Saturday, November 28, 2009

Giving Thanks to Who?

Al Mohler's post on Thanksgiving reminded me of something that struck me this past Thursday. "Giving thanks," he rightly notes, is a theological act. Indeed, isn't it interesting that at the heart of Christian worship is a meal which is itself indexed, even named, by this act: the eu-charist is a "thanksgiving," and at the heart of this theological practice is a prayer of gratitude:

Let us give thanks to the Lord.
It is right for us to give him thanks and praise.

So Mohler notes how odd it is to give thanks without recognizing a Giver. Odd, but not surprising, since the same was noted by Paul: "they did not honor Him as God or give thanks" (Rom. 1:21).

I had been thinking about something similar, but with a different analysis. "Giving thanks" is a transitive verb that requires an object (person) to whom one is grateful. As I spent more hours than I should have watching football (a coy way to escape the mother-in-law), it struck me that NFL programming came up with a substitute–the American military. Indeed, all three NFL broadcasts were run like a Memorial Day ceremony. On this re-interpretation of Thanksgiving, we, in our “blessed” nation, end up being thankful to military might.

So while some try to give thanks without a Giver, others give thanks to another giver: the “chariots and horses” of military might (Ps. 20:7), which is no less idolatrous.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Our "Other Education"

Once again, David Brooks nails it in today's column, "The Other Education"--broaching a core argument I make in Desiring the Kingdom. Listen to how Brooks' puts it:

Like many of you, I went to elementary school, high school and college. I took such and such classes, earned such and such grades, and amassed such and such degrees.

But on the night of Feb. 2, 1975, I turned on WMMR in Philadelphia and became mesmerized by a concert the radio station was broadcasting. The concert was by a group I’d never heard of — Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Thus began a part of my second education.

We don’t usually think of this second education. For reasons having to do with the peculiarities of our civilization, we pay a great deal of attention to our scholastic educations, which are formal and supervised, and we devote much less public thought to our emotional educations, which are unsupervised and haphazard. This is odd, since our emotional educations are much more important to our long-term happiness and the quality of our lives.

While Desiring the Kingdom is very much interested in our "formal" education, a big part of its argument concerns what Brooks here calls our "second education" or our "emotional education." And in the book, I try to provide a news lens in order to see all sorts of cultural practices (the mall, the stadium, the dorms) as a powerful "second education," as well as the lineaments of historic, intentional, Christian worship as an arena of the same. And as I think I note in a footnote, it was some of Brooks' own columns--particularly his persistent forays into cognitive science over the past several years--that led me to think about this "formation" in dialogue with contemporary work in neuroscience (particularly work on "automation").

Today's column also points to themes I'll be developing in Volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies trilogy about the "mechanics" of formation, or "how worship works" (cribbing on James Wood's How Fiction Works). Again, consider how Brooks paints the picture:

This second education doesn’t work the way the scholastic education works. In a normal schoolroom, information walks through the front door and announces itself by light of day. It’s direct. The teacher describes the material to be covered, and then everybody works through it.

The knowledge transmitted in an emotional education, on the other hand, comes indirectly, seeping through the cracks of the windowpanes, from under the floorboards and through the vents. It’s generally a byproduct of the search for pleasure, and the learning is indirect and unconscious. [...]

I find I can’t really describe what this landscape feels like, especially in newspaper prose. But I do believe his narrative tone, the mental map, has worked its way into my head, influencing the way I organize the buzzing confusion of reality, shaping the unconscious categories through which I perceive events. Just as being from New York or rural Georgia gives you a perspective from which to see the world, so spending time in Springsteen’s universe inculcates its own preconscious viewpoint.

I'm particularly interested in the dynamics and mechanics of this "absorption," how this non-cognitive education "seeps" into us (a continual metaphor in Desiring the Kingdom, too). I think Brooks' rightly intuits--but doesn't articulate--that this is fundamentally a matter of aesthetics. This is precisely why what he "feels" (or "understands") can't really be described "in newspaper prose." I'm fascinated by that tension and dynamic. Thus in volume 2 (yet to be titled), I'll be working out an analogy between literature and liturgy, drawing on recent work at the intersection of cognitive science, literature, and poetry in order to find a framework for understanding how and why liturgical practice can also function as a "second education."

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanks Be to God for Robert Brandom

Yesterday morning while riding the bus to work I was re-reading a section of Robert Brandom's Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism in preparation for my seminar on Philosophy of Language & Interpretation. And I experienced one of those wonderful philosophical moments of transport, where I had this sense of being caught up in something new and important and significant, and grateful for a life than enables me to call this my "work." I sometimes have nostalgic whiffs of this sensation when I'm reading old, marked-up copies of my books where the marginalia takes me to another time and place--like when I'm reading my battered, dog-eared copy of Derrida's Of Grammatology and can remember picking it up at the University of Waterloo bookstore, then plunging into its strange waters.

