Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Apocalyptic vision

There are some books that need to be read, and then immediately read again. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation is one such book. And reading it a second time is what I'm doing, because I want to fully absorb the contents. Plus it's a fantastic read! I hesitate to call it revolutionary, since author James K. A. Smith draws on a host of thinkers and practitioners, both ancient and contemporary. It's more a provocative synthesis of work that I think could/should have a revolutionary effect in Christian churches, schools and homes.

One of Smith's primary aims is to get us to wake up to the fact that we're constantly being formed by secular liturgies (Desiring the Kingdom is the first in a 3-volume series called Cultural Liturgies -- the second volume Imagining the Kingdom has just been published). These liturgies of the world act upon us both on conscious cognitive and subconscious non-cognitive (or pre-cognitive) levels. The world here is not the world loved by God so much that he sent his only begotten Son to redeem it. Instead it's the world that the Apostle Paul warns us about in Romans 12 ("Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. . .") and that the Apostle John exhorts us not to love in 1 John 2 ("Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.") That being said, if you know anything about Smith he is for sure not counseling a withdrawal from "the world" into some sort of pietistic ghetto! He's concerned about what the older folks called "worldliness," but it's a worldliness more subtle and pervasive than they, or we, might be willing to acknowledge.

The value of realizing that we're being formed pretty much 24/7 is that it's the first step in resisting what is happening to us. Otherwise we're like the proverbial frog in the pot of water being slowly roasted to death. Once we begin to recognize the siren songs of the world's liturgies we can say: "I see what you're up to!" Then we can begin to cultivate practices that stimulate a counter-formation as people whose hearts learn to desire those things -- and that Kingdom -- which will abide forever (going back to John's dichotomy). For more context check out this previous post.

One of the ways Smith describes an "I see what you're up to!" posture is as a "contemporary apocalyptic" akin to what we see in the apocalyptic books of the Bible. Here he also corrects a common hermeneutical error that I've fallen prey to. Perhaps you have as well. He writes:

Apocalyptic literature—the sort you find in the strange pages of Daniel and the book of Revelation—is a genre of Scripture that tries to get us to see (or see through) the empires that constitute our environment, in order to see them for what they really are. Unfortunately, we associate apocalyptic literature with end-times literature, as if its goal were a matter of prediction. But this is a misunderstanding of the biblical genre; the point of apocalyptic literature is not prediction but unmasking—unveiling the realities around us for what they really are. So apocalyptic literature is a genre that tries to get us to see the world on a slant and thus see through the spin. I imagine it as a bit like the vertical louvered blinds in my room: if the blinds are tilted to the left on a 45-degree angle, then from straight-on they'll appear to be closed and shutting out the light. But if I move slightly to the left and get parallel to the louvers, I'll find that I can see right through them to the outside world. Apocalyptic literature is like that: the empire (whether Babylon or Rome) has something to hide and so tilts the louvers just slightly to cover what it wants to hide. But apocalyptic is revealing precisely because it gives us this new perspective, just to the left, which lets us see through the blinders.

Seeing "through the blinders" is not an end in itself. I'm reminded of C.S. Lewis's quote about the man who is always seeing through things, but never seeing something through them. This isn't a call for jaded Christian cynicism. Rather, seeing through the liturgies of the shopping mall, or sports stadium, or university, or etc. needs to be the precursor to a process of counter-formation that, Smith will argue, happens primarily through the practices and rhythms of corporate Christian worship. It doesn't sound very sexy, but maybe one of the things we 21st-century disciples of Jesus need most is a pair of apocalyptic eyes. As a pilgrim people we look forward not to the end of the world, but to the end of the world as we know it.

Quote from p. 92 of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009)

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