our “godfather” problem

In the last chapter of his book, Awaiting the King, James K. A. Smith addresses what he calls our “Godfather Problem.” ATK is the third book in Smith’s Cultural Liturgies series. It is a fine series worth checking out especially if you’re a fan of Charles Taylor – the philosopher, not the shoe guy or the African warlord. Smith expertly weaves together strands of theology and philosophy with enough cultural analysis to keep it interesting. The books are sometimes pedantic, but honestly, that’s part of their appeal, at least for me.

The whole series is essentially about worship. He argues convincingly that our hearts are shaped by how and what we worship. He’s by no means the first person to make this observation. You can find it in the early pages of Genesis all the way to some of the final pages of Revelation. What I found particularly interesting was how he tied worship to worldview. Most people who talk about “worldview” tend to turn it into a philosophical exercise starting with beliefs and working outward from there. This is a mistake, Smith says, because when it comes to our worldview we are much more inclined to follow our hearts than our heads. Worldview is about our desires (specifically our desire for “the good life”) and how those desires are shaped and cultivated by worship. As Christians, our ongoing challenge while we live in this world is that the culture around us is working tirelessly to reshape our hearts through competing liturgies that offer us a different, contrasting picture of “the good life.” We are “worshipping animals.” We are never not worshipping and being shaped by liturgical habits. Among other things, he encourages as an antidote a sort of “cultural apocalyptic” where we look beyond the surface of our culture in order to apprehend the way that our culture is actually shaping our worldview through worship. There is a brilliant section in the first book which I have stolen and used countless times in which he re-imagines shopping malls as a worship experience.

The focus of the third book is politics. If there is any area of life where we need to pay attention to cultural liturgies and the way we are being shaped by worship, it is politics. Smith wouldn’t be comfortable with labeling politics as an “area” of our lives because our entire public life is political. Politics is not a realm that we choose to either enter into or avoid. There are parts of Smith’s work where the reader grows a little uneasy with the potential of everything becoming everything, but it’s hard to argue with him when he claims that our religion is political and our politics is religious. Any religion that claims Jesus is Lord and worships a lamb upon a throne is most definitely political. Any Christian who claims to not be political has either misunderstood politics or Jesus or perhaps both. Similarly, politics is religious in nature. He puts it this way towards the beginning of the book.

Politics, then, both requires formation and forms us. The political is more like a repertoire of rites than a “space” for expressing ideas. Laws, then, are not just boundary markers; they are social nudges that makes us a certain kind of people. Institutions are not just abstract placeholders for various functions; they are incubators of habituation that make us a certain kind of people—indeed, they forge the very notion of an “us.” If politics is habit forming, it is also love shaping, which means that we are on the terrain of liturgy.

So Smith has spent the balance of three books (and a fourth book written for a broader audience) arguing that our hearts and thus our worldviews are shaped by habits of worship. But in the very last chapter he acknowledges a significant flaw in his whole system. In theory worship should shape us, but in reality we suffer from what he calls a “Godfather problem.”

The reference is to the famous baptism scene in the Godfather where Michael Corleone takes care of all the family’s business. You can watch the scene here if you’ve never seen it. The scene shifts back and forth between a christening service and scenes of bloodshed and murder. The contrast couldn’t be more dramatic: new life versus death, innocence versus retribution, water versus blood, the peace of a sleeping baby versus the screams of dying men, the Latin prayers of a priest versus the chattering judgments of a machine gun, liturgy versus business. Corleone is literally using his presence in worship as an opportunity to commit mass murder in the service of his family business. And this, observes Smith, highlights in a hyper-dramatic way a pervasive and ongoing problem. The liturgy sure doesn’t seem to be forming us. We worship, and yet we sin – individually and institutionally. And we sin egregiously!

Smith brings up unsettling examples – many having to do with the Church’s embarrassing track record on race. North American slavery, South African apartheid, Rwandan genocide. It must be admitted that the Church in these cases was not a mere observer of atrocity but an active participant occasionally even using liturgy to justify the atrocity. We could supply additional examples of the Godfather problem. Priests committing sexual abuse and then protected by the Church. Megachurch pastors using their power and position to abuse and manipulate women or to extort money from parishioners for a new airplane. And those are only the stories that make the headlines. How many other stories of shame go unreported or unknown? What are we to make of this? What are we to make of the presence of individual and institutional hypocrisy? Does the Godfather Problem render our faith a sham (“by their fruits…”)? I can’t tell you the number of atheists that I’ve run into who have claimed some version of this problem as a justification for their lack of faith. This is an important topic, so I’m going to dedicate my next handful of posts to addressing the problem. I hope that you’ll read.

4 thoughts on “our “godfather” problem

  1. Looking forward to some application on how to be rid of the godfather syndrome. It seems that we are blind to it while we have it. Don Corleone was doing what was necessary to survive, it was evil. He sold his soul to protect his family for a while. It seems like a similiar motivation for short-sighted Christians/institutions who trade integrity for short-term gains. As I said, looking forward to more on this.

    Liked by 1 person

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