LEARNING TO LOVE | SESSION THREE
WHAT THE HECK IS WATER? LEARNING TO EXEGETE OUR CULTURE
In 2005, David Foster Wallace was invited to deliver the commencement address at Kenyon College. He began his speech with a parable that went like this:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the [heck] is water?’”
The point of Wallace’s fish story is to demonstrate that often the most ubiquitous realities are the hardest to see and talk about. This can be said about our loves, which are often formed subconsciously and operate under the radar. As a result, it can be difficult for us to know what is really driving us. The question then becomes: how are our loves shaped if not by intentional choice? James Smith explains, “Our loves acquire direction and orientation because we are immersed over time in practices and rituals—what we have called ‘liturgies’—that affectively and viscerally train our desires.”
Therefore, it is vitally important for us to stop and evaluate the love-shaping “liturgies” that constantly influence us, and that may be moving us to love rival gods. If the church is going to live up to its calling, to be a people “marked by the love of the triune God in each area of life,”we need to learn to read our practices.
THE STORIES WE TELL: UNDERSTANDING THE POWER OF NARRATIVE
This brings us to the power of story. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his influential work After Virtue writes, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”Doing is intimately connected with being; we cannot know what constitutes a correct course if we do not have a proper understanding of who we are and where we are going.
And how do we typically come to an understanding of ourselves and our purpose? Stories! Our actions flow from the way that we imagine the world, and our imaginations and characters are shaped, to a large degree, by the “stories that have captivated us, that have sunk into our bones—stories that ‘picture’ what we think life is about, what constitutes ‘the good life.’ We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us.”
Stories are identity forming. They give us a sense of place and belonging. “They stir our imaginations and help us to experience love, betrayal, hatred, and compassion that might be otherwise foreign. They prepare us for experiences like love, or help us process things like sorrow and suffering.”
Our culture’s obsession with stories can be observed in a recent Neilsen survey which revealed that the average American consumes five hours of television a day.We spend five hours daily “unwinding before a piece of furniture.”This is “more time than most people (consciously) do any other one thing.”The only other thing that we will dedicate this amount of time to in a day is sleep.
Human beings crave stories.
INHABITING THE GREAT STORY: THE FORMATIVE POWER OF LITURGY
This reality then points us to the power of liturgy. Liturgy is the biblical word for all that is included in our worship (latreia, see Romans 12:1). It describes the public way that a church honors God in its time of corporate praise, prayer, teaching, and commitment. All of this would be extremely important in and of itself, but what gives our liturgy even more significance is the reality that: “Liturgy tells a story.”
James Smith refers to liturgies as “calibration technologies” which train our loves by aiming them towards a certain goal, and, for the church, that goal is Christ and his kingdom.The way that liturgy “calibrates” us is by placing us in the story of the gospel. Each week as the church engages in the rhythms of grace, we are transported into the “mega narrative”of the Bible. This has a transformative effect because unlike so many of the stories we tell, the story of worship is “a story that surprises us because we discover that it doesn’t primarily feature us. The star of the story is God, who is at the center of all worship but is also at its origins in history and its origins in our hearts. The story of worship (like the story of the gospel) is all about God.”Thus in worship, as we are brought into that story, “God does something to us.”
Another powerful aspect of liturgy is that it cements the story of the gospel, not only in our hearts, but also in our bodies. “Even secular sociologists recognize the power of… physical acts to maintain cultural memory.”The social anthropologist Paul Connerton has studied practices that various peoples have undertaken to hang on to their histories in the face of a changing world. According to Connerton, when a community wants to hang on to its orienting narrative, it must make the story a matter of “habit-memory.” Connerton notes how the most powerful rituals involve the body, making use of all the senses, so that the sacred story is impressed upon those gathered.
This is an important thing to keep in mind because, in “the age of authenticity, we can approach Christian liturgy chiefly as a means of self-expression, and forget its character as communal action and formation.”As Alan Noble reminds us, “Worshiping God is not something I accommodate to myself.”Instead, “If we want to be people reoriented by a biblical worldview and guided by biblical wisdom, one of the best spiritual investments we can make is to mine the riches of historic Christian worship, which is rooted in the conviction that the Word is caught more than it is taught.”
Historic Christian worship has a way of embedding the story of the Bible into our hearts. Worship re-forms us into the image of Christ. Worship, then, is at the heart of Christian formation. The movement and poetry of traditional worship is designed to implant the gospel story into us as we come together in response to God’s invitation, confess our sins in God’s presence, hear God’s word preached, and participate in the sacraments.
We need to constantly engage the wisdom of those who have gone before us as we try to bring the truths of the gospel to future generations. This, however, does not mean that there is no room for innovation in worship, nor does it require us to mindlessly apply every aspect of traditional worship because it is traditional. As Bryan Chapell writes, “Slavish loyalty to traditions will keep us from ministering effectively to our generation, but trashing the past entirely denies God’s purposes for the church on which we must build. If we do not learn from the past, we will lose insights God has granted others as they have interacted with his Word and people. Always we are to be informed by tradition; never are we to be ruled by it.”
David Foster Wallace, This Is Water(New York, NY: Little, Brown, 2009), 3-4.
James K.A. Smith, You Are What You Love(Grand Rapid, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 2016), 32.
Tish Harrison Warren, Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019), 29.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue(Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 216.
James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 32.
Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014) 27.
Nielson Company, “State of the Media: Trends in TV Viewing—2011 TV Upfronts,” https://www.nielsen.com/content/dam/corporate/us/en/insights/article/uploads/2011/04/State-of-the-Media-2011-TV-Upfronts.pdf.
David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram,” essay, in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (London: Abacus, 2009), 39.
Cosper, 49. He goes on to caution: “If you do anything for five hours a day, it’s going to have a transformative effect on who you are and how you see the world.”
Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Worship: Letting the Gospel Shape Our Practice (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 19.
Smith, You Are What You Love, 77.
I got this term from Michael Horton who contrasts the grand narrative of the gospel (creation, fall, redemption, and consummation) with the various “metanarratives” that postmodern thinkers tend to be so incredulous towards. Michael Scott Horton, The Christian Faith: a Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 16.
Mike Cosper, Rhythms of Grace: How the Church's Worship Tells the Story of the Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 25-26.
Smith, You Are What You Love, 77.
Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: a Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York, NY: Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, 2018), 109.
Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 72.
Alastair Roberts, Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor, ed. Collin Hansen (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 68.
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (InterVarsity Press, 2018), 136.