Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works James K. A. Smith (Baker Academic) $22.99 SALE PRICE $18.00 I know, I know, we haven’t even released our long-awaited awards-show column about the best books of 2012 and I’m now announcing what I’ve already declared to be one of the Best Books of 2013. Get over it. This is too important to not announce immediately.
The new book arrived just today, but I had been fortunate to be able to get an advanced manuscript of this a while ago, so have been working through it a bit. (Well, a certain family member absconded with it for a long inter-state jaunt, but I’m not bitter.) Some of the material in Imagining the Kingdom will be familiar to those of us who have followed Smith’s important arguments. He has a lot of proverbial irons in the fire — speaking and teaching and writing on all manner of things — they are of a piece, for those with Biblical ears to hear. Imagining the Kingdom is a follow-up to Desiring the Kingdom, and in both Smith covers a lot of ground: from thinking about questions of violence, the role of markets in economies, rejecting Greek dualism and embracing some of the working tools of neo-Calvinist philosophers like Dooyeweerd, his research into how cultures are formed and how ultimate concerns are embodied in institutions and social architecture. Not too many serious philosophers are as familiar with early church sources as well as contemporary Pentecostal thinkers, are conversant with Reformed theologians (older and newer, stricter and looser) and are in ecumenical discussions with, say, Church of England leaders and Orthodox theologians — and have such interests in civic life and public justice. He cites Charles Taylor and David Brooks, Stan Hauerwas and Calvin Seerveld. Further, he cites contemporary novelists and popular TV shows (alongside Proust and Wordsworth.) Happily, he tells us what music he was listening to as he wrote this new book, and it becomes clear that he not only is colored by his love for popular entertainments (Nascar!) but that he writes with an eye to helping contemporary readers enjoy his serious work. Planet of the Apes? Enough said.
Which is to say this is one heckuva book. Praise God for such a serious scholar doing this caliber of work, with such a vast horizon of interest. To cite Dutch theologians from a hundred years ago and the latest Mumford and Sons CD is just pretty darn cool. He has paid a bit of a price doing this (perhaps it is too academic with too much jargon for some and “not enough footnotes” to be taken fully seriously within the academy as deep scholarship.) He mentions this in the preface, that the first volume surely was one of these sorts of “hybrid” books.
And, there is this: this philosophical study, started in book one in the “cultural liturgies” series (Desiring the Kingdom), which explores how faith gets embodied and transmitted, in churches and even in schools and education — I’d call it worldview studies, although I realize not everyone thinks of it in those terms — now turns to the question of how worship works, and, quite specifically, how Christian liturgy works. (Ahem, as a book reader, this is the wondrous, provocative, enlightening, neato sort of thing I love; interdisciplinary studies on steroids! As a book seller, though, it is vexing. Do we shelve this under the category of worldview studies, under cultural criticism, under worship, or under liturgics? Daggone, why does God’s world have to be so dern complicated? Maybe we just need a hybrid section.
So. Worldviews are learned by rituals and habits (we learned that in the first volume) and such habits shape our affections, what we really love and desire. We may want to “occupy creation” (as he so colorfully put it at Jubilee 2012) and want to want the things that God wants in God’s world, but, alas, in a fallen and idolatrous culture, we end up being shaped to want the wrong stuff. Without a weighty counter-narrative, our lives are shaped by other stories, heard on NBC and CBS, at the local shopping mall and the DC Mall. Secular liturgies end up being thicker than most Christian ones, so it’s no wonder we choose a little Jesus and a little Donald Trump (or, if we’re astute, something less flamboyantly idolatrous.) We like our Paul and our Plato. We quote Moses but live for Mammon. Sure we go to church, but our deepest longings and identities are formed by, well, the narratives and rituals of the surrounding culture. You get the idea.
But — drum roll, please! — what if Christian worship was thick and tenacious enough to not only remind us of Who God Is, but to actually impact our heart of hearts? If we were trained in worship that causes altered affections, if our liturgies and religious rituals were strong enough to do the heavy lifting of real, live transformation? What if habits from church could orient the desires and dispositions of our lives?
Yes, I know, the best books of spiritual formation these days (not the new agey thin stuff that helps us feel gushy inside as we live like consumerists shopping for better vibes) are ecclesiastical and Christo-centric; that is, experienced in community and in the name of Jesus. But even most of these fail to adequately struggle with the formative influences of thick or thin rituals. They don’t quite start with the human condition as servants/worshipers. They fail to grapple with how worship really works on us.
So, here’s the deal: if we are fundamentally “worshiping” beings, then we need to ask how worship influences us. We need what he calls a “liturgical anthropology.” We need to realize we are not primarily shaped by our ideas, but we are pulled to, attracted by, that which we most love. Consequently, there are heady and provocative chapters such as “Erotic Comprehension,” and ruminations on “Belief and the Body” and “Incorporation and Initiation.” There are oodles of postmodern stylistic tendencies (or tics, if you don’t like ’em) like when he writes about “The iPhone-ization of our World(View)” and the important last section called “Restor(y)ing the World.” This is serious business, I might add (if plenty playful) and, as he talks about redeeming ritual, he notes that we must allow God to sanctify our perception. (Ponder that!) After all, “Re-Narration Takes Practice.”
I will review this more thoroughly later. For now, I’ve gotten well into it, and skimmed all the footnotes — wow, I’m thrilled! — and checked out the numerous sidebars which he intends as “pictures” (episodes and examples to illustrate) and the “to think about” sections which includes excursions into everything from The Kings Speech to Downton Abbey. He offers “Picturing Love and Worship in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest” and “Newman on Faith as Love.” These short sidebars are themselves (I’m not just saying this, I’m really not!) fully worth the price of the book. Brilliant!
Yes, this is Augustinian, postmodern philosophy and Reformed worldview studies and catholic liturgical reflections, social ethics and philosophical anthropology. It is, as I’ve said, the Book of the Year for 2013. Give it 11 months and tell
me if I’m wrong.
You’ll be hearing more about this in journals and magazines, from Christian Century to Christianity Today, from World to Sojourners. If your denomination has an in-house periodical, it will be reviewed. If you don’t yet have Imagining the Kingdom, the previous one, you should get it from us as soon as possible, but, if you really insist, you can dive into this one first. Don’t skip the mighty preface that sort of brings you up to speed.
Here is a long lecture which you can download and watch of Jamie at Calvin College a year ago, deftly summarizing much of the first book. Great.
Here is a long lecture about the nature of culture delivered for the Center of Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian. This is another fantastic overview of his detailed case.
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