Fitch Reviews JKA Smith: Worship Shapes Us

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 7.15.20 PMBy David Fitch

JAK Smith’s ‘You are What You Love’ (Part 2): How Worship Shapes You to Love and Live Differently

In the previous post, I described Jamie Smith’s sketch of the human self as a homo liturgicus in his book You Are What You Love. Human beings are persons shaped to love by habits. We are all being shaped to love something, and these loves are misguided at best when shaped by the consumerist liturgies of the world we live in today. In response, Smith urges us to take a liturgical audit of our lives, given the culture(s) we live in. And then he suggests a course for discipleship. It is not radical. “To the contrary,” he says, “it is ancient: the church’s worship is the heart of discipleship” (68) For Smith, it is the liturgy of the church’s worship that shall shape human desire rightfully towards loving God, people and His creation.

So, for Smith, the transformation of the person shall be rooted firmly in the church and starts with the liturgies of the Sunday gathering. It is through worshipping God that we grow to love God. “We become what we worship because we worship what we love.” Through gathering, listening, communing, sending we become different people. Through hearing the Word, confessing sin, praying together, communing around the Table together, praising God together for all He has done and given, we are shaped into His life and His image.

Think about how contrary Smith’s program is to the assumptions of modern everyday life. The post 60’s modern American assumes our desires, attractions, feelings and passions are located in who we are and these passions are what we must follow. Think how often you’ve heard “follow your passions” in a movie, at school or in a Sunday morning church service. Smith turns this assumption on its head. He says our desires are learned. Of course, there is a biological and even a psycho-social inherited component to what we desire. We all get hungry, for instance, as part of our biological nature. But the “direction” that hunger takes – what we hunger for – the telos of our hunger … is learned. The fact that I love fish and chips and Tim Hortons coffee has something to do with being raised in Canada in the 60’s and 70’s. The fact I eat three meals a day has something to do with being raised in the affluent West. What kind of food we crave, how much we eat and when, and how we appreciate, see and relate to food as the meeting of that appetite are all learned socially, culturally shaped, or, in short, via habit. This is true in some way or another of all our desires and loves.

Most post-60’s Americans hear ‘liturgy’ as a dirty word. Because authentic self-expression is the key to what is real, true and honest, liturgy must be confining. So, in the modern church, post 60’s, the focus has often been on authentic self-expression. How dare I be given words to say and have to conform to a worship structure as given to me! But Smith unwinds the romanticist construction of the self in such a way that we are alerted to all the ways we unknowingly are being shaped into the selves via the liturgies of the consumer and sexualized cultures of our day. We are given words to say, songs to sing, expectations to live up to, roles to play, we just aren’t as aware of it as we are in church these days.

An authentic self is impossible without a good Story from which to live and find one’s self. For Smith this Story is the story we have narrated in Scripture, God creator, creation, God’s people of Israel, Jesus Christ and His church, the restoration of the world. Smith helps us see how Christian worship trains us to gain a ‘feel’ for how to live in this Story. We learn how to see the world, confess our sins, appreciate the beautiful, find ourselves in God’s story in the world, the narrative ‘arc’ of where God is taking the world. All this we find by submitting ourselves to the worship of God’s people, His church. Much like practicing tennis (ala David Foster Wallace) helps us play tennis via a feel for the game versus a learned mechanical technique, so in regular worship, we learn how to live in and respond to everyday life, not by regular conscious thought, but with a Christ like ‘feel’ for the world.

Living in The World

But it does not end here, it must go out from this Sunday gathering into the various spheres of our lives in the world. Here Smith is pushing for a formation that goes beyond Sunday morning church services to an all-encompassing Monday through Saturday formation that “radiates from” (and this is important) and “is nourished by, the worship life of the congregation gathered around Word and table.” So, Smith argues that big ‘L’ liturgies from Sunday need to take shape as little ‘l’ liturgies during the rest of the week (113). He then talks about three places in particular where these little ‘l’ liturgies take shape: the home, education and work.

