Featured: DESIRING THE KINGDOM by James K.A. Smith [Vol. 2, #39]

October 2, 2009

 

“Imagining the Shape
of our Life Together”

A Review of
Desiring The Kingdom:
Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation
.

by James K.A. Smith.

Reviewed by Brent Aldrich.

Desiring The Kingdom:
Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation
.

James K.A. Smith.
Volume #1 in the Cultural Liturgies Series.
Paperback: Baker Academic, 2009.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

James K. A. Smith’s new book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation comes at a timely moment. Having moved directly in my reading from Empire Illusion – reviewed in these pages – which offers an indicting critique of the illusory narratives that dominate identity in this country, there is nonetheless, at the end, still the hope that in love we can move beyond empty myths of consumption, power, nationalism, or the like. Desiring the Kingdom begins with the affirmation that it is only in love that we become human; as this love is directed toward the kingdom of God and the reconciliation of all things, we begin to live into the kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ By first recognizing that “to be human is to desire ‘the kingdom,’ some version of the kingdom…that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the god life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing” (54), Smith continues to describe formation as embodied practices and liturgies directed toward love’s telos.
To begin with, it must be said that although Smith contextualizes this book as a vision of ‘Christian education,’ it seems as if it has much importance for imagining the shape of life together for congregations and church communities. Indeed, I could easily see the wisdom of Desiring the Kingdom for Englewood Christian Church in our shared life together. This is an important book for its clear articulation of the telos of the church; certainly one related discussion is education, but the rich liturgies described within could inform any facet of the multi-sided work of the church.
Smith’s first task is establishing an understanding of the ‘person-as-lover,’ “intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire” (62). The kardia, which Smith usually translates as gut, the “embodied heart” becomes a corrective for oft-disembodied ‘worldviews.’ Building especially on Augustine to develop a model of humans as lovers, Smith continues with the language of the “social imaginary;” that is, an understanding that as humans we act into a particular image of the world: “how we imagine the world before we ever think about it…a vision of and for social life” (66).
The telos of love, then, is embodied in specific rituals, practices, and liturgies. By adopting ‘religious’ language, Smith serves two purposes: one is to show other cultural institutions for what they are, namely, powers with religious commitments intending toward a variety of ends. And so the mall, the military, and American nationalism become prime examples of embodied cultural liturgies: the liturgy of nationalism, for example is “a particular vision of human flourishing as material prosperity and ownership…and a sense that competition and even violence is inscribed into the nature of the world” (107). Describing cultural practices and institutions as such, their telos is identified as markedly other than the kingdom of God.
The second purpose of expanding the language of liturgy beyond a Sunday service, though, is to suggest an ordering of the world in which everything is charged with the immanence of the kingdom. All practices derive their significance from the liturgies of the gathered body, but then these practices become liturgical and formative as well. As Wendell Berry writes, “there are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places” (from Given). Comparing Berry’s language with Smith’s, the “desecrated places” may be similar to “misdirected love,” while the sacred truly is the in-breaking kingdom of God, echoing Psalm 24: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” As the Ekklesia Project reminds us, “formation happens,”  the question is: into what are we being formed?
The gathered worship of the church is then described as the ‘deepest,’ most significant liturgy for Christians, performed with specific, embodied, earthy practices. Going through historic practices of Christian worship, Smith narrates the telos of each as indicating specific characteristics of the kingdom: hospitality, reconciliation, economics, and on. This chapter closes with brief suggestions of “practices beyond Sunday,” which I must say, could be expanded upon greatly (and thus, I’m eager for Volumes 2 and 3 of this Cultural Liturgies series). Smith remains clear that he sees “the sacramental intensity of liturgical practices…provides a center of gravity that then orients and nourishes other Christian practices, which are extensions of latent possibilities for practice in Christian worship” (213).
The closing chapter returns to the Christian university, which, although I have a small interest (only inasmuch as I have been through and currently teach at a university, albeit not ‘Christian’), the chapter seems best read as one particular expression of a practice that could be informed and enriched by the fullness of the gathered liturgy, as well as understanding education as liturgy with a telos of its own. Other expressions of the church (I think of work I’ve been involved in, whether housing, gardening, mowing, publishing or even book reviewing) can draw on the same wealth.  I would submit Desiring the Kingdom to the church as an important text for helping us understand the shape of the kingdom embodied in our midst.

