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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Jesus the Faithful Israelite- Thursday Holy Week Meditations

Golgotha
Golgotha, the rock upon which history turns.  

Today we have come to Golgotha, a small and insignificant hill in Jerusalem where criminals of the state are executed. We come to it a day early so that tomorrow we might say little and simply pray and weep at the body of our Lord who hangs upon the tree.

Yesterday, Wednesday of Holy Week, we looked at how it was going to take someone that was more than flesh to overcome the curse of the law because Torah had proved that every person was trapped in his and her flesh and all of its bondages to sin.

“Adam’s sin established a regime of spreading death that led to sin….Israel herself was overtaken by flesh and came under a curse” (203). Because Israel is itself entrapped in flesh, Torah, the law that was given to her in order that she might bless the nations, has become her prosecutor that she too, is entrapped in the flesh and under the curse of sin. Leithart says, “The curse is not exclusively because Israel became proud of her possession of Torah or because individual Israelites were proud of their meritorious law-keeping, though both of those attitudes are examples of how flesh perverts Torah. Paul’s point [in Galatians] is far more straightforward: the curse rests on Israel because she has failed to obey the law (Gal 3:10) [199, original emphasis]. And so Paul says that the chosen people of God have been liberated through the work of the Jesus and his death on the cross:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14 NRSV).

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsThis is why Paul is so incredulous toward the Galatians. How could those who received the Spirit and been freed from the curse through their belief in the faithfulness of Christ, return to the old stoicheia, to the very law which pronounced the curse upon them? It is only through understanding Jesus as Son of David, as the faithful Israelite, that the mechanism of the atonement comes into full view. It is here that we come to the heart of the mystery of Easter week and are able to have a clue to answering the question that centers Leithart’s book: “How can the death and resurrection of a Jewish rabbi of the first century…be the decisive event in the history of humanity, the hinge and crux and crossroads for everything?”

Hanging on the tree, he is a cursed one, and by bearing the curse he breaks through the curse….Jesus is condemned as a rebellious son, though he is not. He is condemned as a rebellious son by the rebellious son, Israel in the flesh. In that precise sense, Jesus suffers the curse of Israel. Because Jesus the faithful Israelite bears the curse, he delivers/redeems Israel from the curse. He takes the place of Israel that should be cursed in order to remove the cursing. And so the flow of blessing, the flow of the Spirit, begins (200).

By jumping straight to the universalizing of sin, that Jesus died for all, we miss precisely how redemption from the curse works. Paul is speaking to his fellow Israelites when he says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law….” Are the rest of us Gentiles rescued as well because of the death of Christ, well yes, but one misses the glory of the story of Scripture and the workings of the plan of God if one skips over why Jesus must have been from the line of David. That’s why Paul in his greatest letter describes the gospel as being “promised beforehand through the prophets in the Holy Scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…” (Romans 1:2-3).

As Leithart says, “God’s promise is universal, to ‘justify the Gentiles by faith,’ but that universal promise is realized only in the fulfillment of the particular promise that the blessing will come through Abraham’s seed” (201).

Through the faithfulness of Jesus the true Israelite, Israel has fulfilled its mission to bless the world. The same Spirit that hovered over the waters and moved to create, now descends upon the nations.

Heading Toward Golgotha- Wednesday of Holy Week

While we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. Galatians 4:3-5

Yesterday we saw how it is flesh and all its bondage to sin and death that keeps us from having a relationship with God. We saw how God called Abraham to be the father of a people that would reverse the separation of humanity from God and how God established a sign of that promise by the cutting away of flesh as both symbolically and literally enacting the removal and the defeat of flesh. That was the beginning of the rescue of humanity, but the fullness of time had not come yet, Paul tells us in Galatians 4. It was only with the birth of God’s son that the fullness of time arrived. Only then had the climax of the rescue operation begun.

Leithart- Delivered from the ElementsWhen Paul refers to those under the law in the verses above, he is, of course, talking about the Jewish people, the children of Abraham. How did Paul know that the Jewish people were themselves trapped under the stoicheia, the elements of the world? He knew through what the Jewish law had revealed. The law was given to the Jews in order to purify them so that God might tabernacle in their midst. But the law, originally meant as a code of living that would enable the Jews to take YHWH to all the nations, over time became a way of separating themselves from the world that they were called to redeem. The law, meant to bring life and restoration with God, eventually became a curse and divided humanity into two groups: Jews and Gentiles. As Leithart says, “But God promised his blessing to a single “seed,” and that means that the divided state of Israel and the Gentiles cannot be the final condition of humanity” (205). The law, meant as a way to kill flesh in order to draw near to God became a means of enforcing the prevailing stoicheia—those sinful divisions at the heart of all wars and violence—became the very means by which Israel showed itself also as a slave to flesh, unable to complete the task of rescue. Meant to become a source of life, the law became a curse and revealed the extent to which all of humanity, even God’s covenant people, were trapped by the powers of the flesh. But if the law meant to bring life only showed how those called to rescue were now under the power of curse and they themselves needed rescuing, what was to be done?

Because the law proved that everyone born of flesh is held captive by the power of sin, no mere human could enact God’s rescue plan. We are all human, all too human, as Nietzsche himself found out when even his powerful mind failed him in his last years. If what Paul says is true, that in the fullness of time God’s son was born of a woman, that is, born of flesh, and born under the law and yet was still able, somehow, to redeem those under the law, we are able to immediately deduce a couple of things. One, God’s son, even though he was born of flesh, had to have been somehow, more than flesh, if he was able to redeem those under the law and not himself be cursed by the law. If he was only flesh, he too would have fallen under the curse of the law, because if there is one thing that the law had proven, it was that anyone who was fully flesh fell under the curse of disobedience of the law. Secondly, we know then that God’s Son must have, somehow, fully obeyed or fulfilled what the law required in order to escape the curse of the law that prosecuted the rest of God’s people—more than human because able to redeem from the curse. And so Paul tells his fellow Jews in the verses above that they are no longer enslaved but instead have been adopted as God’s own children!

Could it be that God’s son, Yeshua, or Jesus as his name has come down to us, did not fall under the curse of the law because he was somehow able to sweep the law away, cause it to disappear or abrogate it? That is a position that has tempted many believers throughout the ages but we know that cannot be the case from Jesus’ own words. “Do not think that I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets’ I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 6:17-18). It’s a funny thing that you say so Jesus because that’s exactly what everyone was thinking: that you had come to abolish the law. Your actions led us to believe that you didn’t care about the law, treating Sabbath so flippantly and talking to the religious leaders the way that you did. How could your life possibly be a fulfillment of the law? It’s here where I find Leithart’s book to be brilliant and helpful: Jesus fulfilled the law in the only way that it could be fulfilled, living through the Spirit and not through the flesh. “While in the flesh, Jesus kept Torah in the fullness of the Spirit, something no other human had done before” (151). The reason that it looked like Jesus was breaking every little stroke of the law is because we were looking at it through the eyes of the flesh. We weren’t asking the right questions: What would Torah-keeping look like if it were carried out by Spirit rather than by flesh? What would Torah-keeping look like if there was no more need for circumcision’s gesture of separation from separation? (137). Well apparently, it would look like how God Himself would keep Torah if he were embodied. That is, it would exactly like Jesus‘ life.

The question remains however: aren’t the covenant people still under the curse that the law has shackled her with. Even if the law has now been perfectly fulfilled by one man, what of the curse that hovers over everyone else? It’s here where are journey toward Golgotha this Holy Week finds its direct path. Now, we see the cross.