In observing how practices and rituals comprise most of our habits, even in “the mall” (which he describes as a sort of center or “chapel” of cultural practice), Smith aims at Christian Education for its failure to recognize that it’s true goal, formation, happens “affectively” and much more thoroughly to us by our cultural “schooling” that permeates the habits of “secular” society. (More on “secular” later)
This line grabs me as a central thrust of the book:
Could we offer a Christian education that is loaded with all sorts of Christian ideas and information – and yet be offering a formation that runs counter to that vision?
p. 31 Desiring the Kingdom
A similar question posed form a slightly different angle occurs to me: Is it true that churches are actually offering a different/counter formation, or a formation at all? I am reminded of David Fitch’s book “The Great Giveaway: Reclaiming the Mission of the church from Big Business, Parachurch organization, psychotherapy, consumer capitalism, and other modern maladies”. Fitch would seem to be answering Smith’s question in the book quotation above with “they seem to be leaving formation up to the devices of other cultural forces, and trying to combat all those formative forces with ‘learning’ that is focused on information and intellect. “ So I suppose that the “formation that runs counter to that vision” is not offered, but rather “given away” or “farmed out” to the cultural forces, while we hammer away at the “learning” by offering ideas and opinions we hope will “cancel out” the effects of the “wrong ideas”. Hmmmmm.
Smith seems to be gearing up in the intro to take on the church’s habit of succumbing to this “passing on of information as formation” idea; this “handing over” of the “ways of life” to rhythms and practices that are taught in the culture, and that these practices are seemingly just accepted as “the way things are” and natural; transparent as formative forces. They’re “transparent” because the church falls into the Western trap of thinking of learning and education as exclusively “of the mind” and ignore the formative force of habit and the shaping of desires.
Smith also sees, rightly I think, that culture – secular culture — is also religious. It has a “liturgy” — “practices” that “school” us; that form us, in ways much OTHER and DEEPER than “thought” or “opinion”. So Smith suggests that there is, in fact, no culture that is “secular”. There is a telos or end goal to all “cultural liturgies”. Much like his earlier work, “Introduction to Radical Orthodoxy”, where “theology” is not just a category for the religious institutions, but the national ones as well. National ideology has a “theology”, regardless of their protestations that they are “neutral” on religion.
So, just 31 pages in, I already feel confident about recommending this book. Much more to come. If I can get a good scanning and OCR setup connected at my desk here, there will be several more quotes.
(update: I found this blog post about Desiring the Kingdom, where the author comments extensively and an interesting discussion ensues.