Guest Post by Paul Tyson: James KA Smith, Secular Liturgies and the Holy Spirit

James KA Smith, who lectures in Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently gave a series of lectures as part of the New College Lecture series. The lectures focused on liturgy, the imagination and formation and was an opportunity to field test ideas for an upcoming book, Imagining the Kingdom, which is the second installment of the "Cultural Liturgies Series" put out by Baker.  

Below is a guest-post by Paul Tyson, Lecturer in Philosophy at the Australian Catholic University. Tyson will feature at the upcoming first session of Seminars in Political and Religious Life, to be held in the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne on 10th July, and he has provided his take on and response to Smith's lectures below.
Jamie Smith gave some lectures in Sydney this week on liturgy for Evangelicals. Basically, his message was that the practices, desires and stories in which we are habituated are more central to our formation than are explicit belief systems and conscious ideas. Any matrix of habit forming, desire orienting, storied ritual is thus a liturgy. Evangelicals need to recover liturgy because it is often sub-explicit embodied practices that bubble up into our conscious beliefs and choices more easily than conscious beliefs and choices push down on and shape our primary desires. So if we are interested in discipleship then we need to be interested in a lot more than simply believing the right doctrine and consciously choosing the right action. 

Jamie is an engaging speaker and a gifted teacher. I was with him all the way. And yet, he is not that beautiful to look at. I mean no slight against him at all by saying this. In fact, I love this about Jamie, for I am a plump, middle aged and balding academic myself. But, for a fascinating reason, visual beauty and the pathos of embodied desire became strangely significant to me throughout the hour he was speaking.

I work in universities and it is now a ubiquitous practice at any key note event in an Australian university for roll down posters to appear which project an attractive corporate image to visitors. Unsurprisingly, one of these posters was prominently displayed right next to Jamie throughout his lecture. I could not read the text from where I was sitting, but the main picture was visually powerful enough to make written text irrelevant.

On the poster three beautiful young people – two women and a man, all glowing with warmth, charm and physical vitality – were engaged in animated conversation whilst eating crisp green apples. They were all beautifully groomed and dressed, slim, full haired and just dripping with style and promise. The image these three projected was one of desirability and youthful opportunity, and had a certain erotic charge to it. This charge was not in any way overtly sexualized, but as three very attractive young people, the dynamism of playful attraction between them was powerfully projected. Whilst my eyes and mind wandered around – as they do over the course of any period of sustained concentration – I could not help looking at this picture and noticing that I was being invited to enter into an imaginative story-line where beautiful young women admiringly engaged in delighted discourse with attractive young men. Now I am obviously not the prime demographic target of this ad, but it was characteristically generous in its offer of inclusion into its narrative fantasy. The marketing message here was clear. This university is where you will meet attractive young people of beauty and promise, and who would not like that, and who would not like to be one of those people?

I am listening attentively to Jamie talk and following him with delight, but all through his hour long talk my visual attention is being drawn off of Jamie’s merely human visual presentation to these highly stylized icons of semi-godlike youth and beauty standing just behind him. These carefully selected imaginative narrative opportunities of corporately situated desirability were working hard to engage my attention and my fantasy away from the actual embodied presence of Jamie who was standing right in front of me.

Initially I wondered if this was not an excellent way of Jamie making his point. But, for two reasons, I know this was no setup. Firstly, corporate branding of this nature is simply what everyone does in the university game in Australia. Secondly, and more chillingly, no-one I mentioned this poster to had even noticed it. Corporate branding, via narratively rich images of desire, is such a ubiquitous feature of the world in which we live that we do not even see that we are being habituated and imaginatively formed by powerful secular liturgies of desire. And one does not have to have a PhD in advertising psychology to know that unconscious acceptance is game over in marketing terms.

Secular liturgies of desire are indeed working day and night to provide us with a continuous stream of bite sized imaginative constructs that shape our unconscious narratives of desires, influence our choices and provide the erotic impetus for an army of small regimes of habit formed ways of living. And this is so effective and so powerful in corporate consumer society that we don’t even know it is happening. So… given formation of almost our every gaze and imagination by secular liturgies of such skilfully crafted and carefully placed iconic power, can Christian liturgy compete?

Jamie believes we must not despair. Indeed, the very weakness and occasional nature of the formative powers of Christian liturgy (as human activities) compared with the strength and continuity of secular liturgies is not to be overly worried about. Rather, what is at stake here is a kind of conversion of our eyes and imaginations such that we know that we are being tempted towards false loves by the governing principalities of narcissistic consumerism, but see true love, and what is actually real, instead. Jamie is actually a very beautiful man, if only because he is a real man, and not an image of desire projected on a marketing screen. For if our loves are rightly directed – as only the Holy Spirit can direct – then there is no attraction in the false images of love and the false practices of love. Yet, whereas Isaiah was a man of unclean lips, perhaps we are a people of unclean eyes.

There are three possible responses I could have made to the advertising image behind Jamie. Firstly, I could have not even noticed it because I am entirely habituated within the life form of modern Western consumerism, and its imaginative suggestions would liturgically hold me without even a struggle. Secondly, I could have noticed the liturgical invitation of the ad, and struggled against it, but entirely within the frame of human effort. Or thirdly, the eyes of love and reality could have hardly even seen the mere image nature of the icons of self-love, and the true beauty of who Jamie is and what he was saying could have held my attention fully. Interestingly, I think I responded in all three ways at different times in the hour of Jamie’s lecture. But it is this third way which is surely what Saint Paul calls walking in the Spirit. And here, it seems, is what is at the heart of living within Christian liturgy all the time (which is not so say that explicitly Christian liturgical practices are unimportant). For only the Spirit can convert my eyes and re-form my heart so that I desire true love, true reality, and can truly walk in the way of Christ. This is not a work of human effort, and yet the energy of true love is a power of human motivation which can live differently within the world as a witness to the falseness and emptiness of all that is not ordered by the love of God first.

Jamie is not expecting us to construct Christian liturgies that can compete with and replace secular liturgies. We live in a world dominated by the liturgies, practices, principalities and powers of self-love, and that is the place where we must live. And whilst these impure liturgies are incredibly sociologically powerful, if we try and fight them with their own tools, we have lost the battle. But if – as recipients of divine grace – we can walk in the Spirit, if our love can be directed towards what is actually real (God and His creation), then we will be living liturgies of true love in a world of false and empty despair.

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