Liturgical Lathes: Exposing Modern Temples with Their Faux-Gospels

latheI suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry—which promises an erotically charge transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination—is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology then much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they ‘get it’: they rightly understand that, at root, we our erotic creatures—creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret.
– James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 76 –

What is Augustine’s secret?

In my first post on this subject, I traced James K. A. Smith’s argument that we are more than just thinking beings. We are loving beings, people of deep desires, who are powerfully shaped by our habits and practices (hence homo liturgicus). As Augustine put it, there exists within humanity, two kinds of cities—the City of God and the City of Man. And each city is driven by a particular kind of love; one ordered by the kingdom of God, the other by the kingdom of this age. This is (part of) Augustine’s secret, one that he discovered himself as he came out of a lifestyle of deep sexual sin.

In truth, made in the image of a God who exults over his people with loud singing (Zechariah 3:17) and burns with fire in his righteous jealousy (Exodus 20:5; Hebrews 12:29), we are a people of great passion. Passions are what drive us, and our bodies (with their faculties of thinking or acting) serve as instrument to express and carry out these passions. Accordingly, it is impossible cultivate virtue or eradicate vice with mental effort alone. We must “learn to control our bodies” (1 Thessalonians 4:4) and use our bodies as instruments which bring God glory (1 Corinthians 6:18–19).

But how? If our imaginations and affections are impacted through our bodies, what sort of practices and habits must we perform in order to walk in holiness? And are practices and patterns enough? In the next three blog posts, I will argue that

  1. we must identify false temples of worship (what Smith and Taylor call social imaginaries) and eclipse them with the greater communion in God’s temple;
  2. we must cultivate habits which water the implanted Word, which means
  3. we must rely on God to perform heart surgery through regeneration, and then alive in Christ
  4. we must set the trajectory of our life along the rhythms of covenant, communion, culture, and co-mission.

Tables of Demons? Today?

In 1 Corinthians 10:21, Paul warns the Corinthians that they are eating at “the table of demons.” Apparently, the strong in Corinth enjoyed table fellowship (koinonia) in the temple precincts. And not just when leftovers were being served, but when sacrifices were being offered. In other words, the functionally Gnostic Corinthians who knew dogmatically that “idols do not exist” (8:4), were fooling themselves into thinking that eating the food offered to idols would not impact them because, after all, idols don’t exist.

Paul counters by saying that those who eat at these tables are eating and drinking judgment on themselves. For while the idol has no spiritual power, compared to and under the Risen Christ, the practice of eating and drinking at these tables still impacts Christians. It confuses the world, it tempts younger believers, and it creates affections for things that are not gods. As Psalm 115 teaches, those who worship idols become like them. Just the same, those who knowingly sit down to eat food offered to idols bend their hearts away from the Lord.

It is tempting for us to believe that if we teleported to first century Corinth we would clearly identify and avoid the problem. And because of that we can easily detect and avoid our modern tables—only there are no demonic tables in our day, right? Of course there are; it’s just a matter of identifying them.

Helpfully, Smith puts us onto at least three “secular liturgies,” places and spaces which “capture our hearts by capturing our imaginations and drawing us into ritual practices that ‘teach’ us to love something very different from the kingdom of God” (88). In his chapter, “Lovers in Dangerous Time: Cultural Exegesis of ‘Secular’ Liturgies,” he lists malls, sacrificial violence (a military entertainment complex), and universities as “imaginaries” whose rhythms and stories shape our hearts, even as we self-identify as Christians. Let’s consider one of these (the mall) and add one of our own (the smart phone). In our day, these are the temples that tempt us, and like Paul instructed in Corinth we must (re)learn how our identity as God’s holy temple resists secular temples and shapes our use of these modern venues.

Two False Temples

First, consider the liturgy of the mall.

While a mall might not look very religious, “there are no pews or pulpit, . . . we don’t kneel and pray in the middle of the atrium” (93), don’t mean that worship is absent. Smith reminds us that

Worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity—they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us. They also inculcate particular visions of the good life through affective, precognitive means, and do so in a way that trumps other ritual formations. (93)

Indeed, when I was teenager, going to the mall was a huge deal. When I attended a suburban middle school, (habitual) presence at the mall enabled you to hang out with the cool kids. When I moved to a rural high school, trips to the mall were more remote, but purchasing power of popular brands was no less important. Today, I live within a mile of two malls, and I would suspect there are some who identify themselves by their respective mall. And if not the mall, then the brands they buy. The market gives us meaning, and hence our patterns of life shape our identity.

Smith gets at this when he outlines the mall’s gospel.

  1. “I’m broken, therefore I shop. . . . Implicit in those visual icons of success, happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment [which are strewn throughout the mall] is a stabbing albeit unarticulated recognition that that’s not me” (96). The same is true in any televised or online advertising scheme.
  2. “I shop with others. . . . Despite being a site of congregation and even a venue for a certain kind of ‘friendship,’ [the malls] practices inculcate an understanding of human intersubjectivity that fosters not community but competition; it inscribes in us inhabits of objectification rather than other-regarding love” (97–98).
  3. “I shop (and shop and shop), therefore I am. . . . The goal of shopping is the acquisition of goods and the enjoyment of services that try to address the problem, that is, what is wrong with us . . . but here’s the dirty little secret, . . . when the shopping excursion is over and all the bags are brought into the house . . . we find that we’ve come back to the same old ‘real world’ we left” (99).
  4. “Don’t ask, don’t tell . . . the liturgy of consumption births . . . in us a desire for a way of life that we can’t feasibly extend to others, creating a system of privilege and exploitation. . . . The mall’s liturgy fosters habits and practices that are unjust” (101). Just where did that product come from? How can they sell it so cheap? Whose hands ached to make all those Christmas lights? The mall teaches us to “don’t ask; don’t tell; just consume.” (101)

Can you see how a doctrinally sound Christian, one who attends church regularly, reads the Bible daily, and even shares her faith might still become shaped by the culture of the mall? Shopping at the mall does not have to shape our lives in this way; we will talk about ways to resist the temptation. But truly anyone who does not see the mall as a sanctuary for consumerism and a house of worship littered with demonic tables is fooling themselves. Unless we enter the mall with a mindset of spiritual warfare, it’s overpowering message and secular liturgy will bend our hearts away from Christ.

