Does Victoria’s Secret have a better anthropology than the church?

After I got James K.A. Smith’s new book Imagining the Kingdom, several of you suggested reading Desiring the Kingdom first, so I picked it up at the Missio Alliance conference a couple of weeks ago. Smith is writing about the way that we are first and foremost liturgical creatures rather than rational creatures. What shapes our real identity is not so much our stated values and beliefs, but our unstated desires that have been cultivated by our habits. Unfortunately, the evangelical church operates with an overly rationalist anthropology, perhaps since an 18th century view of human nature feels “conservative.” This ends up creating people who “believe” the right things and have the same worldly habits as everyone else. In contrast, Smith points out that Victoria’s Secret has a better anthropology than the church that it demonstrates in the effectiveness of its advertising.

This passage comes in the context of considering how the advertising industry consists in a secular form of liturgy that shapes people, particularly with the use of sex in advertising:

A common “churchy” response to this cultural situation runs along basically Platonic lines: to quell the raging passion of sexuality that courses it way through culture, our bodies and passions need to be disciplined by our “higher” parts–we need to get the brain to trump other organs and thus bring the passions into submission to the intellect. And the way to do this is to get ideas to trump passions. In other words, the church responds to the overwhelming cultural activation and formation of desire by trying to fill our heads with ideas and beliefs.

I suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should first recognize and admit that the marketing industry… is operating with a much better, more creational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church… Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures–creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret. But meanwhile, the church has been duped by modernity and has bought into a kind of Cartesian model of the human person, wrongly assuming that the heady realm of ideas and beliefs is the core of our being…

What if we approached this differently? What if we didn’t see passion and desire as such as the problem, but rather sought to redirect it? What we honored what the marketing industry has got right–that we are creatures primarily of love and desire–and then responded in kind with counter-measures that focus on our passions, not primarily on our thoughts or beliefs? [76-77]

I agree with this on a theoretical level. I’m curious to see what Smith actually proposes about counter-measures that focus on our passions.


6 thoughts on “Does Victoria’s Secret have a better anthropology than the church?

  1. Pretty much exactly what John Wesley sets out as the goal of Christian life — to direct and train our “tempers” toward holy ends.

  2. I would say that Augustine and Victoria have one thing in common… they both have a tendency to sexualize women. Augustine’s view of women in “On the Trinity” splits the nature of women into two parts: homo and femina. Our femina is our sexual nature that always needs to be controlled. Therefore, we are not fully and completely made in the image of God unless we are joined together with a man.

    Of course, that’s crap. And I guess I bring it up to say, that I’m all for embracing our sexuality. But when we use VS and Augustine for our anthropology, when it comes to women, we could have the temptation to swing the other direction and reduce women to their body parts.

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