In our first article in this series, we looked at how culture is a result of being made in the image of God and carrying out the creation mandate from Genesis 1. We also saw how the Fall has affected culture and the world we live in now. In this article, we will consider the religious nature of culture. All culture is religious in nature. Perhaps a bold claim, but I think one that is essential to understand if we are to think Biblically about culture and our relationship to it as Christians.
A Thought Experiment
Sometimes as we’re analyzing things that we’re so familiar with, it’s helpful to make it strange to us again so we can look with fresh eyes. So, let’s try a little thought experiment inspired by James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Imagine this scenario.
You are a Martian anthropologist researcher from an alien species that is exploring earth seeking to understand humanity’s religious practices. You land in the southern United States, in a strange district called Flo-Rida, pre-COVID - let’s say in 2018 - in order to gather data on the rituals and religious habits of its inhabitants. You’ve heard that its megachurches are a great place to gather this sort of data.
The place that you’ve landed looks like a great place to start - there’s a large gathering of humans in this area. The popularity of this site of devotion is indicated by the sea of SUVs parked around the building. The site throbs with pilgrims from all around the vicinity. This holy building provides the pilgrims with a sanctuary from the daily grind of their lives, and some even come for respite in the cafe area or to simply walk around and mingle. Many habitually come to it every weekend faithfully throughout the years. It is also a communal retreat, as families and friends come together to meet, spend time together and connect. Deep bonds of affection and connection have been formed here as the community unites around its shared traditions and rituals.
As you make your way into the building, the architecture has a dazzling array of glass and its colonnade of chromed arches that guide your gaze up to the heavens with a sense of vertical transcendence. It shuts off the clamor and distractions of the mundane world outside, with few windows and the baroque manipulation of light inside this cathedral - time itself seems to stand still. But the cathedral has its own markers of time with its liturgical calendar of various festivals and holidays - brilliantly communicated through large colourful displays. This site is part of a bigger network of religious communities all committed to the same common vision and providing as many faithful adherents with similar services. You can tell the regular faithful worshippers - as they whiz pass the maps to guide the visitors, instinctively knowing where to go by heart.
As you walk around, you are struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls. Unlike the flat stained-glass depictions of saints seen in other, lesser worship sites, these are in three-dimensions, moving and captivating us by their exemplary appearance - a clear depiction of what the ideal adherent to this cult would look like. They provide for us a concrete example of what the ‘good life’ looks like that goes hand-in-hand with the printed bulletins that explain the doctrine of the good-life. Many of the congregants in the cathedral actually resemble these saints in their demeanor and dress. There is also a great unity of the iconography, as these same icons of the good life are found in temples around the world! Their colours and symbols are readily recognized across many cultures as they have been very productive in proselytizing their message to the ends of the world through aggressive temple-planting and televangelists on the airwaves and social media spreading this gospel of beauty, the good life and acceptance.
You stop to enter into one of the small chapels in this large complex to consider what happens inside. There, visitors are invited to taste and see. An usher of sorts welcomes them to shepherd them inside. They make their way cautiously and curiously through the chapel contemplating its message. As they ingest the message that is beautifully communicated through screens and printed materials, they feel their sense of need. It exposes their inner deficiency - what they lack to achieve that vision of the good life embodied by the saints and icons on the walls. Convicted, they prepare to make their offering to attain fulfillment through a holy object they have found. They proceed to the altar to consummate their worship. The usher helps to guide the new worshipper as a priestess stands smiling behind the altar. They are invited to give and to take - to leave not just with a transformative experience but also with something tangible as they receive their newfound relic. And so, they make their sacrifice and leave their donation with the priestess who releases to them their holy relic. She then utters a benediction and blessing over the worshipper as they make their way out of the chapel to the serenade of the encouragement and smiles of the ushers - thankful for yet another convert.
Of course, what we have just described in our martian thought experiment is a trip to the mall.
By approaching the mall as if for the first time through strange sets of eyes, James K.A. Smith’s thought experiment helps us to start to see the close analogy to religious practices - it is a “liturgy” of sorts. We could do this with many other artifacts and places of culture. Thus, we must recognize the deeply religious nature of culture so that we can see that what’s really at stake is a competing religion and worship.
The Religious Nature of Culture
In this series of articles, we will look at culture as the product of the:
Practices that form us (Liturgy)
Stories that give meaning (Gospel/Doctrine)
Groups that define us (Community)
These three features feed into and out of each other to form a self-reinforcing feedback loop. We’ll see how secular culture imitates and distorts these things and how Christianity gives us the true alternative. The culture ‘disciples’ us in very religious ways. Christianity offers us the true form of these things as a disruptive witness to the culture.
This is a huge topic and we will only scrape the surface in this series of articles, but I hope it will give us some good food for thought. In this article, we’ll start by looking at the practices that form us and then move on to consider the stories that give meaning and the groups that define us in subsequent articles.
