Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K. A. Smith

Posted: March 4, 2012 in Book and Article Reviews, Church
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Introduction: What is the “end” of Christian education?

            Christian education has been thought to be a vehicle for the dissemination of ideas and beliefs.  In other words, it is the arena for implementing a worldview which governs one’s life.  As such, education has been about filling one’s mind and intellect with ideas and facts, in the hopes that this will shape people.  This traditional view of education has left a void in the realm of praxis.

James K. A. Smith wants us to re-imagine the role and method of education in our world.  Namely, Smith believes that education should not simply be geared to give information but formation.  The human, he argues, is not only the mind.  Rather, the human is primarily driven by the desires, or kardia.  Our desires, our love, cause us to act in certain ways.  Shaping those desires shapes our behavior.  At this point, Smith notes that worship and education are inextricably linked.

Smith brings an interesting point in this segment about the character forming practices that are found in our malls.  In many senses, it is a religious activity of pedagogies and liturgies that shape who people are.  Although many of these people are unaware of the powerful influences shaping them, they are inevitably formed into certain types of people, namely consumers.  This does not occur by disseminating information to the masses, although ideas are transferred.  In this case, ideas and beliefs of the “good life” are issued by the practices embodied by the community.  The desires of people produce certain actions.

If this is true, Christian education cannot simply stop at providing a worldview, although this is important.  It cannot simply stop at shaping the mind, although this too is important.  In contrast, Christian education should be about shaping desires.  Furthermore, it should be about embodying certain practices that shape our desires to live into the Kingdom of God.  Again, the telos of Christian education is not simply information but formational.

Chapter 1: What are social imaginaries?

            As discussed in the previous chapter, Smith wants to affirm that ideas alone do not shape individuals.  Rather, it is the desires, the affections that drive us to live in certain ways which further develop our love for a vision of reality, a kingdom.  As such, Christian education as the dissemination of ideas bifurcate the human in ways that are not natural.  Smith goes a step beyond to say that we often develop patterns of praxis before we create doxy, understanding before knowledge.  It is with this viewpoint that Smith calls for Christian education to primarily be about the shaping of desires.

The social imaginary “is an affective, noncognitive understanding of the world.  It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect: it is made up of, and embedded in, stories, narratives, myths, and icons.  These visions capture our hearts and imaginations by ‘lining’ our imagination, as it were – providing us with frameworks of ‘meaning’ by which we make sense of our world and our calling in it” (68).

This is not an anti-intellectual stance, but a holistic stance of human persons.  Although we can be shaped by ideas and beliefs, it is generally the case that our affections shape our beliefs.  These can be challenged and even changed, but it is a necessary understanding of humans if we are to fully grasp the value of Christian education.  Furthermore, understanding how character is shaped helps us to see both the positive and negative practices in our culture that have deeply formational consequences.  This is true because these practices captivate our imaginations, forming an understanding of the world that further cultivates our desires to live into a certain kingdom.

Chapter 2: What are thick and thin practices?

            As further discussion about liturgies, which are practices and rituals that capture the imagination by directing our desires to a particular, ultimate telos.  Liturgies can be used in a positive or negative way, but they always aim for our desires.  However, not all rituals or practices can be said to be tied to identity-formation explicitly, although they will serve as a means to that goal.  As such, there is a division of practices between thin and thick.

Thin practices are “instrumental to some other end.  They also aren’t the sort of things that tend to touch on our identity” (82).  Brushing one’s teeth, for instance, is a practice that would not be considered as part of my identity.  It does not touch, directly at least, on our fundamental desires.

Thick practices have a much deeper value for us.  “These are habits that play a significant role in shaping our identity, who we are.  Engaging in these habit-forming practices not only says something about us, but also keeps shaping us into that kind of person” (82).  We would place religious activities in this arena.  These practices play explicit roles in shaping our view of the ultimate good, the kingdom toward which we are traveling.

The difference between thin and thick practices, therefore, deals primarily with their connection to an ultimate good and their identity formation.  So, while we might consider many activities to be “thin” practices, we might have actually tied them to an ultimate telos, which would then tie into a “thick” end.  In other words, there are no neutral practices.  “This is not to say that every habit is a thick one, but only that even our thinnest habits and practices ultimately get hooked up into desires that point at something ultimate” (83).

