Matt's Reviews > Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith
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's review
Jun 15, 2011

really liked it
Read in June, 2011

James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom lays siege to the church’s current approach to worldview training. He says our current fascination with worldview is dominated by a philosophical emphasis that tends to overlook the body and the imagination. Man is treated like “a brain in a vat” rather than as the embodied lover God made him. This leads to an impoverishment of the church and the Christian life and surrender to the world, the flesh, and the devil. Smith seeks to redirect his readers into culture building through the church’s ancient liturgy. He argues that the liturgical practices of the church are full-bodied culture builders that can direct our desires, order our loves, and train our habits for fuller expressions of the kingdom. I think there is much to praise here but also some cautions that Smith shouldn’t have “thrown to the wind.” More about that below. One caution: I found Smith’s book is so provocative and challenging, I couldn’t help writing a longer review essay than a mere review of his ideas.

Smith specifically takes aim at his own reformed tradition which tends to be idea driven instead of practice driven. The reformed tradition tends to view the person as a container of ideas that issue forth in actions, rather than a passionate person formed by practices first and that issue in propositions later. Smith even sees in the reformed emphasis on “basic beliefs” that undergird ideas something more akin to propositions than passions. He fears that this approach, advocated by the highly respected Plantinga, Wolterstorff, and Dooyeweerd also reduces Christianity to a “belief system.” This reduction tends to ignore our the role of the body and makes the faith something that can be mediated outside the church (45). Smith argues that love is the basic human orientation to the world. Man is primarily a lover and secondarily a thinker or believer. Affections are more basic than thoughts, ideas, and propositions.

This is provocative for someone like me who was raised in a rebellion against liturgy. In my circles tradition was out and being "led by the Spirit" was in. This implied, of course, that either our forebears weren't led by the Spirit or the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing or both. I suspect it was both. I later moved toward the intellectual approach which could also denigrate the liturgical as a mindless “going through the motions.” I have since come to appreciate the benefit of time tested liturgy. Smith goes one further by arguing that all of life is liturgical. It is liturgical in that it consists of practices both thick and thin that train our desires. Thick ones are like the Lord's Supper, and thin ones are like brushing your teeth or checking for ticks. These direct our loves, and thus form us as people. The thick practices obviously have a greater impact on who we are. Smith argues that all of life is sacramental but the sacraments themselves are a God ordained intensification of the sacramental order into an act of special grace.

Smith convincingly reveals the liturgies of the mall, media, and market for what they are: training grounds for a kingdom other than the Kingdom of God. Far from innocent, they are "secular liturgies," fine tuned and field tested by media elites and advertisers. They are designed to make us want to dispose of what we have in discontent and purchase the new and the novel. These liturgies tend to express our fallenness and often participate in the demonic. For instance, it is not so subtly suggested to young men that if they mist some axe body spray over themselves beautiful young girls will throw themselves at them. Not only must we be aware of our culture if we don't want to be manipulated by it, but we must also reform it so that we will be reformed in turn. It turns out that, according to Smith, the evangelical and Reformed churches haven’t been as effective as the consumer culture at speaking to the heart and shaping desire.

As mentioned, Smith targets the current evangelical approach to worldview education, because it treats man like a brain walking around in an earth-suit. Smith says our approach to Christian worldview development is overly intellectual and cognitive. Smith's critique is based upon his argument that man is primarily a lover and secondarily a philosopher. We feel, sense, and "love before we know" (70). We imagine before we theorize (66, 134). One might say that worldview is "more caught than taught." Smith says worldview is visceral, running off of sense impressions from the body that fuel the imagination. Only a small percentage of worldview is usually processed by reason. It is also the case that while Christian truth forms Christian practice, our rational understanding and articulation of that truth comes later. Smith does not denigrate the cognitive mind. After all his book is an intellectual tour-de-force which aims to make us better appreciate what is going on in secular and sacred liturgies. His argument is that the teachings of the Christian faith are embedded in the practices and this is gradually discovered intellectually as reason matures. Thus God-ordained worship is the font of personal worldview (136). Visions of the kingdom are implicit in the liturgies (121). He argues that the proper use of the intellect is to deepen our understanding of the liturgical. We can reflect on and reform the liturgy as Smith encourages us to do. For instance, Smith asks us to consider what is going on when we go to the mall.

A walk through the mall presents one with sights, sounds, and smells. It also sends messages and puts us through motions that appeal to the whole person. The mall says fix it not through "confession but in consumption." Smith comments, "implicit in those visual icons of success, happiness, pleasure, and fulfillment is a stabbing albeit unarticulated recognition that that's not me" (96). But it can be me, if I proceed to the altar to complete my worship experience with transaction overseen by a high priest of consumerism professionally trained to pull it off with a smile and a tease for next time.

Smith argues that thick cultural practices, like going to the mall, train our hearts through casting a spell over our imaginations. The body is not unconnected to what we think, contra Kant and the Enlightenment. Smith asserts, and I think rightly, that bodily practices activate and animate our imagination. The heart is trained by the disciplines of the body. Meanwhile, Smith points out, the church tries to extinguish the lust consuming our hearts by pouring water on our heads. He says that we need to develop habits of daily worship in private, in our churches, schools, and families (211). Smith is giving us what he calls a "methodological jolt" by switching us from worldview beliefs to worldview practices and thus liturgies (93). He actually prefers the term "social imaginary" to worldview, but I'm afraid its not nearly as catchy.

