James Smith in his excellent book “You are what you love” lays out the spiritual power of habit, what he calls 'cultural liturgies' that package and promote a cultural view of human flourishing. This is, the picture of what we think society should look like, Smith’s point in doing so is twofold, to show that culture is not neutral and nor are our cultural liturgies.
Smith argues we are all immersed in cultural practices that over time (through habituation) re-calibrate and re-shape our hearts. Every cultural practice is doing something; from shopping to sports, computers to phones, movies to music, from business to politics. These cultural liturgies are all doing something within us - pushing or pulling our love (desire) in a certain direction, shaping us implicitly, even unwittingly.
Smith points to developed automated behaviours like learning how to drive a car, or how to play piano or violin showing how actions repeated often enough move from the conscious to subconscious. Likewise, because we participate in cultural practices that are habituating in us (habit forming) we need to be mindful that they are re-calibrating or re-shaping our hearts (desires). Whether that is normalising greed, violence or sexual immorality, culture is not neutral. It offers a rival view (to the gospel) of what social flourishing looks like.
So, what are those cultural narratives of the good life? In the West, there have been two dominant themes of social flourishing. The first picture of social flourishing is that of consumption as redemption. That is, culture has told us that to flourish - to be happy or content - then consumption is redemption. Owning your home, having an annual holiday, the joy of new car or new clothes all speak to us of the good life - it's the narrative of materialism.
It’s why when we feel lonely, bad or depressed we logon eBay or head down the shopping centre for some retail therapy. As Smith says, I AM BROKEN - THEREFORE I SHOP. However, perhaps a more dominant theme of social flourishing is that of sexuality. Or more specifically, sexual freedom and fulfilment. Freedom to have sex without consequences (children), the freedom to have sex with anyone you want (homosexuality) and the freedom to be who you want (transgenderism and erotic plasticity).
Of course, these two dominant cultural narratives are not at odds. The is a symbiotic relationship that results in the commodification of sex evidenced in the explosion of pornography to validate and fulfil all our sexual desires. The pandemic of porn addiction also testifies to the power of habit (liturgy) regarding smartphones. The ubiquitous nature of smartphones means the omnipresence of pornography and its ugly sister addiction.
And at the risk of sounding shrill, if you ever doubted the power of habit and how pornography rewires the brain then study the crime statistics In NSW schools regarding child on child sex attacks. It will make you a believer.
In 1995 in NSW, 89% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 11% were committed by children (on children). In 2005 in NSW, 70% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 30% were committed by children. In 2015 in NSW, 44% of all sexual assaults on school grounds were committed by adults; 56% were committed by children.
In just 20 years we have witnessed a 500% increase in child on child sexual assaults. What could possibly explain such a phenomenal change that would encourage children to sexually assault other children? And while correlation is not causation, the proliferation of mobile phones and as a consequence - ready access to pornography – has great explanatory power. Smith is onto something – culture is not neutral and its liturgies are re-calibrating our hearts.
If you are interested in public Christianity consider attending the biennial colloquium held on Oct. 20-21 at Scots Church. Details of all the speakers and topics can be found at:
By Darren Middleton