Christians engaging culture: Q & A with James K.A. Smith

Illustrations by Brianna Ailie

A funny thing happened to Christians as they marched out to transform the culture, James K.A. Smith observed. Instead of Christians changing the culture, the culture transformed them. 

“We overestimated our convictions and powers of resistance and underestimated how cultural forces can form us,” Smith said in his keynote address at SPU’s 18th Day of Common Learning — an annual day without classes and labs to allow students, faculty, and staff to explore a significant idea or interest together. 

Smith, a professor of philosophy at Calvin University and an award-winning author and speaker, is a self-professed fanboy of St. Augustine, the African theologian and philosopher who lived in the late 300s and early 400s in present-day Algeria. It was Augustine who taught that people are shaped and formed by what they love. 

As Christians took up the dominant culture’s habits and rituals and rhythms — what Smith calls “liturgies” — the liturgies transformed what Christians valued and loved. 

After his address to the University, Smith took the time to talk with Response. Here’s a lightly edited and condensed Q & A with the man who is both a prophet and agitator to the American Christian church.

praying illustration

Christians are often wary of the secular culture, yet you say that culture has managed to co-opt and transform them without their knowlege. What makes you say that?

Christians have become experts at being worried about certain messages and certain things in our culture. We look at a movie and say, “What is this movie teaching our kids about sexuality?” Or we think all that matters are Supreme Court nominations or a very particular political concern. While everybody’s worrying about the Supreme Court and what’s happening in movies, Christians have underestimated how much the typical, middle-class, suburban American life, with its rhythms and rituals, performs a story about who we are that is not aligned well with the Gospel. Our liturgies are teaching us what to want, to love, and that governs the way you live out your life. We have underestimated how much things like consumerism disorder our loves [or priorities].

Despite all kinds of changed laws around segregation, we continue to live in communities that still segregate us. This does not sit well with the biblical vision of people from every tribe and tongue and nation. 

How do you personally counter these cultural practices?

I’m not trying to hold myself up as a model, but we have intentionally chosen to live in the core of our city because it is a diverse community socioeconomically and racially. Living there throws us into a mix of people we wouldn’t encounter otherwise. 

I’ll give you another example. The first 10 years of my career, when I lived in Grand Rapids, I took the city bus to work. If I commuted on my own, I’d pull out of my garage. I would be alone in my car, and I basically never would have to run into another person. Whereas when you get thrown into this mix of your neighbors, it’s a chance to listen and learn from them, so that’s one feature of us intentionally living in a diverse, urban community. 

Are there other ways you see the church being co-opted by the culture?

I think consumerism is the most potent rival to the Gospel that we encounter. It doesn’t present you with ideas to believe. It gives you rituals that you live into that, over time, change what you want 

and what you think will make you happy. Consumerism’s evangelism is marketing, and marketing works by telling you a story about what the so-called “good life” looks like where everybody is happy and enjoying everything. And everybody has these products. You are so immersed in this, you don’t realize the story is becoming inscribed into your heart, and now you become the kind of person who thinks happiness is having stuff. 

If somebody asks you what is your only hope in life and in death, it is “Jesus Christ, my Lord.” That’s your belief. But that doesn’t mean your heart’s affections haven’t been co-opted by the rituals of the mall and this very tactile experience of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” We don’t just buy things, we buy significance and identities, right?

What can the church offer Christians to counter negative cultural liturgies?

The Sabbath is one thing. Christians should start thinking about this in relationship to time. I think recovering the positive, not legalistic, intention of what the Sabbath was meant to be is incredibly liberating. It’s one way to have this micro-season of disinvesting myself from certain liturgies and giving myself, positively, over to the liturgies and practices of the body of Christ. 

I’m a big advocate of what we call the church calendar, or the liturgical calendar — the seasons of Lent, Advent, Christmas, Epiphany. During Advent and Lent, we live into denial and abstention that is a kind of fasting. Maybe we choose to fast from our devices so that I master my phone instead of my phone becoming the master of me. 

shopping illustrationWhen you spoke to the SPU community, you talked about specific works of art that have moved and influenced you. Why is art important to you?

I spent the last several years trying to make arguments for what our public and political life could look like, and it was not working. Oftentimes, when we are trying to change people’s minds, we’re trying to argue them to our side. We’ve all found this is quite ineffective because we are much more governed by our imaginations than by our intellects. 

What this means is that when you give me your arguments, and I hear your facts and reasons, I’m thinking about it from my point of view. I’m almost never hearing the same things you’re saying, so we need to find some commonality. 

I actually think the way through the morass of our current tribal experience will be through the arts and literature. Art requires me to do the imaginative work of empathetically imagining myself in your shoes so I can understand where you’re coming from. Literature actually gives us the capacity to imagine what it feels like to be a character. This is why I believe in the arts. 

You’re a professor at a Christian college, and you speak at universities across the country. What are your observations about the culture and college students today?

We are experiencing an epidemic of mental health issues amongst undergraduates these days — anxiety and depression. We need to ask, “What kind of world did we give to these young people such that they live in almost paralyzed anxiety and self-consciousness?”

I also think it’s related to behaviors around social media and always being “on.” We don’t realize how much that takes out of us and how much self-consciousness that introduces into our lives. 

Then, as parents, we also need to ask ourselves, “What are we looking for in our kids’ success? What pressures do we put on our kids to succeed so we can benefit?”

Christian universities in particular should be attentive to asking what is the spiritual malaise that’s going on underneath this. And how can we, empathetically and sympathetically, provide liberation from the performance that our culture asks of us? 

James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin University and editor-in-chief of Image, a quarterly journal devoted to art, faith, and mystery whose offices are based at Seattle Pacific University. An award-winning author, his most recent book is On the Road With Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (Brazos).

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