances and as the objects of our desire disappoint or enslave — in an age of distraction — is that we don’t give ourselves the time and space to put down deep roots when it comes to identity and conviction. We don’t make space for ‘slow, careful, introspection’ of the sort required for deep transformation. Our practices mitigate against that. Or, as Noble says:

“The habits we adopt form our desires, which drive our beliefs. When those habits form desires for immediacy, superficiality, continual engagement, and instant gratification, we should expect our beliefs to reflect these desires. The content of our beliefs will be formed by our habits, but so will the nature of our beliefs.”

Briefly, as a ‘distraction’ from the main thrust of this review, and simply because I loved this part of the book so much I couldn’t let it go unrecognised — the implications of contested, fragmented, and distracted identity formation, namely that most individuals live out or ‘perform’ inherently contradictory ‘identities’ for a ‘worldview’ approach of reducing people to a certain sort of outlook on the world are worth considering. Noble suggests ‘worldview’ approaches don’t grapple with reality as experienced by individuals (as Jamie Smith suggests they don’t grapple with the way people are shaped/formed — more by love and practices rather than by deliberate ‘intellectual’ conviction).

“I contend that in practice worldview studies lack explanatory power and often misinterpret people. This is increasingly true today when the fundamental contestedness of all belief and the tendency toward thin belief have conspired to incline us to form eclectic mixes of belief, something we are often quite proud of because it separates us as individuals: I may take a bit of Marxist economics, a conservative view on family and sex and virtues, a modern empirical view of the natural world, a view of nature as raw material for human use, libertarian politics (except on economics), and then undergird it all with a Reformed faith. Would such a worldview be coherent?”

He calls for a pattern of living that doesn’t add more noise to the noisy world, but instead acts as a disruptive signal that pulls people from distraction for long enough to invite them to look beyond the buffered default. Where his diagnosis bites hard; and the platform from which he builds the second half of the book, comes when he turns his gaze to how churches have adopted the rules of the age without thinking about how the mediums shape our message.

“Even evangelicals who spurn seeker-friendly church outreach and “relevant” evangelism heed Paul’s example of being “all things to all people” in other ways (1 Corinthians 9:22), and in a culture of sound bites, viral videos, and hashtags, this regularly involves adopting the media-rich practices that so deeply shape our culture. But in developing our own viral images and mobile apps to reach connected readers, we risk contributing to the clutter and distraction of modern life rather than helping to lift our neighbours out of it. Even more concerning, by adopting these ephemeral cultural expressions, we may signal to our neighbours that Christianity is merely another consumer preference in the endless sea of preferences we use to define ourselves as individuals.”

As I read that particular paragraph I was able to put words to something I’d been thinking as I’ve explored what a Christian aesthetic might look like recently; if we take 1 Corinthians 9 as a call to imitate culture in order to be all things to all people, rather than to understand the culture such that we appropriately incarnate the message of Jesus in the culture, the danger isn’t just what Noble identifies here, but that we’re trapped in a mode of always being a derivative ‘poorer cousin’ rather than shaping the culture we have embedded in by innovating (and this is the problem most of us intuitively recognise with contemporary Christian music). 1 Corinthians 9 is one of the most formative passages in how I understand the role of the church; but somehow it always ends up looking like being five years behind the culture stylistically, a lack of critical media-literacy when it comes to how the medium is the message, and very rarely like Paul’s application of his own principles in the book of Acts — where he engages with poets and philosophers in speaking to the Areaopagus, but doesn’t make little silver statues of Jesus when disrupting Ephesus and its media practices.

While I’m more inclined to quote Marshall McLuhan than his student Neil Postman, Postman’s essay Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change is worth considering at this point, in support of the thesis of Disruptive Witness. Here are his five things:

“First, that we always pay a price for technology; the greater the technology, the greater the price.

Second, that there are always winners and losers, and that the winners always try to persuade the losers that they are really winners.

Third, that there is embedded in every great technology an epistemological, political or social prejudice. Sometimes that bias is greatly to our advantage. Sometimes it is not. The printing press annihilated the oral tradition; telegraphy annihilated space; television has humiliated the word; the computer, perhaps, will degrade community life. And so on.

Fourth, technological change is not additive; it is ecological, which means, it changes everything and is, therefore, too important to be left entirely in the hands of Bill Gates.

And fifth, technology tends to become mythic; that is, perceived as part of the natural order of things, and therefore tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.”

If we uncritically adopt technological or media practices without paying heed to these impacts then we’re in danger of losing control of our communication to the technological mediums we adopt; and having the ‘myth’ at the heart of that technology obliterate what it is we are seeking to communicate. We’re more likely to be co-opted by the world than disruptive. Postman also sounds this warning as he unpacks that fifth point:

“Our enthusiasm for technology can turn into a form of idolatry and our belief in its beneficence can be a false absolute. The best way to view technology is as a strange intruder, to remember that technology is not part of God’s plan but a product of human creativity and hubris, and that its capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does for us and to us.”

Noble frames the warning this way, alongside this challenge:

“…the church is often tempted to look at popular communication in culture and mimic it with a Christian message. And while mimicking the methods of communication in wider culture can sometimes be valuable, it can also unintentionally signal to readers that Christianity is just like all these other ideas. The challenge for Christians in our time is to speak of the gospel in a way that unsettles listeners, that conveys the transcendence of God, that provokes contemplation and reflection, and that reveals the stark givenness of reality.”

Resisting this effect and taking up this challenge is at the heart of Disruptive Witness; the book offers strategies and practices for resistance so that we can instead be shaped by the Gospel in order to bear witness to it not as one ‘identity’ to adopt amongst or in competition with others; but as an identity we are adopted into by God as he works in us by the Spirit through our union with Jesus.

“The gospel is not a preference. It’s not another piece of flair we add to our vest. It’s something far more beautiful and disturbing. The gospel is the power to raise the dead, to proclaim the greatness of God in a fallen and confused world. To be a follower of Christ in the early twenty-first century requires a way of being in the world that resists being sucked into the numbing glare of undifferentiated preferences we choose from to define our identity.”

Noble turns from diagnosis to prescribing treatments in the second half of the work; it’s here that he puts down Taylor and picks up Jamie Smith as a conversation partner. The second section of the book is divided between ‘disruptive personal habits,’ ‘disruptive church practices,’ and ‘disruptive cultural participation.’

“On the personal level, we need to cultivate habits of contemplation and presence that help us accept the wonder and grandeur of existence and examine our assumptions about meaning and transcendence. At the level of the church, we must abandon practices adopted from the secular marketplace that trivialise our faith, and instead return to traditional church practices that encourage contemplation and awe before a transcendent God. Finally, in our cultural participation, we can reveal the cross pressures of the secular age and create space for conversations about the kind of anxieties and delights that we repress in order to move through adulthood.”

On the personal front, Noble recommends adopting particular spiritual disciplines that push back against a hyper-connected age (and Mike Cosper’s Recapturing Wonder makes a really nice companion piece for this section) — while recommendations around keeping a sabbath and deliberately saying (and meaning) grace before a meal (especially in public) are refreshingly framed around formation for our good rather than legalism, the habit that really ‘sang’ for me was the development of an aesthetic life and the practice of what Noble calls ‘the double movement’.

“Simply put, the double movement is the practice of first acknowledging goodness, beauty, and blessing wherever we encounter them in life, and then turning that goodness outward to glorify God and love our neighbour. Such a practice challenges the secular assumption of a closed, materialist universe. It shifts our focus away from expressing our identity and toward glorifying God, and it lifts our attention to a telos beyond ourselves and our immediate entertainment.”

This is simply an attempt to habituate Paul’s statement about creation in 1 Timothy 4 (“everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer”). Noble gives several examples of how this ‘double movement’ might come into play (including one articulated in his piece on lust linked above); but at the heart of the ‘double movement’ and personal disruption is the development of a properly-ordered appreciation of beauty; particularly to see the ‘allusive’ quality of beauty in this world — that it always points to something beyond itself (think C.S Lewis’ The Weight of Glory). Where Noble goes with ‘allusiveness’ and aesthetics is the reason this book will be on the list of books I work through with people for years to come; alongside Smith’s You Are What You Love.  

A couple of years ago I interviewed Smith for Eternity News about You Are What You Love — which is a great summary volume of his bigger trilogy — and there are a couple of things he said in that interview that are useful in unpacking some of the implications of Disruptive Witness, and form some of my critique of both Smith and Noble’s work (though to be clear, there’s much more that I affirm). Here’s a nice summary of Smith’s framework, that is something like the backbone of what Disruptive Witness suggests as a model for our life together as Christians.

“In You Are What You Love, I suggest that the forms of Christianity that will most effectively tap into and speak to people’s enduring hunger for the sacred will be forms of what we might call “ancient” or enchanted Christianity – sacramental Christianity that is tactile, embodied, material, “catholic” (though not necessarily “Roman”). That’s why I suggest that the future of Christianity is ancient. And too much “contemporary” Christianity doesn’t realise how much it has accepted the terms of disenchantment.”

Smith, like Noble, sees the arts as an avenue for Christians to avoid being formed by the secular age and its rival ‘liturgies’ (like a liturgy of technological distraction), and the best bits of Disruptive Witness are the bits that go beyond Smith’s thinking here, or that unpack it to the point of supplying and suggesting practices that might form part of a disruptive ‘liturgy’ (when Smith and Noble talk ‘liturgy’ they mean habits oriented towards a certain sort of formation of people, shaped by a vision of the ‘good’ or ‘full’ human life — so how we live together as the church is always liturgical, but so too is how a shopping centre or social media platform is set up to shape us in particular ways). Here’s Smith again:

“I think the arts are a big piece of this – both visual arts and literature. The arts refuse the kind of flattened, brain-on-a-stick temptation of modernity. Well, at least good art does. There are all kinds of terribly bad art that is horribly didactic and just tries to offer “pretty” modes of transmission for some “message”. And unfortunately a lot of that bad art calls itself “Christian” art.

But good art – art that is allusive, oblique, suggestive, evocative, imaginative, art that traffics in mystery – living with that kind of art can re-enchant the world for us. It can become the wallpaper of our experience; it can be woven into our daily rhythms. The films of Terence Malick, the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, the poetry of Les Murray, the paintings of Mako Fujimura – these are all avenues of enchantment that will help us to resist the disenchantment and commodification of a commercialist, consumeristic culture.”

Note that Smith too centres on ‘art that is allusive’ as part of what might blow us out of the ‘secular age’ paradigm; Noble expands on the aesthetic life and how art might form part of our witness in the ‘disruptive cultural participation’ section of the book too, but before we conclude there, the section on ‘disruptive church practices’ is where my main disagreements lie; and not necessarily for the reasons that might seem obvious upon reading his critique of modern church practices (that sound very much like the practices of my church).

“If the challenge of bearing witness in a distracted, secular age is that buffered people struggle to recognize the distinctiveness of the Christian faith, then our first task is to ensure that we are not inadvertently helping to obscure the gospel by adopting secular ideas that undermine it. I have in mind here everything from church signs to Christian T-shirts to the setup of our church stages and pulpits. As the church has taken more and more of its cues from a secular, market-driven culture, we’ve picked up some bad habits and flawed thinking about branding, marketing, and promotion. We’ve tried to communicate the gospel with cultural tools that are used to promote preferences, not transcendent, exclusive truths. We see the same trends at work in high-production church services that feel more like a concert and TED Talk than a sacred event. High-quality video clips interrupt the sermon. The pastor paces the stage with a headset mic, skillfully weaving facts, stories, and dramatic pauses. The young, fashionably dressed worship band puts on a performance at center stage. The lighting and volume make it clear who the congregation should be paying attention to. Each element of the service alludes to bits of popular culture that draw the audience in. The cumulative effect is to give the impression that the Christian faith is something akin to a good motivational conference.”

Noble unpacks some of these ‘media’ choices to make his point, and while he doesn’t make a blanket statement that anything technological or ‘worldly’ is bad, he does call for some serious discernment about how to balance a desire to be ‘all things to all people’ in our communication, with the danger that our message will lose its distinctive call. It’s a sort of ‘media literacy’ I hope continues to reform the practices of the church, for the reasons he identifies.

“The way we speak, write, and visually depict our faith has a serious effect on the way others conceive of the nature of faith. Words like sin, redemption, guilt, and grace are tied up with the rhetorical shape we give them. And if that shape takes its source from a secular marketplace, we can expect the words to be heard as part of that marketplace.”

My problem is with the solutions he prescribes; and they’re the same problems I have with the same solutions prescribed by Smith. I am all for looking beyond the practices we might adopt from the age we live in — the ‘distracted age’ or the dis-enchanted ‘secular age’ that will see us not being ‘conformed to the patterns of this world,’ but being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I am all for that involving a ‘looking backwards’ to ages that had different pressures and patterns, and to the practices of faithful Christians in those times; but I’m wary of prescriptions that don’t carefully consider how those forms, too, were a product of their own time and place.

There’s a trend in Christian publishing at the moment amongst authors grappling with how to bear witness in a changing landscape to find a solution from some point in church history and to seek to replicate it rather than to be poorly imitating the culture around us; that’s the Benedict Option with its turn to monasticism, and Smith with his return to medieval practices (which came from a time where the ‘backcloth’ of life was not secular but shot through with supernatural meaning — as described in C.S Lewis’ The Discarded Image). Noble isn’t quite so keen to normalise the ‘cathedral’ experience as some of Smith’s writing, but I’m yet to be convinced that the sort of liturgy he outlines pre-dates the Medieval church (there are certainly elements of liturgy of the sort Noble suggests in the descriptions of church gatherings in The First Apology of Justin Martyr. I’m also not sure any traditional liturgy is devoid of certain forms from the age they emerged in. Like monasticism before it, medieval Christianity assumed certain categories, functioned in a particular social and physical location (at the centre of the town square), in a certain sort of architecture (a cruciform building centred on the altar) — the forms of liturgy developed in those cultural ages reflected assumptions no longer true in our age, such that a return to those forms, even if it pushes us beyond our cultural defaults (particularly distracted individualism and the self-centred pursuit of piecemeal ‘authentic’ experiences) might solve some problems without necessarily being the panacea we hope for; if we’re going to look for ‘ages’ to draw practices from, my contention is still that our present experience as Christians will increasingly more closely reflect the experiences of Christians pre-Christendom, whether that’s outside the west, or pre-Constantine. I’m not sure, for example, practices and church services built around available public space will survive and thrive, whereas a return to ‘family’ life like that found in the New Testament church might push back against some of the present cultural concerns. While I’m convinced by Smith (and Noble, and Augustine) that liturgy is important (and indeed inevitable) for formation, I’m also not sure we should be prescriptive and ancient when it comes to shaping a liturgy rather than imaginatively seeking to create disruptive practices within certain parameters, confident in the Spirit transforming us, looking both backwards to the richness of our tradition, sideways to the de-formative practices and assumptions of our present age, and forwards to the new creation while being mindful of things like media ecology and the importance of form. I’m not sure the Medieval Church had it right in terms of disruptive practices, coming as it did before a decline (and before the ‘secular age’), but I’m reasonably confident that the early church radically re-shaped the western world. I’m more inclined to consider practices outlined in something like Acts 2, Justin Martyr’s apology, and the Epistle to Diognetus than other more recent ‘traditions’. While Noble has a quick dig at our modern obsession with personality type understandings of our humanity (including Myers-Briggs), and while I enjoyed that — I can’t help but think that like Smith, he might not avoid prescribing an approach to liturgy shaped by a certain sort of personal preference (something I explored elsewhere).

