The image of the “nuclear” family has always been an ambiguous one for me. Of course, it’s meant to convey a picture of a centered family, anchored by a mom and a dad, with children orbiting around them as satellites, together comprising one of the basic units of society—an “atomic unit,” if you will. (Part of the sad state of our age is that such a picture is now taken to be quaint and antiquated.) But having been raised during the denouement of the Cold War and shaped by movies like Red Dawn, for me the notion of a “nuclear” family also carried the connotations of a bomb shelter or concrete bunker, a fortress to protect us from the threats of a menacing world.
The metaphor is stark but not entirely off base. Granted, there are extreme versions of this that are insular and fearful (what we might call the “doomsday preppers” of Christian parenting). But we rightly have a sense of caution when it comes to the influence of the world on our families, especially on our children. Indeed, it’s a biblical admonition: we are both incubators and defenders of our children’s hearts and minds, stewards of their imaginations, responsible for their instruction. And thus it is only natural that we should be their defenders, on guard like sentinels watching in the distance for oncoming threats. When the father of Proverbs 4 admonishes his son to “guard his heart” (Prov. 4:23), the father’s instruction is itself part of that defense.
But what if we’re missing the real threats? What if we are constructing defenses against the intellectual blasts of “ideas” and “messages” from the world, but not insulating against the sort of toxic radiation that can seep through our intellectual defenses?
This happens when we parent our children as if they were “thinking things.” Every parenting strategy—like every pedagogy—implicitly assumes something about the nature of human beings (insofar as children are human beings—and trust me, I remember the days when that was hard to believe). Having drunk from Cartesian wells, modern Christians have tended to assume that human beings are basically and primarily thinking things. We effectively assume that “you are what you think”—a phrase I once saw emblazoned across a man’s forehead in an advertisement for a Bible memory verse program. As a result, we tend to treat our children as intellectual receptacles, veritable brains-on-a-stick.
And we parent and protect them accordingly: we try to foster their faith by providing them with biblical knowledge, catechizing them to give us the right answers, and then gradually equipping them to also discern the false teachings the world will throw at them. If we are basically thinking things, both our defenses and our instruction should be primarily intellectual.
But what if we aren’t fundamentally or only thinking things? What if our children aren’t brains-on-a-stick? What if as being human means we are creatures who are oriented and animated by desire? What if you are what you love?
Then that changes things. First and foremost, we need to take seriously how our loves and ultimate longings are shaped and formed. As Paul suggests in Colossians 3:12-16, love is actually a habit, one of the moral habits we call the “virtues.” If love is a virtue, a good habit, then we need to be attentive to how such habits are formed. The tradition from Aristotle to Aquinas has always emphasized that we acquire virtue in two ways.
First, we learn virtue by imitating exemplars, following the example of those who model virtue. This should give us new appreciation for the New Testament emphasize on imitation: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” Paul admonishes (Eph. 5:1). Far from being some inauthentic mimicking, imitation is how we learn to “put on” Christ. This, of course, is also one of the most daunting aspects of parenting.
Second, acquiring virtue takes practice. We learn how to love by being immersed in rhythms, routines, and rituals that enfold us into a story that articulates what counts as “the good life.” But these practices also form our habits and dispositions, shaping our character so that we become a certain kind of person. It’s one of the reasons Aristotle said habits were “second nature”: they become so woven into our character that we do them without thinking about it. Compassion, love, and forgiveness become part of our character. But that doesn’t happen by acquiring information; it happens through practices of formation.
If children are human beings, and if humans are first and foremost lovers, then Christian formation isn’t primarily or only an intellectual endeavor. That means cultivating a Christian home isn’t like curating a theological salon. Christian parenting won’t only be didactic. A Christian home also needs to be a space where rhythms and routines function as liturgies of rightly ordered love, pedagogies of desire that train us—parents and children alike—to desire God and what God loves.
That’s why our households need to be caught up in the wider household of God: the liturgies of our homes should grow out of, and amplify, the formative liturgy of word and table. (On this score, there is a lot of wisdom to be gained by returning to the Westminster Divines’ “Directory for Family Worship,” a supplement to their “Directory for the Publick Worship of God.”) As Michael Horton so winsomely captures it in his book on worship, A Better Way, historic Reformed worship draws us into the drama of Christ-centered redemption. That liturgical formation, you might say, character-izes us: it weaves us into the story of God in Christ and thus shapes our character. The formative liturgies of a Christian home depend on the ecclesial capital of the church’s worship.
Family worship will be formative only to the extent that it taps into our imagination, not just our intellect. To do so, such worship needs to traffic in the aesthetic currency of the imagination—story, poetry, music, symbols, and images. Such worship will be tactile, tangible, incarnate. (Think of all the prophet Jeremiah’s object lessons as a biblical model here.) Children are ritual animals who absorb the gospel in practices that speak to their imaginations.
