ArticleComments [0]
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)
James K. A. Smith
Baker Academic, 2013
224 pp., $22.99

Buy Now

Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern

Irreducibly Embodied

4 questions on "Imagining the Kingdom."

When our faculty book group began reading James K. A. Smith's new book Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (hereafter ITK), one of us was suffering from "benign positional vertigo"—a mild wooziness punctuated by dizzy spells. This condition meant experiencing something like waking up in an unfamiliar environment, with the disorientation that remains until one's senses and thoughts collaborate to make sense of that strange context. Such sensations of being off-center, of the brain's interface with the surrounding world being disjointed, brought poignancy to our reading of Smith's argument. Smith claims that our cognitions presuppose a corporeal understanding of the world around us—"visceral plausibility structure[s]"—constructed by the narratives of our lives. We find Smith's argument largely persuasive and helpful. His claims, however, also prompt questions about the accuracy of his anthropology, the nature of "worship" (as broadly defined by Smith), the relationship between the Church and Christian colleges, and implications for such educational communities.

Is Smith's Anthropology Correct?

Smith published Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (DTK) in 2009. In February of this year, he followed up with ITK, the second volume of the planned trilogy Cultural Liturgies. Together, these volumes pursue the ambitious goal of renewing "Christian practice," by which Smith means mainly what happens in Christian churches and colleges. The core claim is that effective worship and education must be based on correct anthropology, on a clear understanding of how human beings really act, know, and learn. Much is at stake in our account of human nature and of the relation of human beings to God. If the anthropology is right, then our ecclesial and pedagogical practices have at least a chance of being effective. But if the anthropology is wrong (i.e., if we have missed what drives human beings as human), then our policies and plans will be wrongly oriented. At best, our efforts may be effective only by a fluke; at worst, they will be effective in precisely the wrong ways, and our attempts to nurture and improve Christian worship and education will be misguided.

Part 1 of ITK is devoted to Smith's channeling of "two key theorists of embodied intentionality," Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu. Merleau-Ponty describes human being-in-the-world (including knowing, intending, and acting) as irreducibly embodied. To be a Christian, for example, is not simply to apprehend certain doctrines intellectually but also for one's imagination—what Smith calls praktognosia or practical knowledge (a bodily, non-discursive, pre-reflective orientation)—to be shaped and active in certain ways. Bourdieu focuses on communal practices (non-propositional, socialized actions, rituals, and inclinations)—instantiations of what Smith calls habitus—which determine more deeply and consistently than any theoretical cognition how human beings relate, decide, desire, and worship. Learning, then, is more fundamentally a matter of becoming proficient in such practices than it is becoming conscious of concepts and propositions.

Smith's extended homage to these French theorists—somewhat repetitious, but written accessibly and with verve—serves his exposition of the anthropological "inner logic" of Christian churches' and schools' formation of believers. Christian formation is missional; its end is for Christians to be sent into the world. Smith therefore claims to be opposed to a hierarchical dualism of mind and body that prioritizes intellectual, reflective, discursive cognition over practical, affective, aesthetic involvement. For this very reason it is odd to see repeatedly this very dualism, inverted but reinstated: e.g., the "intentionality that precedes knowledge and whose locus is the body"; the bodily "exercises in constitution that did not engage my ratiocinative capacities for a second"; and the assertion that "our bodies make and respond to the world … in ways that are independent of representations or deliberative processing."

There are two puzzles in such patterns. One concerns the confidence with which Smith can insist that the affective, embodied aspect of human life is prior to, and independent of, the cognitive and deliberative. Are the dimensions of human thought and action really so neatly distinguished and ordered? The other puzzle (highlighted by our colleague David A. Vander Laan) has to do with Smith's reluctance to acknowledge the embodied nature of the intellect itself. Deliberation, reflection, and consciousness—the stuff of which propositions, cognition, and worldviews are made—do not appear in a disembodied domain of abstraction. They happen in (even if they cannot be simply reduced to!) neurons and nerves, gyri and sulci, surrounded and supplied by glia, blood, and bone. Reading, writing, and arguing are communal, material practices. Rationality, too, is inescapably and irreducibly embodied and social. We agree that non-conscious perceptions and dispositions are deeply embedded in the texture of human being-in-the-world. But a simplistic reversal of the Cartesian mind-over-matter hierarchy is at cross-purposes with the careful anthropology and the pedagogical and liturgical seriousness for which Smith rightly calls.

