Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Victoria's Secret and Liturgy?

In his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James Smith argues that people are not primarily cognitive or believing beings. Instead, Smith goes a more Augustinian route, claiming we are at our core desiring, loving and liturgical creatures. Our problem isn’t so much ignorance, skepticism or improper belief (though this might be part of the problem) as it is the misdirection of our desires.

In a chapter entitled Why Victoria’s In on the Secret, Smith claims that Victoria Secret gets right what many in the church miss. Its marketing “quite intentionally combines passion with transcendence, combines sex with religion…marketing taps into our erotic religious nature and seeks to shape us in such a way that this passion and desire is directed to strange gods, alternative worship, and another kingdom. And it does so by triggering and tapping into our erotic core—the heart.” Advertising sells an ideal and taps into the core of what we are and directs us away from God. Smith’s point is that often many in the church take a different and inferior approach. “…The church responds to the overwhelming cultural activation and formation of desire by trying to fill our head with ideas and beliefs” (76).

Smith suggests that the church try and redirect passion and desire rather than try to overcome it with ideas and beliefs. While Victoria’s Secret is “grabbing hold of our gut (kardia) by means of our body and senses—in stories and images, sights and sound, and commercial versions of “smells and bells”—the [Protestant] church’s response is oddly rationalistic” (126-127).

Personally, I found this book on the whole to be very insightful. I thought I would take a piece of it out for discussion given the implications on the emphases our churches place on different ideas and practices. I tend to agree that Protestant churches do tend to place too much emphasis on ideas and beliefs (though I think these need to be a good part of the picture). Still, I wondered about the Eastern Orthodox (among others) church’s multi-sensory approach to liturgy and how this might be something we can all learn from even if we do not accept what they do with some of it. Thoughts?


David N. said...

I think he makes a good point. I also think that this is primarily a modern problem. In the 16th and 17th centuries Reformed (and obviously Lutheran) churches were very liturgical and not as rationalistic as post-Warfield, "Princetonian" Presbyterianism.

I would be cautious, though, about over-correction. It can be easy to draw the conclusion that because an over-emphasis on doctrine and propositions leads to rationalism, that we just need to add "eye candy" (or ear, or nose candy) to our services. But it would be false to think that words cannot excite the passions. Story itself is very powerful, and the Gospel is a story (and since the gospel should be central in all preaching, that means that preaching can and should reach the passions as well as the intellect). In other words, the solution is not just to add icons and incense to our Protestant worship services. I'm still a strong supporter of the RPW at this point, and what I want to see is someone who is strongly Reformed (which Smith is) and also a strong supporter of the RPW, who wrestles with these sorts of issues and proposes some solutions that don't compromise the RPW. Does Smith offer any solutions or practical advice in this book?

Catz206 said...

Hey David

Some of this may be an American Protestant problem at that!

On another note, part of Smith's overall point (which was not mentioned here) was that we cannot escape the use of creation or body in our churches even if we do not go far enough. After all, one must hear and there are other senses used in church whether we are aware of it or not.

Also, it is not so much about "eye candy" or conforming to marketing schemes as understanding ourselves, and how we function liturgically in a more embodied way. We are desiring, loving beings by nature whose desires are directed (consciously or unconsciously) by what we do and experience. His point is simply that on this level, the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches grasp this particular point in their liturgies better. We on the other hand, have a tendency to try and correct the passions with doctrine. We miss the mark in this.

Hopefully, this is not to say doctrine and right thinking have no place! It must. And I would agree with you that the solution is not to just toss icons and some incense into our services …though I wouldn’t mind some incense.

“Does Smith offer any solutions or practical advice in this book?”

I will let you know. I am on part two of this book and there seem to be more volumes in the “cultural liturgies” series. The focus here is actually on the fact that liturgy exists within secular cultures and institutions and this often gets overlooked.

David N. said...

Agreed. I just want to be careful about the way we speak of doctrine vs. embodiment. I know Smith would agree that right doctrine is very important, but if we oppose right doctrine to "embodiment" then I think we're unintentionally straying into a quasi-gnostic paradigm. I just don't want to view right doctrine as having nothing to do with passion and desire, as if they're two separate and unrelated things that we need to keep in tension.

Also, I really think there is much more overlap than Smith might be giving credit for (can't say for sure since I haven't read the book). For example, in liturgical Reformed and Presbyterian churches there is a law-gospel form to the liturgy, such that the congregation first hears the Law of God (read from various places in Scripture) and is reminded how unholy and helpless we are. Then we move to gospel, where we are reminded of what Christ did for us and how we are now free from bondage to sin (there is singing and prayer in response to both). Then the rest of the service (including the sermon) is in the context of gratitude. All of this is doctrine. And yet you'd have to be pretty cold (or just not paying attention) to not be stimulated in your soul, passionately, to guilt, sorrow and repentance, to rejoicing, to gratitude, etc. And of course none of this requires visual aids or incense.

