My conversion was sudden, but not altogether surprising. The efforts of friends to evangelize me had planted seeds, kindling questions demanding answers. “Could I really trust this?” “Would it really be as great as everyone said?” “Would I ever regret my decision?” Then my heart slipped past these questions, spurred inexorably on by some unseen hand toward the promise of a new life. On an ordinary afternoon I could no longer deny my sense of what I knew was true. I crossed the threshold of the cathedral, laid my money on the altar, and took hold of that gleaming icon, so full of mystery and transcendence. A smiling voice said, “Welcome to the Mac family.”
As devotees line up this month for the iPhone 5s and 5c release, Apple-as-religion comparisons have become trite, but only because of their discomforting accuracy. As one Jesuit said in a recent article for America,
“In 2012 an anthropologist watching the iPad Mini unveiling commented, “A stranger observing one of the launches could probably be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into a religious revival meeting.” It has even been proven scientifically: a BBC documentary in 2011 confirmed with magnetic resonance imaging tests that Apple products stimulate in fans the same brain centers associated with religious belief … The cathedrals (Apple stores) have a distinctive sacred architecture, and their clergy (Apple geniuses) wear color-coded vestments (though I still have not figured out which T-shirt color means “I can help check you out now”). The liturgical calendar culminates in the annual celebration of the Worldwide Developers Conference, usually held in early June. There are lower liturgies as well: product launches, days-long vigils in line awaiting new phones or iPads, and “unboxing videos” when they finally arrive … Apple even has a messiah figure in Jobs and his triumphant return to the helm in the 90s, and a passion narrative: Jobs’s battle with cancer was watched by the whole country, if not the world.”
I prefer to see my Apple purchase through a Cartesian lens, as a well-reasoned investment based on logical product comparison. But I cannot deny how my choice was guided by an unseen hand, the march of my heart lead by the seductive warmth of the Apple logo’s gentle glow. I did not so much decide to buy it, as I was moved to buy it. My mind had been subverted, my heart taken hostage. It was as the late 16th century reformer Philip Melanchthon said, “What the heart desires, the will chooses and the mind justifies.”
We are creatures of desire, formed and shaped by the habits, patterns, rituals and liturgies that comprise our lives. As James K. A. Smith writes, “We are, ultimately, liturgical animals because we are fundamentally desiring creatures. We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.” These inescapable liturgies vie for our affections by imbuing space and time with stories of ultimate significance that captivate the imagination and arouse desire.
Advertisers wield liturgies to tell stories, shaping a consumer’s heart to increase brand loyalty and profits. In the words of Douglas Atkins:
“When I was a brand manager at Procter & Gamble, my job was basically to make sure the product was good, develop new advertising copy, design the packaging. Now a brand manager has an entirely different kind of responsibility. In fact, they have more responsibility. Their job now is to create and maintain a whole meaning system for people through which they get identity and understanding of the world.”
Formative liturgies are not limited to the marketplace, and Smith notes other examples such as the university or the sports stadium. Football season is under way, and on game day the football stadium becomes a battlefield of good versus evil. The powerlessness I feel at my job seems insurmountable in the cubicle; but in the stadium on game day, I can become someone else. My inadequacy is washed away amidst rituals of loyal devotion to my team. These rituals impute my team’s victory to my identity, and I share in their glory. I gain identity, meaning, and belonging as a fan, and the rest of my life becomes more bearable.
The examples are endless, underscoring the importance of this question: “Of all the stories out there competing for our love, which story is true?” To have a heart liturgically shaped by an untrue story is the worst kind of delusion, because it means that I not only believe a lie – I have fallen in love with it.
We become like the Tom Hanks character, Chuck Noland in Cast Away. What began as a novelty, painting a face onto a volleyball and naming it “Wilson,” became for Noland something altogether different. Over time, through the liturgies of daily life, a lark became love. But it was a love destined to end in loss. Wilson was a lie from the start – a convenient fiction for a lonely heart. And yet Noland’s heartbreak is undeniably and viscerally real when that volleyball drifts away to sea. Thus is the power, and the danger, of liturgy: show me your liturgy, and I’ll show you your love.
Where does that leave the Christian, then, who believes the gospel intellectually, and yet must navigate the endless liturgies of daily life? This is the question Smith and others are trying to answer, and we cannot overemphasize the great gift of our pre-Enlightenment liturgical tradition—the formative liturgy of the Church that predates the Cartesian enthronement of reason.
If we understand the power of liturgy to shape desire, then we realize that the purpose of Christian worship is not merely the expression of, but also the formation of love. This cannot be limited to Sunday gatherings; it must frame and inform all of life. As Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says,
“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Let us imagine what it might look like to intentionally restructure our days, weeks, months and years around a story that is true, a story we are meant to love. For example, many of us find our workweek to be a liturgical progression of its own: the story of an arduous journey of endurance and duty toward the eschatological consummation of the Weekend. The unbearable ennui of a Tuesday commute can be assuaged by the hope of the revelry to come. Indeed, one’s whole career can become a journey toward the eschatological consummation of Retirement—the Promised Land of true freedom and fulfillment.
Imagine instead the week beginning in Sabbath rest, finding fulfillment and belonging through Christ who has accomplished salvation for us and secured our future in Him. From rest and belonging we are sent into the world. Freed from the need to gain anything more or be anything other than who we are in Christ, our vocations become free expressions of our love for God and His world.
Imagine our weeks, months and years imbued with the story of the life and mission of Jesus. On a restless, dreary December day, I can bring my longing for fulfillment not to the altar of consumerism, or to the battlefield of the sports stadium, but into the story of the Advent of Christ. I can make sense of my own longing within the Story of a world that desperately needs a savior-king. I sing the words “Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel,” and they become a cathartic release for the cumulative angst of unmet desires. As the year goes on, I live within Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, each affording me the opportunity to walk with Jesus through his birth, his baptism, his suffering, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, his pouring out of the Holy Spirit.
In this way, the very architecture of time can be defined by the wisdom of the Christian calendar, rather than the whims of culture.
Why does this matter? Because it means we can be free. After all, what is freedom if not the ability to love that which is most worth loving? And that is what I find most striking about all this. God, in his great wisdom, has called us to worship Him not because He needs to feel our love, but because He seeks to form our love. He wants to set our hostage hearts free. And I, for one, relish the possibility of one day experiencing a blissful continuity between what I believe and what iLove.
Tommy Hinson is the head pastor of Church of the Advent, an Anglican church in the heart of Washington DC in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. The church was founded in 2008 as part of RenewDC, a movement seeking to bring about personal, societal and cultural renewal by establishing neighborhood churches throughout metropolitan Washington.