you are what you love (2)

This entry was posted by on Friday, 3 February, 2017 at

Thanks to all who have joined the conversation so far – I know we are all reading at a different pace, so feel free to drop in whenever and wherever you want. Here are my random reflections on chapter 2:

I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really want…

Smith begins chapter 2 with an illustration from a movie which has really got under my skin. It’s from Stalker by the Russian film-maker Andrei Tarkovsky.

Three men are on a journey together towards a destination called the Zone. They are told that in the Zone is a Room where they will find their heart’s desire. Their dreams will come true. Anticipation grows as they walk through a strange post-apolcalyptic landscape. And then they arrive at the threshold of the Room.

This is the most important moment in your life, he says. Your innermost wish will be made true.

But now the men hesitate. Because it dawns on them that their “heart’s desire” may not be what they think it is. If the thing we most desire and long for is finally revealed, are we confident it will be something good and beautiful and true? As Smith asks, “would you want to step into the Room? Are you confident that what you think you love aligns with your innermost longings?” Now there’s a question that’s going to linger…

As Smith observes, we’re well trained to know what the answer is meant to be. In a Bible study, in our worship songs, we will confidently assert that what I most want is to know God better, to love God more, to love my neighbour more, to be holy, to be like Jesus. But the simple image of that Room unmasks our pretences, makes us hesitate.

A slight tangent, maybe. But this scene reminds me of my favourite part of C.S. Lewis’s strange and beautiful novel Til We Have Faces (his retelling of an old Greek myth). The main character has reached a kind of final courtroom scene where she stands before the gods, and for the first time speaks completely truthfully, speaks from the heart, about her own life. Then she adds these words:

Lightly men talk of saying what they mean… When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”

Or as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 4:5 – “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.” How do I feel about that, honestly?

I also loved Smith’s other movie illustration, since it comes from my own personal “golden age of film.” American Beauty was one of a number of films over a three year period in the late 90’s that seemed to me to be trying to say something Big and Deep and True about our human predicament, the mess we are in, our woundedness and lostness.

They were not “nice” movies, and were sometimes brutal, shocking, vulgar, provocative. They only contained glimmers and whispers of hope, but I guess what they did for me was stir up longing and desire for something better. For those who are interested, the other movies of that golden age for me were The Ice Storm, Buffalo ’66, Magnolia, Fight Club and The Thin Red Line. I haven’t been as deeply moved by the movies since then – is that because of the age I was then (early 20s) or because they don’t make them like that any more?

Anyway, the American Beauty scene Smith points to is the one where Lester Burnam finally reaches his own threshold, and it seems he is going to gain the desire of his heart – by bedding his daughter’s teenage friend he has been lusting after. But at that moment his eyes are opened and he realises what he thought he wanted is not what he really, really wants. His desire turns to dust in his mouth and he realises “the disorder of his loves.”

Smith suggests that what we really, really want is often hidden from our own awareness. Our loves and desires influence and direct us all the time, without conscious thought and deliberate choice – they operate at the level of what psychologists call “the adaptive unconscious.”

But our loves and desires are revealed by our habits and practices, and also shaped by them. So by paying attention to our habits and practices, our daily liturgies, we can discover what we really want. And by making choices to change our habits and practices, we can retrain and recalibrate our loves. We need to wake up to the “secular liturgies” that are shaping us every day and (de)forming our lives – the example Smith explores is the liturgical influence of the shopping mall. We need a personal “apocalypse” to unmask these powerful background influences in our lives.

So the biggest practical question emerging from these chapters for me: what are the “secular liturgies” that are shaping my desires and loves every day? I’m going to start making an actual, physical list. I want to name these daily habits that are (de)forming my character and heart without my awareness. I’ll reveal my list in good time, but I’d also love to hear what this chapter has stirred up in you…

What I really, really, really want is zig-a-zig-ah

4 Responses to “you are what you love (2)”

  1. lorraine

    I’m probably just going to use this space to ask my questions rather than say anything useful. I agree with the guy on the last post about feeling like we are thinking too narrowly. I thought I would love this book but so far i’m feeling ambivalent. so help me out:

    1) It seems contradictory to say that, for example, we are not taught to become consumerists by arguments or messages, and then later talk about the power of images and advertising. Are these things not messages and arguments? In this sense i do think we are receiving and believing intellectually all the time. even when it’s happening unconsciously.

    2) the stalker film illustration. I am confused about this. If it is true that i don’t really want what i think i want then surely the inverse is true? that I want something that I don’t think i want, or that I am unaware of. If this is true then why would i be afraid to open the door as a Christian? surely our deepest desires are for God himself even if we don’t know that about ourselves yet? HELP ME! this is not a conversation for a blog. I need a cuppa and a kitchen table. (preferably at the Mullan’s house).

    I enjoyed the first chapter more than this chapter. I think it’s probably because i don’t yet understand it. I do agree with the point about how we are always worshiping something, and the shopping mall as the temple is a good example of this. But I don’t think we blindly engage in rituals as much as he makes out, i think we blindly believe the lies and myths presented to us which lead to mindless engagement in rituals and cultural practices which i suppose reinforce or feed into the myths about who we are and what we are for.

    oh lordy this is waffly but it’s the best i can do right now.

