Over Christmas break, I’ve been reading a very interesting book entitled, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K. A. Smith. One of the primary arguments the book makes is that humans are deeply shaped by the “liturgies” we engage in each and every day. Sometimes, these are conscious. Other times, we participate willingly, yet remain unaware of the impact these practices and habits are having on our lives. In the excerpt below, Smith looks at the practice of shopping through the lens of religious ritual and the unconscious ways it shapes our approach to consumption. If the following excerpt intrigues you, I would definitely recommend the reading the entire book. (Warning: a bit of a long post ahead.)
Our loves acquire direction and orientation because we are immersed over time in practices and rituals – what we’ve called “liturgies” – that affectively and viscerally train our desires. So, just as our habits themselves are unconscious – operating under the hood – it is also the case that the process of habituation can be unconscious and covert. This is especially true when we don’t recognize cultural practices as liturgies – when we fail to realize that these aren’t just things we do but things that do something to us…
We need to read the practices that surround us. We have to learn to exegete the rituals we’re immersed in. We need to become anthropologists who try, in some way, to see our familiar surroundings with apocalyptic eyes so we can recognize the liturgical power of cultural rituals we take for granted as just “things we do.” . . .
Put on a liturgical lens and look at your local mall again. Read its spaces, its practices, its rituals. What might you see?
Upon approach, the architecture of the building has a recognizable code that makes us feel at home no matter what city we’re in. The large glass atriums at the entrances are framed by banners and flags; familiar texts and symbols on the exterior walls help the foreign faithful quickly and easily identify what’s inside; and the sprawling layout of the building is anchored by larger pavilions or sanctuaries akin to the vestibules of medieval cathedrals.
We arrive at one of several grandiose entries to the building, channeling us through a colonnade of chromed arches to the towering glass face with doors lining its base. As we enter the space we are ushered into a narthex of sorts intended for receiving, orienting, and channeling new seekers as well as providing a bit of decompression space for the regular faithful to “enter in” to the spirit of the space. For the seeker, there is a large map – a kind of worship aid – to help orient the novice to the location various spiritual offerings and provide direction into the labyrinth that organizes and channels the ritual observance of the pilgrims. (One can readily recognize the regulars, the faithful, who enter the space with a sense of achieved familiarity, who know the rhythms by heart because of habit-forming repetition.)
The design of the interior is inviting to an almost excessive degree, drawing both seekers and the faithful into the enclosed interior spaces, with windows on the ceiling open to the sky but none on the walls open to the surrounding moat of automobiles. The sense conveyed is one of vertical or transcendent openness that at the same time shuts off the clamor and distractions of the horizontal, mundane world. This architectural mode of enclosure and enfolding suggests sanctuary, retreat, and escape. From the narthex entry one is invited to lose oneself in this space that channels the pilgrim into a labyrinth of octagons and circles, inviting a wandering that seems to escape from the driven, goal-oriented ways we inhabit the “outside” world. The pilgrim is also invited to escape from the mundane ticking of clock-time to inhabit a space governed by a different time, even a sort of timelessness. With a few windows and a curious baroque manipulation of light, it almost seems as if the sun stands still in this space as we lose consciousness of time’s passing and so lose ourselves in the rituals for which we’ve come. However, while daily clock-time is suspended, the worship space is still governed by a kind of liturgical, festal calendar, variously draped in the colors, symbols, and images of an unending litany of holidays and festivals – to which new ones are regularly added, since the establishment of each new festival translates into greater numbers of pilgrims joining the processions to the sanctuary and engaging in worship.
The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hearken back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces designed to absorb all kinds of religious activities happening at one time. And so one might say that this religious building has a winding labyrinth for contemplation, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints. As we wander the labyrinth in contemplation, preparing to enter one of the chapels, we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here one finds an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that – as with all iconography – inspires our desires to be imitators of these exemplars. These statues (mannequins) embody for us concrete images of the good life. These are the ideals of perfection to which we will learn to aspire.
