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
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.
Labels: Church and Culture, conference, liturgy, Radical Orthodoxy