Smith: The iPhone Liturgy

To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as “available” to me and at my disposal — to constitute the world as “at hand” for me, to be selected, scaled scanned, tapped, and enjoyed… We perhaps nonetheless unconsciously begin to expect the world to conform to our wishes as our iPhone does. Or I implicitly begin to expect that I am the center of my own environments, and that what surrounds me exists for me.

James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 143.


Imagining the Kingdom with James K. A. Smith

After hITKcoverolding my breath for 3 months until the spring semester was over, I’ve finally started reading James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. It’s the 2nd installment of his “Cultural Liturgies” project and follows what could be the best book I’ve read in several years: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. You can find my extremely brief summary of that book right hereYou can find a great review of Imagining the Kingdom over at the Englewood Review of Books.

What does Smith have in store with this book?

The focus of this second volume is to home in on these themes, further exploring the shape of a liturgical anthropology in order to articulate a Christian philosophy of action that (1) recognizes the nonconscious, pretheoretical “drivers” of our action and behavior, centered in what I call the imagination; (2) accounts for the bodily formation of our habituated orientation to the world; and thus (3) appreciates the centrality of story as rooted in this “bodily basis of meaning” and as a kind of pretheoretical compass that guides and generates human action (p13-14).

Hmmm… that sounds nice and all, but what exactly does it mean?

In short, the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story (p14).

Ahhh… much better! Smith wants to help us understand what really causes us to do what we do. This is important because the life of Christian discipleship is not a “spectator sport.” It’s full contact and, as John Wimber would say, “Everybody gets to play.” We are all actors, agents, the movers and the shakers. We are a sent people who are caught up in the missio Dei – the mission of the Triune God (p3-8).

Smith is particularly interested in how we are shaped by “secular liturgies” (like going to the mall) and the role of Christian worship as a practice that re-shapes or re-forms us over against all the ways we are formed by the practices all around us. In addition, Smith is concerned about re-framing the paradigm of Christian education, universities in particular, from an “information” model to a “formation” model. Basically, Christian education and Christian worship are preparing us for the same thing: our participation in the mission of God (p3-8). But, how does this formation happen?

Smith’s response to this question has me uber-excited about finishing this book:

And this is how worship works: Christian formation is a conversion of the imagination effected by the Spirit, who recruits our most fundamental desires by a kind of narrative enchantment – by inviting us narrative animals into a story that seeps into our bones and becomes the orienting background of our being-in-the-world. Our incarnating God continues to meet us where we are: as imaginative creatures of habit. So we are invited into the life of the Triune God by being invited to inhabit concrete rituals and practices that are “habitations of the Spirit.” As the Son is incarnate – the Word made flesh meeting we who are flesh – so the Spirit meets us in tangible, embodied practices that are conduits of the Spirit’s transformative power. The Spirit marshals our embodiment in order to rehabituate us to the kingdom of God. The material practices of Christian worship are not exercises in spiritual self-management but rather the creational means that our gracious God deigns to inhabit for our sanctification (p14-15).

I can dig it.

Body with a Bias

One phrase that stuck out from our sermon this morning was this:

Sexuality is not neutral.

The quote was actually “Sexual immorality is not neutral” but I kind of think that is too narrow – all sexuality is not neutral. Since sexuality includes everything about our bodies as males and females, our bodies are not neutral. But what does it mean to say this? What exactly is “not neutral” about our bodies? Neutral with reference to what?

Neutral basically means impartial, unbiased, not committed, and unaligned. So, being “not neutral” implies some sort of bias, a specific direction, a desired end to which a person or thing is committed – it means picking sides.

When you use words like neutral or biased, you always have in mind a certain continuum of choices about certain objects, ideas, or people. You can’t just be biased about nothing. You need an object towards which you can be biased. So, what is my object of bias? As a follower of Christ, my bias is pretty clear: the Kingdom of God. If it brings good news to the poor, binds up the brokenhearted, proclaims freedom for the captive, brings sight to the blind, or sets the oppressed free, well – you can count me in! I am all kinds of prejudiced when it comes to proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor – JUBILEE YALL!

Going back to our original statement, we can expand a little:

The things we do with our bodies reveals our bias, our preferred direction, our desired end.

As followers of Christ, that desired end is the Kingdom of God. More than the clothes on our backs, the food in our bellies, and the roofs over our heads, we are to seek this Kingdom and its King. The question becomes: how do we do seek the Kingdom with our bodies?

Now, you may be thinking: “Well, everything we do to seek the Kingdom involves our bodies; our brains, our mouths, our eyes, our ears, etc.” Yes, you’re right. I hear you, but that’s not really what I’m trying to get at here. My question is not about how we use our bodily senses to seek the Kingdom; I want us to think about how our bodies reflect the Kingdom.

Another way this question has been posed is this: how do we honor God with our bodies? As I ponder on this, I’ll be using an article by Ruth Haley Barton entitled Flesh and Blood Spirituality. I’d recommend reading the whole article if you get a chance. I think this is a good place to start:

The Scriptures also seemed to indicate that it is possible to glorify God in our bodies rather than merely glorifying the body (the focus of the surrounding culture) or ignoring the body (the focus of the religious subculture).

Human bodies matter to God; they always have. They matter because they are integral to God’s good creation. We are stewards of God’s goodness and our first matter of stewardship begins by looking in the mirror. In her article, Barton highlights the importance of the body throughout Scripture: she begins, as I’ve just mentioned, in the Garden but adds that our sexuality is good as it allows us to “experience God as One in whom there resides a powerful longing for union and oneness”; she mentions how David praised God for being “fearfully and wonderfully made”; she points to God’s Incarnation in Jesus Christ as the ultimate sign of bodily sacredness; she recalls that Jesus’ last hours with his disciples were spent teaching them a practice that would forever remind them of his body and blood; she ends by noting the Christian hope of bodily resurrection. Bodies are a big, big deal.

Since our bodies are indwelt by the Spirit of God, they are sacred places. I guess it was good for Moses to take off his sandals – God wanted those holy toes to feel the holy ground on which he was standing. Of course, we have to remember that qualifying phrase: bodies are sacred because God has chosen them as a dwelling place. Do we care for our bodies as if they were sacred spaces? Do we get enough rest? What are we feeding ourselves? Do we get enough exercise? Too often, bodies are thought of as “necessary evils” – just decrepit shells that need to be thrown off so we can experience freedom from pain and limits. On the contrary, our bodies our essential to our spirituality, to our being transformed into the likeness of Christ for the sake of others. Our bodies have a bias. Do we embrace are good, created, God-given limits, or do we constantly try to live like gods? Do we treat our bodies like machines or like plants growing in a garden?

Honoring God with our bodies certainly includes our sexuality because our sexuality is part of our created nature. However, we shouldn’t reduce our bodies to sex organs. God wants all of our bodies to be reveal God’s new creation life. All things are being made new, all creation is being made whole. This includes our bodies.

Have you stopped to think what bias your body is revealing? Remember, bias reveals desire and desire will end in worship. The real question is this: who are we worshiping with our bodies?