I had also just finished watching American Beauty (for about the 612th time), which ends with Lester Burnham's testimony that sounds like a page out of the Heidelberg Catechism:

"It's hard to stay mad when there's so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I'm seeing it all at once, and it's too much; my heart fills up like a balloon that's about to burst... And then I remember to relax, and stop trying to hold on to it. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can't feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life."

So, in that spirit of gratitude, I wrote this little litany of thanksgiving to open our Philosophy of Language class. (The little shot at Rorty is a bit of an inside joke--jokes in prayers are OK, right? ;-)

We Give You Thanks

L: We give you thanks, gracious Lord,

for the leisure we enjoy

in our philosophizing,

grateful for what Aristotle would call

our moral luck,

but which we name as graced privilege.

All: We give you thanks, sustaining Lord,

for the gifts of friendship we enjoy,

in these halls, around this table,

in the welcoming space of the Jellema room,

for a community that nourishes our imagination.

L: We give you thanks, creating God,

for making and sustaining a world

that gives birth to our wise conversation partners,

and we’re grateful that your world has gifted us

with Ludwig Wittgenstein and Robert Brandom,

even Richard Rorty.

You must take delight in their wranglings and questions,

their probing, idiosyncratic attempts to make sense

of our incessant words.

We are grateful to be part of their conversation,

to listen in and talk back.

All: We give you thanks, loving God,

for that geeky thrill of

being immersed in new ideas

and that strange delight in

being awash in unfamiliar concepts,

that makes us feel like uncanny explorers

of foreign territories.

L: We give you thanks, Word of life,

for giving us the words to give thanks—

You who are the Word become flesh,

speaking to us in the baby talk of our

furtive mumblings.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

January Series: Remote Locations

The January Series is a 23-year tradition at Calvin College. During our January-term, the college offers free public lectures by notable public intellectuals, policy experts, journalists, and other leaders in their fields. Past January Speakers have included folks like Dr. Paul Farmer, Bill McKibben, Jean Kilbourne, George Weigel, N.T. Wright, Barbara Brown Taylor, Miroslav Volf, and many others. An archive of their lectures is available (all for free).

On January 13, I'll be speaking in the 2010 version of the series, focused on my new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. But I thought friends and family might take note of a number of remote locations that will broadcast the lecture live, including sites near some of my old haunts such as Bellflower, CA, Ancaster, Ontario, and Brampton, Ontario.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes

My presentation from the Faith, Film, and Justice Conference in Seattle has now been published in The Other Journal. "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes: A Theological Engagement with Freedom of Expression" was occasioned by the documentary Burma VJ which provides a behind-the-scenes look at the role of video journalists who documented the "Saffron revolution" in Burma in September 2007. (The article does not assume readers know the film, but I encourage readers to try to get hold of it for its own merits.)

Here's a snippet from the opening paragraphs:

Is anything more sacred to democracy than freedom of speech?1 And in our late modern world, is anything more sacred than democracy? Indeed, despite all the laments about the erosion of absolutes and a proliferation of perspectives, isn’t freedom the last absolute standing—the one prized universal that launches not only a thousand ships, but ten thousand missiles, a hundred thousand marketing campaigns, and a myriad of global protests? Freedom is that byword that unites the strangest conglomeration of devotees. It rolls off the tongue of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama; it is a rallying cry for both Thomas Friedman and Naomi Klein; it is the banner under which the American military and Hardt and Negri’s “multitude” both march.2 Freedom is the minaret of global democracy calling us to pray—well, whatever we damn well want because, after all, it secures our freedom of expression.

Freedom is both a stern and lenient god, demanding to be worshiped, but letting us decide what that will look like. Freedom demands that everyone play its game, but playing the freedom game permits us to make up our own game. So freedom is like a strange circus master, a smiling but demanding ringleader who shows up in town and demands that everyone make room for the big top. But within his big tent, there’s room for an infinite numbers of games and performances.

And nothing affects us more viscerally than the refusal of freedom. We might not know exactly what freedom is, but we certainly know when it is being quashed and denied. Indeed, our most powerful iconic images of martyrs have been images of repression: that lone figure standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square; the anonymous faces in South Africa; the haunting images of the last moments of Neda Agha-Soltan on that street in Tehran. It’s as if the body knows what freedom is, and the body marks the limits of repression. Our bodies recoil at images of repression that make their mark on the body of others, stirring our imaginations to both protest and imagine things otherwise. What tyranny does to bodies elicits a gasped whisper of “No. . .” from us, which then wells into a fist-raised shout, “No!” And that tiny monosyllabic “no” is the compression of a longer claim: “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Read the rest of "Fearless Speech, Courageous Eyes."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Room for Martyrs?

