This week in Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith gets offensive. I must admit that I’m grinning with anticipation to read and interact with people’s responses to this section.
Summary: Is Patriotism Idolatry?
I do not go so far as Smith’s belief that we should not have patriotism at all, always feeling and acting like exiles and strangers in a land, but it is a biblical enough concept that I don’t begrudge him bringing it up and trying to make the case. I myself prefer the Kuyper and Bonhoeffer approach, but there is a place for Smith’s perspective in the discussion, I believe.
On the one hand, perhaps he can see the Americana identity and narrative problems with more clarity because he grew up outside them (he is Canadian). On the other hand, part of me feels attacked by a foreigner by this section. The consumerism section was a “we” problem, this one is a “you, not me” problem, and that makes him sound more caustic and offensive, whether or not that was his intent.
There is a reason, I think, I find this section less controversial than others seem to: I did not grow up in the secular liturgies of our culture. I have lived outside of most of the liturgical practices he brings up in this section. Is that perhaps why I see his point, though I think he takes it too far? I was homeschooled, we did not say the pledge, we did not go to sports events or watch them on tv, and my television and movie watching was quite restricted. On top of that, I have most of my national history from Bob Jones (southern conservative) and Canon Press, so I am more familiar with alternate tellings of the American story than the standard, one that loves the Puritans who settled this nation, the founders who established it, and the states rights both loved, one that tells the American story such that it is obvious we now more closely resemble the government the founders rebelled from than the government they desired to create. Yet, I love my country; I love it enough to pray it repents so it can be reformed and restored, because pride will fall. Unfortunately, I tend toward pessimism in this and so sympathize with Doomsday Preppers (disclaimer: I’ve never actually watched the show). :)
The only movie that he mentioned that I’ve seen is King Arthur, which I wanted to like but turned out to be terrible. As a rule, I avoid sentimental stories, and not only were several of the movies mentioned sentimental (at least, that’s been my impression when I’ve seen them promoted or mentioned), much of the time “American Spirit” is played now as a sentimental card not based on any actual, concrete, current reality, belief, or unity. I have always eye-rolled the post-9/11 flag waving, but perhaps that is because I am on the other side of the country, and all that I saw seemed merely feel-good sentimentality, more about stirring up emotions (as if giving people “thoughts” did them any good) than actually doing anything good and self-sacrificing for others. The type of 9/11 “patriotic” displays seem to me to be more of a symptom that with no God to turn to, people instead turn to manipulating and trusting to their own feelings for comfort, and the effect is pathetic, in the rich old sense of the word – worthy of pity.
However, Smith took it too far to eye-roll honoring soldiers who die in battle. Of course they have given the ultimate sacrifice; isn’t that one’s life? and don’t they? Even if we disagree about the justice or even legality of the war, the individual soldiers fight for the country, and the country owes them gratitude and honor.
Further Book Club Conversation
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Next week: finish chapter 3