Smith emphasizes, a la St. Augustine, that man is a lover and his loves need to be ordered. Smith understands liturgies as rituals that form and direct our loves. His recipe for reordered love through liturgical practices travels through three institutions: the church, the school, and the family. He points to the church as the cultural center of the kingdom that orders our loves under God. Quoting Witvliet, Smith refers to the Bible and worship as "God's language school" that "challenges us to practice forms of faithful speech to God that we are not likely to try on our own. Authentic worship, like toddler talk, expresses who we are and forms what we are becoming" (172). Smith is saying that if we want to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength we must do liturgy. We must kneel, fold our hands, confess, pray, stand, lift our arms, sing, dance, hear, see water trickle over an infant’s head, take, eat, touch, smell, drink, open, read, write, reason, praise, smile, shake hands, hug, and give thanks.

With respect to education, Smith quotes Stanley Hauerwas who said that “every education is a moral formation.” This means that the idea of a secular education that conveys information without formation is a myth. Smith calls for the Christian university to be the ecclesial university. Medieval universities were founded by the church and served as extensions of the church into the world. Today's secular university is, quoting Hauerwas, "the great institution of legitimation in modernity whose task is to convince us that the way thing are is the way things have to be" (221). Smith is refreshing in calling for a radical reformation of Christian universities. “The Christian university should not only be born but also nourished ex corde ecclesiae, ‘from the heart of the church’.” This would include “baptismal renunciations of what the surrounding culture might consider 'excellence’ ” (221). This means the "ecclesial university curriculum" will not look like that of the secular state university "plus Jesus" (220-222). In fact, it might not even ensure its students' success in a world formed by secular liturgies. Smith wants us to consider whether we are willing to pay the price for a truly Christian education.

Smith cites David McCarthy who refers to the family the “domestic church” (212, n. 129). The church is the “first family” that defines our homes and opens them to those to whom Christ ministered. In most Christian traditions, as soon as a child is born into a Christian family, he is baptized by the church. Smith calls baptism a subversive sacrament that, in the words of McCarthy, "establishes a communion that qualifies our relationships of birth" (186). This flies in the face of the modern idols of choice and democracy. Smith points out that since the Enlightenment freedom has been increasingly defined in terms of the mere act of choosing. Historically and biblically freedom has more to do with the ability to choose the good. Modernity has reduced freedom to the mere exercise of the will, because moral authorities, like the church, which define the good have been pushed to the margins of society. The problem with the modern definition is that it ironically leaves us with much less freedom. Smith cites research indicating "that only about 5 percent of our daily activity is the product of conscious, intentional actions that we 'choose'" (81). We simply find ourselves immersed in a life already given to us. Most of us do not choose to live the life of a commuter. We simply accept that lifestyle as a fact of our modern existence. To choose otherwise requires a deliberate countercultural move. Similarly Baptism is an act of grace that says you have begun your formation as a child of God, and it puts the baptized in an antithetical relationship to the world. It shows us that we don't choose the church, but it chooses us as part of the saving arm of God. We can choose otherwise, but only after the fact.

Desiring the Kingdom is a rich mine of truth, but even the richest mines yield some dross when refined by the word of God. Smith seems to be drinking from the font of secular liturgy by using "she" instead of "he" when it could be either sex. Smith thus breaks with Scripture's practice of assuming that a female is not necessarily negated by the masculine pronoun but protected under male headship. So it is no surprise when he also refers to ordained ministers as "she" breaking with the Bible's prohibition of women exercising that office of authority over men. For all the honor Smith pays to Scripture, he doesn't permeate his own words with the Word like one might expect. While he does use the Bible he doesn’t avail himself of the abundance of biblical texts about culture building. The "Shema" of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 would make his point in spades, but Smith doesn't turn his points on that sturdy hinge. Smith is more of a philosopher, but if Scripture is supposed to be the standard, as he says, it ought to be raised a bit more and its habits of speech imitated.

Smith is clearly for more liturgy in worship not less. He shows us that we shouldn’t be afraid of this since life is inescapably liturgical. He also encourages us to embrace the imagination since the liturgical works on the imagination first and most. But he goes on to say that this happens “without having to kick into a mode of cerebral reflection” (167). He recognizes that some people may be scandalized by the implication that liturgies work “ex opere operato” or “by the mere performance of ritual.” He admits that he thinks this is true though not ideal. Indeed, I know of many liturgical churches whose membership tends to have little passion for knowing and applying Scripture to their personal lives. They seem to assume that the liturgy takes care of all their spiritual needs, and their lives tend to resemble the world around them. I also know churches who aren’t known for being liturgical, and yet they have created a vibrant biblical culture where members personally apply the Bible to their lives and the world around them. Smith talks about those who wander into the world but are awakened by a liturgical memory and return to the church. Praise the Lord this happens, but nominal Christianity that issues in backsliding until the eleventh hour is FAR from ideal.

The goal of the Christian life is increasing levels of spiritual maturity as we mature physically and mentally. This means that as our rational capacities develop, rational understanding of what we love and believe should grow. Smith fails to emphasize that the intellectual appropriation of the liturgy represents a primary goal of Christian maturity. He also fails to use the intellectual appropriation of the liturgy as a safeguard against the nominal and passive Christianity that often attends highly liturgical churches. I agree that we need more liturgy, but we need to avoid the opposite error of being merely liturgical. The church must be vigilant in teaching the meaning of liturgy and that it must be personally received by a proactive, reasoning faith “until we all reach unity … in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

All things considered, Smith's scholarship is good and his call for Christian scholarship to "emerge from the matrix of worship" is much needed. We do need to return to the liturgical without becoming passive. We must use it to invigorate our imaginations and develop our reason. He promises to take the conversation further in future works, and I must say that I'm looking forward to them with my heart, soul, mind, and strength.
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