That critique aside, the section on disruptive cultural participation is my favourite — and is reflected in Noble’s web project Christ and Pop Culture at its best. Part of Noble’s diagnosis of the world we live in is that most people are constructing their sense of ‘fulness’ or the good life through stories. We’re seeking distraction and affirmation in stories. We seek communities that affirm those stories. One of the solutions then, to disrupting people, is to change the story by embracing and challenging the stories in our culture, to see stories as ‘allusive’ opportunities for both a ‘double movement’ on our part, but to invite others to consider that move too — the move from secular ‘immanence’ to connecting with the transcendent God.

“When Christians interpret, critique, and discuss stories with our neighbours, we can model a contemplative approach that promotes self-reflection and honesty, inviting empathy rather than promoting the detached rationalism of the buffered self. We can offer interpretations that affirm and account for our longings for forms of beauty, goodness, order, and love that find their being beyond the immanent frame.”

This comes with an important ‘how-not-to’ as well; something I’ve always loved about the way Christ and Pop Culture deals with art (and why I threw some money their way).

I am not recommending that we participate in stories in order to find allegories for Christ or spiritual truths. This method doesn’t take the world of the story seriously; it treats the story as a prop. Instead, we should consider what the story says about life and explore its truth in relation to our experience… The correct posture for Christians approaching a story is one of humility, charity, and a desire to know.

The way the book explores our presence in and explanation of tragedy both in art-as-story and in life-as-story is a beautiful fleshing out of how ‘disruption’ isn’t always un-settling or disturbing for our neighbours, but instead is the blessing that comes as we embody the story of Jesus in the world for the sake of others — a disruptive witness indeed.

“It is this kind of witness that we are called to bear in the world today—a witness that defies secular expectation and explanation, that unsettles our neighbours from their technological/consumerist stupor, and that gambles everything on the existence and goodness of a transcendent (and immanent!) God, whose sacrificial love for us compels us to love in return.”

,

What might a ‘Christian aesthetic’ look like? And why bother?

Late last year I was listening to the podcast Cultivated (one of my favourites), and about halfway through this episode the panelists started talking about what a ‘Christian aesthetic’ might look like.

“That makes me think of a question that I’ve been thinking about a lot, that I’d love to talk about and explore, is: what would a Christian aesthetic look like, if you go beyond the content level, which is often how we talk about these things, right? Something is Christian if it tells a story from the Bible, or has a Christian theme or message. Protestants are prone to that kind of word/propositional orientation anyway, less than Catholics, who are oriented more towards the visual. What would it look like to think about an aesthetic, a form, that’s ‘Christian’, certainly in architecture there are certain forms or styles that we could point to and say ‘that’s a  ‘Christian’ aesthetic,’ that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity …” — Brett McCracken, Cultivated Podcast

It’s been something of an ‘earworm’ or a ‘brainworm’ for me since, coupled with my love of the idea that when Christians did start building their own buildings, they incorporated the cross into the floor plan, and put the highest point of the ceiling above the intersection, so that the space itself represented the story of the Gospel, and that Jesus death serves as the bridge between earth and heavens, that will ultimately bring heaven to earth. That’s a ‘certain’ sort of form — a provision of a habitat that helps us embody the Christian story from the ground up (though for most of us, who are architecturally illiterate, and textually literate, this sort of thing might be meaningless — greater actual literacy is not a reason to be illiterate when it comes to aesthetic stuff though). I love that idea — while also pondering if the very decision to own public buildings, rather than meeting in homes, was a good move (aesthetically or ‘formally’). I say this having been pastoring a church for four years that has now met in a rented public theatre, an empty ‘box-like’ room, and now a church auditorium with all the modern bells, whistles, screens and lighting — each ‘space’ has shaped the life and experiences of our community and our gatherings in profound ways.

The Cultivated conversation explores questions of form, or a Christian ‘aesthetic’ when it comes to Christians making art, I’m interested in considering what it looks like to ask these forms in our architecture — our use of space both public and private, and social architecture. How we create a ‘stage’ or a habitat where we embody the Gospel story as ‘characters’ and form habits.

One of the ‘modernist’ assumptions that ends up shaping ethics (how we live) is that we are consumers in a machine-like environment, that things have utility, which led to a corresponding rise in utilitarian ethics and pragmatism, and through all this, we Christians in our modernist framework have tended towards making pragmatic rather than aesthetic choices about space (and even art). Here’s a cracking quote from Karen Swallow Prior, from that same Cultivated podcast episode.

“We’ve inherited a lot from the Victorian age and we don’t even realise it. We often don’t even distinguish between Victorianism and Biblical Christianity. And one of them is utilitarianism. And so we have undue emphasis on the idea that things must be useful, that they must have a purpose, in order to be valuable, of course, you know, when we apply that to human lives we know what that results in, but I think that’s part of what makes us uneasy with art, that, you know, as Oscar Wilde said, ‘all art is utterly useless’ right, and what he meant by that is it’s just there to be enjoyed, it doesn’t have to fulfil a purpose, which of course is a sort of a purpose. Modern Christianity is uncomfortable with something that is just there to be enjoyed and take pleasure in… we think we have to be on mission all the time and fulfil some sort of purpose” — Karen Swallow Prior, Cultivated Podcast

Here’s the thing though; art does ‘serve a purpose’ — it is part of the ‘backcloth’ of life, part of the ‘environment’ we live in or the habitat we inhabit, art-as-artefacts are part of what forms a ‘culture’, and so art shapes our seeing of the world both directly as we engage with it, and subtly (by being part of our ‘environment’). And if we bring in my favourite academic discipline — media ecology — and one of its maxims: the medium is the message, then we start to see that forms do inherently communicate something along with content. To keep ‘ecology’ on the table — think about the relationship between the words ‘habitat’ and ‘habit’. If we want to be creatures of habit — those who habitually live out the Christian story because we are formed as characters within God’s story — not our own consumer-driven stories with us as the hero, but as disciples — maybe we should consider our habitats — how we structure and design space, including what it looks and feels like — an application of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ to how and where we meet and live…

I’ve been challenged to re-imagine how we approach church as Aussies who believe the Bible is the word of God, and that the Gospel is the story of Jesus arriving in this world as the king who conquers sin, satan, and death and who launches a kingdom — his people, to live a life, for eternity (but starting now) where these enemies have been destroyed, so that we’re free from their grip, and he is victorious.

I’m struck by how many of our practices as Christians are adopted from a modernist world with modernist assumptions — a couple in particular, that the world is ‘disenchanted’ (thanks Charles Taylor) and that we are simply ‘brains on a stick’ who need logic and facts to make good ‘rational’ decisions (thanks James K.A Smith). I’m simultaneously struck by the way this adoption of a ‘modernist framework’ as ‘the Christian frame’ has us reeling because we now live in a post-modern, post-Christian, environment and our practices aren’t keeping people (humanly speaking) or persuading people, and how much this framework has shaped our understanding of making disciples or Christian formation, and in this post, I’m particularly considering how that approach to formation has de-emphasised embodiment, and so de-emphasised our ‘environment’ and the arts. So that the idea of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ seems a bit wanky — we’ve lost a sense of deliberately Christian architecture or art, whether within the life of the church or in the witness of the church to the world (or both).

“I want there to be a place for evangelistic art, really, really, really good evangelistic art. I want there to be a place for art that has very obvious utility. I don’t have a problem with that. But once you get in the field of the Terence Mallicks, and he’s making a movie about creation, and dinosaurs, and trees and light. You’re asking yourself a really important theological question: How does God perceive light, and sound, and texture, and scent? Because that’s what he’s talking about. Because if we have a theological way to frame God’s care of those things in creation, then Terrence Mallick is a profoundly Christian artist…” — David Taylor, Cultivated Podcast

We reformed evangelicals in reacting against worldly idolatry of beauty (too high a view of creation), and the way we’ve seen that play out in the Catholic Church with its iconography and expensive cathedrals, have tended to over-correct, adopting and almost ‘dis-embodied’ approach to life in the world — so we think less about space, and place, and beauty than other streams of Christianity (including the Pentecostal stream, who have a different ‘frame’ but, perhaps, are more likely to uncritically adopt the forms that are popular in our world).

There’s been a recent pushback against modernity (and post-modernity) by people who realise we’ve been breathing the air for so long that it has become normal — that perhaps, to quote another podcast I’ve listened to quite a bit lately — Mark Sayers in This Cultural Moment — we’ve been colonised by our culture, rather than ‘colonising our culture’ with the Gospel. Sayers argues you should understand the west in three eras — pre-Christian, Christian, and post-Christian; that missionaries have often come from the ‘second culture’ — one shaped by the Gospel into the pre-Christian world (think Africa, or the world the early church operated in), and that the ‘third culture’ — the ‘post-Christian’ culture lives off the fruits of Christianity but ‘wants the kingdom, without the king’ — it has moved on to a new story about what human flourishing looks like.  In episode 2, After discussing Leslie Newbigin’s return from the mission field in India to ‘post-modern’ England, and his realisation that the ground had shifted such that the west is now a post-Christian mission field, not “Christian” or “pre-Christian.” Sayers talks about some of the misfires of the early ‘missional’ church (including his early attempts at a missional church), which adopted secular forms, or aesthetics, to shape the teaching of the content of the Christian story. He said his question was: “how do you do a kind of church that incarnates into the culture of my friends?”

“Gen-X culture was hitting… post-modern culture was hitting… so the question was how do we incarnate into post-modern or Gen-X culture. I planted this congregation. We didn’t have singing. We didn’t have sermons. It was conversation, you know, clips from the Simpsons, we didn’t have a “front”… I was very much influenced by some of the alternative worship stuff that was happening in the UK. It was an attempt to use the cultural forms, it was the framework of missiology, but there was a thing that I missed was that there was an assumption that if you did this and you just did mission, then it would re-energise Christians, it would bring alive their faith, it would bring the church back to its core purpose… the model then of the three cultures is the idea that the third culture is not a ‘pre-Christian culture’… it’s not a return back to culture one, we’re turning to culture three… what it is, is a culture that is defining itself against Christianity, wants some of the fruits of Christianity whether it knows it or not, consciously, and therefore has a corrosive and caustic effect. The science of missiology taught people in Christian culture not to colonise people in culture one, when they’re communicating the Gospel to them, but what I realised was happening was that when I was in culture two incarnating and using cultural forms to speak to culture three, a post-Christian culture, that it was colonising us.”

John Mark Comer, the co-host of This Cultural Moment, sums this up as ‘you go out with the Gospel of Jesus, and instead of influence, you are influenced. Instead of shaping, you are shaped.” You uncritically take on the aesthetics of the world, and they start to shape how you see the world.

James K.A Smith puts it this way, in a series of paragraphs from chapter 3 of his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit:

“In our desire to embed the gospel content into forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we re-tool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar… confident of the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms…” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

He says this ends up with us saying “come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar because we’ve modelled it after the mall”…

“”Forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message… what are embraced as merely fresh forms are in fact practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life.”

“When we believe that worship is about formation, we will begin to appreciate why ‘form’ matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves towards the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the story that is carried in those practices. By the form of worship, I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute the elements of that enacted narrative.”

“Only worship that is oriented by the Biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituation of rival, secular liturgies.” — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

Sayers and Smith are essentially pointing to the same truth, through different (though related) paradigms. If our forms or aesthetics are predominantly derived from the world around us (not that this is always terrible) there is a risk that we will be shaped by the world, rather than the forms or aesthetics that are predominantly derived from our story, and the practices of Jesus and teachings of the New Testament. Both Smith and Sayers/Comer land in the same place — spiritual habits — or ‘disciplines,’ shaped by the Gospel story, which include coming to terms with our embodiment as the key for transformation. Smith, for mine, leans too heavily into the medieval practices that developed as the church moved into ‘institution’

Now. I’ve written quite a bit about where I depart from Smith’s proposed embodiment of these insights (that I love), I think he ultimately picks the medieval, or pre-enlightenment (or Augustinian), church as a particular point in time disconnected from our modernist assumptions so that its practices will be counter-formative… while I think much older (pre-Constantine) practices of the New Testament and early church — forms and practices specifically developed in the Christian story — are both more disconnected from modernism, and from Christendom and its ‘forms’ — such the backdrop is more like ours, and the practices Christians adopted against that backdrop are more likely to be helpfully counter-formative for us. It’s not that everything between then and now is wrong, or that we shouldn’t be progressing in our telling of the story of God working through history to bring about his kingdom, it’s just that I’m not sure the practices produced by Christians when we were in the cultural ascendency are the ones we should pin ourselves to when trying to rehabituate and rehabilitate the church. I’m not sure it’s enough to say our post-Christian inclination to adopt the forms of our culture wasn’t at the heart of the church when it built cathedrals that looked a lot like castles (Solomon had a similar issue here); even though I’m prepared to cede that the medieval church, at times, might have had a less sinister approach to aesthetics and practices than it did when Luther kickstarted the Reformation (using popular forms from outside the church), and Calvin adopted a particular sort of iconoclasm that went far beyond doing away with inappropriate and idolatrous aesthetic practices. Anybody trying to learn from history inevitably goes back into the annals to find some point where they think the church departed from a faithful model, and to find faithful counter-examples; this is inevitably an inexact science built around drawing analogies (see Dreher and the Benedict Option for another example of this phenomenon).