  2. David

    Beautiful writing, JM! It was a wonderful thing to be in your 20s during the golden image of American independent cinema! Not only did we have the time to feast on this explosion of idiosyncratic movie-making, the stories were articulated in a rare moment in history when much of the world had a chance to catch its breath and think about the meaning of life.

    We were post the fall of the Berlin Wall and pre-9/11 and the awful seriousness that has returned to the world. There was almost a hunger amid all this prosperity to manufacture a crisis, as perhaps demonstrated in the fervour with which every whiff of scandal around the Clinton White House was wrung out with relish. In the movie Magnolia, there was the interruption of normality with the plague of frogs, in American Beauty the writer articulated his suspicion that behind the barriers of American domesticity lurk closet Nazis, and Tarantino seemed on a mission to prove that the passions that once drove duellists and revengers can still blaze in a society addled by cartoons and bloated by blueberry muffins.

    There have been plenty of shocks since then to jolt us awake to the precariousness of western prosperity and the vulnerability of the liberal democratic western order. But James KA Smith clearly still feels that we are in danger of living in a stupor. There is something wonderfully Woody Allenish about his deconstructionist dander around the shopping mall; the image of a professor of reformed theology scowling outside the Gap and meditating on metanarratives by a milkshake stand is just great.

    I found myself thinking that the best way for the American church to deal with bourgeois intoxication with materialism might be a commitment to radical engagement with the millions of fellow citizens who dwell in poverty. If suburban megachurches are worried about consumerist liturgies they could partner with inner city churches whose members’ battles with poverty and daily danger would contextualise the lifestyles of the richest Christians in world history.

    But Smith has an important point to make. Our anxieties and ambitions are driven by narratives and prescriptions for happiness that are not just profoundly unbiblical but unfounded in any testament of human experience. If the church can introduce people to the possibility of a relationship with Jesus we are opening the door to joy and revealing reality.

    It is terrifying, as Smith puts it, that even self-identifying Christians “could be worshipping other gods without even knowing it”. What a stinking waste of time, life and love! What a forfeiting of joy!

    A key element of pastoral work must be to awake a flock to the reality that “we unconsciously learn to love rival kingdoms because we don’t realise we’re participating in rival liturgies”. And I liked his description of the “body of Christ” as “that unique community of practice whose members own up to the fact that we don’t always love what we say we do”.

    I don’t think he’s quite advocating spray-painting “Jesus is Lord” on the walls of the nearest shopping mall but he’s certainly challenging us to think about we etch this onto our hearts.

  3. jaybercrow

    Sorry for the long delay! Japan trip and jet lag wiped me out for a couple of weeks. But I had the book with me in Japan and I’m hoping to blog chapter 3 very soon…

    Lorraine! I also wish we could talk about this over a cuppa but for now this will have to do. In response to your questions:

    (1) I’m not sure if you are disagreeing with Smith, maybe just a difference in what words you would choose to use? I guess his big claim is that we are being shaped unconsciously (which you accept?), below the level of our conscious awareness. So we are shaped by being immersed in the assumptions and stories of our secular liturgies, rather than by having our conscious opinions directly challenged. So my daily immersion in the world of Facebook shapes me in all kinds of deep ways but it’s very rare that I’m reading an intellectual argument or opinion and thinking “that has persuaded me to change my mind.” I think I agree with Smith in saying most of this shaping bypasses our mind/intellect and goes for the gut/heart. No?

    (2) This is a good question, and you highlighted something that was buzzing in the back of mind when I wrote my summary, but which I decided to ignore. I think Smith talks about “what we really want/desire/love” in two different senses. There is what we really most hunger for at the core of our being, which is God. But there is also what we actually pursue in our lives, the hunger we feed and cultivate, which becomes the guiding force of our lives. The Stalker illustration is about how what we THINK we desire may not be the desire that actually motivates our lives. The American Beauty illustration shows that when we get what we have been actively pursuing, we may realise it’s not what we most deeply hunger for after all. Maybe it would be clearer to say there is what we need (God), and what we want (actively desire and pursue in our lives).

    When someone asks what we most hunger for, we will usually give the correct theological answer. But our habits and practices reveal the desires that actually animate and direct our days. These things are what we really want. God is what we really need. Have I just increased the confusion?!

    David W – really enjoyed your thoughts. Thanks for sharing!

  4. PJ

    Hello JM and all,

    I’ve enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation thus far. I’ve written a few thoughts over here:

    Some thoughts, much condensed from above:

    1)We need to practice the apocalypse. Smith’s understanding of apocalyptic is properly biblical that understands the message in the medium.
    2)As much as I enjoyed the take-down of the shopping mall and religious consumerism, it felt a bit obvious to me.
    3)The Aristotle quote made me uncomfortable. Personal experience tells me that doing the ‘just’ thing does not mean that my heart will follow. For me, this thinking was a route to disillusionment and burnout.



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