But it’s not just the mall; it’s also the mass marketing device we take with us wherever we go. You know, the one, that just buzzed, tempting you to interrupt every conversation and prolonged train of thought. I’m talking about the smart phone and the way in which a million innocent swipes of the finger is loosening our grip on Christ.

Second, consider the liturgy of the cell phone.

If the mall invites ‘worshipers’ into its premises, the smart phone puts a table full of idols in your pocket. Much like mega-churches imitated the big-box, one-stop-shop approach of malls in the 1980s, many other churches are following the digital trends today. Debate regarding the effect of church practices modeled after ever-changing culture models is not my point here. Rather, I want us to consider the effect that innocuous use of cell phones has on us.

Putting aside all pornographic and illicit uses of smart phones for now—a massive soul-crushing enterprise of the devil—the ever present companionship of our pinging, vibrating, illuminated smart phone is changing us. And like the mall with its faux-gospel, the smart phone (and any new technology) presents us with “gospel hope” that competes with the true gospel.

Consider the gospel of the smart phone.

  1. Creation: The world is filled with things to know, do, explore, and talk about. In a word productivity (i.e., knowledge, communications, information) is good, cool, and useful.
  2. Fall: Our finite minds, limited time, and distant spaces keep us from productivity. We need more information, faster ways to work, and techniques to overcome our distance.
  3. Redemption: Enter the smart phone. Technology is the key to boosting productivity. It is the solution to your problems. (In another version of the iPhone gospel, the smart phone becomes our savior to boredom, to insecurity, or to loneliness).
  4. New Creation: If you accumulate the right tools / technology, you’ll create a utopia.

As is often the case, idols work . . . for a while. And in this device, we even find a mirror of some of the most important commands in Scripture: ‘subdue and rule,’ ‘be fruitful and multiply,’ and ‘redeem the time for the days are evil.’ The only trouble is that what can be a powerful tool for good, also changes our habits and practices, which in turn alters are heart and mind.

Perhaps one of the most important lessons about using any tool is Newton’s Third Law of (Technology): “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Whenever we work with a tool, the tool by necessity works on us. One example, when the printing press was first used, it would be operated by a man with one bulging shoulder. But, of course, “one bulging shoulder” was not put on a job description. Instead, this shoulder was created through the (over)use of one arm, as the printer pressed down the stamp of the machine. In other words, machines work on us, even as we work on them. (This point was brought home to me in reading the book From the Garden to the City: The Redeeming and Corrupting Power of Technology by John Dyer).

So how does the iPhone do that? Consider six effects of the smart phone, as enumerated by Douglas Groothuis, author of The Soul in Cyberspace.

  1. We are becoming like what we behold.
  2. We are ignoring our finiteness.
  3. We are multitasking what we should be unitasked.
  4. We are forgetting the joy of embodiment.
  5. We are losing interest in the gathered church.
  6. We are growing careless with our words.

I’m tempted to comment on all of these symptoms of our digital age, but that may be result of too much absorbed information from my phone. To simplify, it’s enough to suggest that as people made of human clay, a million touches of our computer screens will not leave us unmarked. Unless we are cognizant of the impact that reading news on Twitter has on us, we will not be able to properly respond to sorrow. How can we appropriately grieve the news of Christian martyrdom, for instance, when it is immediately followed by a hilarious GIF.

Forget the content of your social media for a moment; the medium is by definition post-modern—news by way of social media is a storm of unconnected, meaningless information that you the reader must organize and authorize to make any sense. What could be more postmodern? More over, the incessant bombardment of advertisements, games, and information, make it impossible to focus on the moment or hold any serious thought—a necessity for Christians worship, discipleship, and fellowship. How do we process this?

While smart phones provide incredible deep gains for productivity, they have also hollowed our emotions, shallowed our speech, and altered our rhythms. How often do I leave a meeting and reach for my phone, instead of praying? How often am I distracted in conversation by a ping or buzz? How often do I evade memorization, because google is a click away? And this is all before the next step of technology, wearable and implanted technology. In short, the devices we purchase to serve us will become our masters if we do not take great care.

Oh Lord, help us not be conformed to the patterns of this technologically-rich world, but rather discipline ourselves so that we might use these tools as means to greater godliness.

What Do We Do Now?

In truth, I don’t think the answer to our modern world is moving in with the Amish or returning all our ‘smart’ gear. It may be for some or for a time, but in order to fulfill the Great Commission we must learn to live in this world with the people who are ensnared to the idols of this age. And thus, for us, we must learn how to live, move, and have our beings, without losing our souls to the secular liturgies of malls and smart phones. In truth, we must see how these created things are modern day temples which entice Christians to come and eat from their tables.

Smith’s observations regarding secular liturgies are helpful to see these dangers, but we must go further and consider how communion with Christ and with his people are necessary to resist secular liturgies. Our first step is to identify them as places of worship, but second we must pursue intentional patterns of identity-forming practices and habits that God has given us to make us more like his Son. Indeed, we who have made idols that entices our hearts will not be able to remake ourselves in the image of God, but by God’s grace and his Word, we do have all that we need in order to establish rich rhythms of life that shape our hearts and minds to embrace Christ more and more. This is where the battle must be won. And to that end we’ll return tomorrow.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds