Consider this, from Henri Nouwen:
“Over the last few decades we have been inundated by a torrent of words. Wherever we go we are surrounded by words: words softly whispered, loudly proclaimed, or angrily screamed; words spoken, recited, or sung; words on records, in books, on walls, or in the sky; words in many sounds, many colors, or many forms; words to be heard, read, seen, or glanced at; words which flicker off and on, move slowly, dance, jump, or wiggle. Words, words, words! They form the floor, the walls, and the ceiling of our existence.”
If the statement about records wasn’t there, this observation would be apt for today. But it was written in 1981! Of course, the problem has only intensified since then. What can be done?
For many Christians around the world, Lent is an important season of the spiritual life. They give something up, or take on some new discipline during this season. There is a trend, which overall is a good one, of using Lent not just to “give something up,” but to do something positive or proactive. Here I want to discuss why giving something up for Lent is still appropriate, important, and potentially effective for one’s moral and spiritual growth.
I do have some quibbles here and there, but overall this is an excellent, timely, and provocative book in the best sense of the word. Smith focuses on the formation of what we love and desire, and this is very important. I think we need a better and deeper Christian intellectual formation to go alongside the cultivation of our loves. If the church could exemplify excellent Christian character, including both intellectual and moral virtue, that would help us fulfill our redemptive role in the world. I think Smith underestimates the central role the mind does play in formation and transformation (see Romans 12:1-2, for example). However, Smith’s book is important for helping us understand what our redemptive role is, and how to better fulfill it by intentionally shaping our desires.
I went to church today with chapter 4 of this book in mind, and it made a real difference. Grateful for this book.
After thinking more about this book over the past few days, I still think it is a very worthwhile read with some excellent points. However, my concern about the underemphasis of the role of the mind in spiritual formation that is present in the book has grown. First, upon reflection, part of the reason that chapter 4 made a difference in my experience of Sunday morning worship is that I had it in mind, i.e. my mental focus was different, more open, and attentive to the truths present in song, the proclamation of the Word, and the teaching.
And I’m becoming more skeptical of some of the claims about the role of liturgy in our subconscious. I think Smith is too optimistic about this. From my experience, and the experiences of many who grew up in the heavily liturgical church that I did, mere presence and exposure to the elements of liturgy were not sufficient for faith, nor for transformation in Christ.
So I agree with Smith that we aren’t “brains on sticks”, but I also think we are much more than “desiring will-ers”, so to speak. We must intentionally cultivate the will, the heart, and the mind. The problem is not that the evangelical church is too intellectual, but rather that it is shallowly intellectual and panders to consumerist desires rather than being counter-formative. The latter is a key point made by Smith in this book.
We need to seek to cultivate all of our being in Christ: intellect, emotion, desire, will, and body. I think Smith would agree, but I fear that many readers will think they can safely ignore the centrality of the mind in spiritual formation. And we cannot do that.