Now again, I'm not opposed to being intentional about incorporating all five senses in worship. I'm with you, bring on the incense! But I want to be cautious about how much we give up when we say that the Orthodox and Catholic liturgies have something going for them. What is it specifically? Because I suspect that once we look at the best that Reformed Protestant liturgy has to offer (rather than always having modern American evangelical "low" churches in mind), we would find that we really are just talking about icons and incense. And Smith's argument WOULD simply boil down to "Victoria's Secret has pretty girls that stimulate us and the church needs pretty artwork to stimulate us." I know it's more than that, but I'm not sure how it's more.

Catz206 said...

"Agreed. I just want to be careful about the way we speak of doctrine vs. embodiment. I know Smith would agree that right doctrine is very important, but if we oppose right doctrine to "embodiment" then I think we're unintentionally straying into a quasi-gnostic paradigm..."

Yeah, I think you are very right in making that point. There is a risk in overreacting and going too far in order to "fix" what one's particular church lacked.

On your next paragraph: I'm not sure how far he thinks his particular denomination misses the mark. I think he might just like to see more done. Although, I guess that is an endless quest.

"But I want to be cautious about how much we give up when we say that the Orthodox and Catholic liturgies have something going for them. What is it specifically?"

In line with this discussion, I think they incorporate the 5 senses very well. After all, they have been around for a long time! Still, we both probably do not approve of how this is done in many ways.

How do you think we could better do this given our theologies and existing traditions? I would be very curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Catz206 said...

On the "Victoria Secret" matter...

Keep in mind that the point he was trying to get at was that we are primarily "desiring" and "loving" people rather than believing or cognitive (though we are those too!). In this book he pointed out that we cannot escape "liturgy"...even secular liturgies that misdirect our love and desire.

Victoria Secret attacks the heart while many Protestant churches can overemphasize the mind. While they try and persuade the mind (without as much regard to the heart)they miss a good portion of what can be done to address the heart of the matter.

There are many ways we can make our liturgies more heart focused (without losing our minds)...some that you mentioned...and incorporating the senses might also be a way as well. When it comes to artwork, it is not as simple as having "pretty artwork to stimulate us."

If you notice, Orthodox icons and artwork are packed with meaning, intentionality and It goes beyond a mere feast for the eyes and often extends into worship.

David N. said...

Well first, let me just repeat that I don't think we need to give up too much to our Orthodox brothers here. The Reformed liturgy does in fact engage all five senses, when the Eucharist is celebrated every week. The bread and wine fulfill the "requirement" of touch, taste, smell AND sight. And the sacrament of baptism, though observed much less frequently, also fulfills the sight requirement, making the two sacraments into a kind of "living icon" as it were. And all of this fits within even the strictest interpretation of the RPW, so part of me would love to just say "That's all we need, we don't need any non-inspired icons or smelly stuff."

However, I am still sympathetic to those Reformed folk who argue that the Eucharist should not be celebrated weekly (such as at my own church), in which case our liturgy would become seriously lacking in sense engagement.

So, to answer your question, if I was a pastor or elder the first thing I would do is get incense in the sanctuary. I would get something different and exotic, such as frankincense or myrrh, so that the people would begin to associate a smell with entering the presence of God and worshiping in His house (and it wouldn't be something generic like a scented candle that they could smell anywhere). I would also try to institute the kind of greeting that they do in many Lutheran churches, where you turn and greet and shake hands with the people sitting around you (we used to say "Peace be with you" and "And also with you", but I probably wouldn't do that). I would also try to institute weekly Eucharist, because I still agree with Calvin (and Mathison) at the moment.

As far as the visual aspect, I would probably do everything short of hanging depictions of people or "bible scenes" in the sanctuary. I would design the building (including things like the carpet, chairs or pews, etc) to be aesthetically pleasing in general, I would probably want stained glass windows (at least some, if not all), things like that. Since you have to have a building, it needs a carpet, and it needs windows, I think all of these things are indifferent as far as the RPW is concerned, so as long as I am not doing anything specifically as an act of worship (trying to please God with my stained glass, as it were) then it would be perfectly fine. The main idea would simply be to convey the idea to the congregation that God is a God of beauty and His house is beautiful (just as His heavenly dwelling is beautiful beyond what visual beauty could ever express). And since God's beauty is evident everywhere in creation, I would probably fill the sanctuary with lots of plants and flowers as well.

What do you think? Did you have any ideas of your own on this subject?

Acolyte4236 said...


You might try reading some David Hume. Hume's over all view is that even though the claims of religion out pace experience and hence knowledge, there is no eradicating it since humans are disposed via their passions to just make religious inferences like they are to make inferences about causal relations.

You could learn the same lesson through education, i mean by being an educator. Most people can't learn or won't learn. They will memorize techniques. Most people are not reasonable or moved by reason but by their appetites.

Catz206 said...


hmm whatever it was I think I would try and arrange the expression around the culture/subcultures present. So, I may not actually be up for incense on second thought since to some this may convey different messages. I think you are right though in making the scent specific and not ordinary to build associations.

Anyway, I've got some more ideas but I am stretched for time. If you are up for it I would love to do a joint post on this and some of the difficulties one might face if you are up for it over the summer?


Hey haven't heard from you in a while. I'll def compare this with Hume if I ever go deeper into this subject. Thankx for the tip.

Catz206 said...

Found a bit more time

I would like to bring back an agapae feast. A common meal we can have together where we have the Lord's Supper and engage in singing and confession.