Cultural Liturgies & the Church’s Counter-Liturgy (James K.A. Smith) — Discussion Questions

The following is a list of discussion questions composed for a CrossWay Community Church small group, Christ & Culture, for use throughout May 2019.


Week 1 – Examining Cultural (Deformative) Liturgies

ASSIGNMENT: Read chapter 2, “You Might Not Love What You Think” in You Are What You Love (or alternatively listen to James’ video of a talk by Smith on this subject).

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Think about your last trip to the mall. What did you do there? What did you buy? How were people around you spending their time or money?

SCRIPTURE TO CONSIDER:

  • Prov 4:23.
  • Mt 12:33-35.
  • Rom 12:1-2.
  • Eph 4:17-25.
  • 1 John 2:15-17.
  • James 1:27; 4:4. 

QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:

  • What is the basic premise Smith is arguing?
  • Why do we do what we do? // How do we change why we do what we do (sanctification)?
  • Augustine famously said, “God, you have made us for yourself. And our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee?” // Do you agree? // If so, how does this shape our understanding of the human experience (human nature)?
  • Are there any critiques, concerns, or cautions you might have with Smith’s material and arguments?
  • We might say, somewhat in contrast to Smith, R.C. Sroul says this:

The key method Paul underscores as the means to the transformed life is by the “renewal of the mind.” This means nothing more and nothing less than education. Serious education. In-depth education. Disciplined education in the things of God. It calls for a mastery of the Word of God. We need to be people whose lives have changed because our minds have changed. … The key to spiritual growth is in-depth Christian education that requires a serious level of sacrifice. … True transformation comes by gaining a new understanding of God, ourselves, and the world.

What’s true in what each is saying? What are the potential pitfalls of each?

  • Smith argues that we need to come to view our culture’s practices as “liturgies.” What does he mean by this? Is this helpful?
  • What our some of the “liturgies” (or “places of liturgy”) of our secular cultural? And in what specific ways do they form their participants?
  • How might you look anew in this way at things like the mall, stadium-sporting events, the university, the cinema/TV/streaming service, political campaigns or media, the smartphone, social media, patriotic holidays and rituals, the business world, etc.? What “gospel” (particular vision of the good) do these “liturgies” form and direct our hearts toward?
  • What does it mean to be counter-culturally Christ-like in the midst of these deformative cultural “liturgies”? In other words, how do we then live?
  • How does the church, the communion of the saints, help us (help each other) to have our hearts increasingly formed in this way into “maturing followers of Jesus by the power of the gospel”?

CLOSING APPLICATION: Studies show that some brands can inspire worship-like devotion (see box on p. 52). When does brand loyalty turn into worship? What brands do you have religious devotion to in your life? How should you reconsider your relation to these things? Continue reading

NFL Thanksgiving as a Cultural Liturgy of “God & Country,” Nationalist Militarism (James K.A. Smith)

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).


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Review of Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith

Summary

Desiring the KingdomJames K. A. Smith sets out to present a vision of what a distinctively Christian education should look like. Without discarding the importance of what Christians think (worldview), he argues that authentic Christian learning ought to focus primarily on the formation of Christian desires (‘social imaginary’). In short, Smith argues that Christian education is more about formation than information, more about what one loves than what one knows. Practically speaking, distinctively Christian education should mean much more than merely teaching what is taught at any other university, but just from a Christian worldview. Rather, Christian education should be fundamentally rooted in liturgical worship as that discipline which forms students’ desires. Thus, he describes this educational ideal as ‘ecclesial,’ rooted in formative liturgical worship.

Smith’s philosophy of education is based on an understanding of worship, which is rooted in a specific anthropology. Therefore, although his main goal is to present a philosophy of education, his work has much broader implications for areas such as anthropology and corporate worship.

Smith begins his case by presenting an anthropology, because one’s view on education (and worship) is intrinsically linked to one’s understanding of the nature of man. Whereas the prevalent Christian anthropology seems to view man as primarily a thinking or believing creature, Smith argues that man is primarily a lover or desirer. Man’s decisions and behavior is primarily oriented by desire, what he loves, a vision of the ‘good life’ and a corresponding longing for it.

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Goodreads Review of Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural FormationDesiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Summary:
Smith argues that man is primarily a lover or desirer, in contrast to being primarily a thinker or believer. From this anthropology, he argues that our loves-desires are formed by habits, rituals, or what we might call liturgies if we want to show the high stakes involved in this practices and institutions. Our culture has its liturgies that strive to shape our desires. The church through its worship-liturgy offers a counter-formative liturgy. Similarly, the Christian school, which is to be an extension of the church, should be primarily about formation through such liturgical practices.

Thoughts:
Part of Smith’s thesis is that other competing anthropologies (e.g., the person as primarily a thinker or believer) are reductionistic. I would argue that his approach (i.e., person as a lover-desiring) is likely equally reductionistic. I think he overestimates how much the pre-assumptions in liturgy actually form the worshiper. And I think he under estimates the effect that thoughts and beliefs (“worldview”) have on our behavior.

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