In this third installment of his review of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (See part 1 and part 2), Mark Baddeley explains how Smith’s book can help us think more deeply about how we are shaped by the patterns of our lifestyle.
In my last post I talked about some of the ways Desiring the Kingdom helps us understand human nature. Here I want to talk about how it can help us understand the relationship between that nature and what we do: how our practices and habits rewire our hearts for good or ill.
1. Exposing Subversion
First, Desiring shows how our society’s practices work to reshape our fundamental desires. If we think of ourselves only as rational thinking-machines, then we’ll see our actions simply as an expression of our core convictions—the expression of what we believe. In that case the key to change is to focus on changing our beliefs; once that is done our behaviour should change more or less automatically. Where there is no change, it’s a sign that we don’t really believe what we think we believe, or that we can’t work out its implications for life.
But Desiring refutes this with an exegesis of the shopping mall. In a section that is worth the price of admission, Smith explains how the shopping mall seeks to turn the customer into a worshipper of commodities. In malls, shopping ceases to be a necessary chore and becomes an end in its own right. The experience of buying things becomes a good in itself; the shopper’s core desires are reoriented so that he or she becomes a worshipper of the goods that come through buying stuff. And, as Smith points out, shopping malls have this effect without ever offering an argument or offering an argument for the mind to digest. They simply reprogram the heart through the rituals they set up.
This is a powerful point and sheds a lot of light on one of the big challenges to discipleship in a post-Christian age. So many of our society’s practices, cultural habits and public spaces are set up to cultivate our love toward certain goods—usually goods of consumption, self-expression, individual choice, pleasure. Yet these are often toxic to more distinctly Christian goods of self-denial, humility, love, purity, perseverance through suffering and the like.
None of this involves the exercise of reason. There are no arguments to be identified or critiqued; the effects are simply built into the practices themselves. No degree of critical reflection can entirely prevent the effect—our regular habits can reshape our desires all on their own.
2. Educating the Heart
Second, Desiring helps us to see the problem with reducing education to a matter of knowledge and skills. Education—specially theological education—should be about creating people who love the kind of good that is the object of that kind of study. It should foster practices and disciplines that open students up to that good and so they can be transformed by it.
This sounds impractical—our instinct is that education should be about equipping workers for the job market (even the church market). But actually this kind of education is deeply practical. The best practitioners in the long term will be the ones who have learned to most profoundly love their discipline, and who have had their lives redirected to its pursuit. Ultimately it’s not those with greatest innate talents but those with the greatest love who invest themselves most deeply, and excel in, a discipline.
Desiring thus gives us helpful tools to navigate the controversial realm of education and theological education. It offers us education as fundamentally a heart-shaping exercise; with knowledge gained, and skills learned, as servants of that greater, and far more demanding, goal.
3. Cultivating Deeper Ethics
Desiring also helps us think more deeply about right and wrong. It shows us that it’s not sufficient to ask whether a practice or action is sinful (though that’s a necessary question); we also need to think about how the practice is changing us.
Is it inherently sinful to shop in a shopping centre? To play computer games? To be involved in social media? Clearly not. Is there any absolute gospel obligation to learn to read, or to learn to focus your attention on something, or to try to learn what’s involved in contributing to the flourishing a community? Again, no.
Yet many Christians have raised concerns about getting involved in the former three practices either at all, or too deeply. Similarly, it’s fairly common for Christians to prioritize reading skills, concentration and focus, and community flourishing even though none of these are distinctly Christian or gospel virtues.
Desiring justifies some of these intuitions. It reminds us that many practices, while neither inherently wicked or automatically godly, train us in ways that make it harder or easier to pursue the goods held out to us in the gospel. In evaluating them we can’t just look at their inherent moral value, we also need to ask what kind of person they aim to fashion us into.
Once we start thinking like this it is likely to change our attitude to a whole host of secular and ethically neutral practices. Some we might choose to draw back from. Some we might renegotiate—for example, we might shop, but deliberately resist the idea of shopping as end in itself. Some we might pursue in a new way for distinctly Christian reasons. This assessment can then vary from person to person—what might work well for one person would be deeply problematic for another, what might be a strategy to assist Christian formation in one Christian family would be ineffectual in another.
The insight offered by Desiring motivates us to be intentional about the way we live. It encourages us to hone our lifestyle and shape our practices so that they will shape us.
Reflecting on this has helped Jennie and me reflect on decisions we have made over the years in our family: to not have a TV but to buy DVD sets of TV shows we or the kids want to watch so we can have more control over our watching and reduce the impact of advertising’s ability to reprogram our hearts; to prioritize reading novels aloud to our kids (and in time to have them share that reading aloud with us); to play board games together as a family (think Settlers of Catan rather than Monopoly); to try and take time to ride bikes together as a family. There are Christian reasons for these decisions, even though the activities remain, at heart, completely secular and ethically neutral. Desiring has helped give us a framework to prioritise some secular and ethically neutral practices over others without turning them into all-encompassing moral requirements that are mandated for all Christian families.
4. Cultivating Corporate Culture
Finally, Desiring gives us a framework to see the importance of corporate practices. We are social animals, and so many of the practices that we must engage in our social ones, we can’t just do things as individuals. Hence, there is a real need to form a distinctly Christian social life whose practices support and encourage the virtues and loves that lie at the heart of a Christian walk. Our church life should similarly be intentional to help mould us from the heart outwards as followers of Christ.
In the final two posts I want to flip the discussion over and highlight some of my disagreements with Desiring and sketch out some different paths it has stimulated me to think about compared to where Smith seems to want to take us.
Photos: CKOOa, Michael Howe-Ely (inset); flickr