As I was working on our last series regarding what motivates us to righteous living, I came across an interview with Professor Jamie Smith in the latest issue of Christianity Today magazine. Since I am a curious person and like to think, the title of the interview, “You Can’t Think Your Way to God” caught my eye. Read along as Dr. Smith himself articulates his thesis in the interview:
“Human beings are at their core defined by what they worship rather than primarily by what they think, know, or believe. Starting with the idea that we are what we love, I tried to come up with a model of the human person that appreciates the centrality of love. That propelled me to see that we are ritual, liturgical creatures whose loves are shaped and aimed by the fundamentally forming practices that we are immersed in. And the rituals and practices that form our loves spill out well beyond the sanctuary. Many secular liturgies are trying to get us to love some other kingdom and some other gods.”
“We Christians should be aware that there’s something at stake in cultural participation that we wouldn’t have been concerned about if all we did was worry about the messages in culture. I am trying to wake folks up to realize that if these cultural institutions and practices are formative, then the spaces that we inhabit do something to us. The stadium and the mall are examples of that.”
This quote, while a bit heavy and academic, is packed with thought-provoking depth and must be read carefully. What I hear the professor saying is that our actions are motivated more by our loves than by what we think, know, or believe. And our loves are influenced by our cultural participation, not just in the cultural messages we accept or reject, but in the ritual of participation itself. Are these cultural rituals drawing us away to other loves, other kingdoms, and other gods?
This thesis is particularly compelling in regard to youth ministry. In fact, it puts into words something that has been percolating in my brain for some time. Christian leaders and the Christian press are rightfully concerned about the exodus of young people from the church. We can argue specific statistics, but the anecdotal evidence itself is pretty clear; a large population of young people are leaving the church when their high school years come to an end. But I wonder, “Have we inadvertently assisted in their exit by our approach to youth ministry?”
We encourage, under the pretext of evangelism, our students to “engage the culture”; to develop common ground with their schoolmates around today’s popular music, television shows, movies, and what’s hip or cool. But in reality, is this is leading our students into an exploration of “other loves”. Should we be surprised when they are drawn away by these “other loves” from the faith of their childhood? Our kids may learn the facts of the Bible – the stories, the rules, what’s right, what’s wrong – but have we taught them to love, worship, protect, and cultivate their relationship to God?
We home-schooled our five children. Long story, but what you need to know for this illustration is that we have no hostility toward public school and our family and children maintained friendships with kids from a wide variety of schooling situations. It was a way of educating our kids that fit some things we wanted to accomplish as a family. It was as simple as that, not part of some political or social agenda. The background of us not being militant about home-schooling sets the stage for what comes next.
When one of our daughters finished junior high, she indicated a desire to attend the public high school. We said, “Fine.” But before we made that transition, we had a conversation and said something like this, “We are fine with you attending public high school. You are a strong person in your faith. We are confident that you can stand up for yourself and be a light wherever you go. However, we have one word of caution. Just because you are attending public school does not mean that we will be changing our standards. So, when you are standing around with your new school friends, and they are all gushing about last night’s episode of “Friends”, you won’t be watching it. When your friends report to school on Monday morning with a buzz about the latest R-rated movie, you won’t have seen it. Also, you won’t be wearing the typical body-exposing outfits that seem to be popular among high school teens. Our clothing standards will not be changing. Our intention is not to send you to school and make you feel like an outsider, we just want you to know up front that our family standard around here will not be changing. It is not about rules, it is about identity. This is just who we are.”
You will have to ask Elizabeth what she decided because we left the decision up to her. What I want to emphasize is that our standards were not driven by rules, they were driven by who we were; they were driven by who we loved and worshipped. When I asked our adult children many years later, “Do you think we had a lot of rules when you were growing up?” they looked at each other and answered with a rather casual, “No, not really.” I don’t think the rules as rules were a big deal in their memory because they were just a reflection of who we were. We are what we love.