If there are no neutral practices, then practices will ultimately shape us to be certain types of people.  With this in mind, we should seriously consider the types of people we desire to be and evaluate the practices we maintain to see if they are compatible.  Furthermore, even the most seemingly insignificant practices, over time and habituation, came have dramatic impact on our identity.  Character formation is often subtle due to the often unconscious nature of habited practice that shapes our identity.  As such, we must be very aware of the habits and practices that we cultivate.

Chapter 3: What does Smith mean by liturgies? What are some of the various liturgies at work in life? How do liturgies operate?

            “Liturgies or worship practices are rituals of ultimate concern that are formative of our identity – they both reflect what matters to us and shape what matters to us” (93).  They are the practices that grab hold of our love and direct it to some “ultimate” end.

There are a number of liturgies prevalent within society.  Smith concentrates on a select few: consumerism, nationalism (military-entertainment), and the liturgies of the university.  We could mention more by talking about power and status within the community, to go just a bit further (this even happens within the Christian community).  Each of these areas vies for primary position to shape and inculcate our desires.  Again, this is done through a vision for a “kingdom” which is further strengthened by practices that shape our identity.

The mall is a powerful influencing agent, though we don’t often realize its impact.  There is a prosperity gospel that is found in its practices.  First, this consumerism tells us that we are broken.  We don’t look a certain way or act a certain way, then we are broken.  They offer a sign of redemption by buying this product, which cannot ultimately satisfy.  The law of diminishing returns means that we eventually find ourselves back in the halls of this cathedral consuming so that we might no longer be “broken.”  Oddly enough, a peculiar community is formed.  It is a community that objectifies ourselves and the people around us.  We compare ourselves with others, further solidifying the consumerism model held up by the mall.

Next, the nationalism liturgy calls for our total allegiance.  It holds up a telos that is integrated through various sorts of media and practices, such as the pledge of allegiance.  These images and stories that are portrayed elevate honor on par with sacrificial self-giving for the country.  There is no greater honor, we are told.  However, this too is a “kingdom” jockeying for our affections.  Is it really possible for us to be members of two kingdoms?  Scripture denies this premise, no person can serve two masters.  Violence is an integrated part and parcel of the nationalism that is propagated.  Icons of valor affirm the value of such actions within our society.  The ideals of nationalism will not allow for consideration of other “kingdoms.”

Finally, the liturgies of the university come into light.  They are not simply the books of the library, the teaching in classrooms, or the examinations.  Rather, the most formational aspects of the university, as I can attest, are the community relations that are produced.  These usually occur in spaces such as dorms, lunch rooms, sporting events, parties, and the various other settings that comprise the university.  These spaces of practice shape acolytes to be certain people within this environment… but, this formation is so profound that it follows us for much longer.

Liturgies, as we have seen, operate by capturing our imagination.  They portray images of the “good life.”  A kingdom having some ultimate value calls for us to become a part of that community.  Our desires are brought into alignment with a certain kingdom, which motivates us to act in certain ways.  These practices further inform and shape our desires.  These practices become habits, which become part of our character and identity.  This is why there is no such thing as a secular liturgy.  They are all religious in nature, calling for our undivided allegiance.  These liturgies can be true or false, good or bad.  However, they are always designed to aim our desires toward a particular end.

Chapter 4: What is a “sacramental imagination”?

            The social imaginary is an understanding of the world that has been shaped by practices and habits.  It is the pre-cognitive embodiment of a politic.  In other words, it is the liturgies that have formed our affections, shaping our understanding of the world in which we live and dwell.

The sacramental imagination is a very similar concept.  A sacrament, as John Wesley put it, is a means of grace.  This comes in the forms of bread and wine, baptismal waters, and oils of healing prayer that are a means of God’s grace in our lives.  Notably, these are not disembodied elements, as if we were only spirits.  Nor, are these elements merely physical elements, as if the Spirit’s life was unnecessary.  Rather, God uses the physical stuff of this world to shape us.

