So here we have Mr. Smith responding to Mr. Anderson. All of a sudden I feel like I should say, “Missster ANDersssson…,” in that strange diction of Hugo Weaving as Agent Smith in The Matrix. (I’m pulling off my mirrored shades as I do so.) But we have more important matters at hand.
I am above all grateful to have readers as serious and studious as Matt Anderson. And I’m confident, without question, that we’re passionate about the same things. So I’m very happy to accept an invitation to provide a little response to his careful, informative review. He’s done a remarkable job of condensing an overly ambitious argument into his clear summary—though I do hope those with more questions will follow up Matt’s encouragement to read the book. Our exchange here is no substitute for that.
In the interest of generating conversation rather than “defending” some position, let me respond to Matthew’s three substantive criticisms:
1. Regarding the relationship between Scripture and worship, and the place of Scripture in my model: I very much agree that Scripture is normative for faith and discipleship, and for our worship. However, Anderson seems to think that maintaining the normativity of Scripture requires maintaining the priority of Scripture to worship. But the problem is: that just doesn’t stand up historically. The fact is: the Christian community was worshiping long before our “Bible” came into being. They were not, of course, without Scripture—the Hebrew Bible was their Scripture. But I do think we need to take seriously the fact that church’s worship practices were being forged and emerged prior to the formation of the canon. And worship practices forged in those centuries were then “ratified,” one might say, by the canon (e.g., Eucharistic practices, etc.). So there is some significant sense in which the church saw the Spirit present in the practices prior to the formation of the canon of Scripture. In a scandalous way (well, for Protestants), the church’s worship precedes (and exceeds) the Bible.
But more germane to my point in Desiring the Kingdom is just how Scripture functions. As I argue, Scripture’s “home,” so to speak, is the gathered, communal drama of Christian worship. In this respect, it is our script. And the way Scripture functions in the context of worship is more akin to poetry than a dissertation. That doesn’t mean it’s not about truth—it’s that in the context of worship, Scripture’s stories and tropes sink into us on affective register. In the context of worship, Scripture is not a storehouse of propositions, it’s the enacted Word of God. That’s not to say that we can’t distill propositional claims from Scripture, only that the formative power of God’s Word does not reduce to that—it penetrates to the point of dividing soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12) not so much because of it’s ability to convey information but rather because it is like a play or a drama that cuts to the heart. That sounds mushier than I want, but I’m struggling to convey the affective effects of Scripture’s proclamation.
2. The second point regarding the slipperiness of “liturgy” as a critical concept is an important one, and I take the point to heart. Anderson’s right: it would be easy to point out the liturgical speck in my brother’s eye while ignoring the liturgical plank in my own. And I agree: there are secular liturgies of the Right, we might say, but there are also equally dangerous secular liturgies of the left. (Let it be clear that I am on record, in The Devil Reads Derrida, as no fan of the religious Left.) So while I stand by my analyses of the liturgies of the mall and the stadium (consumerism and nationalism), these could be supplemented with analyses of the secular liturgies at work in graduate schools in the humanities and bohemian, hipster coffee shops everywhere. Fair enough.
But I hope in the book it’s relatively clear that the “criteria” for the evaluation of secular liturgies is not merely what I disagree with, but what runs counter to the vision of the kingdom of God that is implicit in the practices of Christian worship. Now I suspect that this is perhaps where we’d have some disagreement. Some might contend that in my “exegesis” of Christian worship in chapter 5 I offer a “leftish” reading of the Gospel and the kingdom. Is that true? Or does the “understanding” of human flourishing implicit in Christian worship cut against our political ideologies, both left and right? I’m hoping that future conversation about the book might spend more time on this issue, since Anderson has rightly discerned that this is a crucial point: our critique of “secular liturgies” is only a critique if it has criteria—and those criteria must be the vision of the kingdom “carried” in Christian worship (which is then elucidated in Christian dogma and social teaching).
3. Finally, a word regarding the university. I can’t say anything about the Biola case that Anderson raises, except that I would be surprised if “worship” at Biola—and in the churches that “feed” Biola—has the shape of historic Christian worship I outline in chapter 5. And that’s a crucial part of my argument. (Implicit in my analysis is a critique of much “generic” evangelical worship which I think has been easily hooked by the secular liturgies of the day–so that what passes for “worship” in many evangelical churches is just a Jesu-fied version of the mall, the concert, or the coffee shop. So just “having worship” on campus is not a sufficient condition for addressing my concerns.)
But perhaps I could respond to Anderson’s concern this way: To say that all Christian education should be formative is not the same as saying that Christian education is only about affective formation of desire. Does that make sense? There are a couple of considerations in putting it that way:
(a) The fact is, all education is “formative” in a holistic sense—the question is to what end we’re being formed. Indeed, this is my contention about the “secular” university. While it might think it’s only conveying information or disseminating skills, in fact it can’t help but be inculcating some vision of the good life. (The frat house is a perverted mirror of the monastery in this respect.) This is why Stanley Hauerwas, in The State of the University, emphasizes that all education is moral formation. The question just is, “Which morality?” So if we think that education is just about informing minds, we’ll end up—usually unwittingly—perpetuating a formation that runs counter to the “ideas” we’re trying to convey to those mind-receptacles. So the Christian university needs to be intentional about this formative aspect of education, otherwise we’ll just end up adopting the loaded practices of the secular university (just as the church has uncritically adopted the practices of American corporate culture or the military-entertainment complex).
(b) But that’s not to say that the college is identical to the church, or that the college is just about formation. Certainly the college or university is a different sort of institution whose “leading function” is to train and equip people with knowledge and skills. I don’t expect the local parish to train us to be physicists or philosophers or artists, but I imagine the Christian college as an “extension” of the church in this respect. So I don’t see the Christian college as the “totality of a Christian education”—indeed, we well-heeled, educated folk might do well to remind ourselves that a very small minority of the church ever has the opportunity to pursue higher education. And I certainly don’t think it’s a requisite for being formed as faithful disciples.
But I do think that if we want to create Christian lawyers and artists and philosophers and filmmakers, then we not only need to equip them with the right knowledge “from a Christian perspective,” we need to get hold of their hearts and imaginations which then fuel their thinking and creating. And God forms and reforms our hearts and imaginations in the tangible, tactile, visceral practices of Christian worship.