Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Christian Cultural Theory

Smith begins this next section by suggesting that the Christian educational institution has accepted the notion of the informative over the formative in the last few decades:
Many Christian schools, colleges, and universities--particularly in the protestant tradition--have taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to the holistic, biblical vision of human persons. In particular, Christian education has absorbed a philosophical anthropology that sees human persons as primarily thinking things. (31)
Through the integration of faith and learning (a phrase that I have heard countless times at my own institution as well as at other "ideologically specific" institutions), students will learn a "Christian worldview," since they are being taught their disciplines from a Christian perspective. The ideas then inform how we behave.

I'm not sure that Smith is suggesting this is necessarily wrong, but he claims that we are more than just our ideas: "Weren't we created as embodied creatures?" (32) It is through the material practices of Christianity that our thoughts change: it's regrettable that Smith uses such language as "heart" for where these impulses reside, but perhaps there is little vocabulary to describe the source of desire in the human person.

Smith's project is a grand one: he wishes to formulate a new sort of Christian cultural theory.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The End of Christian Education

Education has been a subject of the mind, and has not (traditionally) concerned itself with what Smith calls "material practices." (28) It is through these rituals or practices that we get to understand the world. I happen to like the idea of a "social imaginary," a term that is not Smith's but one I've used in the past (much to the chagrin of those listening to me use the term). This "social imaginary" can be thought of as the ways that we perceive things around us (Smith calls them "habits of perception"), and we often don't question it. (28n12) For Smith, education is trapped in such an imaginary, that it is a work of the mind rather than something that is enacted upon by liturgies, ways of acting and being formed. Smith uses an example from George Orwell who, in The Road to Wigan Pier, describes class difference in England as being formed not by intellectual teaching, but by olfactory understanding: "The lower classes smell." (30; Smith is quoting Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Penguin, 2001), 119). He ends this section with a compelling question:
Could we offer a Christian education that is loaded with all sorts of Christian ideas and information--and yet be offering a formation that runs counter to that vision? (31)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pedagogies of Desire

I like this quote from Smith:
The description [of the mall as a religious site] is meant to shift our attention and perspective in order for us to be recognize the charged, religious nature of cultural institutions that we all tend to inhabit as if they were neutral sites. . . . we can at once appreciate that the mall is a religious institution because it is a liturgical institution, and that it is a pedagogical institution because it is a formative institution. (23)
His point is that the mall deals not with ideas, but rather, through practice, with notions of the heart: ways of living. This is due to what he calls "quasi-liturgical practices" (he calls "formative practices" "liturgies" here) which take place at the mall. (24) What he ultimately wants, it seems, if for Christian education (or the Christian academy) to be a counter-formation to the mall, to provide a liturgy as formative practice (formative of our imagination) that works against what the mall is doing: "What would be the shape of an alternate pedagogy of desire?" (25)

By the way, I want a Lego Wall-E.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Shopping Mall: A Religious Site

Today, my family and I attended mass at a local Roman Catholic parish. Afterwards, we "attended" two shopping malls, not to mention a grocery store and a gas station. And I would have bought a Lego version of the beloved Disney/Pixar character Wall-E had it been in stock at the local Lego Store. I should also mention that I took my photo at the Apple Store, at which I mentioned to my family that "we should all be happy. It's like Walt Disney World."

Smith seems to take a page from Jon Pahl in referring to the shopping mall as a site of religious ritual (I like that he talks about the mall parking lot as a kind of moat, as there is no real way to get to the mall a pedestrian. This is ironic as the mall acts as a kind of sanctuary for walking in the wintertime). I appreciate Smith's discussions of the visual semiotics of the mall, the architectural codes that he calls "catholic" (that is, universal), those things that indicate that this building is, in fact, a shopping mall. Smith calls the various shopping seasons a sort of religious calendar, while he calls the stores "shrines." This is closer to truth for me: I've done pilgrimages to various Apple Stores in my lifetime (Polo Park, Rideau, Eaton Centre, Sainte-Catherine, Mall of America, Square One, Soho and Carrefour Laval, off the top of my head). He writes,
While other religions are promising salvation through the thin, dry media of books and messages, this new global religion is offering embodied pictures of the redeemed that invite us to imagine ourselves in their shoes--to imagine ourselves otherwise, and thus to willingly submit to the disciplines that produce the saints evoked in the icons. (21)
Smith's description of the mall as religious site, along with acolytes (greeters) and priests (cashiers), is compelling. And very familiar.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Smith: Formation vs. Information

“[This book] is an invitation to re-vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project.” (18) In particular, Smith suggests that Christian scholars should be considering how education informs what Smith calls the hearts, passions and desires of students. But his footnote contains an important point: “I’m not arguing that we love, and therefore we need not know; rather, we love in order to know.” (3n2) For that matter, Smith’s project includes raising the stakes of Christian education. It is becoming increasingly clear that Smith’s book is important for the Christian academic community to consider, even at my early stage of reading. I am also compelled by his idea of a “philosophical anthropology,” with a nod to phenomenology: the importance of desire and desire’s targets. This intersects with my own work and my own life, too (as one of my colleagues recently quoted me as saying: “But I want that iPad!”).

Friday, September 25, 2015

Reading James K. A. Smith

Because of the encouragement of a colleague, I decided to delve into a book that has been sitting on my shelf for quite a while. The book is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by my favourite author (of those authors that I've ready hardly anything at all), James K. A. Smith. He begins his introduction with quite a loaded question, which I suppose is good considering he is about to embark on a book-length study of the idea: "What is education for? And more specifically, what is at stake in a distinctively Christian education?" (17) He suggests that a Christian education is (traditionally conceived as) for instilling a Christian worldview, a way of thinking. Obviously, he feels that this is a limited view.

I'm going to try my best to work through his ideas, and this blog will help me to both process what he writes, as well as help me to continue to read the book (one little thing among so many other things that are on my plate this term). If you want to follow along, please do.