Moving Beyond Ideas to the Heart

PrintOver the past few years, I’ve really come to appreciate the work of Jamie Smith. One book in particular that’s caught my attention is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.

In particular, Smith looks at how our formation (or he uses the word education at times) is not ultimately about disseminating ideas, but rather shaping hearts and desires. It’s profound to consider this, really. Not just at the Christian university level, but also for the local church setting. In our teaching and preaching, are we primarily just communicating ideas or are we shaping deep desires. As he remarks, education (or formation) is really happening at all times. So how are we forming those in our care?

To give an example, Smith considers the role of the mall within our western culture. Consider how this institution shapes and forms not just the minds of people, but it’s hearts, desires, and even bodies. It is a full five-sensory formational experience, if we allow it to be.

What if Christians recalled that the five senses are good gifts from God and are available to help form us at our core?

For Christian leaders and educators, this is a book worth picking up. I’ve put some quotes below that come from the book. Hopefully you’ll see how Smith begins to flesh this out a bit more. Pretty intriguing stuff!

What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? What if we began by appreciating how education not only gets into our head but also (and more fundamentally) grabs us by the gut— what the New Testament refers to as kardia, “the heart”? What if education was primarily concerned with shaping our hopes and passions— our visions of “the good life”— and not merely about the dissemination of data and information as inputs to our thinking? What if the primary work of education was the transforming of our imagination rather than the saturation of our intellect? And what if this had as much to do with our bodies as with our minds? (p17-18)

What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? (p18)

…how we think about distinctly Christian education would not be primarily a matter of sorting out which Christian ideas to drop into eager and willing mind-receptacles; rather, it would become a matter of thinking about how a Christian education shapes us, forms us, molds us to be a certain kind of people whose hearts and passions and desires are aimed at the kingdom of God. (p18)

If education is primarily formation— and more specifically, the formation of our desires— then that means education is happening all over the place (for good and ill). (p19)

So 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. (p23)

However, while worldview-talk (which I don’t want to entirely abandon) is critical of rationalist accounts of the human person that would reduce us to thinking machines, it still tends to exhibit a fairly “heady” or cognitive picture of the human person, and thus still thinks that the site of contestation between worldviews or ground-motives is located in the realm of ideas. (p24)

Given the kinds of creatures we are— affective, desiring, liturgical animals— this can’t be addressed merely with new ideas or even Christian perspectives. The pedagogy of the mall does not primarily take hold of the head, so to speak; it aims for the heart, for our guts, our kardia. It is a pedagogy of desire that gets hold of us through the body. (p24)

If the mall and its “parachurch” extensions in television and advertising offer a daily liturgy for the formation of the heart, what might be the church’s counter-measures? What if the church unwittingly adopts the same liturgical practices as the market and the mall? Will it then really be a site of counter-formation? What would the church’s practices have to look like if they’re going to form us as the kind of people who desire something entirely different— who desire the kingdom? What would be the shape of an alternative pedagogy of desire? Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall— the liturgies of mall and market— that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world. (p24-25)

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