Part 2 of ITK describes what liturgy "does": it immerses us in a communal narrative, "not only inform[ing] the intellect but reform[ing] the very praktognosia by which we 'feel' our way around the world." Liturgy gives substance and direction to our embodied desires, affections, and loves. Importantly, Christian worship is not the only practice that fits this description. Indeed, Smith makes a major point of construing many constellations of practices and dispositions—many liturgies—as doing the same work of formation, in competition with Christian faith. Individualistic, consumeristic, nationalistic, and other ways of being-in-the-world shape us (and our congregants and students) against the gospel and the kingdom. Smith's urgent recommendation to pastors, teachers, and worship leaders is to realize that this competition is being fought at levels and in modes hardly limited to conscious, reflective thought. On the whole, we agree. Yet it would be easy to get the impression from Smith that the solution is simply to expose people, consistently and intensively, to the right liturgy: that Christian worship by itself—if practiced often enough to "seep into the bones"—forms a deeply Christian person (indeed a deeply Christian community).[1] But Christian experience is surely more complex than this. We may show up in the pews week after week, participate in fellowship, listen to the Word, feed on the body and blood of Jesus as we receive his promises—and still be capable of remarkable feats of compartmentalization. We can do all of the above, passionately and gratefully, every Sunday for decades, and just as routinely pick up our ways of unbelief, despair, and alienation again on Monday. A Christian liturgical anthropology cannot ignore the infuriating, confusing, corrosive dynamics of sin and brokenness, dynamics that regularly frustrate and demoralize the most dedicated Christian pastors and educators.

Who's in Charge of Worship?

Attention to sin and to fallen creatures' need for the Holy Spirit is understated in ITK's exploration of worship. Instead, Smith focuses on humans' formation via the liturgies of our daily lives; he emphasizes habituation rather than the unplanned gifts and interventions of the Spirit. (Reviewers of Smith's DTK have also flagged neglect of the Spirit's role and related overstatement of human agency in overpowering sin.) While Smith alerts us to the important role that liturgies (whether sacred or secular) play in identity formation and even worldview, he could offer a clearer picture of what worship itself is or does.

The book as a whole purports to show "how worship works," yet readers may leave wondering which view of worship Smith is describing and/or espousing. In his more optimistic moments, Smith lauds the possibilities of worship: e.g., he equates the "end of worship" with the "end of Christian education"—i.e., a sending out for action, a vocational call and response. "We are (re)made to be makers," he claims, and he later reiterates that "the end of worship is mission … we gather to be sent." Yet Smith seems haunted by the "paralyzing" realities of 21st-century practices such as the habitual use of social media, both enabling and encouraging self-display. Since he defines humans as "creatures who can't not worship," he stresses that we are shaped by cultural liturgies of many kinds, some far from holy. Perhaps because Smith's view of liturgy includes a wide variety of practices (from tweeting to hymn singing), his definition of worship seems torn between the actual and the ideal.

What is clear about Smith's view of worship is that it relies heavily on imagination—hence, the book's title and theme. He describes imagination as "a kind of faculty by which we navigate and make sense of our world"—imagination serves as both pilot and interpreter. In developing his liturgical anthropology, Smith invokes Augustine, Aristotle, and others to argue for the role of the senses in "knowing" the world via experience and image. He builds a case for the centrality of story in Christian life and influence, titling his final chapter "Restor(y)ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission." Readers may be reminded of debates on the scope and application of "worldview"; indeed, in one of Smith's attempts to "picture" his argument throughout the book with asides boxed in gray, he invites readers to pray a worldview in order to absorb its story "in [the] bones."

Smith hints that imagination may offer a "third way" between cognition and affect (hence avoiding dualistic reduction in his anthropology). However, Smith might profit from Aristotle's concept of mythos (i.e., plot or narrative) as he helps readers navigate this potential "third way." Via mythos as well as the better-known appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos, the Aristotelian tradition has navigated divides between thinking and feeling. The opportunity for Smith would be to interpret story (roughly equivalent to mythos) as a kind of rationale, even hypothesis, for how life or "worship" works. In Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity, Jeffrey Walker traces a progression in classical thought from mythos to hypothesis: "A mythos … is a kind of 'case' that demonstrates the way things are, or could be… . Aristotle's term mythos was … replaced by the term hypothesis." Via Aristotle and his inheritors, we can understand story as explanatory, a kind of rationale for how life works. Smith comes close to this insight when characterizing cognitive narratology as "interested in the unique 'logic' of story and the imagination, the sort of visceral induction that characterizes our narrative sense." But he soon retreats again to binaries: "Stories have reasons of which Reason knows nothing, but about which our bodies know almost everything."