This week I was invited to give the homily in the Coram Deo chapel service at Indiana Wesleyan University, which I post below.


Is There Room for Martyrs in our Church?

James K.A. Smith

Coram Deo Chapel | Indiana Wesleyan University | 18 October 2009


I recently had opportunity to enjoy a kind of reverse “Grand Tour” in northern Italy—a very foreign territory for Protestants. I found myself impressed—even haunted—by images that constantly confronted me on this journey: images of martyrs. The Venetian empire just oozes with images of Catholic martyrs: Sebastian and Barbara, George and Perpetua.

What made me uncomfortable with the ubiquity of these images of martyrdom is that I seemed to lack the imaginative space to make room for martyrdom. Or perhaps I should just say that my imagination lacked triggers that could be activated by images of martyrdom, as if the semiotics of martyrdom were a foreign language in a script I couldn’t even make out. These images of witnesses (martureoi) who bore witness precisely by suffering for the faith are not part of the pantheon of Protestant saints that tend to populate our imaginative landscape.

Room for Martyrs?

I came away from this experience with a question: Is there room for martyrs in our church? Or, to put it a little differently: Do we North American evangelicals have space in our worldview to even make sense of martyrdom, let alone revere and celebrate it?

The tension, I think, is this: over the past several decades, North American evangelicals—especially evangelicals committed to colleges and universities—have steadily absorbed the idea that as Christians we are to be “transforming culture.” We see our commission as a cultural mandate to redeem “all things,” perhaps even to be “world changers.”

Now, don’t get me wrong: I do think God calls us to be engaged in the good work of culture-making. But I’m not sure that’s the same as “transforming culture” or “changing the world.” The reason is this: it seems to me that when Christians get hooked on “transforming culture,” it often turns out that the transformation goes the other way. In particular, I think that when we see our mission as transforming culture or changing the world, we end up thinking that the church is out to win. We slowly but steadily become a people who are bent on “outcomes,” on “success,” on winning a culture war. And what we don’t realize is that, slowly but steadily, it’s the world that’s changing us into people who are “purpose-driven” just like the rest of our success-driven world.

And in that world, martyrs are just losers. Because let’s be honest, from the perspective of the ambitious project of renewing “all things,” “transforming culture” and “changing the world,” martyrdom represents a pretty stark failure. Somebody must have dropped the ball on transforming the structures of society if Christians are being executed. Has our penchant for renewing “all things” unwittingly made us allergic to failure?

Room for the Cross?

So what concerns me is not only that there isn’t room for stained-glass depictions of martyrs in our puritanical worship spaces. Even more importantly, there doesn’t seem to be room in our theological imagination for martyrdom. Our “worldview” seems to lack a place for a faithfulness to the scandalous radicality of the Gospel—the sort of faithfulness that gets you killed. Instead, we come up with scaled-down, comfortable versions of a “personal relationship with Jesus” that won’t upset the status quo very much—as if Jesus’ kingdom was just the best version of the American dream. As if embracing Jesus was just the best way to become a “success.”

But if our churches don’t have room for martyrs, then they don’t have room for the cross; they won’t have room for Jesus. Was Jesus a “cultural transformer?” A “world changer?” Was Jesus a “success?” Is execution a success? I think Jesus is, in fact, our exemplar of culture-making—but he also shows us that engaging in cultural labor is not a matter of cozying up to the powers-that-be. Faithful cultural labor isn’t looking for ways to get Faith in the Halls of Power (Lindsay). If that were the case, the Son of God would have been born to the Emperor. But he wasn’t—he was born in a stable to a family from the other side of the tracks.

