As always, James K.A. Smith is equally perceptive of cultural habits as he is insightful in his analysis of them.
In today’s The NFL’s Thanksgiving games are a spectacular display of America’s ‘God and country’ obsession, published over at the The Washington Post, Smith plays on a common thesis in his writings:
Whereas many see our culture’s habits, traditions, and institutions as mundane, non-religious affairs, James sees much more at stake. They are competing rituals, or “religious” liturgies competing for our worship and shaping our loves.
Christian worship is formative — forming us into a people who love Christ and his kingdom. Our competing cultural “liturgies” (e.g., here: a traditional NFL Thanksgiving; or in other places in Smith’s writing: e.g., the mall as a house of worship for consumerism — quite relevant for tomorrow’s Black Friday) have a deformative power, pulling on our affections and, in the process, misplacing them (idolatry).
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the piece:
In a secular age, our religious impulses aren’t diminished; they just find new devotions: consumption, the self, the nation. … We might not thank God anymore, but that doesn’t mean Thanksgiving isn’t still religious.
You know you’ve entered a temple when disagreement is treated as sacrilege.
[E]ven believers in God are not immune to being captivated by secular rituals. … [We learn] something about the state of American civil religion and the way it accommodates — and then deforms — traditional religious communities. … These liturgies of civil religion are covert modes of idolatry … [where] the tropes of “God and country” or “faith and the flag” are almost always instances where country and flag domesticate faith in God.
I also thought Smith was particularly insightful in identifying the military as a “tangible, almost sacramental, embodiment of the nation’s mythology,” with military personnel as “priests [i.e., mediators] of freedom.”
Smith has a knack for taking cultural and secular practices and depicting them in religious terms. He presents them as liturgical rituals. In so doing, he serves us almost apocalyptically (apocalyptic = to reveal, unveil, expose) — unveiling, or unmasking, these events and institutions for what they really are, and therefore what’s truly at stake.
Read this piece, and then go read it again slooooowly. Every sentence is packed with intentionality and insight.