"The Ballet of Street Life": On Common Grace Liturgies
"The Ballet of Street Life": On Common Grace Liturgies

"The Ballet of Street Life": On Common Grace Liturgies

Our culture's liturgies can dance to the beat of God's drum.

December 13 th 2013

"Secular liturgies" just sound like a bad idea. They also sound like an oxymoron.

But in Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith makes the provocative claim that we humans are homo liturgicus. By this he means that we are embodied, habituated creatures whose loves are aimed at ultimate ends. And those loves (or desires) are shaped by the various "liturgies" in which we participate on a regular basis.

Smith contends that these liturgies are not always explicitly or traditionally religious. In fact, some of the most influential liturgies in which we participate are performed outside of church and away from the gathered community of faith. These liturgies shape our loves and desires by instilling in us particular visions of the good life. Smith highlights the experiences of shopping at the mall or attending a sporting event such as a NASCAR race as examples of the kinds of secular liturgies that shape us powerfully, often without our conscious awareness.

One purpose of articulating this understanding of how our desires are shaped is to reveal the deficiencies of attempting to form countercultural disciples through merely didactic Christian education (equipping people with a "worldview"). Smith recommends a rediscovery of and participation in Christian liturgies (such as baptism, Lord's supper, offering, and so on) as an effective antidote to the various secular liturgies that shape us so powerfully.

This account rightly reminds us of what Abraham Kuyper would call "the antithesis." But where is "common grace" in this picture? Are all "secular" liturgies disordered? Now, I don't think Smith intends a watertight distinction between sacred and secular liturgies, but his thesis could be easily read into that that kind of framework, in which case we would fall back into something the Reformation traditional has rightly rejected: a sacred/secular dualism.

So I would like to challenge the notion of any clear dichotomy between secular liturgies that misshape and Christian liturgies that rightly shape our loves and desires. So let me propose a new category: "common grace liturgy." By common grace liturgy, I am referring to a desire-shaping practice that is not initiated or controlled by the Christian community, but resonates with some of its core values.

In order to articulate this idea, let me consider two additional examples of secular liturgies. The first is the liturgy of driving, especially of the practice of commuting by car. If we see liturgies as those practices that inculcate a particular vision of the good life, I can think of no better example than this one. This particular liturgy is performed not just once a quarter, not just once a week, not just once a day, but sometimes up to a dozen times on any given day.

When we turn the key in the ignition of our car, immediately a number of values associated with modernity as well as American culture are reinforced.

  • Power over nature: we are not held back by the limits of our bodies or the contingencies of distance, but can go as far as we want to go.

  • Autonomy: we don't need to coordinate our travel plans with any institutional considerations (such as bus schedules), nor do we need to time our trip with the movement of any community.

  • Uniformity: this kind of power and autonomy is accessible to an ordinary person like myself because mass-produced cars are affordable and uniform road design makes driving almost anywhere very convenient.

If the liturgy of driving shapes our desires to love power over nature, autonomy, and uniformity, then we can think of the practice of walking as another secular liturgy that also shapes our desires. Walking (as a form of transportation, rather than for recreation or exercise) can be seen as a kind of countercultural liturgy that shapes us in a different way than driving. Because driving is the default mode of transportation in our culture, walking for transportation is in itself countercultural. But like driving, it unconsciously shapes how we relate to our world, but in very different ways.

Walking reinforces our finite embodied existence as human creatures. Walking puts limits on the distance we can easily cover. Walking (if it is our sole or primary form of transportation) challenges our complete autonomy by preferencing those persons, services, and goods that are proximate to us.

Walking as transportation also challenges our autonomy because, in most cases, walking as a convenient transportation option requires certain conditions within our community to be met. For example, for most people living in North America, walking to the store from one's home is virtually impossible. If one lives in a residentially zoned neighbourhood that prohibits commercial buildings, a store of any kind is likely to be miles away. Also, in the majority of cases, the cul-de-sac and arterial street layout and lack of sidewalks only add to the difficulty of walking.

The relatively simple practice of walking to a store and back usually requires that the following conditions be met:

  • The store must be proximate to one's house (less than a mile)

  • The streets must be laid out on a fine grained grid layout

  • There must be a continuous network of sidewalks

  • Street crossings must be safe and not too wide.

These kinds of conditions are normally found in neighbourhoods that were built prior to WWII. In neighbourhoods where they don't exist, it normally requires a community-wide effort (often with some governmental funding) to bring about the necessary changes to the environment.

