Against Liturgy: The Word of God is Enough

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I have written a few blogposts, but this is the first time I have ever shamelessly employed ‘click-bait.’ This post is not really an argument ‘against liturgy’; it is rather an argument against an over-inflated view of liturgy—but that wouldn’t have been quite as catchy a title!

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Michigan. He has written a very influential series of books in what he calls the Cultural Liturgies Series—Desiring the Kingdom; Imagining the Kingdom; Awaiting the Kingdom. In 2016 he released a more popular book You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit which is something of a summary of these three volumes.[1]

Reorienting Our Loves

His central thesis is that discipleship is not merely a matter of intellectual knowledge, but a reorientation of our loves:

In short, if you are what you love, and love is a habit, then discipleship is a rehabituation of your loves. This means that discipleship is more a matter of reformation than of acquiring information. The learning that is fundamental to Christian formation is affective […] a matter of “aiming” our loves, of orienting our desires to God and what God desires for his creation. [p.9]

This is a very helpful insight, and so much of this book challenges an overly intellectual approach to the Christian life. Smith also talks a lot about what he calls ‘cultural liturgies.’ So, if you go to a shopping mall or a football stadium or a university, he argues, you are actually participating in ‘liturgical structures’ that work to change your affections and desire—but in a way that actually ‘deforms’ you.

If you go to a shopping mall or a football stadium or a university, he argues, you are actually participating in ‘liturgical structures’ that work to change your affections and desire—but in a way that actually ‘deforms’ you

How are we saved from this ‘de-formation’?

You won’t be liberated from deformation by new information. God doesn’t deliver us from the deformative habit-forming power of tactile rival liturgies by merely giving us a book. Instead, he invites us into a different embodied liturgy that not only is suffused by the biblical story but also, via those practices, inscribes the story into our hearts as our erotic calibration, bending the needle of our loves toward Christ, our magnetic north. The Scriptures seep into us in a unique way in the intentional, communal rituals of worship. [83-84] (n.b. emphasis added here and below)

Scripture Plus Liturgy

For Smith, the Scriptures are the answer, but they work powerfully in us through patterns of worship. Smith is not denying the power of Scripture—at this point—but arguing that Scripture will only (or mainly) transform us as it is combined with the liturgical habit and practice of Christian worship. Smith develops this idea when he articulates the conviction that …

… the Word is caught more than it is taught. The drama of redemption told in the Scriptures is enacted in worship in a way that makes it “sticky.” Study and memorisation are important, but there is a unique, imagination-forming power in the communal, repeated, and poetic cadences of historic Christian worship. [84].

At this point, Smith is proposing something that most evangelicals would agree with. That the patterns of our church services are vital for embedding the Scriptures in us. Yet Smith’s book becomes very problematic in his application of this insight. Towards the end of the book, Smith describes the implementation of this approach in a Sunday school in a church in Nashville. He describes the Sunday school space as follows:

The usual flannelgraphs and Bible memory verse posters are conspicuously absent; in their place is something that feels like a worship laboratory of sorts. […] Here children learn the faith in ways that are more tactile than didactic. [139]

He describes the Sunday School room as having various ‘stations’ including one …

… devoted to baptism. Here, each week, children are reminded of their own baptism in tangible ways that draw out its significance: a white baptismal gown can be touched and asked about; water is there to wet their fingers, stirring sanctified memories of promises God made to them in the sacrament; the catechist invites them into this story again and again while giving them “something to do with their hands,” so to speak. Through their godly play, the gospel sinks in. [141]

There is also an image of a third-century statue of ‘of the Good Shepherd from the catacomb of Domitilla’…

… which connects the children to ancient Christians through the inheritance of art. This image evokes the powerful metaphor of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in a way that meets the eye and speaks to the heart [142]

Smith argues that this ‘imaged truth’ is powerful enough to carry with you the rest of your life. So, if you were to drift away from the church, it will call you back:

… what catches you short on some lonely evening of despair isn’t a doctrine that you remember or all those verses you memorised from the book of Romans. What creeps up on you is the inexplicable emergence of this image of the shepherd from the deep recesses of your imagination’s storehouse [142]

I do want to emphasise that I am highlighting a strand in Smith’s book—a book which is part of a larger series which, as I have noted, contains some masterful insights. However, the application that he describes here is deeply problematic.

Smith’s basic assumption here seems to be that the Scriptures are just like any other piece of information. That is they are inert and do not effect transformation unless they are supplemented by the implicitly more powerful practices of liturgy and habit.

Smith’s basic assumption here seems to be that the Scriptures are just like any other piece of information. That is they are inert and do not effect transformation unless they are supplemented by the implicitly more powerful practices of liturgy and habit. The theology of Scripture underlying Smith’s thesis at this point[2] seems to assume that Scripture has no innate power of itself. Although he absolutely believes that the Bible is the Word of God, it won’t transform unless it is combined with the liturgical practices that allow its message to be internalised. It does not seem to have any innate power in itself.

This is a sort of Montessori approach to Scripture. As Montessori schools eschew rote learning, so Smith believes that preaching, Bible reading and memorisation have been overemphasised. Thus, for example, reading and memorising John 10 with its description of Jesus as God’s good shepherd is not transformative but seeing an image of Jesus as a good shepherd is. At this moment Smith’s theology sounds more Roman Catholic than Reformed.

The Power of the Word

How should we think about this? We could consider a number of passages in both NT and OT that underline the power and efficacy of the Scriptures. We could, for example, remind ourselves that ‘faith comes from hearing’ (Romans 10:17), but one verse in particular I think is particularly relevant:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)

In the context (from 3:1-4:11), the author has been reflecting on Psalm 95 and its warning not to harden our hearts and so fail to enter God’s rest. He applies his exposition of Psalm 95 in 4:11: Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. Just as Psalm 95 was fulfilled with disastrous consequences—so that the earlier generation had perished—God’s word remains living and active. The author then gives the reason that this is relevant not just to the wilderness generation—but to the generation of the Psalmist, to the first readers of Hebrews and to us in 2018: For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.

Because Scripture is alive and active, because it is not simply a record of what God said in the past, because God speaks today in his word, Psalm 95 still speaks to us today. Scripture is ‘living and active’; Scripture is ‘sharper than any two-edged sword’; it ‘pierces’ and ‘discerns.’ Of course this description of the effect of Scripture reminds us that God expects us to respond to his word in faith and obedience. The message of Scripture is of no benefit unless it is responded to in faith (Heb 4:2) and with obedience (James 1:23).

What will call the wanderer back? What will strengthen the struggler? What will nurture children? What will encourage the mature believer? The living and active word of God. Do we need to think about how the liturgies of our services help people internalize the Scriptures? Yes![3] But these liturgies have to be built around the conviction that the Scriptures are ‘the word of God written’ and, as such, are powerful in and of themselves. We don’t need the false ‘liturgy’ of paintings or gowns to call us back to Jesus but the wonderfully powerful word of God.


See also Peter Orr’s (audio) talk on this subject at TGCA Victoria and Mark Baddeley’s review series of Desiring the Kingdom.

[1] James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016.

[2] I do want to stress that this is an aspect of Smith’s work and not something that is found in all his writing.

[3] See Gibson and Earngey, Reformation Worship: Liturgies From The Past For The Present, New Growth Press, 2018

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