Michael Metzger

In the 1960s, five provocative books, including The Death and Life of Great American Cities, braved stiff headwinds. They challenged core assumptions of city planners and business leaders. Forty years later, those winds are shifting. Today, another group of books are challenging the core assumptions of the contemporary American church. Braving stiff headwinds, it remains to be seen whether the winds will shift in the years to come.

Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life was published in 1961. She challenged the Soviet-style central-planning assumptions of city developers like Robert Moses. In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sparked the environmental movement and the agricultural use of DDT. Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962) inspired the war on poverty. In 1963, Betty Friedan confronted male domination in business and the home in The Feminine Mystique. Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965) attacked the auto industry and advanced consumer advocacy. Hold your finger in the wind and you’ll feel how much the breezes have shifted since the 60s.

Another group of books is challenging the contemporary American church’s assumptions about human nature, or anthropology. Dallas Willard’s Knowing Christ Today (2009) notes that, for “most of Western history, the basic claims of the Christian tradition have in fact been regarded by its proponents as knowledge of reality.1 The Western church taught what was considered to be reality as a “public resource for living.”2 But that was long ago. The winds have shifted. That’s hard for some to face.

Gregg A. Ten Elshof says it is human nature to make all sorts of little deals with ourselves every day in order to stave off examination and remain happily self-deceived. Ten Elshof is associate professor at Biola University and co-author of I Told Me So: Self-Deception and the Christian Life. It is worth remembering that, in I Samuel 5, the ideas we most deeply cherish often become idols. No one likes to see his or her idols knocked down. It’s human nature. But this requires knowing anthropology—not our strong suit.

The contemporary American church draws its anthropology more from the Enlightenment than the Bible. The Enlightenment says our core is our cranium—we operate primarily by our choices. If we believe the right things, we’ll do the right things. This idea that we’re primarily cognitive creatures is a relatively recent take on human nature. And it’s wrong, according to David Naugle in his 2002 book, Worldview: The History of a Concept. Naugle notes that human beings are much more than cognitive creatures. Human beings are fundamentally desiring creatures. “The heart of the matter of worldview is that worldview is a matter of the heart.” And how is the heart shaped?

Our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and those desires are shaped and molded by habit-forming practices in which we participate, writes James K. A. Smith in his 2009 book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. In today’s world, it is the rituals and practices of today’s mall and market—rather than the church—“that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world,” Smith writes (25). That’s because the contemporary American church “has taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment that it does to a holistic, biblical vision of human persons” (31).

Smith writes that people do whatever they routinely experience, another word for liturgies. He recognizes liturgy can be a provocative word, but notes that every church is liturgical, in the sense that whatever is routinely practiced becomes a liturgy. The key is developing right liturgies by distinguishing between “thin” and “thick” ones.

“Thin” liturgies are based on Enlightenment anthropology, focusing on the cognitive. The centerpiece of a service is a sermon. “Thick” liturgies are based on an ancient, biblical anthropology, focusing on the experiential. The sacraments are the centerpiece. They are “habit-forming practices in which we participate.” The sacraments “shape our desires, ordering our loves, and taking hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends,” Smith writes (40). “Liturgies—whether “sacred” or “secular”—shape and constitute our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (25).

Anthropology is important because our assessment of human nature largely determines how we embrace reality (Willard), avoid self-deception (Ten Elshof), attend to desires (Naugle), develop appropriate liturgies (Smith), and, finally, engage in effective culture making, according to James Davison Hunter. In April of 2010, Oxford University Press will publish Hunter’s To Change The World. His book (actually a three-part series) aims to displace core assumptions of the contemporary American church while offering a renewed vision based on shalom. Hunter argues that the established view of cultural change is anthropologically and sociologically misinformed and consequently ineffective.

