Last night, at the LICC headquarters on Vere Street, I had the privilege of hearing Jamie Smith (JKA Smith) speaking on the subject of “Restor(y)ing the Imagination.” It was completely inspirational, and although it covered material that he deals with in his books Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom and You are what you love, it was done in a highly pastoral and wonderful way (with much humour but without footnotes, thankfully!).
He began by telling us his story of how he got into philosophy (citing Alvin Plantinga’s Advice to Christian philosophers as the groundbreaker in his decision to move from pastoral to academic work), but then launched into the lecture:
God has made us as makers, as creators, cultivating creation. We are cultural labourers, unfurling and enlarging the possibilities of God’s desire, which He trusts us to do in a range of occupations. We are all part of that great undertaking, of that great work. If we are made to be makers, then what must be the foundation to our lives if we are to do that successfully? How are we remade in Christ so that we can help remake the world?
Jamie advanced three theses, that he hoped we would subscribe to before he hit his main points:
- You are what you love.
- You might not love what you think.
- You make what you want.
You are what you love. If we are to be equipped to live life well and to be the makers and cultivators of creation, then to have that in our heads is not enough. The cognitive stance, the worldview-focus, is not adequate for the task. If we are to be transformed to transform, we have to attend to desire, to hope, to hungerings, to cravings and to what we long for. Jesus’ first question in John’s gospel is “What do you want?” (Jn. 1:38). This is also the first question we need to ask ourselves of our own discipleship. This question bubbles up from our heart, driving us, rather than our discipleship deriving from a trickling down from our head. We need to learn to want what God wants for the world, and that must involve a deeper formation than simply the intellect. God wants to recruit the heart’s affection, not simply change our minds.
We might not love what we think. This is because our fundamental desires are not just the product of our thinking, but are habits of the heart instilled in us by practices we give ourselves over to, and have given ourselves over to. We all know that there is a significant gap between knowing the right thing to do, wanting to do it and doing it. We can easily see, in such moments, that our heart has been coopted by rival visions of the good life, by rival “liturgies” that determine our life path. (This is straying into Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, which he refers to a lot in the books, but wisely left out last night!). What, asked Jamie, are the rhythms and rituals of our culture, and what in our culture does flourishing look like? We can measure the impact and deviance of these “cultural liturgies” by asking “do these look like, lead to, encourage, shalom?” What liturgies are recruiting our affections, and which ones, in doing so, bypass our minds completely?
We generally are not attuned to the extent of our own deformation. The liturgies of our culture come pre-loaded with their own values and rituals, to which we may not even recognise that we are subscribing. We may see them as neutral, when in fact they are not. We are called into our workplaces as a light to the world, to the nations, so we have to learn to recognise which of these liturgies we have already subscribed to, in the world, and then become intentional about what God loves, giving ourselves to the practices and disciplines that encourage that. Being intentional is really important. Practices become practices through repetition. Nothing in spiritual formation happens quickly!
You make what you want. “Making” bubbles up out of what we love, therefore we have to very careful in the curation of our hearts. Our hearts ultimately need to be wedded – and welded – to what God wants in the world. Curating our heart therefore involves being intentional about the loves we give ourselves to, the rituals and the routines we participate in that articulate a love for God in the world. So then we eventually become a people who love what God loves, who want what God wants through worship and in mission, for His creation. In worship we see the story that He wants to tell and be told, and come face to face with how our hearts have been captured by rival affections. As we practise these practices and curate our hearts carefully, so chasing after what God wants becomes natural to us.
How does this curation of our hearts happen in worship? The people of God are caught up in the missio dei – the sending of God. The Spirit of God is recreating us and restoring us to bear witness to all of creation. When God chose us to be image bearers, it wasn’t so that we could look like Him, a bit. He was setting up a rival to the idolatries of the world – the images of gods in stone and wood of the surrounding nations. YHWH had a sanctuary already – the whole of creation, the cosmos (akin to Tom Wright’s work on God’s view of creation as a temple), and unlike the stone and wood of the nations, God’s image-bearers are alive! We bear His image by cultivating the earth, stewarding the creation, creating a culture, doing the work of Him who sent us. Thus the narrative arc of our worship is sending. Go, God says, cultivate, make more humans, fill the earth. We are sent out to act, as ambassadors of another city, with an embodiment of the foretaste of shalom.
In worship, we are not putting on a performance for God, or pleasing Him by being there – he is not an audience – but we are joining with Jesus and the angels in the intercessions to, and glorification of, the Father. And when we go, we are still with Jesus. Go into all the world, God tells us, and I will be with you always, in mission and for your blessing. This kind of worship rehearses Genesis 1 and 2, where we learn to be image-bearing Christians in the creation, echoing the commission to humanity to glorify God and cultivate creation. Rather than being “image-bearers” (as a noun), we image God as we fulfil the creational mandate. Thus we don’t enter worship for refuelling. We are sent as people suffused with God, with His presence spilling over into our daily lives as a side-effect of having been in His presence.
Worship is a centripetal gathering around word and table for a centrifugal sending out. There is no false dichotomy between worship and mission. They are one and cannot function one without the other. We worship for mission, we gather for sending. We are reformed in the cathedral so we can reform the world outside.
Worship and formation. We have to be intentional about our own formation. We cannot sustain the image-bearing work in our lives on our own. Worship forms and changes us. God in worship is getting hold of us to change the affective core of who we are, and the rituals and practices of worship are designed to do just that. This means that we have to have our imaginations transformed.
