Review of Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith

Summary

Desiring the KingdomJames K. A. Smith sets out to present a vision of what a distinctively Christian education should look like. Without discarding the importance of what Christians think (worldview), he argues that authentic Christian learning ought to focus primarily on the formation of Christian desires (‘social imaginary’). In short, Smith argues that Christian education is more about formation than information, more about what one loves than what one knows. Practically speaking, distinctively Christian education should mean much more than merely teaching what is taught at any other university, but just from a Christian worldview. Rather, Christian education should be fundamentally rooted in liturgical worship as that discipline which forms students’ desires. Thus, he describes this educational ideal as ‘ecclesial,’ rooted in formative liturgical worship.

Smith’s philosophy of education is based on an understanding of worship, which is rooted in a specific anthropology. Therefore, although his main goal is to present a philosophy of education, his work has much broader implications for areas such as anthropology and corporate worship.

Smith begins his case by presenting an anthropology, because one’s view on education (and worship) is intrinsically linked to one’s understanding of the nature of man. Whereas the prevalent Christian anthropology seems to view man as primarily a thinking or believing creature, Smith argues that man is primarily a lover or desirer. Man’s decisions and behavior is primarily oriented by desire, what he loves, a vision of the ‘good life’ and a corresponding longing for it.

Because man is a bodily creature (not an abstract mind), his desires are formed by bodily habits, rituals, or what Smith—in order to show the high stakes involved in such practices—calls ‘liturgies.’ As he sums up, “Liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (25). Thus, practices are prioritized over ideas.

Embedded within the Christian liturgy is a certain vision of the ‘good life.’ Therefore, liturgies sculpt our vision of the ‘good life,’ or our ‘social imaginary’ as Smith calls it, and affect our behaviors which are primarily motivated by our pursuit of that ‘good life.’

This sort of desire-forming education is occurring everywhere. Society is chocked full of these ‘liturgies.’ For example, the ‘liturgy of the mall’ with its sites, smells, and rituals forms consumerism-materialism desires in its participants. The ‘liturgy of American nationalism’ seeks to form an uncritical patriotic loyalty to American nationalistic ideology. The list of such ‘cultural liturgies’ is seemingly endless. And, as a result, individuals desperately need a reeducation, a counter-education. Corporate worship, specifically Christian liturgy with its embedded ‘social imaginary,’ serves this counter-formative function by shaping our desires to the kingdom.

But Smith claims that due to the reductionist anthropology—man as primarily cognitive; lack of emphasis on bodily nature—prevalent in evangelicalism, the church suffers. First, she often fails to recognize these influential cultural ‘liturgies’ because they are not on her ‘worldview’ radar. Second, she fails to offer a sufficient counter-liturgy to these secular liturgies because of her preoccupation with the mind to the neglect of people as bodily creatures.

Evaluation

Criticism

jkasmithscroppedFirst, part of Smith’s thesis is that other competing anthropologies (e.g., the person as primarily a thinker or believer) are reductionistic. However, although that is likely, I would argue that Smith seems to fall into that same trap of reductionism when he claims that man is primarily a lover or desirer. Smith rightly emphasizes that man is a desirer and therefore provides a needful reminder and helpful corrective to the potential reductionism of other models. But Smith seems to underestimate how much man is also a thinker and believer and how central belief and thought are to people’s decisions and behavior. I can attest from my own experience that, when certain theological paradigm shifts occurred in my thoughts and beliefs, they had significant and noticeable practical results in my life. Or again, at times when my desires are misguided, my beliefs and values can overrule them, keeping my actions in check.

This is not to downplay much of Smith’s point, however. Understanding man as significantly (even if not primarily) a desirer helps fill in some of the voids of a purely ‘man as thinker’ or ‘believer’ anthropology.

But I’m not satisfied with the simplicity (reductionism) of Smith’s anthropology. Mankind is (1) more complex and messy than that; and (2) individuals are more unique than that. First, rather than viewing these foundational, orienting aspects of man’s nature (e.g., desire, thought, belief) in terms of a hierarchal relationship (i.e., “man is primarily _____”), it seems better to view them as interconnected and mutually-influencing. One might adapt Grant Osborne’s ‘hermeneutical spiral’ into an ‘anthropological spiral.’ Second, I would want to allow for more variation from person to person than I believe Smith’s model allows. Although all of mankind has some foundational similarities, for different individuals, beliefs, thoughts, and desires will carry more or less weight.

Second, I believe Smith seems to overestimate the effectiveness of liturgy to form participants. He argues that embedded in the Christian liturgy are certain theological truths as well as a certain vision of the ‘social imaginary.’ I agree with him, which is why I find much of what he says rather attractive. However, I question his confidence in how well such an embedded, implicit, unstated, and often times unobvious theology and vision of the ‘good life’ is transferred to the participant.

If a participant can understand the significance of certain liturgical elements, I see great value in them (e.g., the Lord’s Super explained and administered). This does not mean that actions cannot effectively communicate and install values a part from verbal explanation (for example, children often adopt the unstated but practiced values of their parents). But, whenever these unstated, implicit, embedded elements actually do impact the participant, the key factor seems to be a very close connection between the embedded element and the practice itself. For example, the ‘liturgy of the mall’ is effective because its message—consumption equals happiness—is closely tied to its actions. Its vision of the ‘good life’ is not distant from its ‘liturgical’ practice. In terms of corporate worship liturgies, I ask, How deeply embedded are these embedded theological truths and vision of the ‘good life’? How close is the connection between the embedded element and its corresponding practice? From personal experience in liturgical churches and interaction with many others who grew up in liturgical churches, I’m not entirely convinced that these embedded elements are so immediately and vibrantly entrenched in their practices that they will be as effectively transferred to participants as Smith would have his readers believe.

