St. George's Institute
What’s So Good About The Good Life?

Have Christian educators gotten it wrong when it comes to forming students into followers of Christ who truly identify as citizens of his kingdom?  James K. A. Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, thinks so.

James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom presents a theory of human nature (a philosophical anthropology) that suggests that people are primarily loving and desiring, rather than thinking beings. As such, our identities are formed more by the practices that shape our desires than the information we are taught.  

He argues that the shopping mall (and other cultural institutions) have great power—even religious power—in shaping and forming us. To recognize that power, we need to go deeper than looking merely at beliefs and worldviews. We have to take seriously the central role of formative practices, what he calls in his book liturgies. 

Smith refers to these practices as liturgies not because of their similarity to the historic rites of the church, but because they reflect and direct our worship, love, and devotion.  The practices of Christian worship, as expressed in both the historic church’s worship patterns and its contemporary forms, do not merely reflect the person’s love for God and his kingdom.  They also orient that love toward a vision of the chief end of humankind. These practices end up defining how someone sees the ultimate goal of his existence, or, in Smith’s terminology, the good life.

By providing this picture of the good life, rather than just propounding heady propositional truths about human flourishing, the church’s liturgy reaches our heart rather than just our head.  It makes us into loyal citizens of God’s kingdom, rather than people who only think about God’s kingdom in the “right” way.

In order to see how these cultural liturgical practices orient our desires toward some end, Smith considers the secular liturgy of the mall, which “preaches” the gospel of consumerism.  A mall looks much like a large cathedral with many side chapels (stores), in each of which a transactional religion is practiced, where money is exchanged for icons (goods) that appear in pictures of the good life (ads).  These ritual practices, repeated in much the same way every time one visits the mall, orient the shopper’s desire, and thus his or her identity, toward being primarily a consumer of goods.  The good life is thus characterized by being always able to get new things.

This kind of identity runs counter to what the Gospel preaches.  Jesus instructed the rich young ruler to give up all he owned and follow Him.  One cannot serve God and money, but many of today’s mall-going Christians try to do just that, seeking happiness in material goods rather than the kingdom of God.

Some of the reasons for this disjoint are explored in chapter 3 of Smith’s book.  He argues that the mall, through advertisements that picture people enjoying a happy life, confronts its “parishioners” with the sense that there is something wrong, something broken, in their lives.  But the sin in this case is not against any traditional kind of God or good created order; rather, the mall identifies as sin a failure to consume enough goods, or the right goods.  The process of shopping and buying the goods that one “needs” to be happy is thus the mall’s ritual of redemption.  However, since goods are always consumed rather than just acquired, this process of redemption is never finished.  There are always new things to buy.

This doctrine of sin and redemption, as I’m sure you know if you’ve ever been to a mall, is not presented in propositional terms at all.  Rather, it is expressed in imagery and rituals that present themselves to our desires for fulfillment. It tells us we find happiness as we are formed into adherents of consumerism. That is the promised path to the good life.  This formation is so powerful because it affects our desires rather than simply our thoughts.

The conflict of this doctrine of sin, redemption, and the good life with Christian teachings on the abundant life is obvious.  Sin is a transgression of God’s law, not a transgression of some vendor’s profit margin, and redemption is a free gift of God, not an endless cycle of purchased commodities.  However, when these desires and ultimate goals come into conflict, consumerism can often more powerfully orient how we live our lives and how we relate to others and the world than our Christian worldview does.

Thus, the job of the liturgy and rituals of the Church, as a site of Christian counter-formation and re-education against the liturgies and formative powers of this world, is to present the Christian vision of the chief end of humankind. The proper object of our desire as Christians is not just something that is propositionally true.  Until our Christian educational systems start producing citizens of the kingdom of God who desire and love it, instead of producing citizens of the world with a propositional knowledge of who God is, we have failed to fully form our students in a Christian identity.

-Ed Powell

Christian Smith on the “moralistic therapeutic deism” of young evangelicals.