The temple – like countless others now emerging around the world – offers a rich, embodied visual mode of evangelism that attracts us. This is a gospel whose power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires. It compels us to come, not through dire moralisms, but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life.
As we pause to reflect on some of the icons on the outside of one of the chapels, we are thereby invited to consider what’s happening within – invited to enter into the act of worship more properly, invited to taste and see. We are greeted by a welcoming acolyte who offers to shepherd us through the experience, but also has the wisdom to allow us to explore on our own terms is we so choose. Sometimes we will enter cautiously, curiously, tentatively making our way through this labyrinth within the labyrinth, having a vague sense of need but unsure of how it will be fulfilled, and so open to surprise, to that moment where the spirit leads us to an experience we couldn’t have anticipated. Having a sense our need, we come looking, not sure for what, but expectant, knowing that what we need must be here. And then we hit upon it; combing through the racks, we find the experience and offering that will provide fulfillment. At other times our worship is intentional, directed, and resolute: we have come prepared for just this moment, knowing exactly why we’re here, in search of exactly what we need.
In either case, after time spent focusing on and searching in what the faithful call “the racks,” with our newfound holy object in hand, we proceed to the altar that is the consummation of worship. While acolytes and other worship assistants have helped us navigate our experience, behind the altar is the priest who presides over the consummating transaction. And this is a religion of transaction, of exchange and communion. When invited to worship here, we are not only invited to give; we are invited to take. We don’t leave this transformational experience with just good feelings or pious generalities, but rather with something concrete and tangible – with newly minted relics, as it were, which are themselves the means to the good life embodied in the icons who invited us into this participatory moment in the first place. And so we make our sacrifice, leave our donation, but get in return something with solidity that is wrapped in the colors and symbols of the saints and the season. Released by the priest with a benediction, we make our way out of the chapel in a kind of denouement, not necessarily with the intention of leaving (our awareness of time has been muted), but rather to continue contemplation and be invited into another chapel. Who could resist the tangible realities of the good life so abundantly and invitingly offered?
The point of all this is to try to appreciate how a worldview – or better, what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary” – is “carried” in everyday rituals and practices. How do we learn to be consumerists? Not because someone comes along and offers an argument for why stuff will make me happy. I don’t think my way into consumerism. Rather, I’m covertly conscripted into a way of life because I have been formed by cultural practices that are nothing less than secular liturgies. My loves have been automated by rituals I didn’t even realize were liturgies. These tangible, visceral, repeated practices carry a story about human flourishing that we learn in unconscious ways. These practices are loaded with their own teleological orientation toward a particular vision of the good life, a rival version of the kingdom, and by our immersion in them we are – albeit unwittingly – being taught what and how to love.
We could repeat such “liturgical” readings of cultural practices for an entire array of everyday rituals. When you put on these liturgical lenses, you’ll see the stadium in a whole new way, as a temple of nationalism and militarism. When you look at the university with liturgical eyes, you’ll start to realize that the “ideas” and “messages” of the university are often less significant than the rituals of frat parties and campus athletics. When we stop worrying about smartphones just in terms of content (what we’re looking at) and start to consider the rituals that tether us to them throughout the day, we’ll notice that the very form of the practice comes loaded with an egocentric vision that makes me the center of the universe.
And so on and so on. You will begin to appreciate that all sorts of things we do are, when seen in this light, doing something to us. It’s not just the messages or ideas or information being disseminated by these cultural institutions that have import for discipleship; it is the very form of the practices themselves, their liturgical power to (de)form. Liturgies work affectively and aesthetically – they grab hold of our guts through the power of image, story, and metaphor. That’s why the most powerful liturgies are attuned to our embodiment; they speak to our senses; they get under our skin. The way to the heart is through the body, you could say…
Waking up to the formative power of secular liturgies might open us up to appreciate the importance of Christian liturgies that we have resisted or perhaps even denounced. A liturgical lens might also give us a new way to see historic Christian worship as a gift.