In our last post, we looked at Jamie Smith’s presentation of the important role that liturgies, both secular and sacred, play in our lives. We spent a large portion of our time on an imaginary trip to the mall where we explored the liturgy of the market. We also attempted to grasp Smith’s anthropological description of mankind as human-as-lover that is central in his work. In this second part, we will walk through chapter 2 where Smith gives us a deeper explanation of the impact that our daily, embodied practices have on our lives. Also, we will examine chapter 3 where Smith explains the most significant liturgies in our cultural setting, which are the liturgy of the market, the liturgy of the military-entertainment complex, and the liturgy of the university.
Before we discuss liturgies, however, we must begin with practices. Humans are creatures who function in the world primarily at the level of love or desire. As such loving beings, we are creatures of habit. The habits that now make up our lives are actually the products of the thick and thin practices at work in our lives. Thin practices, according to Smith, are the mundane routines that pervade our daily existence, such as how we brush our teeth or how and when we choose to exercise. We do not often think about our thin practices, we just do them. This truth extends beyond our daily routine to other aspects of our lives. For example, the ethos of our work environment is presented in a set of thin practices. The things that we do to comply with the employee manual are designed to make us into “good” employees. Practices like the employee manual are shaping us at the unconscious level because a set of thin practices often coalesce into a more coherent set of rituals that are really formative, even if we are not aware of them.
On the other hand, we also have thick practices in our lives. These are meaningful actions we undertake in order to be transformed in their image. Practices like these carry within them a vision of the good life, and over time we begin to shape ourselves to fit this vision. Many of our thick practices come together to constitute a liturgy, and these liturgies become all encompassing and essential to our lives. Not all these liturgies are religious in a certain sense, but they do demand our ultimate allegiance or loyalty. Most of us actually lead compartmentalized lives where competing liturgies fight for our ultimate love. Smith points out that these competing liturgies form when our thin practices actually come together and form a liturgy that begins to influence us without our knowledge.
The solution to all this malformation and loyalty to the wrong kingdom is to realize that the church’s liturgy is the natural inoculation against the secular liturgies of our age. The church’s liturgy, however, has three very strong opponents in the current cultural landscape of the West. The market, the nation, and the university all want our love, our worship, and they have all gone to great lengths to ensure their dominance. Many churches, however, have not realized the significance of their worship practices as a counter-formation against the liturgies of the world.
In chapter 3, Smith discusses the three most significant liturgies in our cultural context. We have already discussed the liturgy of the mall in our first post, so there is no need to address that liturgy again. However, living in a post 9/11 world means that we have all been influenced by another strong liturgical force. A renewed form of nationalism has seen American military interest wed to the protection of global capitalism. Smith posits that the liturgy of nationalism helps cultivate a belief that violence and sacrifice are necessary goods. Surprisingly, Smith sees this liturgy at work in both blatant displays of military power, flag rituals and the ceremonies of our sporting events. He even sees this liturgy at work in the elementary classroom via the pledge of allegiance. Smith points out that the pledge functions as a creed, that is, it is a narrative that seeks to shape our lives and mold us into a certain type of people. This begs the question, are we teaching our families the creed? Are we shaping our household to be loyal servants of King Jesus, or do we really love another kingdom?
Smith identifies another competing liturgy at work in the American university system. This liturgy is somewhat different as it is not focused on the self-preservation of an institution. Rather, the liturgy of the university serves as an incubator for the market’s liturgy. It is in the university where we receive not only the information critical for our career paths, but also the formation necessary to be the type of people the market needs. The frantic pace and rigorous requirements prepare us for a life of service in corporate America. In higher education, we get our first taste of what it means to work without any hope of a Sabbath. This rigor makes us ready to participate in the liturgy of the extended work weak that places our families on the altar of sacrifice. Smith has given us three examples of alternative liturgies at work all around us. In our next post, Brian will walk us through Smith’s solution, which is a robust and energized Christian liturgy.
1. Now that we have seen the three major liturgies of our culture, can you look back and see how each of these have been at work in your formation as a person?
2. Which of these cultural liturgies do you identify as being the most influential? Do you find the emerging union of the nationalistic and market driven liturgies as problematic?
The Rev. Donnie McDaniel is a recent graduate of Southeastern Seminary and a recently ordained Deacon, but primarily he is a husband to Shannon and a father to Mackenna, Katie, and T.J. He serves in the Deacon rotation at All Saints and helps out in other areas as needed.