Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dtk - Chapter 1 finished

We are finishing up the first chapter of Desiring the Kingdom as we read along with Mystie's guidance.  I have enjoyed the conversation so far.

In today's post I am going to do two things.  First I'll discuss chapel and mass in schools I have been a part of in the past. Secondly, I'll discuss how the lesson of this chapter is highlighted in the life of Clarence Thomas.  Yes, my husband is listening to his memoir My Grandfather's Son.   Even the title ties into the point of this chapter.

Chapel versus Mass

First a thought that was convicting, "From most exposition of "the Christian worldview" you would never guess that Christians worship!"   And towards the end of the same paragraph he asserts that our worldview "fails to provide any account of or place for the centrality of Christian worship as integral to the task of Christian education."

This made me think of the difference between the chapel services that most Protestant Christian schools have and the Mass in Catholic schools.  Chapels are typically weekly meetings (mostly at the elementary level) where children listen to a sermonette or Bible story, then they sing a few songs and do some type of offering. The details may differ but that is the general pattern.  Meanwhile, in a Catholic school, students go to mass - sometimes even daily!  Mass is the same regardless of age - it is not watered down.  I was at a Catholic high school (not elementary) so it might be slightly different for younger students - but probably not.  The focus is on the sacrament and not the priest's short homily. If you have experience with this please comment.

Can you already see the difference in formation?  When you are part of the Catholic tradition, no matter where you go (I once went to mass celebrated on a cruise ship because my cousin was assisting with it) it is the same.  No matter your age, the practices are the same.  They truly shape you.  Meanwhile, the protestant tradition is much more splintered and diverse.  One church I recently attended didn't have an order of worship in the bulletin (not even praise, offering, sermon) because they "don't have a liturgy".  WHAT?  Anyway.  I do realize not all Protestant traditions are so free with their form, that is why I attend a more liturgical church.  There is a depth of history and a use of the scripture in the sacraments that is forming.

The nuns at the Catholic school I worked in were ADAMANT about the celebration of mass as central to the life of the school.  Teachers complained, students rolled their eyes but everyone went.  The nuns saw it as essential the formation and identity of the school, while most of the faculty and students probably thought it was the least valuable part of the school program (it was an academically rigorous school).  At the time, I probably sided more with the teachers and students, but after thinking about it and reading this chapter, the nuns were right.

Clarence Thomas and the social imaginary

I really don't know much about Clarence Thomas except for watching his confirmation hearings over one summer (in junior high - not really understanding what it all meant).  Before listening to his memoirs I wasn't too sure of his political leanings or background.  I am only at the point where he has gotten his first job, so we aren't near to his most well known chapter of life.  However, his life story (so far) is a great example of how your social imaginary - your core vision basically - shapes who you are.  Smith explains the concept this way:
The "social imaginary" is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world.  It is described as an "imaginary" (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths and icons. These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by "lining" our imagination, as it were - providing us with frameworks of "meaning" by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it.  (bold is mine)

Just hearing his story - poor, abandoned, black boy born in 1948 growing up in the rural south, attending college in the late 1960's - you would think you could guess his political stance. If you assume he is a liberal in support of affirmative action and the war on poverty you would be completely wrong.  He was in college and law school during an era where social institutions were changing their telos.  As Smith discusses, cultural institutions "are human cultural products, they are pliable and malleable, they can be configured in different ways, depending on the ends to which they are oriented".  He lived in the midst of the re-orientation, even attending demonstrations and joining with more liberal groups for a time. However, in the end, he did not follow the expected trajectory and ended in a different place than most of his contemporaries.  Why?

Well, the title of the book My Grandfather's Son pretty much gives the answer.  He was abandoned by his parents and his grandparents raised him.  His Grandmother was one of the few practicing, black Catholics in the south.  He went to a Catholic high school (he was the best Latin student at his school) and pursued the priesthood - even attending a year of seminary (his grandfather threw him out when he left the seminary).  As a youth, his grandfather made him work out in the fields with him during the summer and constantly told him stories about how important it is to be independent and stand on your own two feet.  His grandfather refused to take public assistance saying that it robbed him of his manhood.  As Thomas pursued his education, turning down Harvard to attend Yale Law School, his grandfather still called him an educated fool and wouldn't attend his graduations.

Much of his college experience (besides studying and being an excellent student) was a clash between the left, black panther, black power movement and his grandfather's approach to life.  He was in the midst of a culture creating a totally new social imaginary.  Even though he wasn't a practicing Catholic through most of his college and law school career; it tethered him, nonetheless.  Basically he was living out what Smith is alluding to when he says "So how does one acquire such virtues, such dispositions of desire?  Through participation in concrete Christian practices like confession?"

In the memoirs, Thomas constantly discusses the pull of his Grandfather's example, his stories, his life well lived.  Those gave him his sense of meaning much more than the shifting tides of cultural change around him. He is not a saint.  My husband says the next section reveals that he was basically a high functioning alcoholic and is considering leaving his wife and young son.  He also was not a practicing Catholic at the time.  Despite his difficulties and flaw and regardless of your personal view of him, the first half of this memoir is a fascinating look at how a social imaginary rooted in faith, example and stories, can stand the test of cultural change.


  1. I love it when seemingly unrelated reading or experiences shed light on other readings. Thank you for sharing these connections!

  2. That was such an interesting connection to Clarence Thomas!