(How) Can We Love God with our Minds?

In ITK (as in its prequel), Smith provokes readers to question the habits of the Christian university, particularly as a part of the larger body of Christ. He insists that the telos of Christian worship and Christian education is the same: being "caught up" in the sending mission of God. Moreover, Smith argues that both must recalibrate to account for humans' embodied, pre-cognitive, habitus-grounded nature. What, then, does this shift mean for the Christian university? Can its focus on worship and the formation of Christian affections be distinguished from that of the Church as a whole?

Smith's ambiguity about worship proves significant here. It is not always clear when he intends "worship" to describe the totality of Christians' lives (culture-making, etc.) and when he denotes the more narrow corporate worship of particular churches (think Sunday morning). ITK at times suggests the latter, focusing on worship liturgies shared across denominational lines and calling universities to incorporate these practices. Yet Smith's Calvinistic and indeed Kuyperian call to extend Christ's lordship over all of creation suggests that education itself should not be excluded from the category of "worship." What does this ambiguity mean for educational institutions? On the one hand, it might suggest that the university be brought into closer relationship with churches, highlighting the continuity between its educational mission and ecclesial life and worship. At the extreme, this ambiguity might eliminate the institution of the Christian university as we now know it, replacing it with enhanced, church-based programming. On the other hand, if education is itself a form of worship when it fulfills its reflective mission, then the university might deliberately avoid mirroring the forms of worship used by the Church assembled. But Smith does not move powerfully in either of these directions—i.e., either to collapse or to define the distinctions between Church and college.

To the extent that Smith stands by his "education as habitus" argument—that learning is practice—there is little room to distinguish the university as uniquely focused on the life of the mind. In his construction, our minds emerge out of a process of embodied shaping and acquisition, making bodily practice consistently primary. When he tilts toward this dualism, Smith might formulate it thus: loving God with the mind must attend first to the body. Giving this sort of priority to the body certainly comports with the priority of churches in Smith's account of worship-as-activity, but leaves little room (or at least a teleological question mark) for any distinctive role for the Christian university apart from the worship practices of the Church.

More encouragingly, Smith also shows some signs of a less dualistic, more dialectical approach. Just as body shapes mind, so reflection is brought into dialogue with environment, experience, and practice to recalibrate and shape these. Smith describes his own work in ITK in just such terms: "my hope is to foster intentional reflection on practice in order to encourage reflective immersion in practice." To the extent that reflection informs practice, the Christian university has a critical role to play in refining worshipful liturgies, and indeed is a set of its own liturgies of reflection-as-worship. In other words, the Church needs the university to reflect on its practices even as the university arises as part of the Church. Once again, readers can infer a possible—if underdeveloped—"third way" in Smith's argument.

This dialectical approach suggests that "worship" in the context of the university might not incorporate the liturgies of ecclesial worship any more (or any less) than would the liturgies of other institutions of faithful human culture. One might ask instead about the sorts of liturgies appropriate to an institution focused on loving God with the mind. In DTK's terms, what sorts of "shadow eucharists" (and other liturgies) apply across the range of redeemed human activities—and in particular to the intellectual endeavor? Here, Christian universities might deliberately seek to avoid what Smith calls "the heresy of paraphrase"—perhaps better termed here "the heresy of parachurch"—by not offering chapel-based similitudes of corporate worship that supplant the Church without replacing it. They would do well to explore uniquely academic liturgies such as reading, writing, analysis, memorization, performance, and advising. Furthermore, the dialectic relationship between worship and reflection suggests the import of elaborating the distinctive institutional emphases of churches and universities, and of exploring the variety of possible configurations for their relation. Indeed, a robustly corporate understanding of the church may create more space for differentiated institutional foci, as each part fulfills a particular role and as individuals participate across multiple institutions. The differentiable institutional telos of "loving God with the mind" would of course still encourage close attention to the liturgical, narrative, and embodied aspects of education—but with an eye to what is suited to education-as-worship. In Kuyperian terms, Smith might better account for what worship might look like in the academic "sphere."