In her last public address at the 175th anniversary of Georgetown University in the fall of 1963, Flannery O’Connor noted: “The things we see, hear, smell, and touch affect us long before we believe anything at all.” Seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching precede the cognitive. O’Connor understood that what we do reflects our desires, that experiential liturgies mostly shape habits. Effective culture making must stem from right liturgies or it will not be in alignment with reality. Thus we need an accurate assessment of human nature (anthropology) and reality to be successful in life, business, and culture making.

Of course, books aren’t the total answer. For example, in Death and Life, Jacobs introduced the idea of 24-hour, round-the-clock “eyes on the street.” But it faced stiff resistance from city planners. This idea began to shift the winds only when it was connected to networks of powerful institutions. And today, urban winds are visibly shifting. Near my home is the new Annapolis Town Center, the fruit of the New Urbanism movement that sprang, in part, from Jacobs’ book. Perhaps these five newer books will, forty years from now, produce a visible shift in how the contemporary American church understands anthropology and culture making.

1 Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2009) p. 8.
2 Willard, Knowing, p. 200.


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  1. It is good to be reminded of the importance of the power of the heart, one’s desires, and liturgical practices over how we live. However, I’d like to say two things. First, I do not think the emphasis on the mind’s influence over one’s actions is purely an Enlightenment idea. Certainly the Enlightenment picked up on this and exalted the mind, believing that man could be perfected by reason. However, thinkers long before the Enlightenment thought that the mind played a pivotal role in how one lives.
    Socrates emphasized the power of the mind over desire. He thought that when a man had knowledge, when he had the proper mind/thinking on a thing, he would act in accordance with it. He believed that “no one…when he judges [i.e. thinks rightly] acts against what he judges best – people act so only by reason of ignorance” (Nicomachean Ethics, vii, 2). Likewise Paul taught that we are not to conform to the patterns of this world but we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:1-3).
    Second, I do not think this article suggests that the mind/thoughts ought to be pit against the heart/desire but the language of “shifting winds” sounds like a pendulum swing in the opposite direction (i.e. we focused on the mind over and against desires, now we are shifting to focus on desires over and against the mind). I don’t think the mind/thought ought to be against the heart/desire (the point is to foster peace, unity, shalom between them). My point is that it is both what we think and what we experience that matters – one is not more important than the other. Perhaps the mind and heart function as a sort of “checks-and-balances” on one other. By all this what I mean to say is that we are more than just cognitive creatures but we are certainly not less than that.

  2. Mike,

    Interesting point you make about a need to move from knowledge to desire. That said, don’t our desires need to be correctly informed?

    I am thinking specifically of your comment on the need to focus church services around the sacraments, in order to bring people experientially into a right relationship with God (to order their love for Him), because as Smith says, “what defines us is what we love” (25). While I agree with Smith’s statement, and the need to enter into an experiential relationship with God, where we no longer think about Him, but KNOW Him, I wonder if sacraments by themselves will do this. It is so easy to become a spectator and watch other people be baptized or to become habituated to the meaning of communion. Even expanding on the definition of sacrament to include all “habit-forming practices in which we participate”, it is easy to get in the rut of doing something, and to autopilot, without ever changing one’s heart. I see this all the time in Christian university, where people regularly live by a moral compass that makes them avoid doing external “bad” things, while failing to inform their hearts to love God. I am reminded of Paul in the Areopagus, when he explains to the Athenians about their “unknown god”. Their desire for worship was commendable, but they did not worship rightly. They needed Paul to connect head and heart.

    If it is true that our desires must be correctly informed, how does this look in a church service, in relation to making sacraments central, while at the same time knowing what and why they are occurring?

    Also, it seems that if “what we do reflects our desires, that experiential liturgies mostly shape habits”, then we must do is shape the desires of those in culture. How does one do this, when mere repetition of form alone does not change hearts, and can easily be a sign of people desiring to conform to the norms around them, as opposed to really entering into “alignment with reality”?

  3. I am grateful to Mike Metzger citing my Worldview: The History of a Concept in this post. In light of a couple of the comments made, I would like to point out that I do NOT suggest that worldview is simply a matter of desire. As our kardi-optic (vision of the heart), I assert in the book that as a function of the heart, a worldview is a integrated fusion of thought/ideas, affection/desire, and will/action rooted in the heart (and now I would add) as the centerpiece of an embodied human being.

