(Counter-)Culture(s) and Christian Praxis
Sometimes threads come together. If you've been reading here for a while, you'll have picked up that one of my ongoing strands of thought is, "how do we become people of virtue, people for whom doing good is habituated?" In more recent months, I've been exploring the writing and thoughts of James KA Smith, and his argument that we are more heart-oriented-loving-creatures than we are thinking-things-with-bodies-attached, and the complement to this that our hearts are oriented by thick habits, shared 'liturgies', which shape our loves. Thirdly, when I'm not listening to audiobooks, I listen to a (relatively narrow) range of podcasts and sermons and these past few weeks I've been spending a good deal of time with some of Tim Keller's preaching.
So this past week and a half I came across a sermon series by Keller, "Practicing the Christian Life", which is predicated on the idea that "beliefs don't necessarily change our lives and behaviour, but Christian Practices or Spiritual Disciplines are a means by which the gospel works itself out in our Christian life, by the shaping and changing of our heart.
Here's the series of ten sermons (Worship, Singing, The Word, The Bridge to Prayer, The Supper, Led by the Spirit, Forgiveness and Reconciliation, Community Building, Spiritual Friendship, Self-Control, Hospitality).
Now, don't feel like you should/ought go and listen to ten sermons (though obviously you can if you want), but let me invite you to go and listen to just one that piques your interest. All of these have Keller at his most Kelleresque - you'll hear how he turns each of these to the issue of the heart, and see how Jesus and the Gospel are the thing that matters most and changes us most thoroughly.
One of the problems with Smith's work about formation and liturgy and Christian life is that even though he construes 'liturgies' very broadly to mean "shared cultural practices involving ascription of ultimate meaning", it often reads like he means "go to a traditional service that has a traditional liturgy", which is in danger of missing some of his point. Though, let's pause here and say that I really do think we lose a lot when we lose traditional liturgy. To take two examples:
I did not, strictly speaking, grow up in the church, but my formative post-conversion years involved about a decade of attending an 8am prayer-book service with robed choir, and an average congregation age probably around seventy. There is something about every week hearing the Law read, and then Confessing, and then Absolution. And that something is not merely didactic - it's not "by the way, did you know you are sinners? And that you need to confess? And that you are forgiven?" That's what Smith is getting at - you can be told this, you can know this in your head, you can believe it as an intellectual 'thing', but it's another thing to regularly and ritually be shaped by that. That's what confession in a liturgy does.
My other example is the exchange of peace. I can't remember the last time I was in a church that did this. Not just "say hi to someone around you", but a hearty shaking of hands or other tangible sign and declaring "Peace be with you". It is a liturgical practice with deep roots, the 'kiss of peace', found in practically all major streams of Christianity, and having roots in the New Testament, where in five separate epistles believers are told to greet one another with a holy kiss. It is a sign of the peace that we have in Christ, the reconciliation and deep communion among us, and the welcoming of each other. All that is lost when we lose these practices.
Instead, we get a vision of Christian formation that is reduced (at least in some of my circles) to "read your bible and pray". I can recall one minister whose sermons I could fairly accurately summarise as "Here is the meaning of the passage. And the application is bible + prayer". Well, to be fair, it seems that Christian life is often reduced to four practices: read your bible, pray (i.e. are you having an evangelical Quiet Time daily?), come to church (to gain intellectual head knowledge through a sermon), and evangelise your friends (because the most important thing is to get people to join our club).
Now, don't get me wrong. I think all those four things are important. And I'm depicting them in a (slightly) exaggerated manner to highlight their abuses. What I'm trying to get at, though, is that our vision of Christian practice ought to be both broader and deeper, and on the whole more comprehensive and pervasive. The reason I think this has several dimensions. Firstly, we primarily inhabit a consumer culture, and so one of the forming influences is to treat church as a consumerist experience, "I go to church and I enjoy x, y, z, and that's why I pick this church and not that church, and if I'm not finding church a satisfying and fulfilling experience, I'll go elsewhere. Or stop going". That's church-as-consumption, and it's deeply unhealthy. Secondly, we tend to think of private spiritual practices as highly effective habits for a more fulfilling personal life. Because that's what the rest of our society has bought into - all the self-help, psychological and more often pseudo-psychological techniques for enhancing your wellbeing and personal mental health and generally becoming a better You and living your best life, becomes a way of also thinking about things like prayer and personal bible reading. Again, not that caring about your mental health or personal wellbeing is wrong, or that psychology is bad, but spiritual practices, individual and corporate, are not meant to be 'options' for a lifestyle, the same way Pilates, yoga, vitamin supplements, or a 5-minute meditation app on your daily commute is.
I shy away from fitness illustrations when preaching, but this is my newsletter so here goes: I'm an exerciser. For most of the last 12-15 years I have been training regularly at the gym, lifting weights and doing calisthenics. I entered an amateur powerlifting competition, I've taken adult gymnastics classes, and these days I'm still learning to do new tricks, as well as trying to learn Olympic weightlifting. All of that is about not just routine, but a way of life and a certain kind of culture. To become an athlete, even a middle-aged amateur one, is to enter into a culture : a set of practices with a shared ethos. The early church had a much higher 'bar' for entry, which was curse and blessing. Curse, because it always ran the danger (and frequently incurred the error) of legalism and moralism. Blessing, because it meant that you knew what you were signing up for. People interested in becoming Christians in the early church became catechumenates - people being catechised. They would leave the church service half-way through, before the Eucharist, and go off to have their Sunday school. Preparation to be baptized was often three years. During this time, among other things they'd (a) memorise a huge swath of Bible, (b) generally learn the contents of texts we now call Church Orders, which contain all sorts of ordinances for Christian life.
I'm not proposing we go back to this way of doing things. That would be to miss my point. My main point is that the church forms, or ought to form, a kind of counter-culture. And we are to be inculcated and enculturated into a set of practices with a shared ethos that is shaped, profoundly shaped, by the redemption story of the Scriptures, the Gospel of Jesus. Yet, in proposing this I'm also aware that there's a significant and real danger, one that's been played out again and again. Because the way we 'be' Christians is also inevitably shaped by our linguistic, social, cultural, ethnic, geographic, and historical contexts, what we think of as "Christianity" is contingent on those factors, and so throughout history inviting people into the community of faith has meant cultural dispossession, colonialism, assimilation, extinction of cultural and ethnic distinctives, and to put it bluntly, packaging Christianity with whiteness. This is a heresy and a sin, and it's also really hard to uproot. But if we really want to see the nations come in, and bring the glory of the nations with them (Rev 7:9, 21.24), we need to continually be striving towards welcoming people in both as they are while being concerned to see them transformed in who they are, not into the image of whiteness, but into the likeness of Christ.
Well, we have strayed a long way from where I started, but it was always my intention that this post would be peripatetic, like Socrates in a dialogue, and that we might eventually circle back to where I started, but perhaps with greater insight. How do we become people of virtue, people whose hearts are being continually reoriented to their true rest and home and ultimate love in God? By the means of grace which God has appointed, ordinary practices which become sacramental, as the Spirit works through them to change our hearts by the gospel, to make us gospel-shaped people.