I think we’ve often made the distinction Smith points to between form and content when it comes to the Gospel — being flexible on form and firm on the Gospel as an expression of the sort of ‘contextualisation’ Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 9. And it’s not that we shouldn’t play with expressing the Gospel in different forms — that’s part of being human and forms being cultural expressions — but I do wonder if we’ve been deliberate enough in developing a particularly Christian culture, or forms, or aesthetic that might pair with the Gospel content as we adapt our engagement with a variety of cultures so that our ‘medium’ and ‘message’ work together to disrupt and challenge idolatrous status quos (which are often packaged aesthetically). I wonder if we’ve created a universal flexibility on forms without grappling with the idea that ‘the medium is the message’ — and without critically asking what forms or mediums undermine our preaching and living of the counter-cultural, subversive, aspect of the Gospel.

Social architecture and how the habitat of the home shaped a new habit for the early church

Paul is able to both understand and embody a culture and challenge it in the way he does so — it’s what I think he does in Athens — and to do it in a way that doesn’t challenge the way we Christians operate in our own spaces, where he’s one of the architects (divinely inspired) of a radically different aesthetic, or form. A totally new use of space that is utterly subversive.

Paul’s treatment of eating immediately after he talks about his adaptability in 1 Corinthians 9 is interesting. Eating with people is a ‘form’ now (see anthropologist Mary Douglas’ fascinating essay ‘Deciphering a Meal’) and was a ‘form’ that had a particular meaning in the ancient world in both Jewish and Graeco-Roman culture. There are ancient records from the Roman world observing the dining habits of the Jewish people.

Living in their peculiar exclusiveness, and having neither their food, nor their libations, nor their sacrifices in common with men.” – Philostratus, Life of Apollonius V.33

“They sit apart at meals, they sleep apart…” – Tacitus, Histories 5.5.2

The Jews had a particular practice — not becoming impure by eating with gentiles. This form had a meaning — the Jews saw this as something of an aesthetic practice, a thing that made their eating more beautiful (and this is apart from the dining program aligned with their calendar of festivals).

The Romans had their own forms, or aesthetic, when it came to dining, Pliny the Younger describes a meal around the table of an acquaintance (and again, there’s a certain sort of ‘physical space’ required for this, and an ‘aesthetic’ created by that space, check out the adjectives attached to the content).

“I happened to be dining with a man, though no particular friend of his, whose elegant economy, as he called it, seemed to me a sort of stingy extravagance. The best dishes were in front of himself and a select few, and cheap scraps of food put before the rest of the company… One lot was intended for himself, and for us, another for his lesser friends (all his friends are graded), and the third for his and our freedmen.” — Pliny the Younger, Letters, 2.6

Paul takes that form and, with Jesus, talks about three particular forms — eating at ‘the table of demons’ (1 Corinthians 10:18-21), eating with non-Christians in their homes as an act of love and mission (1 Corinthians 10:27-33), and eating together as the church (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). The act of eating together as a church required a particular sort of space — a home, organised in a particular sort of way that created a form — and this form might be part of a sort of aesthetic framework that transcends time and place.

What he describes in chapter 11 is a new and subversive form of eating; a new aesthetic; where people of different ethnic backgrounds and social class were to meet together around a table as equals, united as one by and in Jesus. This unity was a certain sort of aesthetic. A beautiful, embodied, picture of the Gospel. Part of a Christian aesthetic must grapple with the idea that as ‘images’ we humans are a certain sort of divine art (we are God’s handiwork, ala Ephesians 2). Part of our forms will include the way we inhabit space together. This form of eating together communicated the message — and it still does. What we eat — the content — around that form might change from culture to culture, across time and space (apart from the bread and wine), but the habit of gathering around a table might actually be at the heart of a Christian use of space — our social architecture in our public spaces and our homes. It creates, or assumes, a certain sort of habitat.

Sketching an aesthetic for Christian habitats — homes and church owned buildings

Let me unpack this a bit specifically as it relates to aesthetics and our how our ‘habitats’ shape our habits and our character, and how we might shape our ‘form’ or aesthetic, or architecture, in a way that is both adaptive to different cultures, or ethnicities, while simultaneously challenging where those cultures or ethnicities are affected by sin.

What would happen if we designed our spaces — be it home or church owned buildings — with some attention paid to architecture not just for utility’s sake, but with an eye to how aesthetics at a level not simply of ‘content’ (eg obvious pictures, or the colour of the carpet)  but also of ‘form’ — in such a way that the form helps us inhabit and retell the story of the Bible in such a way that it shapes our habits. We already do a bit of this when it comes to acoustics, and the ability for people to move through various stages of a church gathering in a functional sense (that supports the ‘habituation’ of good things). I was struck by something one of the pastors of the church whose venue we hire said about how deliberately they’ve designed their facility so that the space for the ‘service’ (the auditorium) is the same size as the space for eating and talking together as a community (the cafe area). It’s a great facility with an eye to a certain sort of aesthetic and attention to detail I’m not used to in the Presbyterian scene… but part of me wonders how much artificial lighting, smoke machines, and big speakers form the backbone of a Christian aesthetic (I’m not opposed to the idea that the development of technology is part of humanity’s role in God’s story, see John Dyer’s book From the Garden to the City for a nice balanced account of this). I’m also struck by how a poorly designed house (like ours) in terms of living, kitchen, and dining, space limits our ability to participate in the sort of eating together that happens in the early church; and my dreams about an ideal home or ‘church building’ are concepts with a certain sort of ‘social architecture’ underpinning them.

I’m not naively suggesting that this sort of focus on space or ‘the aesthetic’ will magically transform us — that we’re exclusively products of our environment such that the right habitat will automatically fix our nature; and I’m totally aware of our tendency to idolatry — that our default response to beauty is to objectify it and seek to make it our own — but I feel like instead of cultivating an appropriate approach to beauty, or aesthetics, to counteract our sinful hearts, we’ve uncritically adopted an almost negative view of beauty and baptised that as ‘utilitarian’ and so we’ve treated this as the Christian norm.

Here are some of my early thoughts, or ‘sketches’ about some elements (a certain sort of ‘content’ geared towards the ‘aesthetic’) and ‘forms’ (a certain sort of delivery of that content) that might be part of how we structure our spaces to be both beautiful and formative habitats that orient our habits around the story of the Bible as they act as spaces that help re-tell that story…

  1. Light and life.
    Natural light. I’ve been pondering how often we have church in dark rooms (for the purposes of projection and managing lighting), where there’s something from start to finish in the Christian story about God being ‘light and life’ — and some part of that is him being the creator of light. There’s something to the idea that the introduction of electric lighting has ‘deformed’ us in all sorts of ways (including the way the screens of our smart devices do things to our eyes and brains when, prior to their development, we’d have been sleeping). The use and availability of light shapes our practices. The Gospel is a movement from darkness to light, and we’re not meant to fear it. Do our spaces communicate something else, even if subliminally? Is projection (and lighting) a case of harnessing this good gift from God?
  2. Water.
    There’s something about how there are rivers running through the garden in the beginning, and the end, of the story (and, for instance, in Psalm 23) — and that it’s involved in baptism, that means some sort of refreshing, flowing, presence of life-giving water works nicely in telling the story. Plus, you know, that stuff about Jesus at the well and him being living water…
  3. Trees and fruit.
    The trees in the garden are a picture of God’s provision and hospitality, fruit his initial gift of miraculously sweet, juicy and sustaining produce (both on normal trees and the tree of life), which is also a metaphor for the ‘good’ or ‘flourishing life’ for Christians (think the parable of the sower, the ‘true vine’, the fruit of the Spirit). Tree imagery also features prominently in the design of the fittings for the tabernacle and temple, Ezekiel’s vision of the new creation, and the new creation described in Revelation 21-22. And of course, there’s the tree at the heart of the Christian story — the cross. I’m struck by how churches in the past put lots of emphasis on flowers, and how little I thought of that at the time, but how an experience of stepping in to a sort of ‘oasis’ when you gather with Christians — a space trying to capture something of the gardens at the beginning, middle (Gethsemane) and end of the Christian story might help the idea that we are an alternative kingdom — and this might spill out into a world (an environment) desperately in need of a better picture of relating to the natural world. I love the idea of a massive table laden with fruit being part of our experience of eating together — a recognition that for all our technological processing of food to make it more convenient and desirable (with sugars and fats), we can’t compete with what’s on offer in nature.
  4. Table/feasting.
    God shows hospitality to his first image bearing priestly people — with a garden full of good things to eat, and then Israel, his renewed image bearing priestly people are promised a ‘land flowing with milk and honey’; Israel marks its story with feasting (and fasting), with festivals tied to its life together. Sharing the passover, in particular, was a chance for the retelling of their story of creation/salvation through Egypt — and for Christians that’s the feast that became the first Lord’s Supper. I can’t help but feel we’ve been a bit reductionist and utilitarian with a move to individualised portions handed out during a service, formalising the ‘teaching function’ of the meal to what the priestly-pastor says during the carefully ‘demarcated’ time in our week, rather than this being something to do whenever we eat together. There’s an aesthetic element to the reduction of this practice (or its re-imagination). When Robyn and I have spoken about how we’d redesign our home, particular with hospitality being at the heart of our ministry philosophy, I’ve had this romantic idea of the kitchen and dining room being at the literal centre of our house, in a way that communicates something and also sets our rhythms for family (and guest-as-family) life together. We already have an obscenely big table that doesn’t really fit in the space allocated, but this is tucked in the back corner of the house. If the early church meeting in houses was a deliberate sociological and aesthetic practice — where our group identity and character were shaped by architecture — maybe we should consider how much our church buildings should take the shape of houses rather than auditoriums, concert halls, or whatever other space we uncritically adopt; or if we do start running spaces that look like public meeting halls, how we make them truly public not just big private spaces outside the home for us to use in ways that mirror the use of other private spaces that aren’t homes…
  5. The Cross.
    I do love the idea of the ‘cruciform’ church even as I’m subtly challenging the approach to space that began around the time we Christians moved out of homes and into cathedrals… but something of the ugliness of the cross and the utility it represented for the Roman empire being subverted and made beautiful in Jesus’ death is compelling to me in some way, and something about the reminder that at the heart of all the beauty in the world God chose this ugliness to shame our worldliness and to build something new needs to be at the heart of our theological approach to ‘aesthetics’ — if there’s no sense that the cross has challenged and overturned our appreciation of and use of beauty and creation then we’re trying to run ‘creation’ and ‘redemption’ as two separate poles in our framework rather than grappling with how those poles come together in Jesus’ death and resurrection. I’m not entirely sure what this looks like, but part of our thinking must surely be asking ‘how does this experience of beauty prompt me to sacrifice my desire to grasp hold of beauty for myself by connecting me to its maker and redeemer?’ Maybe it’s that things are sweeter without the fear of death and decay — the promise that ‘all things will be made new’ — and part of an ‘aesthetic’ is the reminder that even the good things we have now are not yet perfected.
  6. Gold.
    This one has been historically controversial because churches have lined themselves with expensive gold while neglecting the poor; but there’s something in the way gold is threaded from being ‘good’ around the garden (Genesis 2:11-12), to plundered from Egypt, to used for the tabernacle, priestly vestments, and the golden calf — then in the gifts laid before Jesus, and prominently featured in the new creation. There’s an aesthetic quality to Gold — an inherent beauty — that explains its value, and there is something to an appropriate not using gold for our own ends but to glorify God that expresses a refusal to try to serve both God and money. I’m not suggesting that our use of ‘gold’ — aesthetically — be at the expense of the poor, or in any way idolatrous; in fact if the poor aren’t being included and welcomed into our ‘richness’ then we’re doing it wrong (and maybe that’s part of the historical issues with the church and wealth). I wonder if somehow it’s more about the way that gold reflects the light than about it being exceptionally valuable, and there are plenty of gold coloured things that aren’t made of gold. I’m also sympathetic to the idea that gold serves as something of a metaphor for the inherent goodness of creation, that can be used to glorify God or idols. I have some thoughts about how this might be approached aesthetically, in both church and home, that doesn’t require much more than a trip to Kmart.
  7. White.
    Part of a tendency towards dark colours in buildings has been a focus on a certain sort of aesthetic, but I wonder how much we’ve balanced light and dark in our approach. There’s a bit to be said for the idea that being ‘clothed in white’ is a bold and stark statement in a world where mess is everywhere, and as much as gold might be part of our aesthetic because of how it reflects and amplifies light, white does this too.

Exactly what ‘forms’ these different elements take could vary greatly, and so my sense is that an approach to the ‘aesthetic’ is descriptive rather than a one size fits all ‘prescriptivity’ — which means the quote from the podcast I opened with, the idea that part of an historic definition of a particularly Christian aesthetic is that people might say “that’s a form that has been created and has always been associated with Christianity” is maybe not where I’m landing with this — and these forms aren’t distinctively Christian, you’ll find them in modern architecture, in Kmart, and in my favourite cafes. The extent that these are elements of a “Christian aesthetic” and not simply ‘beautiful’ is caught up with how the form/content stuff plays out in each place, and our creative intent as we carve out spaces that carry this aesthetic… but to want this to always be explicit is to fall into a certain sort of utilitarianism that kills art. Perhaps the thing that actually does away with the ‘Christian’ part of a ‘Christian aesthetic’ is when these things that are inherently beautiful are co-opted for idolatry or the service of self, not God. Part of a Christian aesthetic is recognising that Christians don’t have exclusive access to knowing what is beautiful in our world; we all innately recognise beauty. The problem with our use of worldly beauty or aesthetics has often been that it’s derivative, that we’ve simply tried to imitate cultural forms common around us, rather than creating our own cultural forms within our cultures built from our story. What we do have is the ability to connect what is true and beautiful to its source, God, and see it as the backcloth to his story — the redemption and renewal of the world in and through Jesus.

,

Why, as a Christian, I’m more worried about STEM than Safe Schools

My kids go to a fantastic kindergarten. It’s play based, and it really means it. It has an incredible playground where kids interacting with each other, and with nature, prompt learning opportunities spontaneously and driven by curiousity. It has toys and costumes designed to encourage learning through role play. It fuels the imagination. It sees education as being about forming inquisitive, curious, lifelong learners but also fostering a sense of community and belonging. I love it. I’m convinced about its pedagogy — and convinced this approach to education should extend well and truly into adulthood.

