Ascetic Christianity: Brethren Dress and Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

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[Part 1 of a three-part series on James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.1 Part 2 is here and part 3 is here.]

by Joshua Brockway

James K. A. Smith has written an accessible and insightful discussion of practices and the Christian faith. Smith turns to consider practices and liturgies as foundational for the ways we act in the world as Christians thus challenging worldview understandings of Christian education and formation,. Rather than discuss these practices in ideological terms Smith defines these liturgical practices as “a ‘hearts and minds’ strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and ‘aim’ our love toward the kingdom of God.”2 Yet, Smith is clear that liturgies are not just proprietary to the Church. All cultures have within them liturgical practices which aim a person’s desires towards some other ultimate end end.

Brethren, however, have not been warm to the language of liturgy. Following many other Radical Reformation traditions, we have come to define our worship as “Free Church” and our theology as asacramental. These moves are rightly understood as reactions to the clericalism of 16th and 17th century Europe. Yet, the effect has been that we are not attentive to the ways rituals and liturgies shape our actions. Smith’s work, on the other hand, makes very clear that the question is better framed not by a rejection of liturgy, but by asking which liturgy defines us.

This kind of question should not trouble us as Brethren too much. In fact, much of our tradition has argued that Christianity is not a set of intellectualized beliefs but is rather a way of life. In a way, practices are more central to Brethren theology than they are to many other Protestant traditions. Smith’s thesis, then, should resonate with Brethren. To that end, I will briefly show that the historic practice of plain dress is an example of what Smith calls a liturgy and show that both ways of approaching Christianity resemble the ascetic wings of Christian history

Many images have been published of Brethren men in plain jackets and women in simple cape dresses and bonnets. As the clothing of the surrounding culture shifted, Brethren manifested their separation from society by their dress. In the shadow of rapid cultural changes the Brethren frequently asked questions of one another as to what was appropriate for their kingdom lifestyle. Often the responses were framed in the vocabulary of simplicity. Though the selection of a style was clearly arbitrary, it helped that clothing made a tangible case for what has come to be a tag line for the tradition: Another Way of Living.

In the language of Smith, plain dress was a liturgical practice. That is to say, it was an embodied practice that aimed the person’s desires toward a vision of the Kingdom of God. Simplicity and an alternate way of life, then, are the ends manifest in coats with no lapels and bonnets. With each new day, these sisters and brothers donned their theology, reminding their hearts and minds of the Kingdom which was sought above all else.3

Smith’s noted example of cultural liturgies presents an interesting counter example. In the opening pages of the book he narrates the cultural liturgies of the ever ubiquitous mall. Throughout this narrative Smith the movements in any shopping trip, including sights, sounds, and even smells using typically liturgical terms. What we might oversimplify as just shopping he shows to be a deeply formative act which presents our hearts with “a picture of what it looks like for us to flourish and live well.”4

Unlike the formation of desire in Brethren plain dress, the liturgy of the mall aims to flame desire so that we return time after time. The desire kindled in commerce is simply a desire that is never satisfied.5 The whole system is predicated on peddling fulfillment while undermining it with images of new goals to be achieved. Brethren clothing, on the other hand, continually embodies a static goal in the Kingdom of God.6 That is the prime distinction, implicit in Smith’s argument, between cultural and ecclesial liturgies. The Christian liturgy brings God’s reign to life, even if it is but for fleeting moment.

Neither Brethren clothing nor Smith’s argument for formative liturgies are novel. Both share the vision of self-fashioning in the ways of God made manifest in the early ascetic formulations of the Church. Historian and theologian Richard Valantasis has argued just this in his 1995 article in which he outlines a social theory of asceticism. There he describes asceticism as “performances within a dominant social environment  intended to  inaugurate a  new subjectivity, different social relations, and an alternative symbolic universe.”7 Brethren and Smith, then, are arguing in practice and discourse that Christianity is, by its very nature, an ascetic religion. That is simply to say that it engages in practices which shape us into the coming reign of God. These embodied realities define how we relate to others and the ways we imagine the world in which we live. In Smith’s vocabulary they shape our ways into alternate social imaginaries.8 For Brethren, these practices are just another way of living.

  1. Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009. []
  2. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 33 []
  3. Matthew 6:33 []
  4. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 53 []
  5. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 100 []
  6. It is worth noting here that Brethren quickly confused the static, yet coming, Kingdom of God with the clothing itself. In essence, they choose to make the style of dress unchanging instead of incarnating the Kingdom values in new expressions. []
  7. Richard Valantasis, “Constructions of Power in Asceticism” Journal of the American Academy of Religion vol 63, 797 []
  8. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 65 []
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