Re-Imagining the World (and Re-Enchanting It): A Book Review of James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies

Desiring the Kingdom
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2009. 238 pp. 

Imagining the Kingdom
James K.A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2013. 198 pp.

This book review begins long before I stumbled upon James K.A. Smith’s landmark Cultural Liturgies project. For me, the questions of worldview-versus-epistemology, intellect-versus-romance, propositional-versus-sentimental (in pedagogy) have hounded me for my entire academic career. Early on in my bachelor degree days, I stumbled upon a little-known short story from the fantasy master George MacDonald called “The Golden Key.” In it, a young man named Mossy discovers an eponymous key that allows him an ease of traversing a spiritual-emotional-Bildungsroman-like journey across time and space and different dimensions of reality, through our world and Fairyland. Even when I first read that story, now nearly eight years ago (coincidentally, since the first volume of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies was published), I had a sense that MacDonald was rejecting our rationalist presuppositions regarding matters such as faith, knowledge, or even truth. The “golden key” doesn’t translate nicely as “propositional knowledge”; it doesn’t make sense as the kind of thing one can learn by being told about it. Instead, Mossy has to wander out in the woods, near Fairyland, to find it.

The story stuck with me. In 2015, I began a master’s degree in the humanities, and I proposed a thesis on “The Golden Key” (MacDonald as far-too neglected a voice in Victorian literature, given his great influence). Throughout my readings and my research, I stumbled upon, time and again, MacDonald’s insistence on the centrality of the imagination. In a particularly sublime passage in an essay called “The Imagination,” MacDonald claims: “the imagination of man is made in the image of the imagination of God.” Slowly, I began to realize that the “golden key” was never to be understood as some psychoanalytical signifier (as one Freudian-Lacanian interlocutor insisted), but as an emblem representing MacDonald’s imaginative pedagogy. He did not think of education as primarily the “downloading of information” into a child’s brain; he saw that the best education ought to be the training and encouraging of the flourishing of that child’s imagination. In a sense, this is the maxim that MacDonald lived his life by; in his time he was far more well-known for his works of fantasy and fairy tale than for his sermons and essays.

For the Sake of the Christian University…

At its onset, James K.A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project purports to be “simply” about the question of Christian education. Smith, after all, is not just a continental philosopher, nor a Dutch Reformed theologian, nor an affable cultural critic; first and foremost (as he self-discloses), he is a teacher, and he is a teacher at not just any Christian institution but, specifically, one inspired by the cultural manifestos of Abraham Kuyper.

There’s something bugging Smith. (Hint: it’s probably in the Derrida he drank with his coffee.) In Christian education circles, the conversation keeps coming around and around to the problem of “worldview.” “How,” asks the Christian pedagogical leaders of today, “can we provide our students with a more thoroughly-Christian worldview?” And, so, the curriculum-masters continue to hedge and hedge their teachings with more and more worldview-materials, with the hopes that the Christian students they will have formed through their courses will end up, on the flip side, as better, more thoroughly-developed Christians.

The question of method, of course, is never brought up. For these courses, certain presuppositions on how one ought to “learn a worldview” are generally accepted, presuppositions which suggest, for instance, that one walks as a better, more sanctified Christian person primarily by “gaining knowledge,” by “taking in information,” by “studying.” The fight for “worldviews” begins in the mind and, in some senses, ends in the mind. This assumption, I should add, constitutes the basic intellectualist culture that we North American Christians take for granted. Read the news, follow the headlines: all of the discourses (including political!) aim at “revealing” the “truth” to those who are “ignorant.”

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But, as Smith rightly observes early on in Desiring the Kingdom, despite this commonly-held assumption, there are others forces at play. While our intellectualist assumptions tell us that we live based on what we believe and that what we believe constitutes the arena of our spiritual-emotional combat, the powers-that-be are actually marshaling a different set of principles to form us into a different kind of people. In American capitalism, these forces use our bodily-drive desires, our deeply-embedded longing for stories — in short, our humanity — to sell us products and teach us who we “ought” to be (according to, of course, their selfish versions of anthropology).

So, Smith reasons, if our world is telling us that “we are what we believe,” but then that same world is (successfully!) selling us products by using our embedded sense of being-in-the-world and drawing upon our human nature — that is, by using a pedagogy dependent upon the maxim “we are what we desire” — then maybe the problem of Christian worldview-formation is that we are focused on worldview, when we ought to be focused on desire-formation.