Third, I find his notion that worship precedes and forms belief both unconvincing and troublesome. Certainly, it is true that the early church worshiped before it articulated its doctrines in the form of ecumenical creeds. But this is not the same thing as worship preceding and ultimately being what forms theology. So, yes, the early church did worship Christ before they formally articulated a view of Christ who was worthy of that worship—Christ is divine. But this is not the same thing as saying the early church’s worship is ultimately what produced such a Christology. Worship preceded theological articulation; but the actual person and work of Christ (theology) preceded that worship.

Further, theological articulation in the early church was largely born out of the church’s response to heresy. It would be a mistake to assume that because such theological articulation came so ‘late in the game’ compared to worship that such articulation was ultimately born out of that worship. More accurately, orthodox theology existed from the time of the apostles and was articulated in response to various heresies as they emerged.

Smith’s notion that worship precedes and forms theology is dangerous because it undermines Christianity’s exclusive truth-claims based on divine revelation. If theology (truth-claims) emerge out of worship, than worship, not divine revelation, serves as the basis for the truth-claims of the Christian faith. Further, according to this view, a variety of worship would produce a variety of theologies. Such a plurality seemingly has no boundaries unless arbitrarily implemented. Thus, Christianity looses its distinctive exclusive claim to truth.

Nonetheless, Smith is right to note that worship does shape our theological understanding. For example, I’ve witnessed a largely theologically wishy-washy and ambiguous contemporary Christian music scene produce a generation of individuals with vague, unsubstantial, cliché, ungrounded, and misguided theology. As such, in my opinion, worship has ironically been one of the most, if not the most, damaging effects on my generation of Christians. This music has played a significant role in producing a generation that lacks biblical and theological discernment. Worship is theologically formative; and Smith’s argument is worth considering deeply at this point.

Praise

Despite these critiques, I found Smith’s book to be helpfully provocative in a variety of ways. First, Smith opened my eyes to a world of ‘cultural liturgies.’ After reading this book, I found myself finding such ‘liturgies’ everywhere. But the value in reading this book wasn’t that I learned how to identify so-called ‘cultural liturgies,’ but that I was awakened to the reality of how influenced one is by these rituals of society. Smith does well to call these societal practices ‘liturgies.’ That term does raise the stakes of what goes on in these rituals, and rightly so. Christian’s are naïve to evaluate the surrounding culture merely in terms of its message, worldview, morals, and values. Christians must critique cultural ‘liturgies’ that seek to shape desires towards something other than the kingdom of God.

Second, Smith presented well the value and appeal of liturgy. I never felt more attracted to liturgy than when I was reading this book. Some time prior to reading this book I had come to the realization that every church service has a ‘liturgy’ whether it’s a technical liturgy or not. A ‘way things are done’ always exists no matter how ‘high’ or ‘low’ the church is. What Smith makes clear is that everything that is done in a service communicates some value(s), some theology, some vision of the ‘good life.’ Therefore, I conclude, if every church service inevitably has some ‘liturgy’ of sorts, it might as well be a good, intentional, thought-out one.

Therefore, although I would resist the idea of a prescribed liturgy as something prescribed beyond scripture, what I take away from Smith is a challenge to be intention about every detail of the corporate worship service. What does this particular element communicate about our understanding of God, the human condition, our salvation, the nature of this world, society, etc. What values and vision of God’s kingdom are embedded in this or that aspect of the service?

Further, Smith helpfully explains that such corporate worship elements (whether we want to call them ‘liturgical’ or not) are counter-formative to the ‘secular liturgies’ of our society. In particular, I am challenged to think of ways to conduct corporate worship in such a way that resists the individualism, consumerism, present-ism (i.e., no sense of a historic Christian community), localism (i.e., no sense of a global Christian community), and passive audience-mentality that pervades much American corporate worship.

Third, Smith provides a helpful call to a more holistic approach to corporate worship. He’s right; much of evangelicalism has become preoccupied with the mind while corresponding neglecting the bodily nature of our existence. I feel challenged to explore how one could formulate a corporate worship experience that engages a broader range of the worshiper’s faculties and senses while nonetheless not diminishing the centrality of the scripture. Certainly a greater emphasis on the Lord’s Supper is one way to do this.

This challenge for a more holistic approach seems to relate to the existence of different learning styles (e.g., audio, visual, verbal, behavioral, etc.) and personality types among members in a given congregation. Engaging a fuller range of human faculties appeals to the different learning styles. Or, for example, intentionally incorporating the full range of Biblical genres could be compared to exposing oneself to a well balanced diet; the different genres of scripture have varying appeals to different aspects of our personhood (e.g., some are more rational, others more emotive). And with different personality types in a given congregation (e.g., those who are more emotional versus those who are more rational) an exposure to the full range of Biblical genres would be healthy for a church.

Conclusion

In closing, despite my various qualms and concerns, I found this book incredibly fascinating, challenging, thought provoking, and very helpful. Smith’s message is incredibly perceptive and impressively exposing of blind spot after blind spot. This book is a ‘paradigm-shifter.’

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