  4. I grew up in a very religious home. My parents were ‘old-time’ Methodists…Wesleyan Methodists to be exact. Every Sunday morning my father carried two books to church: his Bible and The Discipline. The Discipline was a book filled with ‘how to’s’ for living a holy life, the Wesleyan Methodists being part of the holiness movement.

    Although the word discipline has somehow fallen out of common usage except in the sense of punishment, it is a good word. Moreover, I was reminded of it reading your blog today, Mike. In a world where love as the highest moral good has given way to tolerance, the idea of doing anything habitually (liturgically) is loathsome, even in the church. Yet, habits (disciplines) or liturgies as Smith calls them, are essential for making culture. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of any culture are the rites and rituals that define it and make it unique among other cultures, whether in the so called ‘first world’ or ‘third world.’

    What I find intriguing is that while John Wesley was unwittingly one of the founding fathers of the two-chapter Gospel, he was also one of the founders of Methodism; and in its day, Methodism helped followers strictly adhere to holiness ‘liturgies,’ the essentials that were contained in the little book my father carried two centuries later. What is also intriguing is that while evangelicals are becoming less and less disciplined in faith and practice – apart from the obvious ‘thin’ liturgy of praise-team, singing, offering, announcements, sermon, doxology (the evangelical liturgy) – we see an escalation in non-Biblical belief among self-described Christians (see David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity… and Why It Matters; Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life Report, Fall, 2008; Josh McDowell, The Last Christian Generation). Is there a correlation? My guess is that Willard, Smith and Hunter would say, yes.

    The Scriptures tell us, “For as he [man] thinks within himself, so is he;” (Prov. 23:7a NASB). And, Rom. 12:2 admonishes us to, “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Yet, the Scriptures also tell us to, “…guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Prov. 4:23); and to, “set your hearts (affections- King James) on things above,….” (Col. 3:1,2).

    There is more here than what the contemporary evangelical church is ready to confront (à la Ten Elshof), let alone accept. After all, none of us likes to be disrupted. Good stuff, Mike.

  5. Kevin makes a good point and adds some breadth to my comments. I’d recommend Lesslie Newbigin’s “Proper Confidence,” as the idea that we are fundamentally cognitive creatures predates the Enlightenment.

    Peter also adds a good point. All liturgies are like martinis – they need to be shaken or stirred. Or think of a marriage – it has liturgies, yet every marriage needs to be renewed and invigorated along the way. I spoke at a liturgical church yesterday, and one of their leaders remarked on the tendency of many pastors and believers to see “thick” liturgies (confession, communion, etc) as one more menu item in the spiritual smorgasbord – if it draws even more people, let’s do it! But that’s an instrumental view of the sacraments, rather than understanding human nature and the integral nature of the sacraments in human formation.

  6. What a great discussion here! If I could I’d like to make a couple remarks, I too like Kevin’s insights. I like the all encompassing mentality with the use of anthropology and some philosophical history.

    The problem with the Enlightenment Era was not the use of reason but the lack of transcendent quality given to reason. Anthropologically speaking we were created by Logos, or THE logical being, and being created in his image we bear that guiding nature. The “first chapter” right. I see some of the same misfortunes in today’s current church mindset, that is our construction of reality comes from our own ability to listen to ourselves well enough, a sort of anthropological therapy. Anthropological study has great strengths in determining the current nature of humanity, the “second chapter” but we must turn to transcendent reasoning to guide our own desires (an expression of the will) to match God’s desires.

    Epistemologically speaking, experience is a soft knowledge. Hard knowledge, or wisdom, is the power of logic and reason that we can determine truth given by a transcendent God. It is my understanding that it would be hard to build a cultural milieu if our biggest voice was the subjectivism of individual experiences.

    Mike, thanks for the stimulating conversation!

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