Late-Modern Paganism, Secular Liturgies

This forms the overarching intuitions of Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project, and, man, is it a provocative thesis. For one, Smith does what I have longed to put in writing since I read Althusser’s famous “Ideology” essay: a thoroughly-Christian cultural engagement that rightly assesses all human actions as basically worship, thus basically idolatry outside of incorporation into the Body of Christ. This part is not a fun read, in the sense

James-K.A.-Smith
James K.A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College

that Smith accomplishes what effective critical humanistic work is supposed to do: he draws back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz. But the terrifying thing about Smith’s curtain-pulling work is that the Wizard is not some benign (but hapless) old man from Kansas. Rather, if we take Smith’s assertions about powers and principalities seriously, the Wizard is the very forces of darkness themselves.

In short, Smith provides a liturgical method for reading culture, for reifying it as the pagan worship that it is, for recognizing it (through defamiliarization) for the teleological pedagogies that it contains. All kinds of ethical quandaries emerge if we take Smith seriously (I have often seriously considered what place the shopping mall ought to take in the life of the common believer after reading Desiring the Kingdom; but I write this… on the eve of Black Friday… while my wife is away preparing for tomorrow…!).

Much of Desiring the Kingdom serves to introduce the language of secular liturgy and re-affirm the counter-formative powers of Christian liturgy. The book serves as a successful and powerful testament to the necessity of solid Christian humanistic work in the late-modern age, and it is written in such a way that is more easily-grasped by the common practitioner (say, pastors) than other heavy theo-philosophical works.

The Liturgical Imagination

Whereas Desiring the Kingdom provides an outline for something of a “romantic theology” or epistemology of liturgical reasoning, it is Imagining the Kingdom that does the heavy lifting in actually accomplishing these high tasks. And it is such a theological-philosophical masterwork, in every way. For one, Smith does what Walter Brueggemann’s classic The Prophetic Imagination just couldn’t do: he actually provides a theory for the imaginative practice as practice. I had been frustrated when I read Brueggemann and arrived at the end of a book that had just assured me of a practical, imaginative power to prophetic writings… only to find a void where I had hope to read of actual imaginative theology at work. Smith fills in that void oh-so-masterfully.

He does this by relying on the French phenomenological tradition, in particular Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu, and Paul Ricoeur (with some Martin Heidegger hiding in the backImagining the Kingdomground). By taking Merleau-Ponty’s “erotic comprehension” as grounds for anepistemology founded on the body alongside Bourdieu’s “theory of practice as practice,” Smith is able to weave a narrative of precisely how worship and liturgy do what they do. And this practical understanding of their function lends itself to a pedagogical understanding of how to shape and form a human person in a particular way. It is not surprising, by the end of Imagining the Kingdom, that one has not only a sense of how unconscious secular liturgies function, but also how propaganda functions, how political entities actually establish hegemonic influence over their subjects.

But most powerfully, Smith dignifies, as MacDonald did (albeit, unheard), the imagination as the crucial, critical, pivotal sense underneath pedagogical understandings of the human being. There is a serious, sober, reality that Smith puts before us: if we, as Christian leaders, do not learn how to form the imagination of our people, then someone else will. In other words, Christian leaders must ask the question (that Smith asks): “Why should the devil get all the best stories?” What has long been dismissed by Christian leaders (in ungodly utilitarian fashion) as decorative, must now be re-admitted as not just important but central in Christian formation: the kin/aesthetic nature of worship.

Final Thoughts

If my approving tone throughout doesn’t give enough of a recommendation for these works from James K.A. Smith, then I ought to make it explicit: these are foundational reads for the late-modern theologian, pastor, or worship leader. I would almost make the case that without Smith’s incisive cultural re-readings of secular liturgies we risk making Christian atheists in our discipleship practices, rather than a holy people, set aside for God alone. Smith represents an intellectual and spiritual bastion against our post-Solomonic high-places Christian paganism; his arguments are like-unto Isaiah or Jeremiah’s anti-idolatry prophecies from the Old Testament. Without this vital re-describing project, the American church could easily continue on its path toward a relativized, secularized “theology.” (Our political situation shows the early fruits of this precise thing.)

Even if the philosophical nuances of Imagining the Kingdom scare you off, I would say that Desiring the Kingdom is required reading for us. It helps that Smith incorporates some of the best of modern theology (Hauerwas and Wells’ Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics is oft-quoted, as is Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, as is Taylor’s A Secular Age, etc.) in a format that is easily ingested. Apparently he has even written a popular version for even more general audiences (entitled You Are What You Love). It is an absolute must-read.

I will soon begin reading his final installment for the Cultural Liturgies project, Awaiting the King, which aims (boldly!) at “reforming political theology.” I am excited for what awaits, and I will write a companion review once I finish it. Until then, I, again, commend these two works with the highest level of commendation that I can put in ink: Smith unveils our idolatries, and we must know how to again become Christians in our secular age.

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