Re-Forming the World: A Book Review of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies (Part Two)

Awaiting the King
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2017. 233 pp.

If volumes 1 and 2 of James K.A. Smith’s landmark Cultural Liturgies sequence displayed an overtly pessimistic view on a Christian engagement with culture, maybe too much Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault, then volume 3 provides the appropriately-Augustinian optimistic response. And that, in itself, is part of what makes Awaiting the King both utterly surprising and absolutely requisite reading for any student of theology and culture.

Following on the heels of his formational account of human beings, Smith reifies the central problem of a Christian account of politics: that is, that we are all-too-often co-opted by anti-formative liturgies that make us into non-Christian participants in a secular polity. Side-stepping the ridiculous rhetoric of partisanship, the lackadaisical and passive approaches of political agnosticism, and the un-bold-ness of anemic moderatism, Smith articulates a thoroughly Christian (echoing Hauerwas) account of the political (which he wisely frames as “the public”) for the sake of both re-forming the typical [Dutch] Reformed (= Kuyperian) approaches as well as challenging the nascent American political ideologies of late modernity.

Such a challenge requires great resources, and Smith draws on the best that ancient Christianity had to offer: Augustine’s City of God. Redeeming the Civitas Dei from its pigeonholed interpretations requires much close reading, but Smith manages Augustine masterfully in order to realize a far more complicated (and more helpful) vision of Christian political theology. At the end of the day, if Awaiting the King does nothing else (and it does quite a bit else), Smith has saved Augustine’s City of God from its modern reductions.

Life in the Saeculum: Contested Time versus Contested Space

One of the crucial observations that Smith brings to the fore is the tension between our typical metaphors of the political as spatial; instead, Smith presents an Augustinian view of politics as temporal, as the meeting point not of many different kinds of spaces but of many different kinds of time. For the Christian, there are not “two kingdoms” (in the Lutheran sense) but, instead, “two times”: the Now and the Not-Yet. The Now is not a “secular” space but a saeculum, a time in which the work of today is done. This allows for an eschatological re-engagement with all the preconceptions of the political.

Awaiting the King

There’s a powerful, biblical beauty to eschatological readings of politics: after all, the most rightly “political” books in the Bible are Daniel and Revelation, with a healthy reminder that Isaiah and Jeremiah are not just prophetic towards the people of Israel qua ekklesia, but also as prophetic towards the people of Israel qua polis. Of course, fundamentalists and modernists both will quail at the consequences of Smith’s eschatological re-reading: he asserts an Augustinian, even Constantinian (run for your lives!), view of the polis as ideally submitted to the eschatological Kingdom of God.

It’s a shocking thesis in late modern theology, especially for an author who asserts to be “speaking Hauerwas to the Reformed church.” Hauerwas, of course, critiques liberal democracy by reading John H. Yoder, and Yoder, of course, critiques theocratic political approaches by reading the Constantinian turn in the 4th century. It would appear that Smith is undercutting, as opposed to supporting, Hauerwas. But that would be a mis-reading of this project.

Instead, by turning back to Augustine and Constantine (the latter via the works of Peter Leithart), Smith actually provides an articulated political theology with both a Hauerwasian ecclesiology and a Constantinian politics without theocratic or theonomist or dominionist implications. This is what Smith is to be most applauded for! To articulate this in-betweenness betwixt (on the one side) Hauerwas and Yoder and (on the other side) Leithart and Augustine, Smith navigates a critique of various theories of liberal democracy (including John Rawls’ Theory of Justice) and advances Oliver O’Donovan’s theses on political theology. The result is a renewed vision of the Church qua polis, of ecclesially-centered Christian politics, and (surprisingly enough) an ardent critique of the American experiment of a churchless state and its inherent “separation” between church and state.

The Practice of Public Theology

Beyond the nuanced ecclesiology, eschatology, and political theory (all of which is quite effective), Smith also provides the outlines of a praxis of Christian public theology, with the Church, rightly, in the center. Following O’Donovan (as he does throughout; see a critique of his use of O’Donovan, below), Smith notes that the antidote for civil political engagement is not “teaching civil discourse” but actually Christian conversion. The formation of Christian disciples, the impact of “craters of the Gospel” in a civilization, literally changes the civic discourse of that civilization. With this in mind, Smith continues what I find to be the practical theological answer to the problem posed by Brueggemann’s Prophetic Imaginationhow are we, the Church, supposed to enact the imaginative powers of the Kingdom in our polity?

