The “End” of a System

Who\'s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, And Foucault to Church (Church and Postmodern Culture)James KA Smith, in Who’s Afraid of Postemodernism?, in his chapter on Foucault (how society and its institutions function as a means of discipline wielded by power) provides the following in his “conclusions to be drawn by Christians and their churches*” section:

we can distinguish good discipline from bad discipline by its telos, its goal or end. So the difference between the disciplines that form us into disciples of Christ and the disciplines of contemporary culture that produce consumers is precisely the goal they are aiming at. Discipline and formation are good insofar as they are directed toward the end, or telos, that is proper to human beings: to glorify God and enjoy him forever (Westminster Catechism, question 1). Or, to put it otherwise, a disciplinary form is proper when it corresponds with the proper end of humanity, which is to be (renewed) image bearers of God. So other forms of disciplinary formation are bad and wrong insofar as they try to mold human beings into something other than what they are called to be. Almost universally these other modes of discipline are reductionistic because they reduce human beings to something less than they are called to be. Some modes of discipline reduce us to economic animals whose primary end is production and consumption; other modes of discipline reduce us to sexual animals whose primary end is instinctual satisfaction; still other modes of disciplinary society try to mold us into violent creatures whose primary end is destruction. What is wrong with an these disciplinary structures is not that they are bent on forming or molding human beings into something, but rather what they are aiming for in that process.. Thus it is helpful to distinguish the formal structure of disciplinary formation as such from the specific direction discipline takes.
—JKA Smith Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism pp.102-103

*(he concludes each chapter with what it would mean to “Take this philospher to church”, and suggesting what a truly “postmodern church” would do with these particular vesitiges of modernity.)

Smith emphasizes a theme similar (and acknowledging indebtedness to) that of Daniel Bell’s “disciplines of desire” which is identified as the “telos” of capitalism. The telos of the church, Smith explains, is the “counter-formation”; that is, “counter” to the discipline of consumer desire as outlined by Bell (in Liberation Theology at the End of History).

beyond simply recognizing that such cultural formation is pervasive we also need to recognize that the telos, or goal, at which these disciplines aim is fundamentally inconsistent with (and even competing with) the message of the gospel and what it specifies as the proper end of humanity. We need to recognize the inconsistency between how late-modem capitalism defines human beings and how Christian faith defines us. Because of the covertness of this formation, Christians are often not alert to what they are becoming. To use a metaphor that George Barna employed for quite different ends: Christians are sometimes like frogs in a kettle. Reportedly, if you place a frog in a pot of room-temperature water and gradually increase the temperature of the water, even to the boiling point, the frog will not jump out of the kettle, even if it means death. This is either because the frog doesn’t sense the change, or because the change is so gradual it lulls the frog into accepting the environment. So also with the church: because the disciplinary mechanisms of Disney, MTV, and the Gap are so insidious and covert, we don’t recognize the way in which their message-and their vision of the human telos—-is shaping our own identity. Christians need first to recognize that disciplinary formation takes place in culture, then second, to recognize the antithesis between the dominant culture’s understanding of the human calling and the biblical understanding of our ultimate vocation.

But the church must also do a third thing: enact countermeasures , counterdisciplines that will form us into the kinds of people that God calls us to be. Too often we imagine that the goal of Christian discipleship is to train us to think the right way, to believe the right things. But the ultimate goal of sanctification and discipleship is to shape us into a certain kind of person: one who is like Jesus, exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), loving God and neighbor, caring for the orphan, the widow, and the stranger (Jer. 22:3; James 1:27). He has shown us what is good and what the Lord requires of us: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God (Mic. 6:8). These are all just translations of the broader human vocation, which is to bear the image of Christ as renewed image bearers of God. The primary aim of discipleship is to create a certain kind of person who acts in a certain way, not someone who simply thinks in a certain way. According to the Scriptures, knowing the truth is only instrumental to ultimately doing the truth (Jer. 22:16).

But how do we become that kind of people? How do I become the kind of person who “does” the truth? It takes practice. First, it requires grace. Because no one is good (no, not one!), being properly directed to our proper telos requires a regeneration and redirection of the heart by the Holy Spirit. That is why they are fruits of the Spirit. Insofar as the Spirit indwells believers, they are being formed into the image of Christ to the extent that they learn to walk in the Spirit and in the Spirit’s power. However, while regeneration is a necessary condition for becoming this kind of person, it is not a sufficient condition. This must be cultivated by practices of sanctification.

Second, recognizing the structural goodness of disciplinary formation, the church must utilize disciplines that will form us into these kinds of people-disciplines that will counteract the formation of MTV and television commercials. We would do well to recover the tradition of spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting, meditation, simplicity, and so on as a means of shaping our souls through the rituals of the body. Further, as I’ve already suggested, our corporate worship should be aimed at constituting us as disciples who are countercultural agents of redemption. Communion and confession, foot washing and economic redistribution are ways of practicing what it means to be citizens of the kingdom. And such practices inscribe this telos
of the kingdom into our character .33 Christian worship is one of the primary arenas in which we participate in the practices that shape who we are. If our worship simply mimics the disciplinary practices and goals of a consumer culture, we will not be formed otherwise. Conceiving of the church as a disciplinary society
aimed at forming human beings to reflect the image of Christ, we will offer an alternative society to the hollow formations of late-modem culture.
–Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernuism, pp. 105-107

I find a disturbing trend amongst so many in the Religious Right: an almost fanatical, “holy war” attitude toward the importance of defending the vestiges and the structures and the ideology of capitalism, democracy, and freedom (all three as defined so craftily by the archtitects and apologists of this “democracy” of ours.) It is as if these “values” are the gospel themselves, and they rush to “proof-text” these from Scripture (most of them do a much better job than “W” does, eg. his use of “the light shines in the darkness” passage in John to refer to the “American People”— of course, they don’t seem to mind how Bush murders the text on this one; they just dismiss it with “Ah! You know what he means”. Yes, I’m afraid I do.) But back to the matter at hand: the covert nature of the “disciplines of desire” for which church in America has fallen so completely and unknowingly; it is a taboo to talk in any serious way about money in the church. It is taboo to talk about anything which can be attached to any political party “stance”, for fear that the issue will turn “partisan”. It is at the point where there are certain issues on which we dare not tread, lest they upset the “holy ground” defined by the capitalist-nationalist-militaristic notions that have become so “grafted” into “moral discourse” that it is well-nigh improbable that these covert values can be recognized as such (and therefore, “there is nothing outside the text”, or , “nothing outside Interpretation” ….from one of Smith’s earlier chapters).

The only hope for countering these undergirding values, these ingrained and pre-programmed presumptions about what constitutes reality and the shift of “truth” to the realm of “propostional truth”, is this “counter-formation”.

Where is this to be found?


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