And Jesus’ culture-making didn’t lead to the “transformation of culture”—it led to his execution, precisely because the kingdom he announced—the kingdom into which he calls us—will always scandalize the powers. As N.T. Wright provocatively puts it, “Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel’s representative, to lose the battle on Israel’s behalf. This would be the means of Israel’s becoming the light, not just of herself…but of the whole world.”[1] If our vocation is to “follow Christ” as the way to take up our human vocation to be God’s image bearers, then our image bearing should look the same. “When we speak of ‘following Christ,’” Wright cautions,

it is the crucified Messiah we are talking about. His death was not simply the messy bit that enables our sins to be forgiven but that can then be forgotten. The cross is the surest, truest, and deepest window on the very heart and character of the living and loving God… And when therefore we speak […] of shaping our world, we do not—we dare not—simply treat the cross as the thing that saves us “personally,” but which can be left behind when we get on with the job. The task of shaping our world is best understood as the redemptive task of bringing the achievement of the cross to bear on the world, and in that task the methods, as well as the message, must be cross-shaped through and through.[2]

We are a kingdom people just to the extent that we make room for martyrdom, make room for the cross. We should be a people for whom martyrdom doesn’t take us by surprise. I don’t mean the faux martyrdom of people like Sarah Palin who invent tales about their persecution despite all the while serving the god of the status quo that knows nothing of the scandal of the kingdom. I mean a commitment to the scandal of the kingdom which recognizes that faithfulness does not look like success, does not look like winning. Indeed, more often than not, it will look like losing. We make room for the cross just to the extent that we’re willing to lose.


Saint Stephen shows us that martyrdom is inscribed into the very DNA of the church, this called-out people who are called to embody the coming kingdom in our worship of a crucified King. This is also why the advent of the kingdom pictured in Revelation 20:4 comes with the picture of “those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus.” They were martyred precisely because “they had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or hands.” I fear that we have become a church with no room for martyrs precisely because we’ve become a church that’s taken the mark of the beast in our devotion to wealth, power, and military might. May the God who makes room for a persecutor like Saul also have compassion on us, grab hold of us on our Damascus roads, and show us what it looks like to be the church of Saint Stephen.

[1] N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999)., p. 89.

[2] Ibid., pp. 94-95.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

My Calling (or, Three Cheers for Dilettantes!)

Near the end of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979), Richard Rorty suggests a distinction betwee the philosopher as "epistemologist" and the "hermeneutic" philosopher. (Later this becomes a Kuhnian distinction between philosophers who play at "normal science" and those engaged in "abnormal" discourse.) The philosopher-as-epistemologist plays the role of cultural overseer and arbiter of all knowledge claims--playing the role of "the Platonic philosopher-king who knows what everybody else is really doing whether they know it or not" (p. 317).

He then contrasts this with a description of the "hermeneutic" philosopher in terms that would be abhorrent to most professional philosophers. But I find in them a liberating description of my own self-understanding, or at least my aspirations. As Rorty puts it, the hermeneutic philosopher is

an informed dilettante, the polypragmatic, Socratic intermediary between various discourses. In his salon, so to speak, hermetic thinkers are charmed out of their self-enclosed practices. Disagreements between disciplines and discourses are compromised or transcended in the course of the conversation.

Long live informed dilettantes!

Lest We Forget

Smoke [1918]

By Carl Sandburg

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

Millions of men go to war, acres of them are buried, guns
and ships broken, cities burned, villages sent up in
smoke, and children where cows are killed off amid
hoarse barbecues vanish like finer-rings of smoke
in a north wind.

I sit in a chair and read the newspapers.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Korean Edition of "Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?"

As I've just noted over at The Church and Postmodern Culture, a Korean edition of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? has just appeared from Sallim Books. Follow the link to access the new Preface for this edition.

A Korean translation of Introducing Radical Orthodoxy is also in the works.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

This Has to be Illegal, but I'll Take It

I find myself stuck home today, ill, and unable to go into the office. But today was designated for grading a set of papers on Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations--my copy of which is in my library at the office.

But lo and behold, a quick search turned up a treasure: the entire, definitive German-English edition of the Philosophical Investigations available online as a .pdf file (on scribd)! And downloadable for free! (Did I just hit this on a good day, in the small window of time before Blackwell issues a cease-and-desist order? If so, get there quick.)

Besides getting me through today, this will also be a great reference tool enabling electronic searches. Not a bad way to redeem a sick day.

Monday, November 02, 2009

The Taste of Remembrance

How is it that cheese could contain an entire world? Splaying Old English white cheddar on a sandwich at lunchtime is, for me, a routine and ritual that is charged with an entire way of life. The cheese is enchanted, charmed with a sense of place. Like Proust's madeleines, its scent and texture is a catalyst for the remembrance of things past. While I'm trimming a slice in my Grand Rapids kitchen, it's as if the walls melt into the walls in our Yorkshire kitchen, and the scene outside my window gives way to the Minster over the rooftops of York Tandoori, and I can almost hear the chimes of the cathedral bell--and I imagine, just for a moment, that the kids are at Park Grove elementary, and Deanna will soon be home from the market, wet but heartened, and this cheese on crusty baguette will be consumed as a veritable communion. And all of a sudden this is the saddest cheese in the world.