My oldest daughter is enrolled at the public school in our area that we felt was the closest match to this kindy in terms of ethos (the one that cared least about NAPLAN as far as we could gauge from talking to teachers at school open days). It was ‘play based’ (in a different sense to kindy) in grade 1, but that pedagogical method is rapidly disappearing into the rear view mirror, and the parent groups we’re in online are now filled with people handwringing over the school’s (not great) NAPLAN results…

At the same time there’s a nationwide push for standardisation in our education system, a national curriculum in schools and the national ‘Early Years Learning Framework’ setting standards for kindergarten/pre-school, it aims to ensure “all children experience learning that is engaging and builds success for life.” Which sounds like a terrific aim. Education is really important, but how we approach education as a nation (and as parents) reveals lots about what we value, and from a Christian framework, what we value as a nation reveals what we worship.

Our education systems are formative, they operate with a vision of what a person is, how a person functions, and what good people do, and they use practices to get there. These streams come together (especially the practices) to form ‘pedagogies’ — the ‘methods and practices’ of teaching, pedagogies are oriented to outcomes and matched with ‘curriculums’ (what is taught). ‘Play based’ is a pedagogy, so is ‘ROTE learning’…  The push for education based on Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) is a ‘curriculum’ push. The combination of ‘pedagogy’ and ‘curriculum’ adopted and assessed in a national approach to education reveals how we see the ‘good life’ for our nation’s citizens, but it also profoundly shapes what we value, because, as Christian philosopher James K.A Smith puts it — we become what we love, and what we love is formed by practices and a vision of the good human life, and the combination of ‘practices oriented to a vision’ embedded in a story is the very essence of worship. I went to a lecture he gave on educational practices (within the context of Christian education) a couple of years ago where he said (these are my notes):

“Every pedagogy implicitly assumes an anthropology.

Every philosophy of education/strategy assumes implicitly/tacitly some model of what human beings are, and therefore what learners are.

The university has assumed an anthropology that is a lot newer than we might realize, that is contingent and challengable. Christian teaching and learning should work from a different model.

The water in which higher education swims is largely, now, a German production. The assumptions about what a university should be are post-enlightenment, 18th-19th German education, which became a model exported into the US, UK, and probably Australia. As an enlightenment institution the assumed model of the human person is the “thinking thing” model — the university model assumes humans are primarily brains on a stick. The task of education and the university is the depositing of beliefs into the intellectual recepticles of thinking things in order to equip them for a particular task. You get the prioritizing of the brain that is then wedded to a utilitarian/pragmatic view of what education is for. Universities become credentialing facilities for brains on a stick.”

It’s not just universities. This happens pretty early on — a utilitarian view of education — that we’re being trained for a vocation in our schools, to participate as economic units within a ‘machine’ is what is driving the push for STEM based education in the early years of primary school, right through to university. If education is ‘jobs focused’ not ‘human focused’ we lose, because we shrink our sense of what it means to be human to how a human contributes to and in an economy. This will have implications for decisions about who we value and what ‘humanity’ is (and about, for example, aged care, euthanasia, abortion), there’s a vicious cycle where education assumes an anthropology, and then it works to reinforce that anthropology.

The ‘culture war’ Christians seem to want to fight often tilts at the sexual revolution and how it has taken its place in our schools via Safe Schools, now, I have some reservations about Safe Schools (both in terms of its pedagogy and curriculum), but I am not worried that my kids are going to come home from school able to empathise with any of their peers who have different sexuality or gender stuff going on (I wrote an article about Safe Schools for Eternity News a while back. Read that). Education should form kids and adults who are able to live together with people who are different to them, and part of living together will is listening carefully and seeking understanding. In many ways Safe Schools offers a much better ‘pedagogical’ framework, a much more appropriate ‘practice’ and imagination driven way of forming kids, than the rest of the curriculum, and perhaps in a world that worships sex, that is what makes it more dangerous than other things on the table presently…

But I don’t think sex is the big alternative god of the west, it’s ‘a big god of the west’, certainly, but the sexual revolution still divides both conservatives and progressives, and Christians and the rest of the world. I think the most sinister ‘alternative god of the west’ doesn’t divide anybody. Conservatives and progressives and Christians and non-Christians are all on the same page… and it’s the god behind STEM. The real ‘god’ of the Babylon of the West.

It’s money. It’s Mammon. It’s the anthropology that measures a person by the contribution they make to digging stuff out of the ground, turning it into technology, and selling it to make our lives more comfortable. It’s the ‘jobs of the future’. It’s that which distracts our kids from thinking about the aspects of education previously known as ‘humanities’ and instead, has us thinking about how we don’t just make machines, but become little cogs in an economy built on the back of making machines. What is the difference in STEM’s anthropology between a human and the widgets the human creates that slot into a smaller piece of technology? Not much.

What’s new about this vision of people? That we are cogs in an economic machine designed to produce goods? Not much. It’s precisely how the Egyptians viewed the Hebrews before they were rescued from slavery and became a nation, and it’s what still leads people to enslave other people. You can only make somebody a slave if your view of humanity is on economic terms… our education system, with its emphasis on jobs, and particularly ‘machine like’ jobs isn’t hugely different, the pay and conditions are just better (mostly, at least here in the west).

STEM without humanities (and the arts) is part of the abiding myth of the western world, the catechism (the process of educating up worshippers) associated with this particular god. It’s part of what Brian Walsh called Christians to eject from in his book Subversive Christianity in 1994, when he wrote about the dominant story of the west, a story that hasn’t become less dominant just because we now fixate more on sex… it’s just we don’t see that this narrative captured the imaginations of Christians as well, to our detriment:

This story, this Western cultural myth, proclaims that progress is inevitable, if we only allow human reason freely and scientifically to investigate our world so that we can acquire the technological power to control that world in order to realise the ultimate human good, that is, an abundance of consumer goods and the leisure time in which to consume them.

This myth of progress is engraved in our high-school textbooks, proclaimed in corporate advertising, phallically erected in our downtown bank and corporation towers, propagated in our universities, assumed by our political parties, and portrayed in the situation comedies, dramas, and news broadcasts on the popular media. This myth idolatrously reduces human labour to the efficient exercise of power to produce maximum economic good.

Serving the three gods of scientism, technicism, and economism, our work lives (in both the shop and the office) are subjected to scientific analysis by industrial engineers and a whole army of consultants, to determine the most efficient way to accomplish the task at hand using the best and quickest techniques to attain the highest possible economic good… More foundationally this is the worldview that captivates the imagination of our society…Looking at life with this worldview is as natural as breathing for us. Because, after all, it is in the air everywhere, and the church provides no gas mask.

Why is it that when Safe Schools drops into schools we Christians panic, we jump up and down about the corruption of our children? We reach for the proverbial ‘gas mask’ or pull the eject cord and home school, or withdraw into the Christian bubble… but when there’s a push for a STEM driven national curriculum we’re silent?

I was horrified recently when I heard a new set of early school readers Suzie The Scientist were being produced with a STEM focus so that even literacy could be taught with the goal of checking off the STEM box. ‘School Readers’ have a long history (documented here), and the first ones, instead of being produced to serve an economic agenda, featured:

  • classic stories from English literature
  • adventure stories
  • accounts from British, Australian and Queensland history
  • biographies of significant figures in history
  • traditional fairy tales
  • poems
  • health lessons
  • stories encouraging the development of good character.

Now. I don’t want to pretend to claim that these would’ve been perfect… education has long been a tool for social engineering and the culture wars, but the goals of these readers, included “instilling in pupils a lifelong love of literature” and “encourage virtues such as honesty, obedience, bravery and courage,” there were other educational aims in the mix, but the new

  • provide information about a range of subjects including nature study, early Australian history, significant figures in history
  • encourage children to read and enjoy traditional tales such as Jack and the beanstalk, Cinderella
  • inform children of heroic deeds in short biographical stories including one on Grace Darling

The ‘Suzie the Scientist‘ series, instead:

  • Each book aligns to learning outcome statements (i.e. Descriptors) from the Australian Curriculum: Science
  • Unlike other science-based home readers, equal emphasis is placed across all four sub-strands (Biological Sciences, Chemical Sciences, Earth and Space Sciences and Physical Sciences) – 6 books for each sub-strand!
  • In addition, all three strands of the Australian Curriculum Science are also addressed – i.e. Science Understanding, Science as a Human Endeavour and Science Inquiry Skills

They are include information to “empower parents to engage children in exploratory conversations about science… linked to classroom learning via the Australian Curriculum: Science” and are built around “consistent sentence structure and use of high frequency words appropriate to each reading level to help children develop fluency, comprehension and vocabulary” introducing “key scientific words introduced for discussion prior to reading and in context within the book to help children extend their reading vocabulary.”

Spot the difference.

Imagine the difference this produces in terms of people of character rather than people of knowledge.

This is why I was so greatly encouraged by the words of the New South Wales Education Minister Rob Stokes this week (quotes from the SMH).

“From government ministers to journalists – from industry CEO’s to senior public servants – people of influence are piling in to denounce the value of philosophy, the arts, and the social sciences – insisting that only by bowing before the altar of STEM will today’s students be adequately equipped to thrive in the 21st century.”

And then:

“Education is not simply about getting a job. Our educational institutions exist primarily to help educate the next generation to build a more just and more engaged society,” Mr Stokes said.

“They exist to provide students with higher-order skills that are flexible and adaptable to a changing world.”

He said the key to a robust 21st century education system was “not the overt preferencing of STEM” but the championing of a true multidisciplinary system.

“Ultimately, STEM seeks to dehumanise education – reducing it to an equation of inputs and outputs. Yet excellence has always been most evident when education is at its most personal.”

Yes and amen. It’s interesting that he uses religious terminology; the ‘altar of STEM’… because STEM is about worship. It’s about claiming the hearts and minds of our children in service of a particular god.

One of my parenting wins this year was watching the Falcon Heavy launch with Xavi. It’s inspired the building of countless Lego rockets. It’s not that I hate science, technology, engineering, or math — it’s that these disciplines and ways of discovering wondrous and true things about the world need to be paired with education, or formation, about what is good for humanity. Who is going to decide what technology it is good or virtuous to develop? Or how it should be deployed? Or what impact that technology might have on our brains and culture? Technology isn’t neutral, when it enters an ecosystem it reshapes it, and it reshapes us, our habitats shape our habits and our habits shape us, which means we need to be pretty thoughtful about what sort of technological changes we introduce. Which means good education in the technological age won’t just focus on the technique — the engineering — but on the telos, to what end we want to develop different types of technology, which ties into the broader question of to what end we humans live for.

Education should absolutely focus on these questions, on what a good citizen of our nation looks like, and what future we are educating towards… but STEM alone can’t save us, unless all that matters is that the Australia of the future is economically prosperous and good at digging stuff up to turn into other more expensive hardware, or at turning our time and effort into software that people want to use. The best STEM work comes from an ability to imagine, and from the curiousity that drives innovation, which requires a pedagogy that is driven by something other than the regurgitation of the status quo in order to answer standardised tests… it requires, as our kindy director says “being able to deal with problems where we don’t know the answer” so that kids start coming up with new solutions now, so that we normalise that experience, not just maintain some status quo.

Our education systems are organised towards a view of what people are, and what a good life looks like. They reinforce both through pedagogy and curriculum. At the moment our pedagogy is driven by the curriculum — by achieving certain outcomes, particularly knowledge in these fields.

What would happen if our education system was built on the anthropology that we become what we love, and with the goal of forming virtuous citizens who have the character and ingenuity capable not just of creating new technology but of assessing what it’s going to do to us?

It’s pretty clear from stories in the news recently about Facebook that there’s a questionable amount of moral philosophy behind the scenes there that has little concern about the impact of social media on neural pathways or mental health, and on what should be done with the data of its products (their view of the people who use the technology)… but I don’t want to single Facebook out, because similar things could be said about just about any (if not all) technological behemoths — the sort of companies crying out for STEM graduates. In Australia we’re increasingly enslaved by the gaming industry; what sort of qualifications are required to build and maintain pokie machines, online gambling, or sports odds?

What in our national curriculum is helping kids identify and avoid parasitic industries that destroy others rather than building them up (and so building our nation)?

What would education look like if we operated with a different anthropology, and so a different pedagogy (and curriculum)?

I have some guesses.

We’d see the STEM-driven curriculum as an ideological danger more compelling than Safe Schools (in part because we as parents are already exemplars of being more bought in to this dangerous system), not a neutral or good thing for our kids.

We’d see kids as more than ‘brains on a stick’ (or mini computers) who need to be aimed at particular careers so that they contribute to our economy, instead we’d aim their hearts towards virtue and the flourishing of themselves and others in more than just economic or material terms… and so we’d see our teachers as something more than programmers or information delivery systems.

We’d have a broader focus in terms of ‘standardisation’ — something more like the classical or liberal arts curriculums of old, but we’d encourage kids to play and explore and learn what they love and what they’re good at more intuitively. We’d have lots more problem based learning where we don’t have pre-conceived answers and where we reward innovation and imagination not just repetition.

We’d celebrate the schools (and kindys) and teachers who get this and we’d champion them and their ideas to grow their reach (and their enrolments). We’d advocate for a better way on P&Cs and other committees, and we’d write to MPs and education ministers (especially when good teaching gets threatened by standardisation or red tape).

We’d be careful about where we enrol our kids, not just to secure the best financial outcome for them job wise, but to be part of providing the best education for their peers.

We’d pay teachers better to be exemplary leaders who emphasise character and who see children both as future citizens and as individuals whose flourishing is best secured not by pumping them into some sausage machine, but by fostering their individual capacity to be curious, to imagine, and to use their gifts and abilities to serve others.

We’d work to free our schools, teachers, and children from slavery to a results driven national curriculum and see the human capital of our graduate-citizens as the product of an education, not test results (we’d have to substantially change our metrics).

We’d take responsibility for educating and forming our kids with the school as partners in that, rather than outsourcing this to schools, and so we’d take a stand against practices that are dumb (like homework).

We’d see that education, or formation, (like virtue) is about habit building and the shaping of loves through a ‘grand story’ not content delivery of disconnected facts.

We’d have teachers who both model and teach that work is a good and rewarding thing not simply because it helps us buy better technology (that we don’t need) but because it helps us build better communities and better homes. We wouldn’t have kids in math lessons asking ‘when will I ever use this’, but have them using math to solve problems or describe interesting reality (like rocket launches, though probably not rocket launchers (though that thing where youth groups used to make potato cannons would make for a good math or physics lesson)).

As Christians we’d be teaching that work is a form of worship, and that the economy isn’t neutral (or naively, that it’s a pure ‘good’), and we’d be valuing, supporting, encouraging, and becoming teachers like this.

We’d pursue real flourishing, which, as Smith put it in his lecture:

Human flourishing is found when we find our flourishing and end in the one who made us and is calling us. To be human is to become creatures whose hearts find rest in the one who has made us and is calling us; finding what you are made for.

