Chastised Constantinianism

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At the beginning of James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, he has an extended conceit — that of comparing a trip to the mall as a worship experience — that works pretty well. I’d like to extend that conceit a step farther, and take it in a direction that Smith would perhaps not be as comfortable with.

He calls the mall “one of the most important religious sites in our metropolitan area” (p. 19). The site is “throbbing with pilgrims” (p. 19). As we enter, we are “ushered into a narthex of sorts” (p. 20). “The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to medieval cathedrals — mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of different religious activities all at one time” (p. 21). He points to the product posters, exemplifying the “catholicity of this iconography” (p. 21). When we have found our holy object, that which we have been seeking, lo, these many days, “we proceed to the altar” (p. 22). Afterwards we are released “by the priest with a benediction” (p. 22). I don’t know about Smith, but in my neck of the woods, that benediction is usually “have a nice day!” delivered by a cute coed priestess. And if you think that Smith is simply being clever with some similarities, he pushes back against the charge. “But I want to adamantly contend that describing the mall as a religious site is not merely a metaphor or an analogy” (p. 23).

But what surprises me is what he left out of this — the Sunday School classes. What would they be? Well, of course, the 8-theater cineplex. In every church, you can tell the really dedicated die-hards — they are the ones crammed into the catechetical lectures that accompany divine services. In many churches, you have the Christmas and Easter crowd — as when I make my biannual trek to the mall to get a cord from RadioShack — and you have the regulars. But the ones who are really faithful, the devotees, are the ones who come to hear the didactic instruction, the narrative of our people. And they really learn their lessons. They internalize them.

But I would be really surprised if Smith wound up telling folks to stop going to the movies. That’s the kind of thing you hear from a dour and elderly aunt who spent her whole life among the Free Methodists and who, if you said weltanschauung in her presence, would tell

you to watch your language. But given Smith’s argument, why sit through catechism classes run by the Jehovah’s Witnesses? The irony is, for a work of educated philosophy, Smith’s book is clustered with references to pop culture. On p. 237, in the subject index, we find Spiderman 2, four doors down from “thinking thing-ism,” which in its turn is right next door to “Twinkies, deep-fried.” Please note that I am not complaining about this in itself — Smith writes engagingly and well, and his acquaintance with what is going on around us is a good part of that. But what does it do to his argument? If this whole thing is worship in some sense, and not like worship, then how shall we then live?

My central complaint against Christians who want to accomodate postmodernist insights is that, however astute their critiques, they wind up doing nothing of the kind, and the whole project is just modernity trying to lose a few pounds. What we call postmodernity is to modernity what 220 pounds is to 225 pounds.

But for Christians who want to be genuinely postmodern, there is only one possible project to support, and that is the re-establishment of Christendom. You want postmodern? I’ll give you postmodern. Let’s start by putting the Apostles Creed in the Constitution. That should do ‘er. Now we sure don’t want to make all the mistakes of the first Christendom, but we do want to be post modern, right? Without becoming Muslim, right? So let’s call it a chastized Constantinianism.



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