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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Smith on What Victoria’s Secret Knows Better than the Church

I suggest that, on one level, Victoria’s Secret is right just where the church has been wrong. More specifically, I think we should recognize and admit that the marketing industry – which promises an erotically charged transcendence through media that connects to our heart and imagination – is operating with a better, more creational, more incarnational, more holistic anthropology than much of the (evangelical) church. In other words, I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied desiring creatures whose being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures – creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire…

As Augustine famously put it, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is not a matter of intellect; Augustine doesn’t focus on the fact that we don’t “know” God. The problem here isn’t ignorance or skepticism. At issue is a kind of in-the-bones angst and restlessness that finds its resolution in “rest” – when our precognitive desire settles, finally, on its proper end (the end for which it was made), rather than being constantly frustrated by objects of desire that don’t return our love (idols).

James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, pg. 76,77.

READ THIS BOOK!