The Table Video

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

Why Are Evangelicals Allergic to Repetition? No Formation Without Repetition

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

Repetition has a bad rap among many evangelicals. But without repetition or repeated practices or habit development, there can be no formation. James K.A. Smith, Betsy Barber, and Todd Pickett in a CCT Conversation on Embodied Spirituality: Exploring Christian Spiritual Formation.

Transcript:

You know, there seems to be some kind of allergy to repetition in some contemporary churches. And you’ve already in part said, “Well, you know, one of the goods of this repetition “is sometimes you need to be carried in this.”

Yes, right.

Because not every day can we muster the love and affection and kind of energy, so these things carry us. But talk a little bit more about this kind of allergy to repetition amongst some contemporary churches, and why we need not fear it, why in fact it is this real gift of formation.

Well, and I– Yeah, great question. My concern is that if we don’t come up with a positive account of repetition and why repetition is a good thing spiritually, we will just keep being deformed by secular liturgies because they get [knocking on table] how important repetition is.

It’s a tournament of liturgies.

[James K.A. Smith] Yeah, absolutely, that’s great.

laughs: That’s great.

And I think this is where the psychology and neuroscience would sort of nourish the account that we’re giving here, which is, “Look, your intuitions and perception of the world “are ingrained in you because you are immersed “in practices over time, and that starts “to seep into your unconscious.”

And so how ironic then that Christians somehow, we’ve decided that novelty in worship is the most important thing. “So what are we gonna do next week “to make it interesting and not boring?” And I think that’s because we’ve assumed that worship is just an expressive activity by which we show our devotion to God, and we’ve missed the formative part that no, this is how God is getting a hold of us. So there is no formation where there is no repetition.

Can I talk about that from neuropsych just a little bit?

Absolutely.

So when I go to these neuropsych conferences, they say, “The neurons that fire together wire together.” And so they fire, and it’s the repetitive firing that then makes the neural nets, that sets up the practices. So for example, stupid example, but when you put on your pants in the morning, you don’t think, like, a little toddler does, “Okay, I sit down. “I try to hold it up, and I try to put–” We pick up our jeans, and we always put the one leg in first.

I mean, it’s a motor program. We don’t think of it. It’s like when you’re driving a stick shift. You know, when you started, it was, “I’m gonna put in the clutch, “and now I’m gonna slowly–” [making engine noises] But now, we just get in, we start the car, and we go because it’s a motor program. So what you’re talking about is motor programs of worship that take care of us having to painfully think about it and make the decision every time. But motor programs of worship that just, “Ah, now I’m in his presence, and I can bring my stuff.”

Yes, yeah. And it’s not just so that you can show that you’re that kind of automaton or something. The point is, you’re being immersed in those practices over and over again so that the Spirit can be transforming how now you act in the world, right. So that when you do have to think about things, it’s already informed by the background imagination and perception that you’ve acquired through those repeated practices.

Yeah, I think it’s puzzling. I think lots of Christians affirm repetition in all kinds of other spheres of their cultural life, whether they’re musicians, athletes, teachers, whatever it might be. And then somehow we think repetition is illegitimate in the spiritual realm. But as you have pointed out already, that’s a very modern, new idea.

Do you think that maybe it’s one of the lies of the enemy?

Well, I could imagine a Screwtape letter on exactly this point. “Convince Christians that they need “to keep doing it differently.” [laughs]

I think you say in one of your books that, “Don’t let the enemy have all the good repetition.”

[James K.A. Smith] [laughs] Exactly, that’s right, yeah.

You know, there seems to be some kind of allergy to repetition in some contemporary churches. And you’ve already in part said, “Well, you know, one of the goods of this repetition “is sometimes you need to be carried in this.”

Yes, right.

Because not every day can we muster the love and affection and kind of energy, so these things carry us. But talk a little bit more about this kind of allergy to repetition amongst some contemporary churches, and why we need not fear it, why in fact it is this real gift of formation.

Well, and I—Yeah, great question. My concern is that if we don’t come up with a positive account of repetition and why repetition is a good thing spiritually, we will just keep being deformed by secular liturgies because they get [knocking on table] how important repetition is.

It’s a tournament of liturgies.

[James K.A. Smith] Yeah, absolutely, that’s great.

Laughs: That’s great.

And I think this is where the psychology and neuroscience would sort of nourish the account that we’re giving here, which is, “Look, your intuitions and perception of the world “are ingrained in you because you are immersed “in practices over time, and that starts “to seep into your unconscious.” And so how ironic then that Christians somehow, we’ve decided that novelty in worship is the most important thing. “So what are we gonna do next week “to make it interesting and not boring?” And I think that’s because we’ve assumed that worship is just an expressive activity by which we show our devotion to God, and we’ve missed the formative part that no, this is how God is getting a hold of us. So there is no formation where there is no repetition.

Can I talk about that from neuropsych just a little bit?

Absolutely.

So when I go to these neuropsych conferences, they say, “The neurons that fire together wire together.” And so they fire, and it’s the repetitive firing that then makes the neural nets, that sets up the practices. So for example, stupid example, but when you put on your pants in the morning, you don’t think, like, a little toddler does, “Okay, I sit down. “I try to hold it up, and I try to put…” We pick up our jeans, and we always put the one leg in first. I mean, it’s a motor program. We don’t think of it. It’s like when you’re driving a stick shift. You know, when you started, it was, “I’m gonna put in the clutch, “and now I’m gonna slowly…” [making engine noises] But now, we just get in, we start the car, and we go because it’s a motor program. So what you’re talking about is motor programs of worship that take care of us having to painfully think about it and make the decision every time. But motor programs of worship that just, “Ah, now I’m in his presence, and I can bring my stuff.”

Yes, yeah. And it’s not just so that you can show that you’re that kind of automaton or something. The point is, you’re being immersed in those practices over and over again so that the Spirit can be transforming how now you act in the world, right. So that when you do have to think about things, it’s already informed by the background imagination and perception that you’ve acquired through those repeated practices. Yeah, I think it’s puzzling. I think lots of Christians affirm repetition in all kinds of other spheres of their cultural life, whether they’re musicians, athletes, teachers, whatever it might be. And then somehow we think repetition is illegitimate in the spiritual realm. But as you have pointed out already, that’s a very modern, new idea.

Do you think that maybe it’s one of the lies of the enemy?

Well, I could imagine a Screwtape letter on exactly this point. “Convince Christians that they need “to keep doing it differently.” [laughs]

I think you say in one of your books that, “Don’t let the enemy have all the good repetition.”

[James K.A. Smith] [laughs] Exactly, that’s right, yeah.

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