This is an important reason to make music an aspect of family worship. As Augustine said, “He who sings prays twice.” There is something at work in the lilt of a melody and the poetry of a hymn that make the biblical story seep into us indelibly.
This is also a reason to invite your family into the rhythms of the liturgical calendar or the “Christian year.” The rhythms of Advent and Christmas, Epiphany and Pentecost, Lent and Easter are a unique way to live into the life of Jesus. The colors of these seasons can become part of the spiritual wallpaper of your home, shaping the ethos of a family. The royal purples of the king, the bright white of Christmastide, and the fire red of Pentecost all create a kind of symbolic universe that invites us into a different story.
These seasons also come with their own tactile rituals. For example, families can enjoy creating an Advent wreath together each year. Children can tangibly participate in lighting the candles of hope, love, joy, and peace—also sometimes known as the Prophet’s candle, the Bethlehem candle, the Shepherd’s candle, and the Love candle. During Lent, families can observe a form of fasting together in which the growling of hungry bellies is a visceral way to learn about hungering and thirsting after righteousness.
There is physicality to such worship that encourages us to understand the gospel anew in ways that endure in our imagination. Mark Twain once quipped, “He who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” What he meant was that no explanation of what it’s like to carry a cat by the tail can compare with the tangible experience of trying to carry a cat by the tail (don’t try this at home!). Liturgies are the tangible way we come to understand the gospel with our imagination.
However, there is a flipside to this picture: if we are what we love, and our longings are shaped by love-shaping liturgies, then we need to recognize that not all liturgies are rightly ordered to God and his kingdom. In short, we need to recognize that our culture is rife with liturgies that are anything but directed to God. Indeed, all kinds of cultural practices are after nothing less than our hearts. These are not just things we do; they do something to us. The rival liturgies of late modern culture are legion: from the consumerist liturgies of the mall, to the egocentric liturgies of our smartphones, to the hedonistic liturgies of the modern university (for a harrowing account, read Tom Wolfe’s novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons).
The mall, for example, is not just a neutral space of consumer exchange. It is a temple, a religious site devoted to the god of consumption. This isn’t because the mall has some “doctrine” it is foisting upon our teenagers. No one meets them at the door of the Galleria trying to sell them on what the mall “believes.” The last thing the mall cares about is belief. The mall isn’t worried about something so intellectual. It’s after our hearts, our loves, our wants.
And so the mall invites us into its own liturgical experience: into its labyrinth lined with veritable “icons” of the so-called good life—the mannequins adorned in the latest offerings from the Gap and Forever 21 that function as the stained-glass windows of the consumerist “church.” The ubiquitous tentacles of marketing constitute the evangelism of this mammonistic religion, beckoning us to a better life in ways that bypass our intellect and appeal to our imagination. Such cultural practices are not disseminating “messages” that try to change our mind; they entice us into practices that aim to train our loves. Pedagogies of desire are everywhere.
If we assume our children are basically brains-on-a-stick, then we won’t even see the liturgical power of cultural practices. As a result, we mistake some things as benign that are actually toxic—not because they are loaded with false teachings and bad ideas, but because they are teaching us to love false gods and desire rival kingdoms. So, for example, we end up thinking that all things Disney are safe, wholesome, and benign because the “content” seems innocuous, when the imaginative worlds of so many Disney stories are bent on turning our children into prodigious consumers, as if stuff will save our souls.
And the specifically intellectual defenses we give our children are often insufficient to contend with such cultural liturgies. While Victoria’s Secret is stoking a fire in their bellies, we in our thinking-thing-ism are trucking waters to their heads. The waters of our defense never touch the fire. What we need are countermeasures; we need to fight deformative fire with reformative fire. If cultural liturgies shape our loves by capturing our imaginations, then the formation of a Christian imagination requires immersion in intentionally formative liturgical practices centered on Christ and indexed to the kingdom of God. We are thereby taught to inhabit the world as God’s creation, longing for the kingdom come, focused on the things above. In short, we will learn how to live as citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20) who desire what God desires for his world. We will learn how to be neighbors, how to love our enemies, how to be a people who desire shalom.
This means one of the most significant decisions we can make for our homes is to commit ourselves to congregations whose worship is not just informing our intellects but also capturing our imaginations. Such worship then sends us into our homes where we can extend those liturgical rhythms, practicing the faith in the liturgical habits of home.
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His books include Letters to a Young Calvinist (Brazos, 2010) and Desiring the Kingdom (Baker Academic, 2009).