DESIRING THE KINGDOM - JKA Smith

James K. A. Smith’s new book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation comes at a timely moment. Having moved directly in my reading from Chris’ Hedges Empire of Illusion – reviewed in these pages – which offers an indicting critique of the illusory narratives that dominate identity in this country, there is nonetheless, at the end, still the hope that in love we can move beyond empty myths of consumption, power, nationalism, or the like. Desiring the Kingdom begins with the affirmation that it is only in love that we become human; as this love is directed toward the kingdom of God and the reconciliation of all things, we begin to live into the kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ By first recognizing that “to be human is to desire ‘the kingdom,’ some version of the kingdom…that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the god life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing” (54), Smith continues to describe formation as embodied practices and liturgies directed toward love’s telos.

To begin with, it must be said that although Smith contextualizes this book as a vision of ‘Christian education,’ it seems as if it has much importance for imagining the shape of life together for congregations and church communities. Indeed, I could easily see the wisdom of Desiring the Kingdom for Englewood Christian Church in our shared life together. This is an important book for its clear articulation of the telos of the church; certainly one related discussion is education, but the rich liturgies described within could inform any facet of the multi-sided work of the church.

Smith’s first task is establishing an understanding of the ‘person-as-lover,’ “intentional creatures whose fundamental way of ‘intending’ the world is love or desire” (62). The kardia, which Smith usually translates as gut, the “embodied heart” becomes a corrective for oft-disembodied ‘worldviews.’ Building especially on Augustine to develop a model of humans as lovers, Smith continues with the language of the “social imaginary;” that is, an understanding that as humans we act into a particular image of the world: “how we imagine the world before we ever think about it…a vision of and for social life” (66).

The telos of love, then, is embodied in specific rituals, practices, and liturgies. By adopting ‘religious’ language, Smith serves two purposes: one is to show other cultural institutions for what they are, namely, powers with religious commitments intending toward a variety of ends. And so the mall, the military, and American nationalism become prime examples of embodied cultural liturgies: the liturgy of nationalism, for example is “a particular vision of human flourishing as material prosperity and ownership…and a sense that competition and even violence is inscribed into the nature of the world” (107). Describing cultural practices and institutions as such, their telos is identified as markedly other than the kingdom of God.

The second purpose of expanding the language of liturgy beyond a Sunday service, though, is to suggest an ordering of the world in which everything is charged with the immanence of the kingdom. All practices derive their significance from the liturgies of the gathered body, but then these practices become liturgical and formative as well. As Wendell Berry writes, “there are no unsacred places; / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places” (from Given). Comparing Berry’s language with Smith’s, the “desecrated places” may be similar to “misdirected love,” while the sacred truly is the in-breaking kingdom of God, echoing Psalm 24: “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” As the Ekklesia Project reminds us, “formation happens,”  the question is:  into what are we being formed?

The gathered worship of the church is then described as the ‘deepest,’ most significant liturgy for Christians, performed with specific, embodied, earthy practices. Going through historic practices of Christian worship, Smith narrates the telos of each as indicating specific characteristics of the kingdom: hospitality, reconciliation, economics, and on. This chapter closes with brief suggestions of “practices beyond Sunday,” which I must say, could be expanded upon greatly (and thus, I’m eager for Volumes 2 and 3 of this Cultural Liturgies series). Smith remains clear that he sees “the sacramental intensity of liturgical practices…provides a center of gravity that then orients and nourishes other Christian practices, which are extensions of latent possibilities for practice in Christian worship” (213).

The closing chapter returns to the Christian university, which, although I have a small interest (only inasmuch as I have been through and currently teach at a university, albeit not ‘Christian’), the chapter seems best read as one particular expression of a practice that could be informed and enriched by the fullness of the gathered liturgy, as well as understanding education as liturgy with a telos of its own. Other expressions of the church (I think of work I’ve been involved in, whether housing, gardening, mowing, publishing or even book reviewing) can draw on the same wealth.  I would submit Desiring the Kingdom to the church as an important text for helping us understand the shape of the kingdom embodied in our midst.