Liturgy and Literature

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it is a matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly – who loves God and neighbor and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love.

I’ve been reading, off and on for awhile now, a fabulous book by James K.A. Smith: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. It is fantastic, and I’m going to do it all sorts of violence by oversimplifying. My apologies to Dr. Smith. But he has me thinking a lot about our project here at Aslan’s Library, and I thought I’d invite you in to my reflections.

Short and sweet: he is arguing that what we love is more important than what we know (or think we know).  And the way our love is formed – the way our hearts are won – is through liturgy, embodied worship.

Not so short and sweet:

Liturgy, to some of us evangelical Protestants, sounds suspicious. Rote, right? Religion, not relationship! But really, there’s no such thing as a non-liturgical Christianity. Or even a non-liturgical person! Liturgy is the “order of service,” the motions through which we put our bodies in worship. And no one said it better than Dylan: “You’ve gotta serve somebody.” Whenever we’re acting, whatever we’re doing, we’re serving some vision of the good life we hope to more fully inhabit. We’ve all got a god, or gods, that we serve  in the minutiae of our daily dealings. That’s the force that gets us out of bed and that keeps us in motion. Usually it’s without any conscious reflection. Our hearts are in thrall to something, and we move through our days in its pursuit.

If that’s true, then what we look at, listen to, make, and walk through actually shapes us more deeply than the ideas we intellectually accept. And according to Smith, there are rival liturgies seeking our hearts: the liturgies of shopping and sporting events and contemporary political life.

(Lest you doubt, consider my own personal “liturgy of Target”: my visits there are as routine as any worship service. Get kids settled in cart with snacks. Stop at in-store Starbucks for a latte. Visually scan the brilliantly placed women’s clothing department immediately at the entrance. Angle over to baby department. Find that I have to trek through the home goods department to get to groceries; get distracted by whether or not I need a new shower curtain. Pick up groceries. Check to see if King Arthur flour is still cheaper than at Lucky. Finally get to the personal care stuff — contact solution, vitamins — that I initially planned the trip for. Pick up a diet Coke at the checkout. Pay.

Without fail, this is how the trip unfolds. And I bet most of us have similar routines for groceries, shopping at the mall, even shopping online. What Smith is asking – brilliantly, I think – is how are we being formed by these myriad little liturgies? Who and what are we serving at Target/Nordstrom/the Twins game?  What desires are we cultivating? Which liturgies have the power in our lives? Which truly own our hearts?)

So : short and sweet again.

Being a disciple is the process of becoming a person who  increasingly loves God and neighbor. Not the sort of person who increasingly knows she ought to love God and neighbor. And what we do with our bodies every day shapes the directions in which our love is aimed. What does any of this have to do with Aslan’s Library and theological kidlit?

Well, the best children’s literature doesn’t explain. It doesn’t try to impart information. Like Scripture, it is spacious. It invites us in. It invites us to identify with heroes and heroines, to reject villains, to long for a good (not necessarily a happy!) ending. It invites us to imitate what is good, to love what is worthy. And it does this by appealing to our imaginations and our hearts.

Smith writes, “Our worldview is more a matter of the imagination than the intellect, and the imagination  runs off the fuel of images that are channeled by the senses.” Literature powerfully attracts, entrances, and shapes our imaginations. Shallow, boring, or cheap literature is going to cultivate shallow, boring, cheap imagination. Rich, complex, charitable literature helps nudge us in those directions.

I’m trying to keep all of these reflections bouncing around as I read and choose books to review. I have to get beyond asking, “Do I like this book?” or “Does it hit all my little theological buttons?” We’re looking for books that are rich, that are beautiful and true and good (those words again!), and that are winsome. Because literature matters. It matters for joy, for pleasure, for the formation of imagination, for Christian education. And for discipleship.


6 thoughts on “Liturgy and Literature

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughtful reflections — I definitely needed to read this today! And as a person who has, like you, come to notice liturgies everywhere (even in places where they are officially scorned!), I couldn’t agree more about the need for us to be intentional in the liturgies we choose to follow. They wear deep ruts in our souls.

  2. Well said. I’d add two small things.

    1. Liturgies of life develop a posture toward the world. Liturgies of literature shape our posture toward the word, and toward the world.

    2. Liturgies (repeated actions) form our reflexes. We do the same things by reflex – like your path through Target. Immersing our kids in great literature has the dual reflex training of forming them to go regularly to books for wisdom, truth and beauty AND through the wisdom, goodness, truth and beauty found therein to respond reflexively to the world in which they live.

  3. Pingback: Reading as Discipleship | Aslan's Library

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