July 18, 2013

Mindless Worship

Now that is a red-rag-to-a-bull blog post title if ever there were one.  A whole bunch of people expecting me to bag out some Planet Song/Hill Shakers worship conference or something for having to check our brains in at the door.  But none of it. This is nothing to do with the worship wars and everything to do with the real worship war that is going on in the heart of every person on the planet, and which Christians in particular need to pay careful attention to.

In the second of his Cultural Liturgies series – Imagining The Kingdom -, Jamie Smith talks about the fact that our unconscious habits shape us far more than our conscious ones – nothing new there.  But he goes on to explore the significance for the Christian life of adopting an attitude similar to what nutritionists the world over see as the magic bullet for healthy eating, and one which Cornell nutritionist Brian Wansink has captured in his book Mindless Eating.  Put simply, Wansink explores how the obesity problem in the USA (and by extension Australia and the UK), is due to the ingrained eating habits that we adopt at a preconscious level.  We eat “on the basis of malformed desires and deep seated habits.” In other words, we eat mindlessly.  

Now you would think that the solution to mindless eating – if we aren’t going to become a super-sized nation – is mindful eating, and my goodness me, haven’t most of us had to do that at one time or another.  “I will not have that extra slice!” we exclaim through gritted (and chocolate-smeared) teeth.  “Smaller portion sizes! Smaller portion sizes!” we chant in a Zen-like mantra. “Distraction-time!” we yell, rushing off to hit the treadmill, the pavement, or our partner. In other words, when temptation comes our way, we are supposed to think more mindfully.  So we determine to do the grocery shopping when full rather than when hungry, we spend longer in the fruit and veg section deliberately, and we self-loathe when we binge.  It sure sounds like mindful eating will solve the obesity problem.  

Except Wansink says this simply isn’t the case, or at least the case isn’t as simple as that.  The actual solution is not thinking more about our eating habits, but thinking less about them.  In other words, getting to the stage of mindless healthy eating, rather than mindless unhealthy eating.  It is only when we ingrain (multigrain/five-grain etc, etc – Ed) practices and habits that are healthy, so that we make the choices almost without thinking, that we are on the way to a newer svelter USA/UK/OZ. Acquiring knowledge in and of itself is not enough to change our long term habits, practices and desires. The reason is simple: We are not creatures who can be “on” all of the time. For one, it’s much too exhausting, and for another, it’s likely to lead to “boom and bust”, or “diet and binge” as the case may be. The solution can only be a transformation of desire that moves beyond the mindful to the mindless.

In moving this to the central thesis of his trilogy’s project – the shaping of desire – Smith puts it like this:

Pedagogies of desire form our habits, affections and imaginations, thus shaping and priming our very orientation to the world…there is a unique “understanding” that is “carried” in Christian practices, particularly the practices of Christian worship.  It is in such practices that our love is trained, disciplined, shaped and formed.”

Did you see that?  “LOVE is trained, disciplined, shaped and formed.” And all along you thought love was some mushy, sentimental, unthinking, go-with-the-emotions category. Smith says “No.” Love is formed in us over time by habit, in this case mindless  habit that has become our way of life.

We see this definition of mindlessness in the way in which the Holy Spirit shapes and changes us as Christians.  An area of our lives needs to be transformed; either a secret sin, wrong desire, nasty public habit such as outbursts of anger on the road, greed, lusts towards all sorts of things, bitterness towards people who have hurt us, or simple  toxic self-righteousness in which we look down our noses at those we disapprove of.  We’ve all got one or many of these.  When the Holy Spirit challenges that area, what is the first thing that happens?  We become mindful of it. It becomes front and centre in our vision.  We realise it is a problem.  In other words we are “on” when this particular sin presents itself.  We want to change (we DO want to change, don’t we?), and so we have to begin the mindful process of change.  And that can be exhausting. Just like mindful eating, it can lead to “boom or bust”, “diet or binge”, and, just as likely “hope or despair”, depending on our failure rate.

However as we do what Smith suggests; ingrain practices and habits that bend us away from that particular issue or sin, there is the joy over time of realising that it no longer has a hold on us. In fact, we start to display godly behaviours and attitudes in that area if not exactly mindlessly, then at least naturally, and with a sense of freedom and joy.  The porn-urge falls to the back of the mind as we realise three months later that we “just don’t go there anymore”. What started off as mindful purity slips into mindless purity.  The critical spirit starts softening because, as we ingrain forgiveness towards others in light of Christ’s forgiveness of us, it becomes mindless.  And yes, the gluttony that seems to be a more acceptable sin in the Christian West than drunkenness, no longer consumes us (the consumer is in fact the one being consumed as William Cavanaugh so eloquently puts it). Remember how the old hymn goes? “He breaks the power of cancelled sin.”  As we, the people of God, avail ourselves of his grace and power, returning to Christ individually and corporately, in praise and confession, in joyful song and humble lament, at the communion table and around the meal table, such worship becomes our mindless habit – and the truth and weight of the Christian story “seeps into our bones” as Smith observes.

Not convinced?  Then think about how secular liturgies – or practices – work. They operate at exactly the same level as the Christian liturgy.  They ingrain themselves into us, so that eventually they are completely plausible, and not simply plausible, but totalising. The consumer culture is one such totalizer: a mindless understanding of both the self and the community that “is just so”.  Therefore what we require in mindless worship is not simply spiritual formation, but spiritual counter-formation – the task of re-orienting ourselves away from the one and towards the other.   And that raises the all-important question: Are the ingrained habits and practices of our churches any match for these secular liturgies?  More on that next time.


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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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