Guest Article: Daring to Dream

A couple of years ago, in the depths of a struggle I was wading through, my wife, Renee, gave me a little metal sculpture for Christmas that formed the word Dream.  I remember feeling some shame and perhaps some fear at the “suggestion.” At that moment my world felt heavy and it was difficult to imagine the end of the day, let alone envision the future.  


That sign now sits in my office where I consider it often.  It gently reminds me of the importance of keeping my eyes above the commotion of the world that surrounds me. It helps me remember that there is something greater.   
I have been considering the idea of dreams a lot in recent weeks—and the importance of anchoring my dreams in the truth. As I do, I have been meditating in and around Psalm 139, the psalm that gives an intimate look at how wonderfully the Creator has fashioned us. 


 Because we are created uniquely, there is a specially formed place in this world we were meant to inhabit, and there is something we alone were created to do. As we endeavor to love, enjoy and explore God, we gain a clearer picture of the form, essence and nature of our place. It’s in that dialogue and relationship that true dreams are born.


 Enter the challenge: The Fall (our desire to live independently of God’s design) dropped a bomb on this world. We now live in the murky, desolate ruins.  It’s broken, and no matter what we do and how hard we try, ultimately we can’t fix it. Oh, the modern world tries, working feverishly to mask the ruins with any number of formulas or distractions, determined to keep us from facing the truth of the situation, and our own need for deliverance. 
 For this season our planet has been allowed to be taken hostage by the enemy of our souls. Scripture points out that this enemy prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. I believe it has a special appetite for the dreams of God’s children because those dreams realized become signposts to the world that is to come.  But each of us was created to bring something unique and wonderful into the yearnings of this world. When we do, we join God in his creative, redemptive work. We become a healing force in our culture and we create a signpost to the world that is to come.


 Recently, I rediscovered this quote from “Letters To A Young Poet” by Rainer Marie Rilke. He writes to someone who has asked for his opinion on what he’s written:


 You ask me whether your verses are good…You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now…I beg of you to give up all that. You are looking outward and that above all you should not do now. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart…This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must’, then build your life according to this necessity.


 The encouragement, “Go into yourself. Search for the reason…” when applied to the heart where Christ resides, implies a deep dialogue with the lover of our souls who wants to see us wholly restored and empowered to create something of value to the wider world.


 When we walk in what we are—what we are uniquely created to do, it is beautiful—and when we bring something beautiful and place it in midst of the ruins of this world, It reveals Christ’s work of redemption—and ultimately reveals a glimpse of the world that is to come.


 So the question I have is this: Do you know what you were created to do? And are you doing it?


 It won’t be easy (try to do something beautiful in a world that encourages mediocrity and you may dodge sniper fire). But it is what you were meant for. 


 Invite your Creator—the lover of your soul to dream with you. He will lead you on a path that will allow you to join Him in pointing others to the glory of the world that is to come. 


 That makes for a great dream.


 John Farkas is the Executive Director of CREATE Nashville. He is working to inspire and equip artists, creative catalysts and patrons to join in the process of creating extraordinary art that reflects truth and brings life to our community and our world…

In Theory the Theoretical is Never Merely Abstract

Reposted from www.fisharewet.org by the Rev. R. Leigh Spruill, Rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville

As one whose modest aspirations through this website (www.fisharewet.org) are to encourage Christians to think more vigorously about philosophical and popular assumptions shaping contemporary culture, I am in danger occasionally of divorcing thinking from the actual patterns and practices of daily life. It is necessary to remember that thinking about culture can never truly be separated from embodied habits and material forms. To a very large extent, we do what we think, and we think as we do.

Among contemporary and accessible Christian authors helping us understand the inextricable link between ways of thinking and “real” lived life is Andy Crouch whose 2008 book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling continues to be one of my most highly recommended books for other Christians interested in cultural discernment. Crouch reminds us that Christian engagement with culture is more than mere philosophical analysis. It involves active and creative participation within the forms and practices of a given cultural context.

