12 January 2018

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 6.0

(You can read my comments on chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 of "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology" (AtK)  hereherehere, here, and here.)

Chapter 6 of AtK ("Contested Formations: Our 'Godfather' Problem") extends across a long 43 pages (compared with a mere 13 pages in the preceding chapter). It begins and ends strong but the lengthy middle tries to cover a lot of ground and fails fully to develop its arguments. Its lengthy middle may keep some folks from the fundamental--and excellent--point of the chapter.

Chapter 6 begins with Smith's description of "The Godfather" problem: if liturgical character formation is all it's cracked up to be, then how do we account for its obvious and stunning failure in the life of fictional character Michael Corleone? Smith succinctly describes a scene from The Godfather that depicts the contrast between the baptismal liturgy of his young child and the simultaneous series of hits on his enemies ordered by young Michael. As Smith explains,
While I extol the formative power of historic Christian worship practices, it would seem that there can be--and are--people who have spent entire lifetimes immersed in the rites of historic Christian worship who nonetheless emerge from them not only unformed but perhaps even malformed.
The frank acknowledgement of this conundrum introduces the long middle section of Chapter 6 where Smith leaves behind Oliver O'Donovan's careful theological work and turns to the race-informed sociology of Calvin College grad Willie James Jennings. Jennings is the real deal when it comes to the origins and meaning of race in Western society. Even more than we see in Smith's reliance on O'Donovan for his political theology, however, we see his dependence on Jennings for his understanding of the place of race. This isn't to say that Smith (channeling Jennings) is wrong but only that we don't really hear Smith's voice for many pages.

Coupled with the derivative nature of his sociology, at least some of Smith's prescriptions for the role of a pastor seeking to re-form the Christian characters in a congregation are unhelpful. For example, to counter the deforming effects of nationalism, Smith suggests a service of anti-nationalism on the Fourth of July (although he acknowledges to so might cost a church much of its congregation). Heck, I've been in churches where it took years of education before removing the national flag from the worship space. Perhaps Smith wrote tongue-in-cheek but modifying long-practiced modes of worship involves more patience than sociology.

More broadly, Smith urges that leaders in congregational worship "'read' the practices of the regnant polis, to exegete the liturgies of the earthly city in which we are immersed ... [on a] local and contextual level." Exactly how do we expect the average pastor to do this, at least in a way that's not simply pandering to the SJW side of evangelicalism?

Here's my liturgical 2 cents: how about having worship leaders stick to worshiping in accord with the Word and even doing it twice every Lord's Day? After all, restoring a worship-bracketed approach to Sundays would double the formation opportunities and help combat the idolatries of spectator-consumer-consumption.

At last, Smith comes to the end of Chapter 6 and makes an extremely important point: ecclesiastical liturgy is not about character re-formation. Let me quote Smith here:
Finally, the argument about the centrality of worship and the importance of historic Christian liturgy is not, ultimately or only, a claim about effectiveness. In other words, Christian liturgy is not just a strategy of discipleship or an instrument of formation. ... Worship is ultimately and fundamentally a theocentric act, commanded and invited by the King.
Amen. While worship done well, thoughtfully, and regularly should mold the loves of its participants, worship is not a means to such an end. Its end (telos) is God and it is the Triune God we worship "who will ultimately transform us and hence undo the injustice we've wrought."

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