The task of a Christian education is to help people find what they are made for.

At present, we wouldn’t necessarily be pulling our kids out of schools where the curriculum is at odds with our beliefs but putting ourselves (and our kids) in and articulating a need for change, and if we did pull our kids out into Christian education institutions it would be because they’re committed to an alternative vision of education for all, not just for enforcing some Christian bubble. What many of our church owned schools currently do, in adopting the national curriculum uncritically and pursuing exclusive excellence on its terms, or in being insular doctrinally-driven schools suspicious about the world won’t really serve anybody. In our homes and churches we’d be helping people not just aim their hearts towards virtue, but towards Jesus, and our own pedagogy wouldn’t be a head-on-stick driven exercise aimed at helping kids know about Jesus, but instead a practice driven, play based, problem solving approach to helping kids live like Jesus and love Jesus.

That’d be a revolution.

The Worship Wars (6): A place for ‘Liturgy’ in our shared liturgies

Flannery O’Connor once told a young friend to “push as hard as the age that pushes against you.” The church is to be a radically alternative people, marked by the love of the triune God in each area of life. — Tish Harrison Wells, Liturgy Of The Ordinary

worship-wars
This is the final (probably) post in this series contemplating what it looks like to see the church as being a worshipping community at war with the ‘gods’ who compete with God for our love and worship. It suggests winning that war is about sharing practices that orient us towards the love of God we find in the Gospel; so that our love for God prevents us loving other gods; both by pushing them from our hearts, and then by occupying them.

In my last post I suggested these practices should be built from Romans 12’s description of worship, and the sort of shared life we find in Acts 2 (and the early church); and that somehow this is perhaps descriptively liturgical rather than prescriptively Liturgical. I’m wanting to take on board much of the recent work of James K.A Smith (in his Cultural Liturgies series), and more recently Tish Harrison Wells in Liturgy Of The Ordinary, without totally swallowing their suggestion that the answer to the worship wars is capital-L ‘liturgy’; the ‘traditional forms’ of the church’s worship (which to me feel like the medieval forms of the church’s worship, or perhaps the forms of the church’s worship detached from the 24/7 rhythms that supported those forms in Acts 2). I think the 24/7 rhythms of the church in Acts 2 were the ‘ethos’ that gave life and plausibility to the ‘liturgy’ of the early Sunday service, not the other way around (but that’s probably a false dichotomy); whereas I feel like Smith and Wells see it the other way; where the Liturgy on a Sunday feeds into the rhythms of the week.

I suggested the picture of the church community who held everything in common and met every day is the sort of ‘worship’ that I see helping win the worship war; that that’s the sort of context in which we can be formed and forged into people who will love God and hate idols. Or love God, and so have our love for the good things he made properly ordered… That picture excites me.

The sort of Liturgical life Smith and Wells invite me to pursue doesn’t.

This is all meant to be about shaping our loves; but I just don’t love that way. This is where I suspect some of my discomfort with Smith and Wells and their push for a liturgical life kicks in. Personally I find the whole liturgy thing a bit boring; it doesn’t mesh with who I am, it doesn’t float my boat or fire my heart, or stoke my imagination. I know it should, and it’s a discipline, and that discipline might actually help me relate to people not like me. But when I read Smith (and to a lesser extent Wells) I love the system of thinking but loathe the application…

But here’s the thing; this vision of the Romans 12/early church picture sounds ideal and refreshing to me; but it sounds like something that would exhaust my introverted wife. If this is how the ‘worship wars’ must be fought, then I’ll be an early casualty; but, if they’ve totally got to be fought on my terms, in a shared life, open home, messy hospitality, constant-presence-in-the-ups-and-downs-of-life, reflecting-the-gospel ‘sacrifice,’ then my wife will be an early casualty; and either way we (our family) lose.

So here’s my thesis…

Worship needs to be all of life in a way that takes me as I am and uses the ‘gift’ I am in my renewed-createdness for the sake of others, in service of the gift-giver.

And part of that means acknowledging that my createdness; and the best of me; looks different to the createdness of others. This means the liturgy will look and feel a little different for all of us; while being geared towards the same ends (the benefit of the body, the demonstration of the Gospel, and the cultivation of our love for Jesus). In pushing for a single ‘form’ of liturgy, Smith advocates a one-size-fits-all for all time liturgy. I think that runs the risk of de-humanising those who don’t love like he loves. Wells is a useful additional voice on this because she’s exploring how Smith’s stuff, and a love for Liturgy, shapes the every day.

I do love the way she does this; she takes the structure of a Liturgical service and reframes everyday activities like making the bed, showering and cleaning your teeth, fighting with your family, losing your keys, being stuck in traffic, drinking tea, and sleeping as things that can teach us our story.I really like the way Wells writes; and the way she breaks down the secular/sacred divide by taking up this ‘worship-is-love-shaped-by-habit’ framework… but often it’s just not corporate enough for little extroverted me. It’s fantastic. I love her stuff on Romans 12 that reflects on how it’s all about embodiment; and I think this is powerful when paired with the plural your in the verse she’s writing about:

I needed to be trained to offer my body as a living sacrifice through my body. We learn how our bodies are sites of worship, not as an abstract idea, but through the practice of worshiping with our bodies. Each day our bodies are aimed toward a particular end, a telos. The way we use our bodies teaches us what our bodies are for. There are plenty of messages in our culture about this. The proliferation of pornography and sexually driven advertising trains us to understand bodies (ours and other people’s) primarily as a means of conquest or pleasure. We are told that our bodies are meant to be used and abused or, on the other hand, that our bodies are meant to be worshiped. If the church does not teach us what our bodies are for, our culture certainly will. If we don’t learn to live the Christian life as embodied beings, worshiping God and stewarding the good gift of our bodies, we will learn a false gospel, an alternative liturgy of the body. Instead of temples of the Holy Spirit, we will come to see our bodies primarily as a tool for meeting our needs and desires. The scandal of misusing our bodies through, for instance, sexual sin is not that God doesn’t want us to enjoy our bodies or our sexuality. Instead, it is that our bodies—sacred objects intended for worship of the living God—can become a place of sacrilege. When we use our bodies to rebel against God or to worship the false gods of sex, youth, or personal autonomy, we are not simply breaking an archaic and arbitrary commandment. We are using a sacred object—in fact, the most sacred object on earth—in a way that denigrates its beautiful and high purpose…

But when we use our bodies for their intended purpose—in gathered worship, raising our hands or singing or kneeling, or, in our average day, sleeping or savoring a meal or jumping or hiking or running or having sex with our spouse or kneeling in prayer or nursing a baby or digging a garden—it is glorious, as glorious as a great cathedral being used just as its architect had dreamt it would be.

This is terrific stuff; I just want to say “yes… and”… and this ‘and’ is part of me trying to articulate where I feel both Smith and Wells sell us a little short in their conclusions about worship (and I want to stress this is perhaps as an extrovert with, as Myers Briggs puts it, an emphasis on ‘intuitive’ processing of the world). It all feels a little bit introspective, or seeing worship predominantly in a vertical ‘God-Me’ frame; where it could be more horizontal and vertical in a ‘God-Us’ frame…

So this stuff about the body from Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 6-10 is great, but Paul’s logic about the body in 1 Corinthians isn’t just that our bodies belong to God; though they do; it’s that via our union with Christ our bodies belong to each other; not in a way that totally does away with bodily autonomy so that I have to give me to anyone who wants me, however they want, but in a way that stops me using my body for idol worship/sexual immorality (and in a way that my body does belong sexually to my spouse and me). This fits with the plural in Romans 12 too…

And here’s an itch I just can’t scratch when it comes to both Wells and Smith; something that just doesn’t sit quite comfortably on my creaturely shoulders; though I’m sure their push for Liturgy and liturgical calendars, and tradition, and imagery, and structure, works for others. But for me — and this is largely ‘personal preference’ and intuitive pushback, I’d really like a book on imagining the kingdom to leave more room for the imagination (while acknowledging that our imaginations will be fired in helpful directions by totally different sorts of stimulus). I feel like Paul is pretty descriptive when it comes to what embodied corporate worship should look like (in both Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12-14); but the jump to big-L Liturgy feels a bit prescriptive to me. There’s lots from You Are What You Love and Liturgy Of The Ordinary that I’ll take on board; some of it because the idea of incorporating the ideas into the rhythms of my life with my family and church seems usefully formative, and some of it precisely because it grates, and in grating, it might push me to a different sort of formation that will be more beneficial to others (especially my family). But not all of it… where Smith seems to give permission for some innovation around his insights about worship, while making the case for most of our ‘rhythms’ to be set Liturgically, I want to say Liturgy might play some part in our worship, but I don’t think I can rely on it in quite the same way he does; and I suspect this is true for a host of people like me. It’s ironic how much what follows is built around ‘I want’… but we’re talking about what it takes to calibrate our hearts in a particular direction, so there’s something intensely personal about this. I want to take the descriptive stuff on corporate worship and ‘formation’ in Romans 12, Colossians 3, and 1 Corinthians 12-14 and play with it using my imagination; not just for my sake, but for the sake of being a rich and diverse community that accommodates people in their difference.

I want worship that feels like it is reinforcing our corporate reality; not just my own relationship with God, but ours; that acknowledges the horizontal as well as the vertical, that isn’t just corporate by virtue of me going to the spiritual gym next to a bunch of other ‘worshippers’ on Liturgical-treadmills (and we can’t escape the corporateness of the sacraments or ‘Liturgy’ anyway), but that is corporate because the essence of worship-as-ritual is corporate. Again, it’s hard to say Smith and Wells don’t want exactly the same thing; there’s always a corporateness to what they write. What I suspect I’m reacting against is an approach to a paradox that doesn’t quite emphasise what I most naturally do… Perhaps because I’m extroverted, though perhaps simply because I lean this way as a corrective to a society that has gone too far in the other direction; I want to emphasise our ‘corporateness’ above our individualness when thinking about worship. I want my practices to be corporate much more than individual. I want ‘noisy time’ not ‘quiet time’… the paradox of our existence is that we’re both individual and individuals-in-relationship.

I’m human; and that necessarily means there’s a corporate element to my creatureliness. I want to do all this stuff she imbues and enchants with sacred, Gospel, truth, but start with the default assumption that I’m a person-in-relationshipsnot a person-then-relationships. I’m a son before I’m even conscious of my existence, a husband in a ‘one-flesh’ relationship by vow and practice, and a father before my kids know it… not to mention a child of God. I’m defined by my relationships as much as by my individuality be that the way my body, mind and soul work, or the products of those pieces of me: my personal narrative, loves, habits, desires and imagination. My relationships shape those things too — whether by nature or nurture. My habits are caught, mostly, and they infect… or they’re things I do with others (things ‘we do’). As I read these great books I feel like they’re telling me to work on getting new habits, and while the solution is corporate it’s about participating in shared capital-L liturgy with others; when the small-l liturgies are where 97% of the week is lived.

That’s where the Acts 2 picture of worship as sharing ‘everything in common’ ‘every day’ has so much power. There is, of course, a corporate element to everything both Smith and Wells talk about, it’s really just a vibe thing; one little example is this epiphany I had as I read Wells talk about thankfulness; thankfulness is a thing we’re encouraged to do in Colossians 3 (amongst other places), and it’s a discipline I’ve been practicing on social media this year. It has been helpful. But it occurred to me that the thankfulness in Colossians 3 is corporate; it’s celebration; it’s thankfulness not just about the good in my life, but ‘rejoicing with those who rejoice’ even if I feel more like mourning.

I’d been scratching this itch for quite a while before I went through this document called ‘personality and type’ with my mentor; he was challenging me to cultivate spiritual disciplines that don’t just fit with my personality type, and gave me a document called Looking at Type and Spirituality that suggests (based on the Myers-Briggs types) that different types of ‘habit’ or different ways of seeing the world will come more naturally to different people. I’m pretty sure the document is one he’s paid for, and is under copyright, but here’s a snapshot of one comparison between two different types… Notice “values well written liturgies or patterns of worship” and “enjoys writing or putting together new processes or patterns of worship”… I’m an “F”… My guess is that Smith and Wells might both be Ss.

screen-shot-2017-01-04-at-11-42-19-pm

I don’t know how much weight to put on Myers-Briggs personality stuff; but what I do know is that people are different, and we get excited about different things, and God created and accommodates those differences (and sin/idolatry works differently for different sorts of people); and what we really need if we’re going to be an Acts 2 type community is not to mandate types of worship that fit our particular personality and experience; but find ways to be a community that is rich because it provides ‘rituals’ that help different people cultivate their love for Jesus.

It’d be a real shame to take this sort of insight and say ‘Liturgical churches will reach S-types while non-Liturgical churches will cater to the N-types”… if everybody worshipped the same, we’d get tired of worshipping with each other; and we wouldn’t be doing the Romans 12 thing of learning to live together as a diverse body.

I know there are quite a few people in our church community who are much more Liturgical than I am and that my wife and children operate differently to me… When it comes to our church community; some enjoy Advent, others love old church architecture, some pray through the Prayer Book, others want our sacraments to be more beautiful. It’s not loving for me to set rhythms that don’t help them love Jesus. And if I choose to be ‘not loving’ then I’m actually not ‘worshipping’ in the Romans 12 sense…  Because worship is ultimately about love it’s also about understanding and listening; first listening to and understanding God, but in turn, because God calls us to sacrificially love others, it’s about listening to and understanding others and how they tick and sacrificing on their terms, not my own. That’s why I’ll heartily endorse Smith and Wells and try to get everyone I can to read their books (especially Liturgy Of The Ordinary and You Are What You Love). They have given me some insight into the value of those practices I am inclined to toss because they do ‘nothing for me’… but because I see the benefit to others, and have perhaps even been convinced of the beauty of some structure (especially by Wells), there are Liturgical practices in those books that I hope to take up. I’ll do so both to push myself beyond my comfort zone, but also in order to love others better so they might love Jesus more (which in turn will shape my love for Jesus). There are also liturgical practices that I hope will shape our community in such a way that it makes loving Jesus more plausible for people who are wired to be like me…

That’s how I live out the truth that I am both ‘me’ and ‘me-in-relationships’ — that my body is God’s, but also belongs to others…

The challenge for those of us who have a hand in shaping the culture and rhythms of church, and family, life is to do it in a way that caters for the other; and that might involve participating in ‘Liturgy’ or ‘ritual’ that doesn’t float your boat, because that, in itself, is an act of sacrificial love for the other, and so, whether you like it or not, it’s worship.