Our Culture’s Liturgy | The practices that form us
We’ve all heard the saying that practice makes perfect. However, it’s not true. Practice doesn't make perfect. Practice makes permanent. If you keep practicing the wrong thing, you won’t become perfect, you’ll just reinforce bad habits.
We sometimes tend to think or live as if our spiritual lives were disconnected from our embodied physical lives. We think that certain things are sacred - prayer, reading our Bible, going to church, meditation, etc. And other things are secular - unconnected with our spiritual life but part of what it means to live in the world. However, this is untrue. What we see in the Bible is that all of life is meant to be (and is) worship (see 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). We are at all times training ourselves for worship and directing our hearts to desire and love some specific end. This is because we are a unified whole of body and spirit. They aren’t able to be separated. What you do with your body necessarily will affect your soul.
The religious word we use for this is called ‘liturgies’ - they are the practices of the church in worship.
What I will be arguing in this section is that the practices of our culture shape us in a profound way to be a certain kind of person through its own liturgies. Professor James K.A. Smith of Calvin University observes that,
“liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are… shaped from the body up more than from the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects.” (James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 25.)
I. Character Formation
What we are talking about here is how our practices form our character. That is, the type of person we will be. The chain of development for character formation usually looks something like this:
Beliefs → actions → habits/practices → automatic responses → character
However, this also loops back on itself - where our character will inform our beliefs and so it becomes self-reinforcing. Research has shown that the development of automatic behaviours and skills depends on the frequent pairing of internal responses with external events. As this is repeated, over time, the need for conscious choice drops out. Thus, the acquisition of these automatic dispositions (or character) is learnt by practice.
We all experience this on a small level as we build certain skills like typing on a keyboard or riding a bike or driving a car. At one point, it took a lot of conscious attention to every movement. However, after practice and repetition, it can become so automatic to us that we can even drive all the way home and not remember how we got there sometimes! Professor Smith notes:
“Whether we intentionally choose to participate in a practice, or unintentionally just find ourselves immersed in it over time, the result is the same: the dispositions become inscribed into our unconscious so that we “automatically” respond the way we’ve been conditioned… “People should be able to put goals into gear through external means and thereby ‘bypass the will’ entirely.” Since research indicates that only about 5 percent of our daily activity is the product of conscious, intentional actions that we “choose,” one can see that there’s a lot at stake in the formation of our automatic unconscious.” (James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, p. 80.)
Our character, in a very significant way, is who we are on a non-cognitive level. It is who you are in your automated responses to situations.
We say that a person is of strong and noble character when they stand up to some great evil or temptation by acting valiantly in a crisis situation. However, that response was conditioned well before the crisis situation arose. Good habits produce virtues and bad habits produce vices. No one in the heat of the moment consciously processes through their moral reasoning, the doctrines and ethics they’re supposed to believe and then acts - especially in situations that require split-second reactions. At that point, we’re operating on an almost sub-conscious non-cognitive level. What determines what happens in that split second is what habits we had formed, through practices and repeated actions of the past. In that split second decision - we reveal what we practiced to truly love most.
This is especially important because for the large majority of our daily activities, we are “on autopilot” so to speak.
It’s not only what we practice in the real world that affects us. What we do in cyberspace also forms us into a certain kind of person.
For example, research has shown that the tweets with the highest engagement are only 100 characters long. The optimum Facebook post was found to be only 40 characters.
“Compare this to the books of print-oriented culture, which can pursue arguments and develop ideas for hundreds of pages. No wonder argumentation on the Internet consists largely of insults, snarky observations, and snappy comebacks. Anything else would require too many characters! The medium itself prevents sustained thought.” (Gene Edward Veith Jr., Post-Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture, p. 177)
A feed of bite-sized unrelated tid-bits instead of books train us to be like people with extreme ADHD - unable to follow a long train of thought. Satan would love nothing better than to keep people from God’s truth. Because His truth is contained in the Bible - the written Word - which is a pretty long book requiring attention spans able to follow its narrative and arguments, this diminishing of our attention spans can effectively rob us of the truth of scripture even as we have plenty of access to multiple copies of the Word like no other time in history! We might end up in a self-inflicted Dark Age.
The more we practice a liturgy - whether it’s a pre-workout gym ritual, shopping sprees at the mall or on Amazon, checking out phones, or a hidden addiction to the erotic - the more it shapes our character by forming our automated responses and directing our desires for a certain version of ‘the good life’.
II. Secular & Spiritual Disciplines Inventory
Have you ever looked at a mature saint and wondered - how is it that his first instinct is prayer? How is she so joyfully self-sacrificing? How is it that they have joy in times of trials and peace amidst persecutions? How is it that she lives like if she really believes that Jesus is worth counting it all as loss? Don’t be too surprised to find out that they have made regular use of the spiritual disciplines in their rhythms of life. They have utilized what the scriptures have given us to shape us into a people that desire the Kingdom.
