Catching a Love for the Good Life | Week 35
By: Andrew Collins
By: Andrew Collins
If you’d asked me a month ago what the largest church in America is, I’d have guessed Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, TX, which averages north of 40,000 attendees every Sunday.
If you asked author and philosopher James K.A. Smith the same question, I suspect he’d answer the Mall of America, or perhaps the National Mall in my former city of Washington, D.C.—each of which draws tens of millions of visitors annually.
These obviously aren’t churches, technically speaking, but Jamie contends that America’s malls and monuments are functionally religious places. They exert an effect on our hearts, shaping our habits, our desires, and our vision of the good life just like the church has done for two thousand years.
The next time you’re in a shopping mall, for instance, take a moment to exegete the liturgy it bids you to participate in. Look at the ideals it holds up in advertisements showing how having a certain product will make your life good and happy. Observe how going shopping at the mall is often a social outing that creates a semblance of community around comparing who has more fashionable accessories and external adornment. See how the hallways are adorned with icons inspiring us to a certain way of living, and how each store’s products are presented in almost transcendent glow of light and color.
I was reminded of how powerful this liturgy of consumerism is while streaming a March Madness game with my roommate. At TFA we don’t have a TV in our house, and our idyllic, isolated home at Osprey Point is blissfully free of most of the advertisements that suffuse modern life. Yet as the game paused for commercial breaks, I thought about all the television I watched growing up (it was less than most kids, thanks to my parents, but still substantial). This sudden onslaught of advertising I was exposed to during the game reminded me how there was a time in my life years ago when I deeply desired to drive a nice car, own a sweet gaming system, and drink lots of Mountain Dew. My loves had been shaped by the liturgies of consumerism piped right into my living room.
Even though I’ve been trying to avoid filling my life with such advertisements, I’ve come to see more clearly during my time at TFA the many ways that modern rituals still have a pull on me. In my research into digital media for my thesis project, for example, I’ve looked at how my iPhone trains me to expect the world to come to me on my terms. This tiny yet powerful device suggests to me that the good life is frictionless, offering easy access to whatever (or whoever) I want, whenever I want it. Whenever I’m in the same room as my phone, it appeals to me constantly.
Too often, said Jamie, Christians are ignorant of these powerful cultural liturgies, paying lip service to them as neutral things that we can use or abuse depending on our heart motive. This is true in an important sense–God cares most about our heart motives–yet it is also important to recognize that the things themselves and the way they are presented to us have an affect on the disposition of our hearts in the first place.
This is because human beings are ultimately “desiring creatures,” Jamie said, not “thinking things,” as our modern rationalist sensibilities would have us believe. It is our desires, habits, and dispositions that control us and dictate how we move about in the world. As Switchfoot sings it in the song “Lonely Nation,” lamenting our culture’s rampant materialism: “We are the target market. We set the corporate target. We are slaves of what we want.”
So, what do you really want? It’s important to consider this question as we think about church and the way our worship services are conducted. What really matters is not only what we affirm doctrinally, but how our liturgies among the people of God shape and recalibrate our wayward loves. We can take a cue from the classical understanding of virtue—what we Christians would call christlikeness—which as Jamie likes to say is “caught rather than taught.”
This is something that many ancient cultures, including the early Christians, understood well. According to Aristotle there are two main ways to learn virtues. First, one learns through imitation: doing what the just man does. We see the biblical truth of this when the Apostle Paul calls his readers to “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
Second, one learns virtue through practice: giving oneself over to rhythms and routines that redirect and incline the heart in a certain direction. The biblical notion of discipleship and discipline is predicated on this. It’s why the writer of Hebrews calls us to run the race before us with endurance. Growth into the people God calls us to be takes sustained effort over time. At the end of the day faithfulness is what counts.
“Keep your heart with all vigilance,” says Proverbs, “for from it flow the springs of life.” Let us, therefore, be vigilant in practice, vigilant in repetition, and vigilant in imitating the faithful who have gone before. For in doing so, we will aim our hearts toward the One without whom we will be restless until we find our rest in him.