I'm reading the chapter in James K.A. Smith's Who's Afraid of Postmodernism about French philosopher Michel Foucault’s thesis that power is knowledge. Smith relates this idea to our current society and church. Foucault performed case studies of what he calls disciplinary mechanisms, such as prisons and hospitals, which have all-knowing, all-seeing, insidious power. The same could be said for the influential shaping forces in our culture, such as capitalism and--capitalism's driving force--consumerism.
The scary thing is that the end goal of the disciplinary mechanism of capitalism/consumerism sounds similar to Christianity’s end goal: to transform us. Like penitentiaries in Foucault’s case study, our consumerist culture is a ubiquitous “apparatus for transforming individuals” aimed at forming knowledge within the individual. Foucault and Smith use words like “omnipresent” and “possessing wide-ranging powers” when describing disciplinary mechanisms. Do some of those descriptions sound a little familiar?
Smith says that Christians can both agree and disagree with Foucault. American evangelicals’ initial reaction, however, since they have been so affected by classic liberal notions of self, are to agree wholeheartedly with Foucault’s rejection of disciplinary mechanisms. These forces suppress individual freedom, and many evangelicals celebrate individual freedom. Although conservative Christians criticize theological liberalism, Smith says they have “unwittingly adopted notions of freedom and autonomy that are liberal to the core” (99). Smith remarks: “We don’t want denominations to tell us how to run our churches, and we don’t want churches to tell us how to run our lives” (99-100). He goes on to say that “freedom is an idol of the contemporary church” (100). The reason we can agree should not stem from any encroaching-upon of the self, but rather we should affirm that harmful disciplinary mechanisms should be resisted.
Christians should disagree with Foucault, though, because a blanket rejection of all disciplinary mechanisms is not necessary. The Gospel is a shaping force, a form of disciplinary mechanism, albeit more powerful than capitalism or any institution. Christians are indeed called to conform, but instead to “an alternative conformity” transforming and renewing ourselves into Christ’s image (101). Romans 12:2 takes on a powerful new meaning.
Capitalism and consumerism want to transform us into “economic animals whose primary end is production and consumption,” while other disciplinary mechanisms, such as our sex-saturated society, aim to “reduce us to sexual animals whose primary end is instinctual satisfaction” (102). The insidiousness and pervasiveness of marketing, which puts sexual, social, or even religious value on products, along with the truth claims that are covertly communicated in this whole process of making ourselves into good consumers, should be pointed out and resisted by the church (104). We are being formed into certain kinds of people by these forces in society, which right now look a lot more powerful than the church. In fact, many churches are capitulating to these disciplinary mechanisms, which is why a lot of churches seem to resemble entertainment/take-your-pick buffets these days. Smith ends the chapter with this:
“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-modern culture.” (107)
I know this morphed into a horribly long and boring post that spoiled the chapter for anyone who hasn’t read the book, but it was a really complex section that I had to reread a few times and wanted to hash out by writing a summary. I also wanted to remember the quotes about freedom and the church, and blogging them makes it easy for me to find them later. The fact that we don’t want our churches telling us how to live is definitely something to revisit!
Todd tagged me for a book meme that I'll try to get to tomorrow, too!