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.