If we simply took an inventory of the ratio of secular disciplines to spiritual disciplines that we made practices of - perhaps we would understand why so much of the North American church struggles to resemble a people who ‘seek first the Kingdom’. So, how did our culture (and even some churches) become Post-Christian? Well, one explanation is that we practiced and disciplined ourselves to be.
Secular and sacred liturgies form us to be a certain kind of people who desire a certain kind of kingdom. However, we’re often unaware of what kind of kingdom and what kind of people they are forming us to be.
There is no escaping it - we are always being discipled, it’s just a matter of who is discipling you and for what kingdom. So which kingdom are you practicing for?
What Can We Do?
Consider, why is it so easy and automatic for us to plop down on the couch and turn on Netflix or the TV after work to seek rest and refreshment after a hard day? What has been the series of events or “disciplines'' that produced that automated behaviour? What was the action that led to repeated action that became a habit - and, which will eventually turn into character? These are, in effect, a secular sort of version of spiritual disciplines.
Spiritual Disciplines and Character Formation
This is why the church historically has seen the importance of the regular practice of biblical spiritual disciplines. Just like the secular liturgies, spiritual disciplines direct our desires to a particular vision of the good life, they shape us into a peculiar type of people and orient us towards a certain Kingdom. They help us to frame reality using embodied practices.
For example, the church’s liturgical calendar of feasts or celebrations - such as Lent, Easter, Advent, etc invite us backward - to remember the power of the incarnation, cross and resurrection - a power that continues to break into our present. Thus it makes us a people who live between times - remembering and hoping at the same time. This can be a powerful counter-action to our culture’s fixation on the immediate and latest greatest news, merchandise, hashtag and trending topic that is forgotten as quickly as it arose. Instead we remember and fixate on old, timeless truths. We are called to be a people of memory whose tradition is millennia older than the latest Billboard Top 20 chart and a people of expectation looking forward to the Kingdom that will come as a thief in the night. So, we are a people stretched between the already and not-yet. The liturgical calendar of festivals frame and order our understanding of time - we’re always coming out of, or looking forward to some celebration that will remind us of this already-but-not-yet reality.
The other spiritual disciplines likewise provide for us a counter to the culture’s secular disciplines that shape us.
The personal disciplines of fasting, prayer, meditation, silence and solitude - these train us to be the type of people who respond in virtue automatically by practicing self-denial and dependence on the Lord.
The communal disciplines of hospitality, communal singing of hymns, feasts and celebrations, confession, church discipline, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper shape us into an inter-connected community of citizens of the heavenly kingdom who desire the Day when we will perfectly inhabit and enjoy what these spiritual disciplines foreshadow.
The sacrificial disciplines of giving offerings and tithes, service, alms, witness, evangelism and suffering for the sake of Christ form us to be the kind of people who loosen their grip on the trappings of this present age to call others to join us in losing our lives today to find that we will gain them with Christ for eternity.
Because we’re exposed to our culture’s liturgies over and over, we need Christians who will intentionally seek to disrupt these habits for the sake of their own soul’s desire for a better Kingdom.
We need Christians who will decide to cut down or cut out their TV consumption to spend more time pursuing meaningful community and life-on-life discipleship. We need Christians who will log off social media and cancel their Netflix to train themselves to read more so that they can be better thinkers and equipped to give compelling answers and disciple the next generation. We need Christian singles and couples who will intentionally forego luxuries and live below their means so that they might store up treasures in heaven by being rich in good deeds. We need more Christians who will be so committed to the local church body and corporate worship - people who know that God has called them to serve and love this particular gathering of saints - that they would even prayerfully turn down job promotions that take them out of town and away from their covenant community. We need more who will decide to make fasting, meditation, scripture memorization, and silence a part of their regular rhythms of life so that they would learn the benefits of delayed gratification, train themselves to suffer well and tune their hearts to long for God more.
Why? Because all of these things are shaping us to be a particular kind of people, desiring a certain vision of the good life, and directed to a certain Kingdom.
Questions for reflection
What practices are you regularly immersed in as part of your daily/weekly habits?
If you were honest with yourself, are these positive (forming you into the kind of person who embodies the kingdom of God) or negative (training you for a different kingdom)?
How have spiritual disciplines played a part in shaping your vision of the good life?
What are some concrete ways you can start using spiritual disciplines to change your practices to form your character today?
How will you keep yourself accountable to these resolutions?
In our next article in this series, we will consider the second marker of the religious nature of culture - the stories that give meaning.
Articles in this series:
Series Introduction (Nov 4)
The Religious Nature of Culture | Liturgies (Nov 11)
*dates are when the articles are scheduled to publish.