One of my unfolding mantras on this blog is "what we do shapes who we are." I believed it before I read Desiring the Kingdom, but Smith was arguing from a similar conviction. That was a major reason I felt his book was fitting for review on The Second Eclectic (link).
Another reason is that Smith's analysis of environments—the mall, the entertainment culture, and the university—can instruct our own practice of analyzing the environments technology creates. Smith shows us how to look past the surface to see what the practices mean, and what kinds of people those practices shape us into. Technology shapes what we do, so how is it shaping us spiritually? That question drives this blog.
The Sacramental Worldview
Smith's book helped me to better understand why McLuhan was a Catholic and how his sacramental worldview informed how he saw technology shaping us.
When Smith turns to the church as counter-formation, he describes a liturgical church service (ch 5). Evangelicals will be familiar only a few of these practices. But more sacramental denominations, I think, see church practices as habit-forming and soul-shaping. The connection between habits and the soul is logical in the sacramental worldview.
The mantra "What we do shapes who we are" reflects this worldview. Why? Because it sees the human holistically—body and spirit are united, woven together, and intimately shaping each other. Neither exists or moves without the other. Neither grows apart from the other. This explains, for me, how McLuhan's Catholic worldview so informed his thinking about technology's impact on the human person.
He recognized that technology shapes what we do. And because "what we do shapes who we are," then technology shapes who we are. This is sobering for us cloaked in technology's extensions. And this is something that spiritually-minded evangelicals fail to account for.
I don't think Desiring the Kingdom is perfect however, and I do wish that Smith had approached a few things differently.
First, while I appreciated Smith's exegesis of secular liturgies like the mall, the entertainment culture, and the university, I wish his analysis of them had been more robust. His analysis at the practical level didn’t equal his insights at the theoretical level. He somewhat necessarily spoke in generalities, but I wish he had offered more specifics. Smith's exegesis is decent and valuable, but it seems a bit lacking in concrete details and clarity. It felt a bit veiled and vague. This disappointed me.
I agree with his perspective, but it wasn't his exegesis of these environments that convinced me. I think he could convince more skeptics with more precision and more (or better) examples connected to the more mundane patterns that people might recognize in their own lives. Mirrors like that would give readers pause, forcing them to really examine Smith's claims.
Second, Smith's choices of the mall, entertainment, and the university make for good pop-culture critique, but some more mundane practices would have proved fruitful as well. The work environment, most specifically, is a rich source for analyzing habits. How does my daily computer use for hours upon hours shape me and my soul? I find that I desire human interaction the longer I work is an environment like that, even though people are huddled in offices and cubicles not ten feet from me. How do those offices and cubicles shape our souls? Our jobs undoubtedly shapes us as people everyday, and we need to better understand that. And we need the tools to do so.
Another environment I would suggest looking at is the car, and commuting along with it. How do our daily, 25-minute commutes shape us as people? Does our navigating road systems and enduring traffic congestion shape our souls? How? People spend hours each day in their car. It is certainly a more influential liturgy than the mall.
Finally, a bit whimsically, what about something like showering? Most people in the West do this daily. There has been research done into how bathing influences our identity and our morals. There's a nugget of truth in here, and it supports Smith's thesis in Desiring the Kingdom.
Lastly, Smith's discussion of church liturgies was too long and too ecclesiologically complex. He clearly has spent a lot of time thinking about the practices of the church body, but his work in this book was too detailed. He is often prescriptive about the church liturgy, interpolating theological meaning too early. He packs every liturgical practice so full of theological significance that the reader has overstuffed suitcases that can't quite hold everything and are impractical to carry. The theology and meaning that he finds in the church's practices seem over the top and overly optimistic.
Furthermore, I think Smith failed to unveil the deep need for good church practices. This vacuum left his great prescriptions to stand around like mothers without children. With the mall et al., Smith examined them as "a foreigner" experiencing them for the first time. He should have approached the church gathering the same way. He should have looked at the liturgical shape of large gatherings, loud bands, long worship sets, preaching-centered services, with videos and lights and auto-tuning—things evangelicals are familiar with. This could have exposed this form of church to some much needed natural light and helped evangelicals to see their own practices apart from the special-effect lighting. It also would have painted a picture to contrast against Smith’s more robust, sacrament-driven gathering. In summary, brevity and contrast would have illuminated Smith's vision of the good life as he imagines it.
Desiring the Kingdom was the right book at the right time for me. It put some things into the words that I'd already been thinking—the sure sign of a good book. For that reason, I was predisposed to liking it and to being convinced by Smith’s argument. But then, that reinforces exactly what Smith believes: We pursue the things we love; we choose what we want, whether it's good for us or not. And by God's grace, we will come to love the things that are good for us—above all, Himself.