The Table Video

James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber & Todd Pickett

Christian Worship for Brains on a Stick

Professor of Philosophy / Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, Calvin College
Director, Center for Spiritual Renewal and Associate Professor of Spirituality and Psychology, Biola University
Dean of Spiritual Development, Biola University
March 28, 2014

Much of modern Christian worship cuts out human embodied life, reducing worship to information (beliefs, doctrines, or propositional truths), rather than something for the whole person, something that engages both the intellect and the emotions. James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett in a CCT Conversation on Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation.


How did this even historically, culturally, how did we come to a place where formation really kind of centered on correct belief


The informational sermon, the 45 minute–

Betsy: Propositional truth.

Uh, liturgy. Yeah, how did, how did this come to happen and uh, you know I’m presuming I guess there was a time when that was not always the case.

Yeah, and I mean it–

That’s a long and complicated story.

No, no, no, and I mean it’s important, and I don’t um, I think we actually have to own up to the fact that there were some unintended by-products of the Protestant Reformation in this respect, and I think the, I’m a reformed Christian, so I think the Reformation was on the right track in correcting a very superstitious way of thinking about spiritual life that had kind of arisen in the late Middle Ages, and so you could see the emphasis on correction, and therefore thinking correctly about what we’re doing when we worship.

Um, the unfortunate by-product of that, I think, was this over-emphasis on ideas, beliefs, doctrines, propositional truth as you put it, as if that was the entirety of what orients us, and so then, you kind of effectively start thinking about human beings as if they were brains on a stick, and then you sort of set up Christian worship for that which is a few songs, and then sit down because we have to get as much information in your head as we can right now, so we need a 50 minute lecture to transfer all of that informational, propositional data into your mind.

So I do think it’s a, in that respect, I think it’s ironic how modern Evangelicals are. We don’t realize how much we’ve absorbed, a view of the human person that is a product of the enlightenment, for example.

Whereas ancient Christian intuitions about this were much more embodied right, so the Desert Fathers knew if I’m going to overcome the vice of gluttony, it’s not a matter of making sure I hear the message and understanding the biblical passage that convicts me, that’s good, I mean that would be the start, but now I need rituals and regimens to undo my, my want and lusts, right?

So talk about cultural liturgies, talk about thick and thin liturgies and practices, that’s some of, I just, that’s so insightful.

Yeah, so, so I tend to use the word liturgy fairly expansively to mean formative, social practices that really touch our most fundamental longings and desires. And so that means, there are cultural practices that function liturgically, right? They shape the very core of who we are without us realizing it.

Betsy: For an example.

James: Well I, I often like to pick on the mall, uh just because I think the way you become a consumerist, right, the way you become convicted by the consumerist gospel is not because you get to the mall and somebody hands you a tract and says here’s the 16 things the mall believes.

Here’s our set of propositional tract, it’s not an intellectual exchange, but it is a tactile, visceral, embodied experience that over time really is recruiting your heart, your loves and longings to long for this vision of flourishing, this version of the good life, and when you analyze that biblically, I think you’ll see that it’s a rival gospel.

So, um, we don’t realize the extent to which practices are shaping our most fundamental orientation to God and the world, and that’s because I actually think we have so emphasized the head, and we are so worried about the messages in culture that run counter to a Christian worldview that we haven’t picked up on the practices of a culture that run counter to a Christian imagination, Christian love, a biblical vision of what shalom is or what flourishing is, so those quote unquote secular liturgies are the kinds of practices that they might not be trying to convince you to think the wrong thing, but even worse they’re capturing your imagination so you love the wrong things, and that, and if we are what we love that turns out to be a pretty fundamental disordering of who we are.

Betsy: And they do it through our bodies. So for example, when I walk into my local mall, I walk in through the Macy’s entrance and I see beautiful shoes right off. I smell the, whatever they’re spraying in the Estee Lauder counter, and I also get a whiff of the Starbucks there and a blast of cool air hits me from the hot parking lot and I walk in and I go “ahhh.”

Yes that’s very good.

Now when I walk into my church I walk in and cooler air, I walk in and there’s holy water there and I can dip my finger in and remind myself of my baptism of Christ.


And I smell maybe some vestigial incense or I hear the choir practicing, now that’s another that, that sets a whole other chain

James: Totally.

Um, and I’m there–

But it’s equally bodily isn’t it? Yeah

Absolutely, that’s what, see ever since I read your book

But what you just described is not the common evangelical experience of showing up at church.

I know. I’m Anglican. [laughs]

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