What is a human being? Since Descartes, philosophers will ask questions such as "Is the person who loses their legs in battle still the same person, or does his loss of limbs constitute a partial loss of self?" Thus, you end with the human "person" being either the functions of a brain, or a mind or soul. Our embodiment is removed from our being, since we are foundationally "thinking things." The philosophical revolution that followed Descartes ended up having a vast influence upon the Western world.
Smith explains that in terms of education, since the human is foundationally a "thinking thing," the university must be geared at informing the mind. This move, which actually partially began before the Cartesian revolution, fundamentally confronts the origin of the university in the Christian monastery. The Christian monastery focused on forming the person through practice, repetition, method, sacramental living and worship, while also informing the person through scheduled readings, discussions and teachings. The modern university moved toward focusing on pure information. Now, the student reads books, the teacher lectures while the students take notes in order to pass tests. Most students will skip classes, throw together papers and stay up the night before the exam in order to cram in every last bit of information that will fit. After the semester finishes, the student leaves unchanged and ultimately unformed, waiting for other aspects of culture to form them. What about other forms of knowledge? What about the desires? What is the role of the imagination? Am I molded ethically, or can I merely now think "rationally" about ethics? Have habits and life been changed in any formative way, or does the student simply now have access to a larger database of information?
Since the modern university has moved from forming people to informing them, where do they find their formative influences? Smith critiques some of the secular liturgies that actually shape the majority of Western individuals. The finest two examples of formative ideals and locations are the shopping mall and the stadium, both used by Smith to show that we are desiring, worshipping animals that will find our liturgical formation even after the university has excluded formation from their program.
In a masterful chapter, Smith shows the formative aspects of a liturgical worship service. He focuses on the bodily aspects, the scents, the images, the sounds as well as exegeting the very meaning of a people coming out from their general lives in order to take part in this formative practice of "going to church." After reading this chapter, sitting on a bus in SE Asia, I wanted no more than to be in the midst of a worship service. I found myself trying to critique my situation and find what sacramental aspects of the bus ride could inspire my personal worship. Ultimately, this social/theological critique actually moved me as a reader beyond the fascinating discussion of the text, and toward a desire to worship God and serve others.
My only critique of the book would be the final chapter. After a previously engaging and insightful work, the ending seemed abrupt and almost forced. Smith made very clear that his book was not intended to give practical examples, but I still wished that they were there. Furthermore, some of the trajectories of the work seemed left unresolved. Fortunately, this will only be the first volume in a three volume series, hopefully meaning that these ideas will be more thoroughly worked out in terms of cultural engagement and political theology (although the fruits of such are clearly evident in this work).
Do not let this final critique dissuade you. As I read this book I could already tell that it would be one of the best books I read this year, despite it only being January. Smith has provided us with and insightful look at how we are shaped, our embodiment and the philosophy/theology/anthropology behind our being. I highly recommend this book and hope that it will have a wide reading in and out of the church, especially by those who are or desire to be Christian academics, scholars, ministers and educators.