Which comes first?

Belief or practice?

Christian worship or a Christian worldview?

In recent years, evangelicals have rightly discerned that many people in our churches lack even a rudimentary understanding of theology and the Bible. Too often, the people sitting in our churches on Sunday do not know what they believe or why.

In response to this problem, leaders have created a number of resources designed to help Christians develop a Christian worldview – a biblical framework for understanding life. I am encouraged by the worldview trend, as I believe it addresses a neglected aspect of evangelical church life.

But James K. A. Smith says that worldview training does not go far enough. In his new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009), Smith makes the case that worldview training targets only one aspect of our humanity – the mind. The assumption is this: when we think like Christians, we will then act like Christians. Smith challenges this notion and calls evangelicals to look beyond informational understandings of discipleship to a worship-centered view of discipleship, one that demonstrates how our liturgies form us into the people of God.

The book begins with an excellent question:

“What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?” (18).

Smith invites us to see Christian education as formed by worship, not just informed by teaching. Christian discipleship should not be reduced to the transmission of knowledge; true discipleship forms our desires.

Smith begins by challenging the anthropology that casts humans primarily in the role of “thinkers”. Instead, Smith believes humans are primarily “lovers” (worshippers). When we over-intellectualize what it means to become a Christian, we wind up with a “bobble-head” Christianity (42). We should realize instead that it is what we desire and love that animates our passion.

Smith also pays attention to other cultural “liturgies.” By taking his readers through the cultural liturgy of the shopping mall, the sports arena, the academy, etc., Smith skillfully demonstrates how immersion into these cultures forms our desires and communicates what “the good life” looks like.

“The core claim of this book is that liturgies – whether “sacred” or “secular” – shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love.” (25)

Smith’s proposal is very thought-provoking. But I have a few concerns.

My first concern is a personal pet peeve. I dislike seeing Christian writers refer to humans as “animals.” Smith uses the description “desiring, imaginative animals” when speaking of humanity. As someone concerned about our culture’s diminishing of the uniqueness of human life, I prefer that our terminology better reflect our theology about human value.

Secondly, Smith puts forth too many “either-ors” in this book. One example concerns patriotism. For Smith, there is no complexity when it comes to competing allegiances. It is so black and white that one must choose between God or country. I agree that some evangelicals overemphasize national allegiance, but this problem is not resolved by denying the place of patriotism altogether.

Another example is Smith’s downplaying of the role of the intellect. It is one thing to say that worldview is not enough (point taken). But it is quite another to tip the scales in the other direction. Though his picture of “bobble-head” Christians is memorable, I don’t think it is the most accurate description of contemporary evangelicals. When considering our lack of biblical knowledge, we might picture instead a bloated body with a shrunken head.

I wish Smith had addressed many of the objections that one could raise. For instance, how does he explain the fact that many people immerse themselves in Christian worship week to week and are still not formed into the image of Christ? How do we deal with this unfortunate reality? Liturgy cannot be the only (or even primary ) answer.

Likewise, in arguing that worship precedes worldview, Smith says that Christians worshipped “before they got around to abstract theologizing or formulating a Christian worldview.” (139) True, but their worship was based on common beliefs. Worship eventually propelled them to “abstract theology” about Jesus Christ – his person and work.

For Smith, liturgy births doctrine, rather than doctrine birthing liturgy. I am not convinced that this is the case. The early Christians worshipped because of the truth of the resurrection of Christ. They believed; therefore, they worshipped. In turn, their worship solidifies their belief. There is a synergy between worship and worldview, not a direct cause and effect.

I love high-church liturgy. I am attracted to Smith’s call to consider how our worship practices affect our discipleship and formation. I would like nothing more than to go along and say “yes” to everything in this book.

But some of Smith’s dichotomies are false, and so while I greatly enjoyed this book, and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking books I read this year, I remain unconvinced that Smith’s proposal offers the best answers to the problems in evangelical life.