One of the ironies of this volume is that it is less affective than DTK: i.e., ITK is somewhat less adroit at engaging the affections of the reader. Bourdieu's habitus and Merleau-Ponty's praktognosia lack something of the storied qualities so artfully communicated in tales of shopping-mall cathedrals, Starbucks "sacraments," Victoria's Secret branding, and the shadow-eucharistic evenings of wine and cheese with friends. This trend is indeed an irony, as the content of this more cognitive volume (ITK) places greater emphasis on humans' embodiment, practices, and pre-cognitive ways of being in the world. There is a further irony as well: this more academically pitched work may communicate its argument less effectively as a result. ITK's tonal limits actually support the fundamental merit of Smith's overall project: cognition cannot be unhinged from the affections. This conclusion has implications for the university: an institution uniquely focused on loving God with the mind may require special attention to the body, precognitions, habits, and affections in order to faithfully fulfill is intellectually oriented mission. It may well be that these are complements to theory and reflection rather than simply their precedents.

How Then Shall We Live?

Smith argues that the metaphors, stories and liturgies we live by shape our desires more than our beliefs. Given Smith's claims (without critique), what are the implications for college faculty and staff? Smith's assertion that we are embodied social beings embedded in our culture has very practical implications for all college personnel. What assumptions of the good life and way of navigating through the educational system are being promoted? What kinds of backdrops (wallpaper, as he calls it) set the tone for student experiences? Looking at these subtle and embedded institutional practices and messages might be the first task of faculty and staff alike.

Similarly, if communal liturgies are especially formative, what are the common liturgies that populate our campuses? Analyzing the underlying messages inherent in these practices might be worthwhile. (Smith calls such analysis an "audit.") Finding ways to eliminate the negative practices can then be addressed. The transient nature of the student population makes it possible for institutional practices and stories to be changed over time with intentional efforts at doing so. In addition to college-wide practices, faculty might examine how their own teaching and mentoring practices reveal assumptions of the truth or "good life" and ask the question, "What does each practice do for those enacting it?" Smith argues that routine practices shape us; therefore, we might eliminate practices that foster attitudes that conflict with the kingdom of God, and encourage those that resonate with it. Also, we could make explicit the vision underlying some of our positive practices that are not clearly articulated, understood, or embraced.

One important implication from ITK is that students may not have as much free choice in their actions as we assume—instead, they are embedded in a larger, fallen culture as well as their own long-term practices. These habits may operate on a non-conscious level and become highly resistant to change. College faculty inherit students from other educational institutions (as well as families) that have shaped students' habits and attitudes. How do faculty change these liturgies and mindsets? How much time does it take to offset an early lifetime of training? Indeed, replacing old habits of mind and practice is difficult work. Smith envisions Christian education as "the acquisition of a Christian habitus," and his account of Bourdieu suggests that it is "a slow process of co-option, initiation, and incorporation"—perhaps taking longer than the four years students spend at college. College, therefore, may provide the initiation of new ways of being and imagining. Old patterns, mindsets, and stories, especially worldly ones that are constantly reinforced in the larger culture (and sometimes in the church and the family), may be difficult to break or replace.

Still, the acquisition of practices, metaphors, and habitus will be enhanced when students are immersed in a new, supportive environment. Therefore, residential living-and-learning environments provide a better context for counter-cultural formation than do commuter colleges or distance education. Moving to a college campus takes students out of their old environments with established cues for behavior. Students at residential colleges are in a rich environment to establish new routines among others who can encourage and reinforce Godly practices and affections. Smith makes the claim that Christian faith is more than a set of beliefs; it extends to the imaginations, affections, practices, temperament, and "stories we live by." In order for Christian colleges to effectively engage in Christian formation, they need an environment in which "the Story of the gospel is imaginatively woven into the entire ethos of the institution … it requires incorporating intentional historic practices of Christian worship." We agree that the gospel should be woven into all aspects of the Christian college: residence life, student life, and faculty activity. No small task.

We want to emphasize the essential work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about transformed hearts and lives that are united with God. Still, we take Smith's claims in ITK seriously in informing our "work" in partnering with God in kingdom work. We are called to be faithful stewards—cultivating good soil receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Smith reminds us how to cultivate good soil, but ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who infuses and changes lives.

Jesse Covington (associate professor, political science), Maurice Lee (assistant professor, religious studies), Sarah Skripsky (assistant professor, English), and Lesa Stern (associate professor, communication studies) teach at Westmont College.

1. In conversation at a recent seminar at our institution, Smith moderated his position by saying that he does not hold to a liturgical determinism whereby practices automatically produce desired results.

Most ReadMost SharedMost Commented

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide