21 September 2013

Imagining the Kingdom

A review of

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K. A. Smith, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013.

There is more to Christian discipleship than understanding the Bible or doctrine. Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a trilogy entitled ‘Cultural Liturgies’ in which James Smith tackles this ‘more’ by exploring how imagination, desire and story shape the way we are in the world.

I must confess that I haven’t read the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom. Fortunately Smith has written in such a way that each volume can be read on its own.

In the first volume he argued that ‘we are, primarily and root, affective animals whose worlds are made more by the imagination than by the intellect—that humans are those desiring creatures who live off of stories, narratives, images, and the stuff of poiesis’ (xii). Imagining the Kingdom picks up this argument and develops it in two parts.

The first part, ‘Incarnate Significance’, explores the embodied nature of our knowing and acting, drawing on contemporary thinkers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu to illustrate the importance of the pre-conscious contribution to Christian thought and praxis. In particular, he makes extensive use of Merleau-Ponty’s concept of perception (or embodied knowing) and Bourdieu’s concept of habitus.

Deploying these concepts, he argues that it is not the case that theoria is prior to praxis. We are predisposed to act in the world, but that action does not derive primarily from theoretical attention to the world. Our action is more instinctive than that. Rather our practice in world is shaped by our experience of world. And that experience is shaped by stories, ‘stories that have captivated us, have sunk into our bones—stories that “picture” what we think life is about, what constitutes “the good life.” We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us’ (32). Embodied knowing thus envisaged must be rooted in community: in shared stories and shared communal practices.

Part 2, ‘Sanctified Perception’, weaves the theoretical considerations of Part 1 into an exploration of how worship works and of Christian formation for mission. This latter half of the book presents an appealing picture. It is important that we are reminded that there is far more to being a Christian than merely our attempts to give rational expression to the faith. Smith rightly points towards the important role played by repetition, ritual and story-telling.

The first chapter of this section looks at how worship works in the broadest sense. Drawing on Part 1, he defines human beings as imaginative, narrative animals. Our embodied knowing and our shared practices are formed by our imaginations. This allows him to present the world as liturgical, where liturgy is defined as ‘rituals and practices that constitute the embodied stories of a body politic’. He continues, ‘If liturgies are “rituals of ultimate concern” that form identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and that do so in a way that means to trump other formations, they do so because they are those story-laden practices that are absorbed into the imaginative epicenter of action and behavior.’ (109) Our desires are formed by such ‘cultural liturgies’, and Smith offers smartphone usage as an example.

The second chapter of Part 2 explores the implications for Christian formation for mission. For Smith spiritual formation takes place primarily through worship rather than catechesis. Through worship, we become immersed in the gospel narrative and reoriented to the story of salvation history. And this results in the gradual transformation of our reactions: In face of wrongdoing or injustice, we show mercy instead of revenge; in face of suffering, compassion instead of callousness; in face of tragedy, hope instead of despair.

Smith offers a sustained critique of intellectualistic piety without ever becoming anti-intellectual, a judicious relativization of the role of the intellect in Christian discipleship. Positively, he places a welcome emphasis on the centrality of worship in Christian formation and mission (though other reviewers have commented critically on the conservatism of his view of worship).

Having said that, my Barthian background makes me sceptical of any approach that relies so heavily on expositions of perspectives from outwith the Christian tradition(s). One has to ask oneself what presuppositions about the way the world is have been slipped into Smith's argument courtesy of his adoption of Bourdieu and Merleau-Ponty. Is this account of human knowing and formation as uncontested as his presentation suggests? Are there other approaches that might supplement, complement or contradict this one?

In spite of that reservation, I think this is a well-written and thought-provoking volume that will repay careful study by theologians and pastors alike.