The sacramental imagination, therefore, has a constant tension between two polarities: supernaturalism and naturalism.  Both supernaturalism and naturalism are theologically poor visions of the human person.  First, avoiding the Gnostic heresy, we are not merely spirits hoping to escape the physical prisons of our bodies.  After all, even after Jesus’ resurrection, he came in physical form (Thomas touched him!).  Second, we are not merely the sum of our biological makeup.  We have the distinct ability, though it may be difficult, to override our biological responses (i.e. restraining ourselves when angry).

Instead, the sacramental imagination dwells between these two options.  We are both spirit and body.  There is an intimate connection between these two parts.  They both impact one another.  As such, the sacraments, which are “earthy” practices that seek to direct our affections, shape our identities in profound ways by offering a counter-formational life to the liturgies proposed by our culture.  That is not to say, as Smith points out, that these practices are like magical anecdotes.  Rather, they are life transforming because we are receiving what God has initiated in our lives.

Smith notes, “This liturgical affirmation of materiality is commonly described as a sacramental understanding of the world – that the physical, material stuff of creation and embodiment is the means by which God’s grace meets us and gets hold of us” (141).  The sacramental imagination, as such, is the intuition that God meets us here in the material reality and we are called to respond in material ways.  It is through these practices that God shapes us to embody the Kingdom of God back into the world.

Chapter 5: How do the various aspects of worship shape the virtues of the Christian community?

            The idea of time plays a prominent role in the worshiping community.  The Christian calendar is not centered in the events of our nation or Hallmark, rather they are centered upon Christ.  The aspect of time indicates and shapes our entrance into worship.  The colors, the smells, and the lighting all demonstrate a posture that we take in worship.  Whether it be penitence or rejoicing, the Christian calendar calls us to respond to the work of Christ, rather than being fixated on obscure, trivial realities.  Nor, do we orient ourselves in the world by the world’s understanding of time.  Rather, we find Sabbath rest.  In this, we come to appreciate and understand the significance of our lives, which is not wrapped up in production.

The Gathering of the community demonstrates that we are a called people.  Our gathering together, which could be replaced with a myriad of other activities, signifies that it is a response to God’s gracious call.  As creation was called into being, we too, as a new creation, are being called into being, formed into a new community.  We begin to realize that we are totally dependent upon God.  God initiates the call and empowers our response.  It is a call to be truly human, as God created us to be.

The greeting of peace is also a significant action within worship.  “Worship is a space of welcome because we are, at root, relational creatures called into relationship with the Creator, in order to flourish as a people who bear his image to and for the world” (169).  As such, we also become extensions of God’s welcome and hospitality to those who are around us.

Singing, as has been well attested recently, plays an instrumental role in worship.  It gives full-body expression to our praise.  Furthermore, singing hymns and psalms tend to stick with us.  Music can penetrate us like other forms of communication cannot.  Finally, it is a form of compacted theology.  Of course, this can be both good and bad.  Song can communicate to both to the mind and through the entirety of our senses.

The reading of Scripture, especially of the law, suggests Smith, brings about conviction that we have failed.  We have sinned and fallen short of our purpose.  I would want to challenge this, although it isn’t totally wrong.  The purpose of reading Scripture, even the Law, serves as a interjection of hope and a re-orienting of our lives around God’s purposes.  Further, it paints a “social imaginary” that reveals the wonderful ways God is redeeming this world.

However, confession can and should be derived from this time of reading Scripture.  We have found ourselves fallen short of the plan and purpose for which God has called us.  We have live as a reflection of God in the world, but often reflect the broken humanity of the world.  As such, we confess our sins together, calling out to the merciful Savior, so that we might live as imago Dei.

Baptism plays a major role in our formation.  We are constituted as new people, buried and risen to new life in Christ.  We are brought into the family of God.  More than a simple picture, baptism enacts in us, by the Spirit, a new way of life.  Not only are we brought into the fold, we are commissioned into the priesthood of believers.  And, we are called to live by a kingdom politic, putting to death all that would pull us away from God.

The creedal statements of faith provide a number of elements for our worship.  First, they are a sort of “pledge of allegiance” for the Christian community.  Second, they situate us in a historical context, rooting our faith in the faith that has been handed down by each successive generation.  Finally, the creeds provide succinct beliefs that we affirm and which create a common ground upon which we stand as a community of believers.