The Worship Wars (5): Fighting to win in a worshipping community

Worship is the arena in which God recalibrates our hearts, reforms our desires, and rehabituates our loves… Worship isn’t just something we do; it is where God does something to us. Worship is the heart of discipleship because it is the gymnasium in which God retrains our hearts. When we realize that worship is also about formation, we will begin to appreciate why form matters. The practices we submit ourselves to in Christian worship are God’s way of rehabituating our loves toward the kingdom, so we need to be intentional about the Story that is carried in those practices. — James K.A Smith, You Are What You Love

worship-wars

It has been a while since the last official post in this series, but there have been two more recent posts that really should make this a seven part series (it’s just that in part 4 I promised one more to tie things up; turns out I was wrong, and this is now the penultimate post because I split it in two).

So here’s a quick re-cap with tl:dr; summaries of each post so far.

  1. Part one argued that the fundamental truth about our humanity is that ‘you are what you worship’ and so suggested that the real worship wars aren’t so much about what style of music or liturgy your church employs on a Sunday, but about the war for our hearts, desires, and imaginations that goes on 24/7. Real worship happens as the habitual/liturgical living out of a story that shapes us by capturing our love so that we sacrifice.
  2. Part two argued that the fights about music in church got one thing right; how we worship really matters. It suggests that one implication of the battle for our worship between God and our idolatrous hearts is that gathering as the church on a Sunday is important, but won’t be enough to win the war.
  3. Part three explored this ‘worship as habits living out a story of the flourishing life’ (thanks James K.A Smith, Augustine, and the Bible) and the power of idolatrous worship by considering pornography use as a form of defective and deadly worship that conscripts the hands, hearts, and imagination such that a person (and culture) is shaped by this ‘shared’ worship.
  4. Part four started to chart a way forward in the worship wars; which involved: a) seeing ourselves as living in a world where lots of things vie for our worship because the evil one loves us to worship idols, b) knowing our enemies, c) seeing that winning the war requires real worship of the real God, d) seeing that attack is the best form of defence; that we beat idols via ‘the expulsive power of a new affection’ and donning the ‘armour of God’ (Ephesians 6) not just by guarding our hearts.
  5. As a bonus I considered how my weight loss program was a form of idolatrous worship built on these building blocks, and examined some unexpected consequences of adopting new habits.
  6. Then how going to Westfield to do my Christmas shopping was joining a bunch of worshippers in a modern temple.

It’ll be clear to anyone who reads the snippets of different books quoted in these posts that much of what I’ve written is simply articulating the framework James K.A Smith has been developing in his books Imagining The Kingdom, Desiring The Kingdom, and You Are What You Love. Smith loves Augustine and David Foster Wallace too, so I’ve very much enjoyed these works from the series because they are, in many ways, articulating a framework I’m deeply convinced of too… I’ve also just finished reading the most excellent and provocative Liturgy Of The Ordinary: Sacred Practices In Everyday Life by Tish Harrison Wells, which is a companion piece, of sorts, to Smith’s ‘Cultural Liturgies’ series. These books are a great resource when it comes to seeing the problem posed by our heart’s desire to be pointed at something (or claimed by something), but I’m not entirely convinced their answers (in sum: a return to ancient, tried and true ‘liturgy’) are for everybody. Smith’s emphasis is largely placed on Sunday-as-worship (and especially the liturgical shaping of a worship experience around word and sacrament), Wells expands Smith’s insight to consider how the shape of a classic liturgical service might be reflected in the shape of the everyday. I’m unpersuaded by this, at least so far as what worship that keeps my own heart pointed and ordered by the Gospel might look like, though I should say I’m thoroughly persuaded of their critique of a tendency for churches to respond to the way things outside the church are capturing our hearts by making church feel more like a cafe or the shopping centre… I also totally share their conception about what the ends, or telos, of worship and ‘church’ are, and how worship relates to the God we meet in the Gospel… I love this selection of quotes from You Are What You Love:

The practices of the church are also a spiritual workout, inviting us into routines that train our heart muscles, our fundamental desires that govern how we move and act in the world…

Our sanctification—the process of becoming holy and Christlike—is more like a Weight Watchers program than listening to a book on tape. If sanctification is tantamount to closing the gap between what I know and what I do (no longer reading Wendell Berry in Costco, essentially), it means changing what I want. And that requires submitting ourselves to disciplines and regimens that reach down into our deepest habits. The Spirit of God meets us in that space—in that gap—not with lightning bolts of magic but with the concrete practices of the body of Christ that conscript our bodily habits.

Christian worship is the heart of discipleship just to the extent that it is a repertoire of practices shaped by the biblical story. Only worship that is oriented by the biblical story and suffused with the Spirit will be a counterformative practice that can undo the habituations of rival, secular liturgies.

The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship. If we want to be a people oriented by a biblical worldview and guided by biblical wisdom, one of the best spiritual investments we can make is to mine the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught.

While worship is entirely embodied, it is not only material; and though worship is wholly natural, it is never only natural. Christian worship is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God.

Those of us who inhabit postmodernity have so much to learn from ancient Christians… the rituals and liturgies of their surrounding culture were much more overt—for example, their civic political spaces were unabashedly temples, whereas ours traffic under euphemisms (stadiums, capitols, universities)—early Christians were more intentional about and conscious of the practices they adopted for worship. The heart and soul of their liturgical life hearkened back to Israel, but they didn’t simply “Jesufy” the synagogue. There was faithful innovation as the disciples sought to discern the rhythms and practices that would constitute the community of Christ. This included responding specifically to Jesus’s commands (giving us baptism and the Lord’s Supper, for example), but it also included careful selection, reappropriation, and reorientation of formative cultural practices into the repertoire of kingdom-indexed liturgy. Thus, over time, the body of Christ continued to discern the scripts that should characterize a worshiping community centered on the ascended Christ who prayed for kingdom come.

To be conformed to the image of his Son is not only to think God’s thoughts after him but to desire what God desires. That requires the recalibration of our heart-habits and the recapturing of our imagination, which happens when God’s Word becomes the orienting center of our social imaginary, shaping our very perception of things before we even think about them. So, like the secular liturgies of the mall or the stadium or the frat house, Christian liturgies can’t just target the intellect: they also work on the body, conscripting our desires through the senses.

All these are fantastic; but where he goes (and where Wells goes with him) will not, I suspect, work for us all; though I’d suggest they (and the others they draw on through church history and in the Bible) do provide the scaffolding for us.

Forming (or de-forming) worship in a gods-saturated age

Like Athens when Paul visited, gods are on every corner in our so-called ‘secular’ age; and this ‘habit-shaping,’ ‘ritual,’ worship takes many forms

Smith has quite a bit to say about how important the forms of our worship are, within the life of the church, not simply the content (which is pretty much taking Marshall McLuhan’s insights that ‘the medium is the message’ and applying them to the life of the church…here’s his critique of churches that have tended to simply imitate the ‘forms’ found in rival ‘worship’ (like the gym, or the shopping centre) by creating church services that are ‘hip’, consumer-driven things where worship is ‘expressive’ rather than enacted, habitual, ritual with a vision of the image of the ‘good life’ (Jesus), and a ‘narrative’ (the Gospel)  shaping these habitually repeated actions (so that the form is important).

With the best of intentions, this “expressive” paradigm is then allied to a questionable distinction between the form of worship and the content of the gospel. The concrete shape and practices of Christian worship, passed down through the centuries, are considered merely optional forms—or even whited sepulchers of dead ritual—that can and should be discarded in order to communicate the gospel “message” in ways that are contemporary, attractive, and relevant. In our desire to embed the gospel content in forms that are attractional, accessible, and not off-putting, we look around for contemporary cultural forms that are more familiar. Instead of asking contemporary seekers and Christians to inhabit old, stodgy medieval practices that are foreign and strange, we retool worship by adopting contemporary practices that can be easily entered precisely because they are so familiar.

“Rather than the daunting, spooky ambience of the Gothic cathedral, we invite people to worship in the ethos of the coffee shop, the concert, or the mall. Confident in the form/content distinction, we believe we can distill the gospel content and embed it in these new forms, since the various practices are effectively neutral: just temporal containers for an eternal message. We distill “Jesus” out of the inherited, ancient forms of historic worship (which we’ll discard as “traditional”) in order to present Jesus in forms that are both fresh and familiar: come meet Jesus in the sanctified experience of a coffee shop; come hear the gospel in a place that should feel familiar since we’ve modeled it after the mall. The problem, of course, is that these “forms” are not just neutral containers or discardable conduits for a message. As we’ve seen already, what are embraced as merely fresh forms are, in fact, practices that are already oriented to a certain telos, a tacit vision of the good life…

So when we distill the gospel message and embed it in the form of the mall, while we might think we are finding a fresh way for people to encounter Christ, in fact the very form of the practice is already loaded with a way of construing the world. The liturgy of the mall is a heart-level education in consumerism that construes everything as a commodity available to make me happy. When I encounter “Jesus” in such a liturgy, rather than encountering the living Lord of history, I am implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy. And while I might eagerly want to add him to my shelf of stuff, we shouldn’t confuse this appropriation with discipleship.”

Then he talks specifically about how these ‘forms’ work in the context of Christian worship, of the sort he believes offers a genuine solution…

“By the “form” of worship I mean two things: (1) the overall narrative arc of a service of Christian worship and (2) the concrete, received practices that constitute elements of that enacted narrative.”

Here’s one little bit of pushback on this stuff on ‘forms’ before we move on; as I was bombarded with preachy emails from The Commando during my 12 week fitness challenge, I couldn’t help but feel that he’d actually flogged his approach from the church, and there might be times when we’re actually just taking our forms back, as well as times when we might ‘plunder gold from Egypt’; if we pay attention to the ‘forms’ that form people it’s not totally beyond a robust doctrine of creation to spoil Egypt to preach Christ (that’s totally Augustinian, too, in On Christian Teaching). A ‘true form’ can be used by those peddling falsehood to achieve deformation; and we need to be careful that those ‘forms of historic worship’ weren’t simply the ‘mall’ of their day (so, for example, the Roman household, or association, or the ‘sacred’ practices designed by the culture of the church through the ages.

I’m with Smith on forms being as important as content; especially because I think there’s two more elements at play in how we do church/worship together (and how church works) that fit with this Augustinian paradigm (or indeed, with us being made as people who bear the image of whatever we worship, and people who are made to relate to others in cultures built around common objects of worship):

  1. The church and its worship is the plausibility structure for the Gospel; and the way we love and worship reflecting the Gospel helps us to believe, and non-believers to come to belief when they see us worship (see 1 Corinthians 14, and 1 John).
  2. Any persuasion to change is driven more by what we do (ethos) and imitation than by what we say; the quickest way to undermine what we say is to do differently.

The form of our community and its life and love together expressed in our shared practices has to line up with the message we preach about a crucified and resurrected Lord who loves us by laying down his life in our place to forgive our sins and restore our relationship with God. Our worship is our ‘shared practice’ of living out this message, and following the example of Jesus, of whom Marshall McLuhan said:

“In Jesus Christ, there is no distance or separation between the medium and the message: it is the one case where we can say that the medium and the message are fully one and the same”

The shape of our worship matters, and I’m not so sure its enough simply for our worship to be reflecting on the Gospel story via historic liturgies, but also participating in re-telling the Gospel story via deliberate acts of sacrificial love that consciously reflect the message we believe and so shape us. That’s fundamentally what the sacraments do, of course. I’m sure that these ancient forms of worship that Smith is speaking about, and the applications of the elements of a liturgical service to daily life Wells puts forward do that; but they don’t exclusively do that (ie there are other ways to skin this cat), and I’d argue there’s a slightly more ancient form. I suspect the apostle Paul and the early church knew a thing or two about idolatry and worship and what it does to us, it’s pretty rudimentary Judaism and he was not a rudimentary Jew…

Forming practices that go beyond Sundays

In You Are What You Love Smith writes about what it looks like for a family to take the liturgical calendar and incorporate it into the rhythms of family life, and to build new ‘rhythms’ that spring from this shape, and that’s nice and has some appeal to me as I think about what sort of rhythms family life should take in the Campbell family, and what forms I want forming my kids (and us as a family). Both Smith and Wells see worship and liturgy going beyond Sunday, but because of their emphasis on capital-L Liturgy they put huge significance on Sundays-as-worship. Sundays most definitely are worship; and an especially important part of worship because they incorporate the gathered body of believers-in-community; and let’s not understate this as an important distinctive that comes with the Gospel. Lots of idolatrous worship is individualistic and so consumer-driven that you end up consuming others as objects, not sacrificing for them. Christian worship is distinctively corporate, and other-serving. This is why Sundays are important; but it’s also why the Sunday-experience of life together is limiting. I don’t think our consumer driven approach to worship as Christians is limited to the way Sundays happen; I think the way we think of ‘church’ as ‘event’ or even ‘church’ as ‘where I go to be fed/worship God’ rather than thinking of ‘church’ as synonymous with ‘people of God’ is just as damaging. There’s a danger some who might be more inclined towards Liturgy and tradition might bring the wrong expectations to those ancient forms; just as there’s a danger that this same attitude might lead some to create new forms. Here’s where I think the Bible pushes back at this… this is a contender for most quoted verse on my blog I reckon…

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2

Notice Paul doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters… view of God’s mercy… holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Worship is something we do, but it’s not just a thing we direct vertically; towards God; worship has a dimension that includes what we do with our bodies in this world and somehow doing what Paul goes on to talk about in the rest of chapter 12 (which is directed to other people) is proper worship of God.

Also, notice he doesn’t say:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God— on Sundays — this is your true and proper worship.

This worship is an attitude; a deliberate, formative, direction of our bodies that is caught up with not being conformed (or deformed) by the world (powerful when read in the context of Romans 1), which is somehow caught up with the transforming and renewing of our minds.

Also notice what he’s actually saying is:

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer youses bodies together as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

This is something the ‘brothers and sisters’ he writes to are to do together. Worship is caught up in the life of the church being lived as a living sacrifice. And he gets quite specific… Here’s a list of practices that have the capacity to be rituals just as powerful as capital-L liturgy if they’re caught up in living out our ‘view of God’s mercy’…

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. — Romans 12:3-16

What if we took this; not just the liturgical calendar (which might help us to view God’s mercy); and made it the blueprint of ‘church’ and of ‘worship’ that went a long way beyond Sundays.

