Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is one of the hardest books to give a rating to. The reason is simple: his main thesis is dead on and needs to be digested by numerous Christians and pastors. But some of his details and unanswered questions leave one queasy. I do not often write long reviews, but the book made me think. So here is my lengthy review.
Here are the points in the book I liked.
1. His main thesis, in my words, is that ritual or liturgies shape our desires and our desires cause us to do what we do. Therefore ritual, liturgies, and worship have tremendous influence over our lives. But the influence is subtle. He would argue, and I think rightly, that what we learn in the liturgies of our lives can undo what we learn in a classroom setting. This is why a parent can give a child all the correct doctrine and that child still leaves the righteous path. The parents’ daily liturgies undo their teaching. I agree with this wholeheartedly. He does a great job of showing how the world has competing liturgies. In chapter 3 he lists the mall, entertainment, and the university as secular liturgies that compete with the Church. He then spends a long chapter discussing what a historical Christian worship service means and how it shapes our lives. He argues persuasively that the Christian life is more about formation than information. Here Dr. Smith is at his best. His arguments are persuasive and well written. I really enjoyed his discussion of liturgies and desire, as well as how he illustrated his points. As I read, I thought about our liturgy at church and what we are teaching with it. But I also thought about what I do at home. What am I teaching my children through our various family liturgies? Here is why I gave it four stars. The main point is needed tonic for 21st century Christianity.
2. Dr. Smith is a professor at Calvin College, so his burden is for the university. One of the triumphs of the book is his plea for Christian colleges and universities to be rooted in the local church. He describes the Church as the sanctuary with the university being one of the small rooms connected to the sanctuary. For too long, universities have seen themselves as separate from the church, instead of an extension of it. Smith says, “The task of Christian education needs to be reconnected to the thick practices of the church.” (p. 220)
3. Dr. Smith also does a good job of showing that quantity of our liturgies as well as quality matters. Thus our liturgies Monday through Saturday must line up with our liturgies on Sunday. For most of the book this is implicit, but in the last chapter he makes the point explicit as he discusses the Christian university. (p. 226-227) I think quantity is also why people can have a biblical liturgy on Sunday and yet, that liturgy not impact their lives. They are immersed in a Christian liturgy for 1 to 2 hours on Sunday, but swimming in secular liturgies the rest of the week. It is not a surprise that the secular liturgies win.
4. There is one other point, which I do not remember Dr. Smith making, but is still essential to his thesis. What he describes, I think would work best in a local or parish setting. In other words, his thesis wars against large, impersonal classrooms and churches. I am not saying it can’t work with larger groups, but it would be more difficult. It is hard to see the formation he is aiming at happening without the personal connection between pastor/teach and parishioners/students and also between the parishioners and students themselves.
Here are the things I did not like.
1. The main problem I have with the book is that despite the rhetoric about countering secular liturgies, Dr. Smith often sounds like he is reciting one. For example in his discussion of the confession of sin in the worship service he says this, “We create institutions and systems that are unjust, not only because of individual bad choices, but also because the very structures and systems of these institutions are wrongly ordered, fostering systematic racism or patriarchy or exploitation of the poor.” (p. 178) This sounds like a list of talking points I would hear from a liberal Hollywood actor. It is hard to see how this is counter acting any secular liturgy at all. Also there is no discussion of abortion or sodomy in the book, despite the fact that these two sins are a primary part of the current secular liturgy. I agree that racism and exploitation of the poor are sins. But is racism more rampant than our culture’s hatred of children? Yet abortion goes unmentioned. I am not saying greed is not a problem in the church. The church has absolutely been influenced by our consumerist, materialistic culture. But Dr. Smith leaves out obvious signs that accompany that greed, sins like abortion and sodomy. So I agree with Dr. Smith that liturgies have power and the world has competing liturgies. But reading between the lines of the book, it seems the Dr. Smith has been shaped by most of the prominent secular liturgies, such as feminism, the pro-choice movement, the environmental movement, the sodomite movement, and the wealthy are guilty movement instead of by a biblical liturgy.
2. This brings me to the second aspect of the book I didn’t like. There is very little emphasis on the Bible as the check on our liturgies and Christian formation. This is why Dr. Smith can say with a straight face, “The minister raises her hands.” (p. 207) He does quote from the Bible from time to time, but it does not seem to guide his thinking. There is almost no biblical exegesis. Yet, there will not be true Christian formation/discipleship without a deep love for and obedience to the Scriptures. His first chapters are filled with philosophers, sociologists, and Christians, but very little Bible. Because liturgy is so powerful, it must be explicitly biblical. We cannot merely say that we think we are doing Christian liturgy. We must prove it biblically. Dr. Smith did not need to necessarily do that comprehensively in his book. But he did need to show more clearly that the Scriptures were guiding this thinking. If I was a Martian and read his book, I would never know that Bible was the compass that guided his thinking.
3. There is little discussion of the role faith in Christ plays in being formed by liturgies. One thought that kept pounding my head was. “Yes, I know liturgies are powerful. But I also know men and women who have sat under biblical liturgies for decades and yet live rotten, evil lives. How do these two truths weave together?” On page 208, he briefly addresses this problem in a footnote, saying he plans on discussing this in volumes 2 and 3. However, the deciding factor in our lives is a growing, vibrant faith in Christ that works itself out in obedience to his word. Christian liturgies can become instruments of death when someone participates apart from faith in Jesus Christ, the only Savior of sinners. Dr. Smith might plan on discussing this in the future. Maybe he assumed that faith in Christ was an understood prerequisite to a faithful liturgy. However, I did not get that impression. It seemed at times that faith in Christ was not even a factor in his thesis.
4. Finally, this might be a little picky, but I disagree with the quote from Stanley Hauerwas, which Dr. Smith approves of. “Becoming a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding but of becoming part of a different community with a different set of practices.” (p. 220) Paul and Jesus are constantly trying to tell Christians how they are to view themselves. You are salt and light. You were dead, but now you alive. You have been raised up with Christ. Our practices are shaped by who we are, by our self-understanding. And our practices also shape who we are. I know Dr. Smith’s focus is on the latter of these two. But the former is true as well. A proper self-understanding is essential to Christian formation. Self-understanding is believing what God says about us. One of the great acts of the Christian imagination is to view ourselves how God views us. If I understood Dr. Smith correctly, then I think he overreaches. Yes, it is not just about “a new or changed self-understanding,” but to exclude that is unbiblical.