Serial and the Question of Liturgy

What’s your liturgy? What are your sacred repetitions? What do you read, watch and hear each day and each week? Is a show like Serial cultivating in you a greater love for the Lord? 

Topics: Entertainment

By now, you’ve probably heard of the latest NPR podcast, Serial. It’s being called the most popular podcast in iTunes’ history based on the amount of streams and downloads. From the creators of This American Life, the show follows one story over 12 weekly episodes. The inaugural season centers on a Baltimore murder in 1999, specifically the alleged guilt of the teenage perpetrator. The whole production, from the narration to the interviews to the actual story, is enthralling.

I’ve been listening to Serial over the last several weeks. Catching up on the show and listening to numerous episodes over a short amount of time, I’ve found myself waking up thinking about the story, researching details about the real murder case, talking about, “Who did it?” with co-workers over lunch and discussing it with my wife before bed. As odd as it sounds, the show has become a big part of my life. In many ways, it has consumed my thoughts, which starts me thinking about the profound imprint that media like Serial leaves on our hearts and minds.

James K. A. Smith, in his books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, lumps such media into what he defines as “cultural liturgies,” cultural practices, rituals and artifacts that shape our imaginations and identities through a vision of human flourishing. Smith writes, “liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world.”

Essentially, the media that we consume—the movies, the TV shows, the radio shows, the podcasts—shapes who we are as people, teaching us a vision of “the good life” whether we realize it or not. All of our cultural liturgies are reaching into our hearts and minds and affecting, to some degree, the way we see and interact with the world. Sure, as believers we have the ability to filter media, taking the good and leaving the bad, but how often and how well do we really do that?

I’m not advocating that we cut ourselves off from culture and media and go live in a cave. On the contrary, I think our cultural liturgies can be leveraged positively and used to form us into the likeness of Christ. But we must be intentional and give consideration to the rhythms and rituals of our lives. We must be cautious and discerning about how our cultural liturgies are impacting our lives.

For example, though on the surface it might seem like an innocent, unbiased investigation into a murder plot, Serial does, in fact, embody a worldview. It does, in fact, depict “reality.” It gives a take on religion and the Muslim faith, as well as the justice system of the United States. Through narrative and our feelings toward the characters and through the repetition and rhythms of how we engage with that narrative, the show inevitably affects us, whether cognitively or not. It is a cultural liturgy.

This is why it’s so important that we cultivate in our lives liturgies that instill in us a correct vision of the good life, the true image of human flourishing, one that stirs our affections and desires for the Lord. We begin with the liturgy of the church and the spiritual disciplines, worshiping and dwelling on the source of what is true, good and beautiful. Then we identify the various liturgies already present in our daily lives, assessing which ones help and which ones hinder our efforts to grow spiritually and to restore the imago dei in us.

I’ve been wrestling with the question of liturgy for some time now, seeking—and oftentimes failing—to build into my daily and weekly routine practices and habits that anchor my heart and mind on the gospel. It may seem overly formulaic, but the seasons and times when I’m intentional about this, I literally see a discernible difference in my thoughts and behavior. When I start my day in prayer and worship the Lord through music on my drive to work, whether an actual worship song or the latest Sufjan Stevens album, my demeanor is different that day. When I make a habit of watching movies that stir my affections for the Lord and get me thinking about His great love and beauty, anything from Steven Spielberg to Terrence Malick, I find my conversations and, even my work, to be deeper and richer.

There is no question that, on a number of levels, the habits, practices and artifacts of our lives—the cultural liturgies—are molding us into a certain kind of person. As Smith says, “Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects.”

This, of course, begs the question: What’s your liturgy? What are your sacred repetitions? What do you read, watch and hear each day and each week? Is a show like Serial cultivating in you a greater love for the Lord and a proper understanding of human flourishing? These questions are worth our time. Whether we realize it or not, our liturgies are discipling us in one way or another. In the interest of our souls, we should choose them with care.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. Proverbs 4:23