The home, he says, must be part of the larger household of the church. No family can be a church unto itself. Instead homes are shaped from the church and then back into the church. Families cannot produce their own happiness as their end goal or they themselves succumb to the consumerist formations of our larger culture. To idolatrize the family and/or marriage is surely to doom it for it cannot fulfil the promise of God’s purposes apart from the church. Our baptisms testify to the reality that the church is the first family and all other relations are part of (derived from) that.

As with family, so with education. Here Smith rehearses the many critiques of mega church Christian education and youth ministry that entertain children more than shape them. He rebukes secular schooling for educating for autonomy and instead suggests again that a liturgical life together – eating together, praying together, singing together, thinking and reading together – can form the context for educating children for the Kingdom in the world. He urges parents and teachers to parent ‘lovers’ not thinkers.

His last place of formation is in work. Smith sees work as a calling, a vocation (172) wherein we are sent out as ““restorers” who engage culture for the common good.” (180) Here in the world, shaped again by our gathered worship, we can see creation, understand and appreciate it, and submit to the Lord of all creation, as we take up our vocation for His glory. Christian worship, for Smith, is a “design studio” from whence we are sent out to become “innovators and designers whose actions aim at “changing existing situations into preferred ones.” (180)

In each and every station, Smith argues Christians need a liturgical audit of what is shaping our lives in relation to all these things. We need a return to historical liturgies that shape our loves of all of life into His image, His purposes, His beauty, His created order.

The Danger of Too Much Focus on Sunday Liturgy?

By this time some people might be asking, is there a danger to place so much emphasis on Sunday morning liturgy as the focal point for training Christians into the world? Have we asked liturgy to bear too great a load in the formation of our lives as Christians in the world? While this is all a much-needed corrective to the what has become “feel good pep rally worship” in the large evangelical churches, one must wonder whether the overemphasis on liturgy can lead to an ingrown church, focused on doing liturgy right and the church becomes enclosed, shut off from the world, speaking words the world no longer understands.

One of the first things to go in such a focus is the work of the Holy Spirit. Jamie Smith talks much about ‘the Spirit’ in his book. Indeed, he titles a whole chapter ‘The Spirit Meets You Where You Are.’ He works hard to display how the disciplines of the church’s liturgy are “conduits of the Spirit’s transforming grace” (Dallas Willard’s phrase). But there is still the inevitable temptation that comes with Smith’s heavy emphasis on the church’s worship: to believe that we are doing our job if we can just get the liturgy right on Sunday morning. The very next thing that often happens is we give into the temptation to think we are in control and the Spirit will cooperate with us when we ‘get the liturgy right and done well.’ Smith surely knows this danger and calls it ‘liturgical Pelagianism’ in the book. Nonetheless, I suggest the inherent tendency to do this happens with such a construal of the liturgy.

There’s been a history of the church mistaking the liturgy for the means to control the presence of Christ made real by the Spirit. This was the accusation of the Reformers against the Medieval Catholic church and its mass. This temptation lurks I contend with a theology of liturgical formation that does not properly tend to the dynamics of the presence of Christ by the Spirit in the sacraments.

I prefer, when talking about Christ’s presence, made possible by the Spirit in the liturgies of the church, to talk about the disciplines as making space for Christ’s presence to be manifest. In that we are submitting to Christ’s lordship in this space, He promises to be there present among us. Whenever we do not submit, when we seek to control him, he cannot be present because Christ does not come coercively but only as received as a gift. The liturgies on Sunday morning, are the practice of practices of Christ’s presence among us training us in how to become ‘subjects’ of the King in formation as we submit to Him in the receiving of the gifts of communion and the Word. This in turn trains us together to recognize and be present to His presence in the world. This is part of what I call the church’s ‘faithful presence.’

All of this to say, Smith’s book could lead to these default tendencies in the churches. He deals with these temptations only in brief. This leads me to my next and last post on Jamie’s book where I want to think through the ecclesiology he assumes in his book and how it works/or does not work to shape a community in Mission.

What do you think? Those who have read Smith’s book? Is there a danger in the role that liturgy takes in Smith’s book? That it domesticates the role of the Spirit? How does the church resist this temptation? How does Smith handle this temptation?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.