Finding an Answer I Wasn’t Even Seeking
Back in November I went to what my husband calls my “Bible geek conferences.” While reconnecting with friends from all over the world is probably my favorite part of these meetings, the exhibit halls full of “Bible geek books” runs a close second. I usually go with a shopping list, planning to pick up some of the pricier books I need for my research since the publishers have some great discounts.
This year was a bit different, though. Since I’m wrapping up my dissertation, I’m starting to think about my next project. I had some vague ideas, but I really just spent most of my time browsing. Think Barnes & Noble on steroids, full of theologically oriented books.
As I walked through the aisles, several books caught my eye: particularly the three books in James K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series. It didn’t take long for me to decide these were “must-haves.” Over the holidays, I finally had the chance to start the first book: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.
Desiring the Kingdom isn’t necessarily an easy read and won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. Smith digs into philosophical and anthropological scholarship, examining issues around human nature, worldviews, Christian education, and the role of worship in spiritual transformation. That said, his book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit makes the material accessible for an everyday, non-academic audience. If it’s half as good as Desiring the Kingdom, it absolutely needs to make it onto your “to-read” list for 2020. (In addition to Carmen Imes’ Bearing God’s Name that I talked about a few weeks ago.)
Why do you need to read Smith’s work? Well, for me he addresses one of my key questions about Christian spiritual formation: why are we not being transformed as much as we would hope and expect? I’m not the only one who has this question. It echoes an observation by the apostle Paul:
19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.Romans 7:19–20
The Chicken or the Egg: Which Comes First?
Any of us who have tried to break a habit or exercise our willpower have probably experienced this. We know that cheesecake is bad for us. I know that I’m trying to lose weight and avoid dairy more generally, but I can make all kinds of excuses about why it will be OK—just this one time of course. I can forget about the Christmas cookies I had after lunch. I am driven by the taste, which is more important in that moment than any logical reason I have not to eat it. Bottom line? Willpower only gets any of us so far.
It can be the same with sin. Something in us finds the temporary experience of the sin more compelling than following God’s will. We desire the fallen world more than we desire God’s reign. Here, Smith suggests that our habitual practices don’t just reflect our desires, but that our habits actually shape those desires. (He calls these formative, habitual practices “liturgies,” which can be either “religious” or “secular.”)
Building on the formational role of our habits, Smith explores the ways that the habitual practices (liturgies) of Christian worship can re-shape our desires and our understanding of what comprises “the good life.” Fundamentally, Smith suggests that Christian worship has the capacity to reshape our vision, creating in us a desire for God’s kingdom. By changing our perception of what is good, we wind up changing our actions.
This quick synopsis gives you an idea of where Smith is heading and why I think his book is so valuable. Of course, the question remains about why those of us who go to church every week are sometimes not growing as we’d want. We’ll dig into that next week, but in the meantime, go pick up one of these books!
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Photo is courtesy of Jennifer Brown Jones.