This year, the keynote speaker at the biennial Christian Schools Canada Leadership Conference was James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College and the editor of Comment magazine. Smith is also the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?
Over the next few weeks, the OACS News Service will provide readers with summaries of Smith’s four keynote addresses. This week’s summary (number two of four) invites readers to think about the power of ritual and story within the sphere of Christian education. Read on and consider why micro habits might have macro implications.
Restory(ing) the Imagination: The Art of Education
In his second plenary, Jamie Smith aims to give his listeners a new language to name the good practices that characterize their Christian schools. He also invites his audience to consider where there is opportunity for growth and for change in their own educational communities.
This lecture covers a lot of ground—from french philosophy to the ancient medieval church, to the writings of David Foster Wallace and Oscar Wilde. As Smith explores the micro rituals inherent in technology use and considers the importance of a “kinaesthetic sense” in Christian education, he illustrates the way that Christian education, is in large part, a re-narration project.
Smith begins with a reflection on The King’s Speech, a 2010 (Oscar winning) movie about a speech therapist who invites the film’s main character (Bertie) to “re-narrate” the story he’s been telling himself since childhood. The new story that Bertie eventually embraces is powerful in its simplicity, and it goes something like this: Be not afraid.
“This is what you’re doing as Christian Educators,” says Smith. “You are implanting a story of good news in your students. You have the opportunity to make the greatest of love stories that is the gospel sink in to their bones.”
And, like other meaningful stories, it’s a story that students can understand more richly through formative rituals. It’s a story they can absorb through embodied habits and through the repetition of seemingly small acts.
It’s through the rhythm of a life that we can imagine ourselves as characters in a story, says Smith. We become implanted in a story that we might otherwise only relate to on an intellectual level. After all, he points out, the dynamics of “getting a story” are bound with having a body.
Smith uses several examples to illustrate his point. His reflection on the iphone is particularly relevant for kids today. The way we interface with our smart phones (usually with one lazy swipe of our finger) implicitly trains us how to relate to the world, says Smith. The phone teaches us that the world should be available to us on our terms. That we can get things when we want them. That we should always be entertained. That we’re the centre of the universe.
For Smith, one of the most disturbing effects of our learned iphone habits is the growing sense that we are always “on” and being watched—through our Instagram feeds, through our Tweets and Facebook identities. How could a Christian education liberate students from that paralyzing self consciousness? asks Smith. And what sort of micro rituals can schools create within their communities to do that? According to Smith, significant stories about our place in the world are told through the way we handle the smallest of physical items (like our phones). Little things matter. Small ingrained habits and rituals instill in us grand cosmologies.
That’s one of the reasons Smith encourages Christian schools to gift students with historic wisdom of the Church’s ancient disciplines—the regular reciting of creeds, reading daily from the book of common prayer, beginning the day with the psalms—such practices (which he sees as inherently beautiful in themselves) create the rhythm of an ongoing daily life, where students are absorbing the gospel story.
What’s more, giving students the gift of ritual will ideally provide them with an environment that invites them to acquire a Christian temperament. He ends his lecture with some worthwhile questions for Christian school leaders: What are the intentional practices you are engaged? What are the frame and contexts and spaces that you are inviting your students into? What are the symbols that are bathing your students’ imagination?
To listen to the full audio files of Smith’s Restory(ing) the Imagination presentation, click here.