Prayer is the affirmation that “there is more than meets the eye” in this world.  Appearances aren’t always what they seem.  Smith divides prayer into two areas: intercessory and illumination.  First, intercessory is the outpouring of our hearts for others.  It orients us to be others-centered, rather than self-centered.  It is the understanding that we are called and blessed so that we might be a blessing back to the world as God’s image bearers.  Secondly, the prayer of illumination realizes that we are solely dependent upon God for revelation and understanding.  It is posturing ourselves in humility to be open to the Spirit’s movement.  And, it is seeking God’s wisdom rather than any wisdom we might try to artificially conjure up.

The sermon primarily is about world making.  An ultimate portrayal of reality and life are offered within the pages of Scripture.  It is a normative text that guides our lives on a certain trajectory, shaping our affections toward the kingdom.  This alternative reality that is held up as a counter-cultural world allows us to see the “powers” for what they truly are.  And, we are given an alternative to the violent power games that the world would have us play.

The Eucharist is an amazing part of worship.  It is a blessing over the creation and the value that humans add to the creation.  Bread and wine are not naturally occurring substances.  It is taken from the creation and further developed for the sustenance of our bodies.  However, this is no typical meal.  This is a kingdom meal with an open invitation to all.  It is a united kingdom, the Body of Christ.  It is the servants of Christ putting on the sufferings of Christ.  And, it is a mandate for all believers to be the Eucharistic sacrament to the world, an invitation to God’s table of fellowship.  It is also a reminder that we will one day enjoy fellowship eternal with God, rather than simply imbibing this meal of the wilderness.

The offering is probably one of the most difficult parts of a service due to some of the abuses in the Church.  The offering and tithe helps us to recognize that we live by a kingdom economic.  We are dependent upon God for provision.  Likewise, we are blessed to be a blessing back to the world.  In a real sense, we are to live a Jubilee politic with our pocketbook.  It is a reminder that Christianity is not simply a “spiritual endeavor”, but must take bodily form.  It must be lived out in the world.

Finally, the benediction blesses the gathered community.  But, again, the blessing is not to remain with us.  The blessing is given so that we might be a blessing back into the world.  Therefore, it is a commissioning of the Body of Christ to be the Church in the world.  It is an invitation to partner with God’s creative, redemptive action in the world.  As we are called, so we are sent.

Each of these elements shapes our character by practicing the politics of the kingdom.  The Triune God is at work within the sacraments and practices in our worship.  They mold and form us into certain types of people, empowered to be God’s hands and feet in the world.  Our desires are sculpted to reflect the heart of God, by which the Spirit creates a passion to live for the kingdom of God… not simply by intellectual assent, but by cruciform living.

Chapter 6: What is the Christian university for?

            First, we must establish, as Smith suggests, that the Christian university is not primarily about providing a Christian worldview or perspective.  That only packages a secular campus-style education with a thin “Christian” veneer.  From this model, students typically bifurcate the secular and the sacred, not understanding that everything is sacred.  However, if it is character formation, then students in various fields of study will embody Christianity in their work, rather than keeping the two separate.  Information ultimately does not shape someone like formational education is capable of doing.  That is the type of education, if we want a lasting impact, we must strive toward.

“If Christian education is not merely about acquiring a Christian perspective or a Christian worldview, what is its goal?  Its goal, I’m suggesting, is the same as the goal of Christian worship: to form radical disciples of Jesus and citizens of the baptismal city who, communally, take up the creational task of being God’s image bearers, unfolding the cultural possibilities latent in creation – but doing so as empowered by the Spirit, following the example of Jesus’s [sic] cruciform cultural labor” (220).

Although this is a seemingly tall order to fill, the university can do nothing less if it expects to be an arm of the missional church.  Ultimately, the university should be about shaping desires, not re-enforcing the cultural status quo.  The Christian university sees every space as a potential classroom for character development.  The dorms, chapel, classroom, lunchroom, and even the gym are spaces that can dramatically shape us.  To ignore these other areas can be detrimental to shaping students through a “pedagogy of desire.”  And, education cannot simply be about the dissemination of information, but must help students embody the Gospel message in their learning.  The Christian university is a worshiping community that lives out of the sacraments, shaping us into the people God has called us to be in the world.

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