Similarly, I have recently been introduced to Georgetown University political theorist, Patrick Deneen, via Ken Myers, Executive Producer of the aforementioned Mars Hill Audio Journal. In a summary posting of Deneen’s work (http://www.marshillaudio.org/resources/article.asp?id=174), Myers notes that “theorists in the best tradition are people who enable us to become ‘other-wise,’ encouraging us to realize that the way we live life isn’t the only way it could be lived, and may not be the best way we could live.”

I have perused several of Deneen’s postings on his own blog site and find him a helpful resource on how to apply political theory to contemporary political and social realities. That link is here: http://patrickdeneen.blogspot.com/

Heard at C3

Mako Fujimura, plenary presenter at C3, told of how Emily Dickinson used a small desk for all her writing—a cherry desk just 17 1/2 inches square. “You only need a small desk to change the world,” Mako said.

But, Mako went on to say, make sure you use it only for writing, not for also paying bills.

Make it dedicated space for your work and art.

Speaking of a wider culture’s tendency to depersonalize and dehumanize, Mako spoke of the role of the artist as being transgressive. “Being fully human is one of the most transgressive things we do.” I think by that he meant there is something countercultural about our attempts to humanize the world through art and expression. "Art,” he says, “has always been this transgressive, quasi-spiritual journey."

He went on to say: “I always tell pastors to listen to your artists. They ask hard questions because of their sensitivity. But the question they ask the rest of the church will be asking in five years.”

Mako: "We have a language to celebrate waywardness, but we do not have a cultural language to help people come back home." But we can help people find that language. He said how as a boy, "Every time I painted, I was drawn into a world that was bigger than I could express. … I knew that there was someone or something calling me to this."

Christian Smith’s Yearning for Young People

One of the most striking comments Smith made on Friday of our conference was that mainline Protestantism’s most powerful effect is to inoculate their young people against a committed faith. I found that unsettling!


C3’s second plenary speaker, acclaimed author and Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, headed a major research project to understand the faith profiles of both youth and emerging adults (ages 18 into the 20s). He has documented this in his books Soul Searching and Souls in Transition.

And he asked, What is the actual, functioning religion of most American teenagers? While a bit of a mouthful, it is, he said, “moralistic therapeutic deism” (a phrase quoted recently in the national media):

  • Moralistic: Religions are valuable in that they impart certain moral principles common to most faiths, which help society to function better: compassion, honesty, generosity, etc. However, in moralism, the distinctive faith elements, such as Jesus in Christianity, are of only secondary value. (“Attack moralism wherever you find it,” he said, “because that is what the culture is mistaking for your faith.”)
  • Therapeutic: God is only relevant when people find themselves in a crisis. During those times, God may intervene to assist, much like a fire extinguisher during a fire. 
  • Deism: God is usually uninvolved in daily life. Faith may involve assenting to certain beliefs, but those beliefs do not drive people’s lives.

Here are the characteristics of this “de facto” faith:

  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to heaven when they die.

Much of Smith’s talk focused on emerging adults. “EAs” are not hostile to religion, but they do not necessarily find it relevant, as they see churches primarily as elementary schools of basic morals, which are no longer needed after those morals are imparted.

Smith’s research also indicated that most youth still believe the myth of the conflict between faith and science. They feel that science is based on facts, and it typically trumps religious beliefs, which are based on feelings and personal preferences. The individual self is the ultimate authority for many.

But this hopeful note: Young people have a yearning for connection, a yearning for the transcendent. They look for something that will raise them up out of the mundane. They look for the sacred for a spiritual something, or a community.

Later in the day, in the workshop, Smith offered responses. Tips for parents: turn off the TV, give 10% of income to the church, and eat dinner together. Invite guests over for meals and have long conversations with them and your kids into the evening. Also, Smith mentioned that the involvement of a father makes a very significant difference in the faith of children, since men are typically less religious. He also emphasized the importance of adult involvement. For each additional adult involved in a youth’s life, the likelihood of the youth maintaining a healthy faith increases significantly. However, adults typically need to take the initiative to develop the relationship. Finally, churches need to critique moralism and allow space for youth to ask questions.

So a question for discussion: What should our response to such research be?