As we discussed in the last post, Smith understands a “liturgy” as a particular kind of practice (ritual) that seeks to inculcate a certain vision of human flourishing that will trump competing visions. Unlike a worldview, these practices shape us in pre-cognitive, affective ways; they shape us into lovers before they form us into thinkers. So, he wants to explore the ways in which repeated actions (rituals) can fundamentally shape us when tied to a particular way of understanding what it means to be truly human. And, he doesn’t have in mind just the obviously formative rituals that we do on purpose for the sake of being formed in certain ways (e.g. spiritual disciplines). No, he thinks that many things that we do regularly without even thinking about them can be liturgies when linked to a certain vision of what it means to be human. Thus, “I’m suggesting that a lot can happen when one just goes through the motions. The routine begins to inscribe habits of the imagination within us….Through the repeated ritual, a daily microliturgy, our very loyalties are aimed and shaped.” (109) In chapter 3, Smith unpacks this understanding of “cultural liturgies” by applying it to three case studies.
In the first, Smith deals with the mall as a cultural liturgy. And, of the three, I found this to be the most interesting. By looking closely at how shopping at the mall shapes us, Smith concludes that shopping at the mall is not just something that we do to fill time. Here you have cultural liturgy that presents a model of human flourishing with the following aspects.
- It makes us into people who see themselves as broken (i.e. “I don’t look like that”).
- It fosters a kind of sociality/relationality, but one that is grounded in competition rather than community.
- It shapes us to be fundamentally “consumers” – we always need to purchase more solutions to our brokenness.
- It creates in us a need not to see the harmful consequences of our consumerism (individually and globally).
He then goes on to critique very briefly the inadequacies of the Christian response to this cultural liturgy. Basically, he thinks that we simply replace secular commodities with “Christian” commodities without realizing that we are actually perpetuating the “Gospel of consumerism” in the process. I think his critique of the Christian response could have been even sharper here by drawing on his critique of worldview-thinking. The primary Christian response to such consumerism is to teach a more authentic Christian worldview (e.g. selflessness, justice, moderation, etc.). But, as Smith points us, this kind of worldview response simply will not carry the day against the formative influence of such a prevalent cultural liturgy. That would be the equivalent of telling a rock not to be shaped by the river running constantly over it because God wants the rock to look different. I thought the Gospel of consumerism was the best example of a cultural liturgy that cannot be battled by ideas alone.
The second case study addresses the “military-entertainment complex.” In other word, the strong elements of nationalism and patriotism that pervade popular entertainment (think Armageddon or Independence Day). This liturgy presents a vision of human flourishing based on notions of materialism, ownership, competition, individualism, freedom, and even violence. And, it does so it a way that captures our imaginations before it captures our minds. That’s what makes the “worldview” approach to movies (i.e. “What message is this movie trying to convey?) so inadequate. It’s not so much a question of understanding the movie’s message is it is recognizing its formative power in its ability to shape our imagination and our vision of human flourishing.
Finally, he considers liturgies associated with the university. Probably the most interesting part of this section was his argument that what is most formative about attending a university is what happens outside the classroom. (I found this section to be the least engaging of the three, which is surprising given that he has more interesting discussions of this subject elsewhere in the book.)
Through all three of these, he presses us to consider the ways in which everyday rituals can be liturgies if they have a particular telos – a vision of human flourishing that seeks to trump competing visions. And, these liturgies cannot be counteracted merely by providing better teaching. A person can believe all the right things and still be shaped by a Gospel of consumerism into pursuing a vision of human flourishing that is antithetical to the Gospel.