(This article was originally printed in Christian Renewal, Vol. 30, #12, May 2, 2012.)
What makes me who I am as a person? Is my view of the world determined by what I think and believe? By what I feel? Or by what I love and desire? James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation seeks to answer those and other similar questions, doing so in fascinating ways. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, wrote his book primarily for the world of Christian education – its methods, goals, and practices – but his work deserves to be heard and pondered far more widely. Not just educators, but also pastors, church leaders, and individual Christians stand to benefit from his provocative insights.
Smith begins his book by seeking to broaden our concept of what constitutes a worldview. The worldview thinking familiar to most Reformed believers emphasizes that there is no intellectual neutrality, that all men and women are ultimately motivated by fundamental beliefs that are then worked out in all of life. Forming a Christian worldview requires forming and shaping those basic beliefs. Likewise, analyzing unbelieving worldviews requires analyzing underlying beliefs. For Smith this is all well and good – as far as it goes. But he wants to go further, borrowing insight from Augustine:
“We might say that this Reformed worldview emphasis on the person as believer is a step in the right direction, but that it is insufficiently Augustinian. We still get a somewhat stunted anthropology that fails to appreciate that our primordial orientation to the world is not knowledge, or even belief, but love. Thus, in contrast to both the person-as-thinker and the person-as-believer models, I want to articulate a more robustly Augustinian anthropology that sees humans as most fundamentally oriented and identified by love” (46).
The point is that we are more than just thinking beings; we are desiring and loving beings. Because God has created us as loving and desiring beings, worldview is rightly understood as being as much a matter of the heart as it is a matter of the mind. And if this is the case, worldview formation involves not only the instilling of true thoughts, but also the forming and shaping of our loves and desires. Indeed, it is urgently important that we recognize this, for numerous cultural practices are constantly forming us. So long as we are narrowly focused on the cognitive and intellectual aspects of worldview, we are blind to the formative power of the cultural realities in which we live.
Smith calls us to be awake to those cultural realities that are constantly shaping our worldview. As a way of explaining and evaluating them, he introduces the rubric of cultural liturgies. Liturgies are what Smith calls “thick” practices, patterns of living that shape and form our loves and desires in important ways. In one of his most intriguing passages, he describes shopping malls, sporting events, and college campuses as all having associated liturgies that contribute to who we are. The shopping mall is a “church” with a “liturgy” that forms us. The opening ceremonies at a ballgame – singing the national anthem, with hand on heart – cultivate love and loyalty. In a compelling passage, Smith describes the common practice of children reciting the pledge of allegiance every day in Christian schools while only saying the Creed once a week (if that!). Which love and loyalty is being formed more deeply?
These and countless other cultural liturgies shape our worldview – not just our thinking, but our loving and desiring. This is not to say that these things are necessarily forming us in bad (or good) ways. Rather, Smith’s primary point is that Christians need to be more aware of these cultural practices, and need to be more willing to recognize the ways in which they form us. We need to critique the surrounding culture, not simply in terms of explicit propositions or statements of belief, but in terms of identify-forming, love-inspiring, and loyalty-demanding practices.
The power of these formative practices is that the very doing of them shapes us, even if we don’t recognize that it’s happening. God created us, not as mere minds, but as embodied creatures, and the things we do are very much part of who we are. Insofar as we neglect that deeper way in which we are formed by the culture, we are susceptible to developing ungodly desires and loves. To resist being formed by those liturgies, we must recognize, name, and describe them as such. At times, this may require refusing to participate in certain cultural practices. At other times, it may simply require being more thoughtful about what is happening.
Smith’s approach is useful, then, as a cultural diagnostic, as a way of being alert to and aware of the forces that influence us.
Pursuing Faithful Liturgies
The argument of Desiring the Kingdom is not merely diagnostic, however. Smith doesn’t just want us to be more alert to the negative formative influences around us. He wants us to pursue faithful liturgies, cultural practices that will shape and form in us godly loves and desires. If worldview is as much a matter of desire as it is of thinking, and if our goal is to form a biblical worldview, then we should be seeking to form biblical loves and desires.
For Smith, the church plays a central role in forming our loves and desires. He says in his introduction that he is pursuing a theology of culture that has “an ecclesial center of gravity” – and that is what he develops in the second half of the book in exciting ways. He has a robust and compelling vision for the church as a community, as “a people,” as an identity-forming culture over against the wider culture in which we live.
If our culture is seeking to form us in rebellious ways, it is the job of the church to be an alternative culture, complete with practices and liturgies that form our loves and desires in godly ways. We need to be awake to the loyalty-shaping forces around us, and then we need to immerse ourselves in formative Christian practices, especially those rooted in the church assembled as a gathered people on the Lord’s Day.
Desiring the Kingdom on the Lord’s Day
To illustrate this, Smith walks through the elements of historic Christian worship, explaining them as formative liturgies – not simply downloading information into our heads, but shaping and forming our loves, loyalties, and desires. The cultural practice of gathering together on the Lord’s Day for worship forms us in all sorts of deeply important ways. It gives us a new orientation to history – anchored to the resurrection, looking forward to the return of Christ. It gives us a new orientation to those around us – bound to our brothers and sisters as the body of Christ, citizens of heaven in a way that is prior to our earthly citizenship.
One of Smith’s great insights is that this is not primarily an individual reality but a corporate reality. Traditional worldview language is susceptible to a radical individualism that Smith wants to avoid. Our worldview is a shared thing, embedded and propagated by shared cultural practices. I am not just a thinking individual; we desire, we are loyal, we love.
