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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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.