Sounds nice; doesn’t it? What if our ‘worship’ was built on providing a community where the church could bless one another (and the world) by sacrificially offering our ‘gifts’; this list can’t just cover Sundays; it’s about what life together looks like. Shared life. Sharing the ups and downs of life.

Ideal even?

But perhaps it sounds too idealistic in our busy modern life. Perhaps though our busyness it actually a ritual, a liturgy, or a habit that reflects our worship of some other gods — career, success, money, our identity being caught up in our ‘job’…

Here’s the thing this is actually what the early church did. This is the ‘tradition’ of the church as it is established:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” — Acts 2:42-47

This is the sort of community life that made the Gospel plausible in the first century that attracted and cultivated disciples…

This is the Romans 12 ‘worshipping community’…

This is the ‘ethos’ that reflects the Gospel, and these are the habits of life together that reinforces the Gospel message that has just been preached in Acts 2… and

We’re not really told much about their Liturgy; but we can imagine their ‘liturgy’ from these verses; we know the sacraments were part of the life of the church from Acts and the other NT letters, but they seem to be incorporated into meals and the life of the ‘family’… not just on Sundays, but meeting together ‘every day’…

This is how to win a worship war; this is what helped the early church flourish in a world soaked with idols vying for their hearts; not least of which was the Roman Emperor via the Imperial Cult. This is the sort of thick community that was both present in the world such that they ‘enjoyed the favour of all of the people’ but also capable of keeping the church standing in the face of persecution from the empire; in fact, a little later, when the empire is just figuring out how to get Christians to recant and worship the emperor, in the governor Pliny’s correspondence with the emperor Trajan, this is how the official records describe the practices of the church:

“They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.”

This ‘fixed day’ was Sunday; we know from Justyn Martyr, who wrote a substantial amount about how Sunday gatherings worked in 150AD, that Sundays were important and had a ‘Liturgy’ from pretty early on; but somehow this Liturgy was not a replacement of the Acts 2 liturgy, but part of the rhythms of church life. Sundays seem to be an expression of the community of worshippers that exists throughout the week.

“…the wealthy among us help the needy; and we always keep together; and for all things wherewith we are supplied, we bless the Maker of all through His Son Jesus Christ, and through the Holy Ghost. And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need. But Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.” — Justin Martyr, First Apology

This approach to life; and Sunday; which is very much God-centred, and so, other-centred, is what worship looks like; worship isn’t just a me-and-God thing, but an us-and-God thing, and that’s a powerful antidote to the worship of the fitness program or the shopping centre (and why, for example, the Get Commando Fit program works so hard at building an online community of people who are ‘in the program’ with you).

The practices that are going to fight the counter-forming practices of the idols of our world; our technology (be it social media or pornography), our relationships, our diets, our exercise program… all these come with an embedded vision of the ‘image of the life we want’… living together ‘in view of God’s mercy’ won’t always feel totally different, because it will still involve sacrifice, and a relationship via ‘habitual action’ with the things of our world (people, food, exercise, and sex are all good things God made)… but it has to be consciously shaped by a different story in the context of a living, breathing, community shaped by the Gospel story, united in Christ, given the Spirit, and working out what it looks like to pray, learn, suffer, struggle, rejoice, mourn, serve, give, eat, sin, and forgive together. I want to build the rhythms of life in our family around the activities listed in Romans 12 (and in Acts 2, and in Colossians 3, and Ephesians 6…); but I also want them to shape how I approach being part of the family of God, so that catching up for a coffee or sharing a meal is both a habit, and an opportunity to relate in the sort of way Paul describes here; to share life-in-Christ. I want this sort of generous service of others to shape the way I encourage people in our church community to spend their time (and energy, and money).

Worship can’t be a thing we do alone; it works best in relationships where we’re conscious that this is the human task; that discipleship starts with these ancient practices that reflect our shared story. It’s these practices throughout the week, not just the ‘Liturgy’ of traditional churches as practiced on Sundays, that will form us, and our loves, in a way that destroys the idols that would take our hearts captive. In the final, or ultimate, post I’ll consider what place the big-L Liturgy Smith and Wells advocate can have in this worship war.

On Christmas and Temples: how the coming of Jesus challenges us to see ourselves as givers not consumers

I went to temple today. A modern, secular, temple where I was surrounded by hindus, and sikhs, and buddhists, and muslims, and atheists… A temple that today was extra glittery, and sparkly, filled with magic, and crowded; oh so crowded. It was packed with worshippers.


Image: A snapshot from my trip to the temple today where I scored a park in front of this sign…

Temples don’t have to be obviously religious, or even obviously connected to a god. Temples are places where we practice our worship together. They are places where our gods; and the image of our gods, is revealed; when we know where to look. They’re places we go for stories about what the good human life looks like. And Christmas is a time for worship. In his famous This Is Water speech, David Foster Wallace said:

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”

In a passage in his novel Infinite Jest, Wallace writes a dialogue between two characters, Steeply and Marathe, about temples and worship and a third person’s ‘worship’ (Tine)… it builds on his fundamental insight about the way us humans work… we’re worshippers. Fanatics. Looking to give our love to something that we hope will love us back.

“Marathe had settled back on his bottom in the chair. ‘Your U.S.A. word for fanatic, “fanatic,” do they teach you it comes from the Latin for “temple”? It is meaning, literally, “worshipper at the temple.” ’

‘Oh Jesus now here we go again,’ Steeply said.

‘As, if you will give the permission, does this love you speak of, M. Tine’s grand love. It means only the attachment. Tine is attached, fanatically. Our attachments are our temple, what we worship, no? What we give ourselves to, what we invest with faith.”

Steeply made motions of weary familiarity. ‘Herrrrrre we go.’

Marathe ignored this. ‘Are we not all of us fanatics? I say only what you of the U.S.A. only pretend you do not know. Attachments are of great seriousness. Choose your attachments carefully. Choose your temple of fanaticism with great care. What you wish to sing of as tragic love is an attachment not carefully chosen. Die for one person? This is a craziness. Persons change, leave, die, become ill. They leave, lie, go mad, have sickness, betray you, die. Your nation outlives you. A cause outlives you.’

‘How are your wife and kids doing, up there, by the way?

You U.S.A’s do not seem to believe that you may choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Choose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger than the self.’

Steeply laid a hand between his misdirected breasts: ‘Ohh… Canada….’

Marathe leaned again forward on his stumps. ‘Make amusement all you wish. But choose with care. You are what you love. No? You are, completely and only, what you would die for without, as you say, the thinking twice.’

So I went to the temple. The temple to probably the most popular god in Australia; the one that promises and promotes a vision of the good life that I even find myself subscribing to; a picture of humanity that teaches: I consume, therefore I am, or perhaps I am therefore I consume. My local Westfield shopping centre. As I walked through throngs of smiling happy people, ate food from the far flung reaches of the planet alongside families who may have come together from even further afield, as the artificial light bounced off tinsel and sequins and Christmas stars and bathed my fellow humans in its soft glow, as carols pumped through the sound system following us on our pilgrimage, and as I spent my dollars on trinkets and baubles designed to express my love for my family this Christmas season, I did feel like I was having something like a religious experience. There is something beautiful about the way the shopping centre can bring people from all walks of life together in a levelish playing field (I mean, I avoided Myer and the expensive looking jewellers today so it’s not totally level, but you don’t know unless you stare at the collection of shopping bags in someone’s trolley or pay close attention to the quality of their shoes and handbag if someone is your equal or not). The shopping centre aisles feel like an equaliser until you really pay attention; digging beneath the hypnosis the centre foists on you as you walk through the doors. But I wasn’t paying attention to this stuff. I was hypnotised. I was bought in; a sucker for the sales pitch put before me by the centre’s preachers. I spent more; gave more of myself; than I’d planned. I’m not sure if I was manipulated because I certainly feel like I did this willingly as an act of greater love for my family. I did, for a moment, wonder how much my experience echoes the experience of people who might wander into church with us tomorrow for Christmas; perhaps ticking off something else on the Christmas checklist.

James K.A Smith, working with the same fundamental picture of the human being as David Foster Wallace, that we’re, fundamentally, worshippers, talks about the shopping centre (or mall, because he’s American) as a modern temple. He describes how the mall-as-temple shapes us and orients us to see the world, and ourselves, in this particular way; as consumers.

This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life… The symbols and colors and images associated with their religious life are readily recognized the world over. The wide circulation of these icons through various mediums even outside the sanctuary invites us to make the pilgrimage in the first place. This temple—like countless others now emerging around the world—offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us.

This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life. (Yet one should note that it has its own modes of exclusivity too; because of its overwhelming success in converting the nations, it is increasingly difficult to be an infidel.) And it is a mode of evangelism buoyed by a transnational network of evangelists and outreach, all speaking a kind of unified message that puts other, fractured religions to shame. If unity is a testimony to a religion’s truth and power, it will be hard to find a more powerful religion than this catholic faith. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but in return receive something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season.

This isn’t just a metaphor for Wallace or Smith; they’re actually convinced that participating in life as worshippers shapes us, and what and where we choose to worship has the potential to be very good, or very bad, for us in terms of how we understand ourselves and the world around us. In Smith’s treatment of the ‘mall’ he points out that our experience as shoppers are liturgical; shopping centres work to form our habits in particular ways, forming us as we take part in their vision of the good life, as we participate in the story the marketers are telling us, and so have the rhythms of our lives slightly altered. He points out the shopping centre shapes us so that we think of ourselves as consumers and of consumption as the path to joy, or this good life. Only life as a consumer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It leads us to consume others; it only works if we’re able to be hypnotised to the point that we think the success of our relationships; our families; depends on buying them the right thing, or if we’re able to get past the fact that all the presents we buy at Christmas ultimately don’t deliver the lasting satisfaction we hope for; so we go back day after day, week after week, Christmas after Christmas, looking to scratch this itch. Smith talks about our vain attempts to buy redemption at the shopping centre; to consume our way to happiness; he says it should be evident (because we keep going back) that this is a path that doesn’t satisfy, that never actually delivers a good life and this sort of worship transforms us in harmful ways, but also has us pin our hopes on things we end up sending to landfill:

By our immersion in this liturgy of consumption, we are being trained to both overvalue and undervalue things: we’re being trained to invest them with a meaning and significance as objects of love and desire in which we place disproportionate hopes (Augustine would say we are hoping to enjoy them when we should only be using them) while at the same time treating them (as well as the labor and raw materials that go into them) as easily discarded.— James K.A Smith, Desiring The Kingdom

I know the truth of the ‘landfill’ thing too well, because today as I did my ‘Christmas shopping’ — as I participated in worship Westfield style — I was buying exactly the same present I bought Robyn a few years ago, from the same place, because our kids had destroyed the last one. This stuff is finite; and profoundly geared not to permanently satisfy. How anti-Christmas…

The problem with picking things we’re going to bin as the things we attach ourselves to, and seeing the place we buy them from as our ‘temple’ (whether we know it or not), and participating in Christmas shopping as the ultimate form of modern, consumerist worship, and ourselves as consumers whose happiness depends on our consumption, is that we end up being consumed.

Wallace was aware of the danger of worshipping something like this; things that make us consumers not givers in our sacrifice. In This Is Water he says:

“And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship—be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles—is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”

And then he turns to his own little excursion to the shops, to challenge us to break the way they deform us into selfish people who consume rather than truly love others… he invites us to head into the shopping centre eyes wide open. Into the checkout line where our consumer frustration kicks into gear because in consumer world our fellow shoppers are people in our way, or in competition with us for resources… when you view life as a consumer you tend to view other people a little negatively or judgmentally, and so Wallace invites us to see people differently by paying a different sort of attention; by becoming a different sort of worshipper (this is a passage directly before the bit I quoted above).

“You can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying.

But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”

The goal of this sort of worship; and seeing; for Wallace, wasn’t better consuming but a totally different sort of us; it’s about overturning our tendency to see ourselves as consumers, it’s an invitation to think differently about ourselves, the world, others, and perhaps most importantly what the ‘good life’ looks like as we live in the world with others. Wallace wanted his listeners to free themselves from destructive defaults that come from wrong worship, malforming temples, and harmful attachments. He saw the sort of worship cultivated by temples with an agenda to make us see ourselves as consumers as dangerous, and suggested we had to pay attention in order to escape and to relate to others as givers not consumers. That was his vision of the ‘good life,’ at least as he invited others to see it.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.

This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Seeing the good life; freedom; this way will transform the way you participate in life at your local Westfield; it’s enough to challenge you to think about what you’re doing and to break the hypnosis of the light, and architecture, and sensual bombardment you face when you walk through the doors. But I’m not sure it’s enough to really deliver an answer to that ‘gnawing sense’; that haunting feeling of there being something more out there than Westfield and its retailers can provide for you. The problem with Westfield-as-temple is that what worship there delivers for you are just trinkets and baubles; they’re finite, fleeting, breaking, and boring.

The answer to this problem is in a new sort of worship that changes our sense of who we humans were made to be, how we ideally relate to others, and what a good life really looks like. The answer to this problem is actually to rediscover Christmas not as a consuming holiday, but a giving holy day. When the Apostle Paul wrote about us being worshipping creatures he had a particular picture of the good human life in mind. He had a particular sense of what Christmas is all about in mind too.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. — Romans 12:1-2. 

Consumption is a ‘pattern of this world’ and Paul’s answer to this pattern is to change the script; to not be consumers with our bodies, but givers, to be those who ‘offer our bodies as a living sacrifice’… It’s the Christmas story, and a new sense of what a ‘temple’ looks like, that allow us to truly love others, to in Wallace’s words ‘sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways’; to be ‘free’… We need a new temple, new attachments, a new story with a new vision of the good life, in order to become givers at Christmas, rather than destructive consumers. All this, for Paul, is caught up in what Christmas is actually about. It’s amazing how much it’s the anti-thesis of the Westfield ‘gospel’; or Westfield’s implicit and explicit account of what the good life is about; and what Christmas is about. Real worship; worship that doesn’t destroy us; is caught up in worshipping the giver of life. Real worship is caught up with recognising that Christmas is about the word that gave life and light to the world becoming flesh; becoming our temple. The temple isn’t just where we worship; it’s where we meet and see God and the image of the flourishing life; at Westfield that’s the mannequins and the posters and the glitz and glamour, at Christmas it’s the babe born in a stinking stable as a human who’d eventually be nailed to a cross. The Christmas story couldn’t be further from the tinsel and plastic prettiness of the modern Christmas shopping experience. The sacrifice Jesus makes begins in him taking on human form amongst dirty farm animals, first visited by stinking shepherds; it’s a form he still has now, a sacrifice he still makes, on behalf of the dirty and downtrodden who turn to him for hope.