We all grow and walk with a learned, tacit, implicit story, of what constitutes meaning, goodness, the good life, and our place and purpose in the world. We hardly refer to it, but it is at our affective core. All humans – not just Christians – are animated by this story that governs our lives. It may never ever be articulated, but remains as a habitus, a set of governing affections mediated through practice. We are lovers, narrative animals, with a storied imagination. Because of the power of this, our calling, in order to have impact and motivation, must be rooted in this imagination.
In worship, God is sanctifying our imagination. He is restoring it by re-storying it! If we are to be agents of the coming kingdom, our imaginations have to be conscripted by God. Conviction is not enough. It has to be lodged and moved in our imaginations. The reformation of our loves is more like the changing of a habit. We have to do new things. We have to learn to live into the story, at the level of our gut. This is why immersing ourselves in the scriptures is so vital.
Cultural liturgies tell stories and offer us a vision of the good life, and they are designed to recruit our affections, our loves, our longings. They paint a picture of the life we might want to live, so we want to join (by buying their products, for example) and be in their story. So to undermine the work of these cultural liturgies in our own lives, we have to give ourselves into a community that is articulating a new, godly story. To understand a story we have to have a body. AI experiments have shown that even sophisticated AI can’t understand a story that a 4-year old human can. Stories, when told to us as children, always had actions, facial expressions, physical nuances that were part of the story. So we need the counterformation of the body of Christ, simply because our own imaginations are pulled and wooed by competing stories of what the flourishing good life is, often completely non-consciously. Because we tend to fail where the battle lies, we need the worship of the gathered body of Christ as an imagination station.
The formative power of cultural narratives cannot challenged by didactics, because narrative is pre-formational, and has captured our imagination rather than convince our minds: this is why advertising using image and film is so powerful in forming us, defining concepts such as “the good life” or “leisure” for us. The biblical story has to be brought to the level of the gut, through tactile, embodied ways in the Body of Christ. (In the early church, crossing oneself and giving one another the holy kiss – often fully on the lips – did this re-formational work, as Alan Kreider has shown).
Confession and absolution is an example of such a tactile practice. We could embody it more in our churches through kneeling to confess and rising to be absolved. This is a powerful necessary practice, a useful counternarrative to the “you’re OK, I’m OK/just believe in yourself” narrative that the world maintains in order to feel better about itself. Mercy and absolution are countercultural, and need to be embodied with a form of words or with physical posture that reminds us of what has just happened and its reality.
Consumerist narratives offer nothing as comparable. Buying another product will improve your life for a time, and make you feel better for a time, but the narratives have no interest in offering you mercy: they want your unfulfilment to remain, so they can sell you more stuff. As Jamie says in one of his books – Apple don’t want to sell you an iPhone. They want you to long for a better newer iPhone.
Other practices that could be embodied in our churches are those that bring the sacraments to life, where Jesus promised he would be actually present: communion and baptism in the Protestant tradition. If Jesus is going to reform us in worship through our attention to practices, then these are wonderful places to begin. John Calvin used to say that all services should end with communion, to give people an understanding of God’s presence with them just before sending out to the world. “Prayers of the people” is another practice, which can be shared with congregational members. In Jamie’s church, prayers of the people begin with a prayed concern for real situations experienced by church members, then concentrically out to their neighbourhood, to their city, to the nation and to the world. This has a huge impact on transforming minds and hearts toward what God wants. All participate.
Other practices were the use of the liturgical calendar, as a way of living into the story of Jesus throughout the year; the laying on of hands in prayer which offered a genuine spiritual impartation of God’s power and affection; the use of the lectionary to ensure that the whole church heard the whole story of the whole scripture; and finally, one that he found useful: the laying out of people’s purses and pocketbooks on the altar, to ask God’s help in seeking more ethical and godly ways of using their finances.
Jamie is also editor-in-chief of Image journal, and he reminded us of the importance of arts in previous generations in recruiting the imaginations of the people. This is something we need to do again, because of the power of image to lodge in our imaginations.
When questions arose after his talk, there was more teaching, some of which I have integrated above. One question touched on the need for “relevance” to those who visited churches, because of the strangeness of many of the liturgical, formational practices he was advocating. Jamie’s answer was that our gospel is actually quite strange anyway. Like Austin, Texas, whose motto is Keep Austin Weird, we need to keep Christianity weird.
But in that, be hospitable and fully explanatory. People long for a transcendent experience of the divine that they cannot control, and for friendship that speaks to epidemic of isolation and loneliness. In being faithful to God and each other through these practices, we feed our imagination and can offer to the world a companionship and a way of understanding God that will bring them to Him. Articulation and explanation is critical! And not only to visitors but to ourselves, to remind us of what is happening to us when we take part in these practices. The church is a centering community, not an exclusive one, where the biblical narrative is rehearsed intentionally and communally.
A question was raised about the role of enchantment in our culture, and how re-enchantment is needed in the church. Jamie was very straight in his reply. Enchantment was less of the issue than was a deeper learning of a biblical vision of the cosmos infused everywhere by the Spirit of God. There are also enchantments of a less godly type, emanating and motivated by the principalities and powers, which seek to capture and enchant our imaginations. We need to rely on the Spirit to reveal this to us all the time, as the mechanical determinism of much of our culture effaces something really crucial to being human. This will also help in re-imagining and restoring hope to the church. To recover it fully we need to recover an eschatology that feeds a godly hope which in turn feeds all we do in our lives. The scriptures are opposed both to a nihilistic despair and to a progressivist confidence. Hope is a trusting in God who can do something. We also need to recover a sense of lament in our churches, to help us express anger, heartbreak, despair, because it is intertwined with the hope of God’s answer in Christ.