Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

Written by James K. A. Smith Reviewed By Matthew Sleeman

This is a demanding but rewarding book, far-reaching in argument, with conclusions that demand attention and deserve consideration. Not a quick read—it wants to get under the skin, to lodge there and work powerfully on how we nurture and live out of our imaginations.

Smith’s argument, while sustained throughout, weaves widely and roams suggestively across his four main chapters. Being the second volume in a projected trilogy, this scope is expected and welcome. Resuming from Desiring the Kingdom, Smith here returns to a desires-based anthropology, developing it into the realms of the imagination and liturgy. These are, for Smith, vital yet frequently under-appreciated theatres for being human and learning how to be Christian.

Smith cast humans as irresistibly liturgical animals. As embodied creatures, our pre-cognitive wiring is fed and formed by storied rituals which school us in how to navigate and make sense of the world. Churches neglect this anthropology at their peril, for secular liturgies are alert to it and often capitalise all too well on the desires driving people. Smith laments how often the devil has the best liturgies: global capitalism and its localised forms such as shopping malls can be more effectual shapers of people than the church. This book calls both churches and Christian education institutions to a renewed attending to the imagination and its formation, within. It asks for liturgy and pedagogy to be taken seriously as embodied, pre-cognitive, action-oriented formation.

Smith begins with a lengthy engagement with two French philosophers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu. At ease with Jerusalem being in close engagement with Paris, Smith introduces these thinkers well and his exposition of them deftly illuminates their thinking and his own project. Illustrative side-bars drawing on literature, film and television use exemplars such as Downton Abbey and The King’s Speech to help ease the reader into the theoretical intricacies in view. Other examples are drawn from literature, such as David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. These add support for (and, at times, some relief from) the sustained intricacies of theory which characterise the first half of the book.

From Merleau-Ponty, Smith draws the insight that we develop a habituated know-how which fundamentally orientates us to perceive our way of being-in-the-world. This perception is carried in our bodies, and precedes and orders our reception of external stimuli. Such praktognosia is irreducible to propositions, and remains inarticulable even while it vitally forms our engagement with life. What, then, will a Christian ‘perception’ look like, and how will we teach our bodies such a mode of intentionality? These questions lead Smith towards Pierre Bourdieu.

From Bourdieu, Smith adds the notion of a habitus, that is, a disposition which is inscribed in individuals and in cultures, which is both personal and political. A habitus is bigger than any individual, even while it orients individuals. It is a practical sense, a proficiency by which people are ‘native’ within a culture’s million micro-moments and movements. This comprehensive belief that conscripts the body is known by action and in action. It is a ritualised formation into a disposition which conveys ultimate concerns, a cosmic dimension. It trades on implicit pedagogies concerning rhythms and metaphors, both enabling and inclining human action. Crucially, Bourdieu asserts that habitus cannot be reduced down to propositions, but such an intellectualist reductionism is what Smith fears in advocacies of a Christian worldview which ignore desires-based shaping of a Christian imagination.

As this book switches into its second half, these theoretical foundations give rise to two more constructive chapters. Smith traces how stories are imbibed via liturgies, whether secular or religious, generating metaphorical universes which lead us to desire a particular telos, a view of the good life. As liturgical animals, Smith posits that poetics, stories and metaphors matter intensely as the modes by which imaginations are shaped and forge our pre-cognitive frames for interpretation and action. ‘Liturgies are compressed, repeated, performed narratives that, over time, conscript us into the story they ‘tell’ by showing, by performing’ (p. 109).

Charting our need for a ‘sanctified perception’, Smith projects a Christian mission which restores and re-stories the world, via the desire-leading and desire-feeding imagination. Calvin’s Geneva provides a historical frame of reference for this, and Smith identifies the need for novelists and good story-tellers on the side of the gospel, such that we desire the kingdom of God above all other kingdoms. Smith condemns churches for their allergies to repetition, and for what he sees as a spurious distinction between form and content which ignores how we are wired as liturgical animals.

Such a summary hopefully captures something of the breathless and wide-reaching scope of this book. Was I persuaded?

Certainly I came away persuaded liturgies and pedadogies must address desire and formation, not simply knowledge and information. My formational practices are more intentional as a result. This book will feed teachers, church leaders, artists, and ordinary Christians. Hopefully, it will inspire more liturgists, broadly understood. Better composition and use of liturgy, in domestic and public spheres as well as in ecclesial settings, will harness the counterformative power of Christian worship for God’s kingdom. Smith’s third volume, Embodying the Kingdom, is an attractive prospect.

Yet two reservations leave me not completely persuaded. First, I remain uncertain regarding how Smith’s desires-based anthropology connects with the propositional worldview-based anthropologies he reacts against. Certainly desires are cast as somehow prior to thought, but their interconnections within an integrated anthropology remained unclear to me at the close of my reading. Smith offers ‘two cheers’ for the worldview paradigm (p. 8); I would desire to know more about how these cheers would interact with his large third cheer for the imagination. As ‘an incubator for the imagination’ (p. 178), worship, especially liturgical worship, must still inhabit propositions (on one level, how else are metaphors strung into stories?). Sometimes I felt that Smith risked obscuring such inter-weaving within the anthropology he projects.

My second reservation relates to Smith’s advocacy of ‘historic’ liturgy. The last chapter very helpfully promotes the need for teaching about liturgy (liturgical catchesis) and the importance of liturgical form. Form here means the logic of liturgy, and this risks analysis becoming shallowly structuralist. For instance, Smith parallels five communion liturgies, claiming that they share a common form. The differences between them—they range from Roman Catholic to various Protestant forms, both Reformed and otherwise—are not explored. Yet what is more interesting, more formative of imagination and desire: their commonalities, or their distinctives? I wish Smith had probed more regarding the power of distinctives: this would, to my mind, have tempered his appeals to ‘the wisdom of historic Christian worship’. In what particular directions are desires being pointed and fed in particular liturgies? In itself, old is not inherently good. This links with my first reservation, especially within a Word ontology in which any biblical anthropology needs to be located.

These reservations are real, but so too is my enthusiasm for this book. It has, in me, worked its purpose. My imagination is engaged by it, and hungry for the finale of Smith’s stimulating trilogy.

Matthew Sleeman

Matthew Sleeman
Oak Hill Theological College
London, England, UK

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