The lie underneath Westfield’s ‘worship’ agenda is that finite things can satisfy the hunger for the infinite that only Christmas can. That Westfield so overtly harnesses and bastardises Christmas for its ends is truly shocking. If worship is, as Wallace puts it, trying to answer that gnawing sense of losing the infinite, Christmas is about us finding what was lost; or rather, it’s about the infinite making himself finite and knowable.

I walked through Westfield and felt empty and hopeless, hopefully people coming to church tomorrow to hear about God with us; who’ll be urged towards this new sort of worship; will walk in and out feeling filled with hope and pushed to love others because our gnawing sense of having lost touch with the infinite is answered when we look to the face of the baby in a manger; the infinite becoming finite as an act of sacrifice for us.

The Christmas story points us to true worship, and true worship is exemplified by those shepherds and later the wise guys from the East who recognised that Jesus really is ‘God With Us’… the real Christmas story stands in stark contrast Westfield’s Christmas; it overthrows Westfield-as-temple, and it points us to a sort of worship-driven ‘good life’ found in following the Christmas king. It makes us givers, not consumers; and involves God giving us life, rather than our false gods consuming us. This is perhaps one of the earliest Christmas Carols (after Mary’s at the birth of Jesus), from Paul in Philippians 2.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. — Philippians 2. 

The Worship Wars (4): How to fight the battles, and the win the war in a world full of worship warriors

“People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.” — Paul, as recorded in Acts 17:22-23
worship-wars

Like first century Athens, we live in a world that is very religious. Only the worshipper next door probably doesn’t think of themselves as a worshipper; we’re taught more to think of ourselves as ‘thinkers’ by our education system, as ‘doers’ by the market, as ‘lovers’ by our popular culture, as ‘meaning makers’ by the self-help industry and as ‘consumers’ by advertisers. But at the heart of all these concepts is the engine of our humanity that gives them their power; we are worshippers. We like to tell ourselves that these pictures of who we are, or some combination of them, is what we need to tap into to become better versions of ourselves. We believe we need more education, better jobs, more fulfilling relationships, we need to create something more meaningful of our world, or we just need to buy better toys, and everything will turn out better. These ideas of what it means to be human don’t just create themselves; they have champions. Worship warriors. Carrying the can for their particular vision of the good life and embodying it. Like the personal trainer who very clearly worships at the gym in pursuit of their idealised body, or the university professor who has a pretty clear view of the ideal educational sausage who should be produced by their institution… where Athens had the gatekeepers to the Parthenon and the temple priests on every corner, we have all sorts of people presenting and promoting all sorts of religious visions of who we are; whether they know we’re worshippers or not.

People of the 21st century, I see that in every way, we are very religious.

We use our heads, our hearts, and our hands, our money, our time, and our energy, to worship. Just like the Athenians; only we don’t tend to make statues or altars. We are as some put it ‘liturgical animals’ — we are shaped into the image of whatever it is we pursue with all these parts of us, and all that we have.

This is the fourth, and perhaps penultimate, post in this series which began by arguing that the ‘traditional’ way the worship wars have been conceived; as a battle for the style of music or service in the Sunday gathering, misses the much bigger enemy because the fundamental truth about us humans is we become what we worshipThe second post suggested that how we worship also shapes us, not simply when it comes to church gatherings but our habits or liturgies that we adopt day-to-day; the implications here were that Sunday isn’t enough when it comes to the worship wars. The third post used pornography as an example of an idolatrous counter-liturgy to test the framework and to show what is at stake. In this post I’m hoping to start to flesh out what the implications are for how we fight in the worship wars.

If you think fighting the worship wars; or being equipped to fight the worship wars; is just about the style of service you put on for an hour and a half on a Sunday, or how often you do the Sacraments, or whether the music you play is contemporary or traditional, you’re actually engaging in a civil war; and the real enemy is winning. If you think worship is just a thing you do on a Sunday, and that’s meant to somehow sustain you for a week of running around in a world saturated with other gods begging for your attention and seducing you; if church is a ‘worship’ event for you, and not a community of worshippers; if you think the answer to our problems as Christians, or the answer for your neighbour, is that we should first know more, think more, work more, love more, earn more, experience more, or buy more then you will lose. And you’ll die. And so often these are the answers we turn to when trying to shore up our faith; they’re all part of what it means to be human, and all at the table when it comes to how we change and grow, but they’re all sub-sets of worship; they’re all part of how we organise our living and our loving around some central idea about what real humanity should look like, and where we should be directed so that we flourish.

1. Fighting the war means knowing who we are and knowing our enemies.

‘Cause we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl
You know that we are living in a material world
And I am a material girl — Madonna, Material Girl

It’s an old song now; but Madonna’s Material Girl expresses a perceptive take on reality; on the relationship between us and the world we live in. We’re not consumers so much as conformers.

Our world is not neutral; it shapes us, and it mostly does this subconsciously as we live in it following the script of whatever story we’ve bought into or designed for ourselves about what the good life looks like; which whether we’re religious or not, is ultimately a reflection of the thing we worship, or centre our lives on, as our ‘god’ or ‘gods’… What we do, how we live, how we participate in this world shapes us. You believe the world is material; and it’s matter that matters, then you’ll be a materialistic person; pursuing as much of that matter as you can, probably the sort of matter that delivers you the most pleasure or power. You’ll assess your relationships on the things that ‘matter’ — and that, is it not, is what Madonna’s song is all about?

We live in a world full of scripts; whether it’s the technology we use (where our experience is guided by algorithms on platforms that are guided by commercial imperatives but tell us ‘mythic’ stories about what they might deliver), or the stories we live (religious or just our picture of our own flourishing that guides us), or the media we consume, we’re always taking a next step according to some design (even an attempt at randomness and spontaneity reveals a script of some sort). These scripts shapes us; our world — the stage on which we play — shapes us too. We evolve in a manner shaped by our environment — not just as a species, but as individuals living in our world. This happens as we introduce new tools; a pattern observed in the discipline of media ecology, the founder of this movement, Marshall McLuhan, developed most of his insights from a framework informed by the promise of Psalm 115 that those who worship idols — created things — become like them. McLuhan noticed that our media, in fact, any new technology introduced into an ecosystem, shapes both us and the system (it was McLuhan who coined the term “the media is the message” too). For McLuhan this spiritual and material reality meant no space is neutral; no medium is neutral; everything has the capacity to shape us if we allow it to become our script. Our liturgy (to borrow James K.A. Smith’s insights).

Our conventional response to all media, namely that it is how they are used that counts, is the numb stance of the technological idiot. — Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media

One of McLuhan’s followers in the media ecology discipline was Father John Culkin, a Jesuit priest and media academic. He said:

“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

That’s an axiom that holds when we consider idolatry and neuroscience, and one I quoted earlier in this series. This explains how and why social media changes our brain (the subject of another lengthy series from a few years back).

This is where the key battleground is for the worship wars. Everything in this world has the potential to shape you; because every thing we interact with has its own script; it’s own sense of what the good human life looks like; from Facebook, to pornography, to James K.A Smith’s shopping centre example, to how we do church together; the traditional worship wars weren’t misguided in arguing that how we do church matters; they were just focusing on one battle and missing the war. Fighting the worship wars means first knowing this about ourselves; knowing that we have the potential to be our own worst enemy, that our desires and actions might shape us in ways that take us away from God. You can’t win the war running around blind…

But we’re not the only enemy — the world isn’t neutral, and it’s not just our communication technology or tools that shape us, but our idols, and idols are the tools of the ultimate enemy; Satan. In thinking of ourselves wrongly — as thinking beings or consumers — we’ve thought of the world wrongly; we’ve ignored what’s truly at stake in our interactions with things around us, and in doing so have ignored the reality we can’t see or sense. We’ve so flattened our experience of the world and what we look for — by not thinking of ourselves as worshippers — that we don’t, and can’t, see it. Our ‘disenchanted’ view of the world — and by ‘our’ I don’t just mean humanity collectively, but us Christians too — means we run around looking for flesh and blood enemies or fighting about the very tactile stuff we do, without understanding the Spiritual significance of every moment of our lives. We need to stop fighting amongst ourselves, and start fighting the real war, on two fronts.

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. — 1 Peter 5:8

“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” — Ephesians 6:12

This is one field that the real worship war is fought on, because this is the field where the real enemy — the enemy of God, and humanity, from the very beginning, is prowling around seeking to devour, captivate, and conscript worship warriors. People who’ll take the fight up to God because they want to worship something else. The Garden of Eden was the first battle ground in this war; Adam and Eve — God’s image bearers — his worshippers — were meant to take the fight up to Satan, only they sided with him; they became false worshippers, and so tasted defeat. Every human life is a battle ground where this war is waged, because the effects of this first loss was to create a second front for the war; it’s now an internal fight, not just an external one… So when Paul writes about choosing between ‘life in Adam’ and ‘life in Jesus’ he talks about our new default; a default where a war rages within us…

So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! — Romans 7:21-25

This is us. All of us. Not just post-conversion Paul (in fact not even post-conversion Paul until the last line, and the bit that follows in Romans 8). Not just Jewish Paul under the law. Human Paul. Paul who is just like the Gentiles he’s writing to, as well as being like the Jews. Paul who has been banging on about what it means to follow in the footsteps of Adam and Eve; failed worshippers. He’s talking about the human condition; and about the internal war we’re fighting. It’s the same thing Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn observed when he said:

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

My neighbours know what good is, sometimes they even do it. But we all sin, in fact, even when we do ‘good’ things its a product of these divided hearts; hearts at war with themselves. And we’re all lured into sin by being lured into worshipping something other than God, so that sometimes we just choose evil. We all know what goodness is because God’s imprint is still left on us; but we also fight a battle that keeps leading us to the sort of deadly idolatry described in Romans 1. There are plenty of other interpretations of Romans 7 floating around, but I think Paul is talking about what it looks like to be made in the image of God (good), and image of Adam (fallen) awaiting the re-creation he describes the Spirit bringing in Romans 8, the delivery that comes through Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, which allows us to worship God again and will ultimately make us fully good again, better even (and, spoiler, that’s how we win the war).

2. We win by real worship.

Fighting the worship wars — and taking down the real enemies; our sinful idolatrous nature and the serpent — requires us to be proper worshippers. Thomas Chalmers was right when he said real change requires the expulsive power of a new affection. The way to beat idols is to love something more. Winning the war means changing the script (our story); our desires and imagination, and how we operate in the world (our habits). When Paul describes the impact of idolatry in Romans 1 he shows it totally corrupts our imaginations, and our habits; the way back is a renewal of both via a re-connection with God (that he initiates by the Spirit).

“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done.” — Romans 1:28

He comes back to this theme in 8…

Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. — Romans 8:5

Where Paul goes in Romans 8 (and what he argues before Romans 7) is that we become true worshippers again; true children of God again; conformed into true images of God; images of Jesus; by the Spirit (Romans 8:27-29).

This is a thread he ties off more deliberately (after dealing with the relationship between Israel and the gentiles) in Romans 12, where he also explores the implications for how we should worship in Romans 12, where he describes real worship as ‘offering your bodies as a living sacrifice’ — the habitual, incremental, reflection of the life and death of Jesus while ‘not being conformed to the pattern of this world’ but ‘being transformed by the renewing of your mind’ (Romans 12:1-2). This is how to fight the worship wars; fix your eyes upon the story of Jesus by participating in it as you let it shape your habits in community (the yous are plural in 12:1-2, and then the stuff about the body and how we sacrificially use our gifts for each other is pretty clearly ‘corporate worship’). Here’s his guide to ‘true worship’ from Romans 12, and then from Colossians 3; the sort of things that might shape our liturgies in our Sunday gatherings and through the week (I’ll get to some really practical ideas in the last post in this series). This sure sounds like worship… 

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. — Romans 12:9-18

In Colossians 3, Paul opens by calling us to reset our minds, perhaps even our imaginations, and our hearts, or our desires, on things above, not on earthly things (Colossians 3:1-2). Then he tells us to avoid the habits that come from the pursuit of earthly things via our earthly nature (which he calls idolatry), and the list here sounds a lot like Donald Trump, but also a lot like Romans 1… There’s a bunch of stuff Paul tells us to take off — old habits — and some things we’re to put on… and this ‘putting on the new self’ is how we take part in the worship wars against the enemy within, and the enemy without… the practices he calls us to aren’t particularly new (nor should they be) and singing and focusing on the Gospel story are at their heart (because ‘worship’ as we understand it matters), but our habits should flow from and cyclically create-in-us these virtues that seem to reflect our story and the Gospel becoming our story as we set our hearts and minds on things above, and participate in the re-telling of the Gospel together.

Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17

This doesn’t sound like a thing Paul just thinks we should be doing on a Sunday though… the whatever you do would seem to push worship beyond the boundaries of a 90 minute church service and into the shared practices of our church community every day.

3. Attack is the best form of defence

One of the most profound that has crystalised for me in my understanding of the Gospel in the last few years came from NT Greek Scholar Peter Bolt when he was talking to our team about Mark’s Gospel. He made the point that we often think of ‘repent’ as a call to turn away from sin, when it probably most correctly (and especially in the way Jesus uses it) is a turning towards Jesus and his kingdom (which produces a turning from sin). If we spend all our time worried about stopping wrong worship and don’t spend our time actively replacing it with true worship, we’re in danger of not turning to the right things. This is why Chalmers’ expulsive power idea is so powerful and so important. It’s no good simply switching idols. From sex to ascetic sexual purity, or from gluttony to the idolatry of fitness so prevalent in our age… we need to replace the worship of created stuff with the worship of the creator — and we meet the creator in the face of Jesus, through the Gospel of Jesus, and the story of the Bible (and the worshipping community it creates).

There’s another passage (well there are lots) that talks specifically about fighting against the devil’s schemes — preparing us to fight against that prowling lion who is out to devour us — the Ephesians 6 description of the armour of God. The tools we need to fight, or worship, our way through the worship wars against our real enemies are these ones… This set of armour is what will help you see God, the world, yourself, and your enemies (the things you are tempted to worship by the Devil and your desires) as they really are, and help you put things in their right place… this is what real worship looks like; whether you sing modern songs or old ones, with acoustic or electric, organs or synth, in sandstone and stain glass or a theatre, with the sacraments every week or quarterly will shape you (and you might pick some stuff according to what you find helpful to fix your heart on Jesus in community with people you love), but this is where the action is (and so is much more important when it comes to the question of how we do church).

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist,with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. — Ephesians 6:10-18