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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

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


Irreducibly Embodied

4 questions on "Imagining the Kingdom."

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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.

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