Especially at this point, Smith’s book is far more than a work of pedagogical philosophy. His writing is downright lyrical, poetic even:
“We are a stretched people, citizens of a kingdom that is both older and newer than anything offered by ‘the contemporary.’ The practices of Christian worship over the liturgical year form in us something of an “old soul” that is perpetually pointed to a future, longing for a coming kingdom, and seeking to be such a stretched people in the present who are a foretaste of the coming kingdom” (159).
Smith gets this exactly right. We need to develop more of these “thick” practices, and we need to be more intentional about the ones that are already part of the liturgies of our lives. This is the excitement, the joy, the thrill of Christian worship, and pastors need to reflect these sorts of convictions in their words and demeanor in the pulpit. In worship, we lift our hearts to heaven, there to have our loves, loyalties, and desires shaped by Christ, and to do so over against the identity-forming influences around us.
Much more could be said here; the implications are seemingly endless. We need to live this identity in community, so that the church might be a powerful alternative to the cultural liturgies of the world – for the sake of ourselves, our children, and new believers.
Some (Sympathetic) Concerns
As should be clear thus far in this review, I found all of this deeply insightful, even exhilarating. Indeed, most of the disagreements I have with Smith are largely unessential to the thesis of the book. I do, however, have two general concerns that are closely related to the book’s thesis, concerns with which Smith would likely be sympathetic.
First, the contrast between thinking and desire seems at times to be stated a bit too starkly. It can sound at points as though Smith’s thesis is anti-propositional or anti-reflective. Much of this can be explained by way of his polemical context; he’s replying to an overly or even exclusively propositional approach to worldview, and so his rhetoric naturally sounds one-sided. Though this objection sounds a bit pedantic, there is reason for caution at this point. His argument is most helpful insofar as he wants a “both/and” approach, rather than a reductionist “either/or.” Indeed, Smith grants as much when he notes that he is, after all, a philosophy professor writing a book. The very medium he uses to make his case is an affirmation of the importance of the cognitive and the reflective aspects of worldview, all without giving up his argument for a certain primacy of love and desire.
Second, one of the great strengths of Smith’s book – his focus on the formative liturgical practices of the church – is also a potential weakness. Because his intended sphere of concern is Christian education, it at times sounds as though his thesis may lead the academy or university to adopt some of the formative cultural practices that belong properly to the church. I want to be clear: this sort of blurring of the lines between what properly belongs to the church and the school is a possible implication of his work but not a necessary one. One might just as easily conclude from Desiring the Kingdom that the academy should humbly acknowledge the limited character of its work – addressing primarily the mind – and acknowledge (and defer to) the identity-forming character of liturgies in the home and church. Given Smith’s seemingly robust ecclesiology, it’s fair to guess that he may favor such a distinction. I’d simply like to see that developed a bit more clearly.
Preaching and Desiring the Kingdom
My final point of analysis isn’t a criticism at all, but a desire to see Smith’s thesis developed in new directions, especially in its implications for the task of preaching on the Lord’s Day. I am a pastor, and so that is the area of application to which I am most drawn. Smith emphasizes, for example, the importance of story and narrative as forces that shape our desires. Stories appeal to “the gut,” to the seat of love and loyalty in a uniquely powerful manner. In this way, Smith echoes some of the concerns and insights popular in contemporary philosophy, insights that resonate with the current flourishing of biblical theology in Reformed and Evangelical circles.
Scripture largely comes to us in the form of narrative. And even those portions that are not strictly story are only rightly understood in the broader context of redemptive history from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus is only rightly proclaimed when he is proclaimed as the climax and consummation of the story of Israel. This is clearly how the apostles preached him, and it is how he ought to be preached today – as the glorious center of a story, the true story of the whole world. If Smith’s insights about worldview and human nature are correct, then we have all the more reason to be optimistic that this biblical way of proclaiming Jesus as Israel’s Messiah – over against the abstract philosophies or pragmatic moralisms of pagan religion – is uniquely suited to shape our loves, loyalties, and desires as men and women created in God’s image.
All of this fits wonderfully with Smith’s thesis in Desiring the Kingdom. Coming to us in the form of a story centered around Christ, God’s Word is – and, in turn, preaching ought to be – aimed not only at right thinking, but also at forming our loves and loyalties and desires. Far more than passing along abstract doctrinal truths, preaching is a means of heralding and announcing to God’s people their place in God’s story. And a right understanding of our place in God’s story in turn shapes our loves and desires in a deeply formative way.
That is to say, preaching ought to be concerned not just with information (as important as that is), but also with formation. We gather together on the Lord’s Day to be shaped and formed by the biblical practices that God has given us – including the preaching of the Word. When a pastor proclaims the resurrection of Jesus, he is not simply declaring an abstract truth to be affirmed. He is heralding the resurrection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, proclaiming to the assembled church: here is the story that determines who you are, shapes your identity, deserves your loyalty, and inspires your love.
If Smith’s analysis of our culture is correct – and I believe it is – then this is a deeply urgent matter. We live in a culture that is aggressively seeking to shape and form us through the various liturgies in which we participate. As the church, we must be self-consciously embracing the cultural liturgies God has given to form in us faithful loves and desires.
James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009) is available in a paperback edition at Amazon.com. Look for his forthcoming sequel to Desiring the Kingdom, entitled Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, scheduled to be published by Baker in November.
Nick Smith lives with his wife and four children in Nampa, ID, just outside of Boise in beautiful southern Idaho, where he serves as pastor of the United Reformed Church of Nampa (www.urcnampa.org).