As I continue to work through Barry Harvey’s Can These Bones Live?, I’m consistently reminded of Jamie Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” project. Both Harvey and Smith argue that the church’s worship practices are formative for her people, both in their growth in Christ-likeness and in their witness to and mission in the world. The liturgical life of the congregation is thus vital for the believers’ ability to live in the world while not being of the world, especially since, as Smith in particular is at pains to demonstrate, every culture has its own liturgies that compete with the church’s. In the West, and particularly in the US, consumerism, materialism, and therapeutism are drilled into our brains through the repeated patterns in advertising, television and movies, and even the shape of our cities. The pull of the immediate, the pleasurable, and the stimulating is always on a screen, whether it be an electronic billboard or a TV or a smartphone.
The church’s practice of Word and table, of proclamation and participation, smacks in the face of our Western cultural liturgy. Instead of feeding on instant gratification, celebrity culture, self esteem, and visual stimulation, we feed on the Word of God as it is read, prayed, sung, preached, and tasted. Instead of seeking a city that is already here, which we have built, we are constantly reminded of a city that is to come, whose author and builder is Yahweh. We are not the products of the moment, YOLO-ing ad nauseum, but the heirs of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the new Adams and Eves bought by the second Adam, the new Israel, the new Temple of God, the bride of Christ. We stand in the long tradition of those called out by the Spirit of God, conversing with and learning from Athanasius and Augustine and Anselm and Thomas and Calvin and Wesley about how to speak about the Triune God and his work for us. As we read and pray and sing and preach the Scriptures, we are reminded of who we are in Christ, not who we are on social media. As we recite the creeds we are reminded that we are not products of the moment who finally arrive at the truth but heirs of the Great Tradition. As we partake of the Lord’s Table we are reminded that we are a purchased people who are put into fellowship together by our fellowship in Christ and who await his return in glory, not a social contract or a homogenous interest group or a political lobby with no real hope and no real foundation. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup we are reminded that our nourishment is God and God alone, not fast food or gourmet food or sex or power or self esteem. As we give, we are reminded that our money is not for own pleasure and gratification, and indeed is not even our own, but is given to us as stewards for the advancement of God’s kingdom through the proclamation of the gospel. And that task, that Great Commission, is something we are called to each week in the benediction, as we are sent out together to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with all who will listen, whether near or far, so that they too might sit with us and feast.
As both Harvey and Smith state, the effect of the church’s repeated worship practices is thus to form believers’ imaginations. How Christians perceive the world is impacted by how they worship. Further, as Harvey notes in chapter 4, as Christians hear the Word and see the Word in worship, their imaginations are formed primarily in scriptural terms. Their perception of the world is shaped by scriptural images and stories instead of by the culture’s images and stories.
A few implications come to mind as I think through both of these men’s work:
- Intentional, repeated worship practices are vital for the health and growth of any local church. (I’m grateful to be at a church where what we do in worship is intentional and repeated; more on how we incorporate some of these practices in a later post.)
- In Harvey’s explanation of shaping the Christian imagination, he says that we should look to scriptural types to understand our current situation (e.g. the African American civil rights activists looking to the Exodus narrative). He then also cautions against misappropriating types, such as Eusebius of Caesarea’s application of messianic OT language to Emperor Constantine. I’m unclear how he distinguishes a correct and incorrect application of scriptural types, so while I’m sympathetic to his discussion of shaping Christian imagination, I’m cautious about appropriating his call for a typological reading of current events in the church.
- I can’t help but think of the swath of mass shootings that have occurred over the last two decades, and their seemingly rapid increase in the last five, and of our culture’s attempt to explain them. In my mind part of the explanation lies in how we form and shape the next generation, and right now our culture forms people through a barrage of gratuity, whether violent or sexual, instant gratification, self worth, entitlement, consumerism, and therapeutism. That’s a bad mixture when someone with a gun isn’t feeling great about themselves or their peers.