One of the pioneer advocates for "walkable neighbourhoods" with these kinds of conditions was a woman named Jane Jacobs. In her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs makes a strong case for pedestrian-oriented environments during a time in which automobile-oriented development was the norm.

Jacobs makes a case for the requisite components of a pedestrian-oriented environment: mixed-use, short blocks, and wide sidewalks. But, perhaps more importantly, in her section entitled "The Ballet of Street Life," Jacobs evokes a powerful image of the beauty and vibrancy of simple neighbourhood rituals on a pedestrian-oriented street:

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottletops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drug store to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher's; this is the time when teen-agers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of MG's; this is the time when the fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by.

Reading this text through a Christian lens, I recognize what Jacobs is describing as a picture of shalom. Shalom is a rich biblical word that is often translated as "peace" but means a great deal more than simply the absence of conflict. Shalom can be understood as human flourishing in the context of positive loving relationships with God, with others, and with creation. Jacobs's description doesn't assume anything about the participants' relationship with God, but it does seem to imply good relationships among people and with the creation in this particular neighbourhood.

Jacobs's "ballet of street life" reminds me of one of my favourite descriptions of shalom from the prophet Zechariah:

This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Once again men and women of ripe old age will sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each of them with cane in hand because of their age. The city streets will be filled with boys and girls playing there" (Zechariah 8:4-5).

Jacobs saw her beloved Hudson street as beautiful because she saw the beauty of humans in a kind of forced community, where proximity choreographs the rhythms of their lives into a kind of loosely coordinated dance. Jacobs was able to see this because she lived on this street and her loves had been shaped by this daily routine.

However, not everybody saw this scene as beautiful. Jacobs was a counter-cultural voice at a time when leaders in the Urban Renewal movement were declaring that these kinds of neighbourhoods were "slums," and were tearing them down to put up large-scale modern housing projects. It is no coincidence that the advocates for Urban Renewal were articulating this idea right around the same time that the love affair with the automobile was gaining momentum in the United States. The vision of the good life that had been formed in advocates of the "projects" was based on the values shaped by the driving of cars; namely power, autonomy, and uniformity. It is no surprise to me (or to Jane Jacobs) that the vision of Urban Renewal ultimately worked against human thriving rather than in support of it.

One could make the case, then, that Jacobs's advocacy for communities that support vibrant walking practices can be read as a kind of common grace liturgy. Jacobs was not representing a faith community in her actions, but those within the faith community can claim her work as "God honouring."

Interestingly enough, near the end of Jacobs's life she formed a friendship with a Christian theologian from the Orthodox tradition who saw strong liturgical elements in her work. In his monograph, The City as Liturgy, Dr. Timothy Patitsas makes the following observation:

For Jacobs, cities were, on many grounds, best conceived as vast liturgical celebrations, cycling through death and life in a wondrous openness to the future and to the unknown, gradually generating the differentiation-through-interdependence of the human person as they do.

While this is an interesting and provocative observation in its own right, what is even more astounding is Jacobs's response to Dr. Patitsas's remarks. After a brief acknowledgement of her lack of religious commitment, Jacobs responds:

By this time you must be aware that my answer to your question about whether I think cities can usefully be understood as manifestations of liturgy is Yes. I think that's a splendid idea and as you say, "really" so, not merely as an analogy.

And then the patron saint of the very much secular New Urbanist movement, makes the shocking statement:

I might add that you are so much the best interpreter of my work that I'm aware of that you are actually showing me what my own books mean in a way I hadn't grasped!

Dr. Patitsas's analysis of Jacobs's work as liturgical, coupled with her enthusiastic response, underscores the significance of "common grace liturgy" as a framework for understanding "secular" patterns and practices in a more positive light. The idea of common grace liturgies allows us to affirm some of the good things that are happening in our communities even if they cannot be linked back to a particular community of faith. And common grace liturgies provide potential entry points for the Gospel among people who may not be interested in "churchy" things.

Smith makes the important point that our loves are shaped by liturgy and that cognitive education alone is not enough to push back against the dominant values that are reinforced by secular liturgies. I agree wholeheartedly: communities of faith need to develop and sustain liturgies to that will shape our desires in ways that align with the values of God's kingdom. But that doesn't mean all "secular" liturgies are opposed to kingdom values. Some liturgies are clearly antithetical to the intention of God for His world, but others may be God-honouring even though the participants are unaware of it. They may be dancing to the rhythm of the kingdom without knowing it.

Comment editor James K.A. Smith responds to this post: Reading Culture Charitably: A Reply to Eric Jacobsen.

Eric O. Jacobsen
Eric O. Jacobsen

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?