Not that Kind of Baptist

in Lent

The Liturgy of the Mall

What practices and rituals shape who you are as a human being?  Answering that truthfully requires time and the capacity for self-examination.  To prepare for the season of Lent, I propose that we do just that.

I just finished an interesting book by Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith called Desiring the Kingdom. The chief claim of the book is that Christian worship should function as a counter-liturgy to the other liturgies of formation which are active in our lives. There is, by way of example, the liturgy of the mall. The mall, with its overstimulated images of alleged human perfection, tells us that we are broken.  Our out of date shoes and clothes mark us as outcasts in a consumer economy.  We can literally purchase our way into community.  We are never prompted to ask of the mall "Where does all this stuff come from?" (101)  And therefore, "[t]he mall's liturgy fosters habits and practices that are unjust." (101).  

The book, written in 2009, is already outdated in an Amazon driven shopping economy.  I'd like to see it rewritten with an eye to the liturgy of the smartphone.   No doubt, the conclusions would be the same: we are always being formed in powerful ways by the things we spend time with.  

But hold on, you say...I thought liturgy meant religious ritual or the music and words we sing and say on Sunday morning.  Smith defines liturgies as "rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations" (86).  

Understood in this way, there can be a liturgy of the mall, a liturgy of Christian nationalism, etc.  Quoting theologian Stanley Hauerwas on Texas football is emblematic of the book's claims: "As is well known...Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas" (106).   I remember as a young student going to high school basketball and football games.  Everybody was expected to stand and place their hands over their hearts and remove their hats.  If you have trouble conceiving of these ritual acts as liturgical acts, think about what would happen if you refused to participate, or as Smith puts it: "Just try to remain seated at the next playing of the national anthem" (107).    

Actually, we wouldn't have to think hard about what would happen.  Our news has been suffused with examples of this kind of liturgical defiance.  You can quickly determine which liturgies have the most powerful hold over practices and imaginations by tracking the degree to which it is considered a sacrilege of the national religion of patriotism to kneel during the anthem.   Smith claims that most Christians fail to see any tension between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Christian nationalism.  Why? "[B]ecause, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies" (107).   

Imagine an uproar about whether the Doxology was sung with gender inclusive language.   That might stir up some drama in a committee meeting, but it's hard to imagine that in the world outside the church, anybody would really care.  That people care so deeply about the ritual of the national anthem is a sign of how powerfully formative the liturgy of American nationalism is.  This is just by way of example, and no doubt you could identify other formative liturgies.   

All of this talk of what forms us led me inexorably to self-examination.  Especially insightful was this exercise which Smith calls "A Practices Audit."  He asks the reader to pose these questions:

  • "What are some of the most significant habits and practices that really shape your actions and attitude--what you think and what you do?" 

  • "What does your time look like?  What practices are you regularly immersed in each week?  How much time is spent doing different sorts of activities? "

  • "What do you think are the most important ritual forces in your life?" (84)

Take some time and try to answer these questions.  What kind of liturgies shape who you are?  Lent is merely a week and a half away.  Now is a good time to begin the journey of self-examination and communion that Christ calls us to begin.  


Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: liturgy, lent

I Am Not Yet Discouraged

Scan the headlines and try not to be discouraged.  This is our task.  I struggle with that, and so I offer this remedy:  draw comfort and inspiration from holy texts and profound thinkers.  The lectionary epistle reading from 1 Corinthians for this coming Sunday has Paul in his favorite mood: apocalyptic.  A new set of interpersonal and social relationships are now warranted “[f]or the present form of this world is passing away.”  (1 Cor. 7:31). 

With the threat of nuclear war again raising its ugly head, with every tweet and news alert sending a frisson of anticipated calamity, we may feel as if the world is indeed passing away.  But Paul’s hope was in the coming eschatological kingdom of Jesus, not in nuclear annihilation.  His hope was in a kingdom of peace, not nuclear winter.  The temptation of violence is to reduce our ethical decision making to kill or be killed.  Paul’s temptation—far more laudatory—was to imagine that God's vision for humanity was being inaugurated today.  Imagine what a difference that would make in our ethical understanding?   

Writing almost 58 years ago in The Christian Century, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reflected on the power of nonviolence.  “In a day when sputniks dash through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, nobody can win a war. The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence.” (The Christian Century, April 13, 1960).  A free version of the essay--to which Dr. King apparently made some edits-- can be viewed here, courtesy of The King Center. 

He wrote that in April 1960.  In a few months, the Cuban Missile Crisis would unfold, the hostilities in Vietnam would explode, and in three short years, the President of the United States would be shot down by an assassin. 

But King had already faced systemic oppression, racism, violence, and injustice by 1960.  It was not as if he were writing as a young naïf, awaiting the older generation’s “just you wait” condescension so he could become cynical like them.  His embrace of nonviolence and his opposition to the war in Vietnam grew more strident in the years leading up to his tragic death.  He wrote this by way of conclusion: “In spite of the tensions and uncertainties of our age something profoundly meaningful has begun. Old systems of exploitation and oppression are passing away and new systems of justice and equality are being born. In a real sense ours is a great time in which to be alive. Therefore I am not yet discouraged about the future.” 

We are invited to join the Apostle Paul and Dr. King in the distinctly Christian view of time and justice. This present world—with its sinful systems of injustice and oppression—is passing away.  How might we stand in the gap as heaven and earth crash together, standing for nonviolence and justice in a world which has little patience for either?  With God’s help, I am not yet discouraged about the future.   

Is it time yet?

         The marking of a new year on our calendar exerts a power on our imaginations.  Suddenly, the lethargy and cynicism of the dwindling days is wiped away.  We begin to think of new habits and practices, new disciplines and stories.  Every year I come up with a series of overly ambitious resolutions.  Get in shape is always on the list.  One year it was learning a foreign language.  Another year it was reading specific books each month.  

        I find that my plans are almost always overturned a few days into their execution.  I have no idea how these statistics were determined, but according to one article, 40% of Americans make New Year's resolutions, and only 8% keep them.   The passage of time as a marker of hope is literally perennial.  In the time it takes for the Earth to make one orbit around the Sun, we have made plans, failed, and then made them again--perhaps dozens of times.

         The Bible has its own language of time.  In the beginning, are the first words.  We are left to imagine if there was time before the beginning.  Jesus' first words in the Gospel of Mark are "the time is fulfilled..."  When Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection in Acts they wanted to know "is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?"  There is God's time--known as kairos--and ordinary chronological time--known as chronos time. 

           The human need to control and manage chronos time gets us into all kinds of dilemmas.  We feel the need to forecast the end with apocalyptic schedules.  We wonder if this is the right moment to act or to be silent?  We become experts at procrastination and delay.  

        The poet known as Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes writes that "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. "   Jesus was born "when the fullness of time had come" according to Paul (Galatians 4:4).  And he died for the "ungodly" at just "the right time" (Romans 5:6).

         Hardly anybody knew that the time was full at Jesus' birth.  Seemingly nobody knew that it was the right time for Jesus to die.  God apparently is working on a different timetable than we are.  I'll still make my resolutions, and perhaps I'll follow a few this coming year.  But I will take solace this coming year in the hope that God might just do something surprising and new in God's kairos time.