As I have explored elsewhere, Smith’s liturgical anthropological project allows for a vision of the Church as context for human formation, allowing for a diversity of political articulations in the midst of an orthodox center. By returning the Church to its discipleship-formative roots, by reminding us of our counter-liturgical, counter-cultural stance, Smith actually provides a practicable way for the Church to engage its political and public environment.

In fact, I am concerned that the [American] Church will continue to produce bombasts and American citizens unless it begins to recognize its spaces of contested formation as Smith has outlined here. With the tools Smith provides, we can finally begin to discern what in our liturgies and our discourses forms us as “American citizens,” and what, to the contrary, allows the Church to form citizens of the Civitas Dei. This distinctions isn’t merely important: it is central to the political witness of the Gospel.

But… … Couldn’t I Have Just Read Oliver O’Donovan?

All these laudations aside, however, I do have one major complaint with this volume, making it weaker, at the end of the day, than its predecessors. Large chunks of Awaiting the King are dedicated to block quotes or semi-paraphrased paragraphs of cited material, primarily from Oliver O’Donovan’s work (The Desire of the NationsThe Ways of Judgment) and a light sprinkling of Peter Leithart. Early on, this is tolerable as the kind of typical foundational work necessary to sustain a large and complicated argument; but about halfway into the book, I did find myself wondering whether I was reading the long-awaiting conclusion of James K.A. Smith’s trilogy or a footnote to Oliver O’Donovan’s oeuvre. There are some sections in this book that could have literally been transcribed as “Commentary and Analysis on a Few Passages from O’Donovan.”

This is disappointing because Smith has proved himself, time and again, in a wide variety of works, to be not only a winsome theologian but also a masterful rhetorician, bringing heady theology to an accessible level without overcomplicating unnecessary minutia or adding the “colloquialisms” of the academic in without explanation for an unlearned audience (although I did catch him using “always already” in its Althusserian accent once). The effect is that Awaiting the King feels like a book that was rushed to its publication without those final edits and final goings-over necessary to smooth out this overbearing quotation-heavy middle section.

Maybe our political-theological-historical situation in American Christianity merited quick response. A dying “evangelicalism” tied to political commitments finds itself faced against a resurgent progressive church building on millennial fervor; Smith’s (and O’Donovan’s) eschatologically-wise public theology is a much-needed antidote the false dichotomies and lost spiritual ground of our day and age. I can sense Smith’s editors thinking “this is the time for this book.” So, the rhetorical failure of Smith’s over-dependence on O’Donovan can be easily explained: this book needed to be published.

Still, the plethora of O’Donovan quotes really muck up the reading of the work and slow down its smoothness. (At the end of the day, O’Donovan’s tone and style are not nearly so winsome as Smith’s; and Smith’s rhetoric does not benefit from O’Donovan’s particular voice.) I would wish that the work had been given one or two more thorough readings, and that Smith had tried to better integrate O’Donovan’s speech with his own rhetoric and terms.

Final Thoughts

Smith’s overindulgence on O’Donovan and a few overwrought passages engaging theories of liberal democracy aside, Awaiting the King is a must-read for the late modern pastor, theologian, and disciple. Smith synthesizes our best political and ethical theologians — including antitheses like Hauerwas and Leithart — into his (a/e)ffective thesis of human liturgical formation for the sake of re-forming the world. In some sense, this is the politics of Schmemann’s For the Life of the World: how do Christians take our Eucharistic / priestly calling and engage the world around us with the Kingdom of God? As Smith notes at one point in a footnote, what Richard Rohr and Dallas Willard have done with private/personal spiritual disciplines, here he has accomplished a similar renewal in terms of the Church.

Here, we have a realized picture of what the Civitas Dei looks like in late modernity; and, as a pastor-theologian myself, I am excited and empowered with a vision and practical tools to actually begin to pursue the cultural-social-economic renewal of my community. This book ought be seen as a watershed for political theology, and I cannot emphasize enough that it is required reading in this day and age.

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