Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

James K. A. Smith Baker Academic, Grand Rapids February 15, 2013
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Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and a prolific writer on issues of Christian spirituality and culture. This volume is the second of a trilogy of works on a liturgical theology of culture.

The introduction sets the trajectory of the book. Smith explains, “The renewal of the church and the Christian university—a renewal of both Christian worship and Christian education—hinges on an understanding of human beings as ‘liturgical animals,’ creatures who can’t not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices. The reason such liturgies are so formative is precisely because it is these liturgies, whether Christian or ‘secular,’ that shape what we love. And we are what we love” (pp. 3–4). The heart of Smith’s argument is this: “Because we are liturgical animals who are defined by what we love, and because our loves and desires are primed and shaped by formative practices, then a holistic model of Christian education—whether in the church, school, or university—needs to involve a pedagogy of desire. Such a pedagogy is not merely a conduit for disseminating information; a pedagogy of desire is a strategy for formation” (p. 12). Of worship he writes, “Worship isn’t a weekly retreat from reality into some escapist enclave; it is our induction into ‘the real world.’ Worship is the space in which we learn to take the right things for granted precisely so we can bear witness to the world that is to come and, in the power of the Spirit’s transformation, labor to make and remake God’s world in accord with his desires for creation” (pp. 2–3).

The first part of the book develops a theology of the body, a liturgical anthropology, rooted in the works of “phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty and social theorist Pierre Bourdieu” (p. 29). Although necessary and helpful, some readers will find this section difficult to follow, especially in comparison with what follows, which applies the theory to the practice of worship. In particular Smith unpacks “the centrality of the imagination and the importance of the arts in sanctifying our perception for the sake of Christian action—for the sake of the kingdom” (p. 102).

       The final chapter, “Restor(y)ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission,” is worth the price of the book. It should be required reading for everyone who is involved in the mission of God in the world. It really is that good.

Smith begins, “Christian worship and formation, as practices of divine action, culminate in Christian action—being sent as ambassadors of another ‘city,’ as witnesses to kingdom come, to live and act communally as a people who embody a foretaste of God’s shalom” (pp. 151–52). He later explains, “And so we arrive at the crux of my argument. We gather to be sent, and we are sent to do—to undertake Christian action that participates in the mission Dei. ‘Mission’ then is just shorthand to describe what it is for Christians to pursue their vocations to the glory of God and in ways that are oriented to the shalom of the kingdom” (p. 157). One implication of Smith’s liturgical theology is this: “We don’t just need teachers and preachers and scholars and ‘doctors’ of the church to tell us what to do; if the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perception we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently—and hence perceive differently and so act differently” (p. 163).

He continues, “On the other hand, we need to be regularly immersed in the ‘true story of the whole world’; that is, our imaginations need to be restored, recalibrated, and realigned by an affective immersion in the story of God in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (ibid.). This is so, he explains, because “Christian practices are not just practices that Christians do; they are those practices that ‘carry’ the true Story of the whole world as articulated in the Scriptures, centered on Christ. . . . We need to learn the true Story ‘by heart,’ at a gut level, and let it seep into our background in order then to shape our perception of the world. And that happens primarily and normatively in the practices of Christian worship—provided that the practices of Christian worship intentionally carry, embody, enact, and rehearse the normative shape of the Christian Story” (ibid.).

Because of this conviction about worship and mission as embodied spiritual formation, Smith believes that “we need to raise a critical, and perhaps uncomfortable, point: form matters—not because of any traditionalism or conservative preservation of the status quo, but precisely because, as Bourdieu showed us, there is a logic to a practice that is unarticulated but nonetheless has a ‘coherent’ sense about it. Form matters because it is the form of worship that tells the Story (or better, enacts the Story)” (p. 168). Smith explains that his position is not merely that both form and function matter, but even “more radical than that,” he argues, “in some significant sense we need to eschew the form/content distinction” (p. 169).

Finally, in his discussion of the forms of liturgy, Smith warns, “we should beware of ‘the heresy of paraphrase’ ” (p. 171). By this he means that the meaning of liturgy is “ineluctably bound up with its form and is not reducible to what can be propositionalized or paraphrased” (p. 172). This leads to a further helpful insight: “If Christian worship is going to be formalized, it has to be repetitive. Secular liturgies already know this; yet Christians, especially Protestants, can be suspicious of such ‘ritualized’ repetition. But we need not be. God has created us as creatures of habit and meets us where we are” (p. 185).

This is an excellent book, a profound theological evaluation of worship. It should be required reading for every pastor or minister, especially those who lead worship. But any Christian worshipper will find the insights challenging, stimulating, and encouraging. The story of “a middle-aged man named Alex” has particular impact and illustrates perfectly the central thesis of the second half of the book powerfully and perfectly (pp. 184–85). Read this book.

—Glenn R. Kreider

October 1, 2014
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2014 vol. 171 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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