Imagining the Kingdom with James K. A. Smith


After hITKcoverolding my breath for 3 months until the spring semester was over, I’ve finally started reading James K. A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. It’s the 2nd installment of his “Cultural Liturgies” project and follows what could be the best book I’ve read in several years: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. You can find my extremely brief summary of that book right hereYou can find a great review of Imagining the Kingdom over at the Englewood Review of Books.

What does Smith have in store with this book?

The focus of this second volume is to home in on these themes, further exploring the shape of a liturgical anthropology in order to articulate a Christian philosophy of action that (1) recognizes the nonconscious, pretheoretical “drivers” of our action and behavior, centered in what I call the imagination; (2) accounts for the bodily formation of our habituated orientation to the world; and thus (3) appreciates the centrality of story as rooted in this “bodily basis of meaning” and as a kind of pretheoretical compass that guides and generates human action (p13-14).

Hmmm… that sounds nice and all, but what exactly does it mean?

In short, the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story (p14).

Ahhh… much better! Smith wants to help us understand what really causes us to do what we do. This is important because the life of Christian discipleship is not a “spectator sport.” It’s full contact and, as John Wimber would say, “Everybody gets to play.” We are all actors, agents, the movers and the shakers. We are a sent people who are caught up in the missio Dei – the mission of the Triune God (p3-8).

Smith is particularly interested in how we are shaped by “secular liturgies” (like going to the mall) and the role of Christian worship as a practice that re-shapes or re-forms us over against all the ways we are formed by the practices all around us. In addition, Smith is concerned about re-framing the paradigm of Christian education, universities in particular, from an “information” model to a “formation” model. Basically, Christian education and Christian worship are preparing us for the same thing: our participation in the mission of God (p3-8). But, how does this formation happen?

Smith’s response to this question has me uber-excited about finishing this book:

And this is how worship works: Christian formation is a conversion of the imagination effected by the Spirit, who recruits our most fundamental desires by a kind of narrative enchantment – by inviting us narrative animals into a story that seeps into our bones and becomes the orienting background of our being-in-the-world. Our incarnating God continues to meet us where we are: as imaginative creatures of habit. So we are invited into the life of the Triune God by being invited to inhabit concrete rituals and practices that are “habitations of the Spirit.” As the Son is incarnate – the Word made flesh meeting we who are flesh – so the Spirit meets us in tangible, embodied practices that are conduits of the Spirit’s transformative power. The Spirit marshals our embodiment in order to rehabituate us to the kingdom of God. The material practices of Christian worship are not exercises in spiritual self-management but rather the creational means that our gracious God deigns to inhabit for our sanctification (p14-15).

I can dig it.

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4 comments on “Imagining the Kingdom with James K. A. Smith

  1. jmw says:

    Mmm! I love it. First of all, I think it’s amazing how orthodox his approach is: Trinity, Incarnation, biblical narrative, high pneumatology, high anthropology, etc. and yet not orthodox. fundamentalist/dogmatic sense. I think he is on to something and we can find rich meaning in the orthodox faith when we approach it as he does (i.e. within a narrative framework and with this whole “liturgical anthropology” in which human beings are desiring creatures, etc.). Wonderful.

    Secondly, I’m stoked to hear that in this second volume he is locating the work of the Spirit in the realm of “imagination.” That is phenomenal. I’ve been fascinated with the role of imagination in theology/spiritual formation ever since I read a sentence that spoke of the gospel as “a campaign of ‘guerrilla theatre’, a battle for people’s hearts and wills, and rooted firmly in a bid to capture their imaginations,” (from an essay by Trevor Hart called “Imagination for the Kingdom God?” in a book called “The Eschatology of Jürgen Moltmann, ed. Richard Bauckham).

    I wish I was there to read and chat with you. Sounds like a great read. I will be getting along with this first volume and hope to catch up soon!

  2. jmw says:

    First sentence should have read: “… and yet not orthodox in a fundamentalist/dogmatic defenders of truth sense.”

    • joe d says:

      I agree. He seems to take all of that orthodoxy and weave it together very well. And, he makes clear in this second book that this is all in service to orthopraxis – “philosophy of action.” I’m really excited after reading through the introduction… granted, it’ll probably take me all summer to get through it!

      He has a very specific definition of “imagination” that he spells out in the 2nd book; not sure if its in the first tho. He distances it from “popular” understanding and locates it more in what he calls the “precognitive” register. So, the imagination is like all the unsaid, unnoticed, unexamined, invisible, under-the-radar stuff that “makes sense” out of what we do. So, quick example, he talks about “just/good eating” and Wendell Berry (again, he just keeps getting better!) and discusses how we usually respond by saying, “We need to *think about* how we eat/what we’re eating more critically and then we would eat better/more justly!” This approach fails because it does not address the imagination/heart/body. Instead, we need new/better/more just eating *practices/habits* that re-form what “makes sense” to us.

      Glad you’re finally 😉 getting around to reading this stuff!

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