104 of 110 people found the following review helpful
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Which comes first?
Belief or practice?
Christian worship or a Christian worldview?
In recent years, evangelicals have rightly discerned that many people in our churches lack even a rudimentary understanding of theology and the Bible. Too often, the people sitting in our churches on Sunday do not know what they believe or why.
In response to this problem, leaders have created a number of resources designed to help Christians develop a Christian worldview - a biblical framework for understanding life. I am encouraged by the worldview trend, as I believe it addresses a neglected aspect of evangelical church life.
But James K. A. Smith says that worldview training does not go far enough. In his new book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009), Smith makes the case that worldview training targets only one aspect of our humanity - the mind. The assumption is this: when we think like Christians, we will then act like Christians. Smith challenges this notion and calls evangelicals to look beyond informational understandings of discipleship to a worship-centered view of discipleship, one that demonstrates how our liturgies form us into the people of God.
The book begins with an excellent question:
"What if education wasn't first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?" (18).
Smith invites us to see Christian education as formed by worship, not just informed by teaching. Christian discipleship should not be reduced to the transmission of knowledge; true discipleship forms our desires.
Smith begins by challenging the anthropology that casts humans primarily in the role of "thinkers". Instead, Smith believes humans are primarily "lovers" (worshippers). When we over-intellectualize what it means to become a Christian, we wind up with a "bobble-head" Christianity (42). We should realize instead that it is what we desire and love that animates our passion.
Smith also pays attention to other cultural "liturgies." By taking his readers through the cultural liturgy of the shopping mall, the sports arena, the academy, etc., Smith skillfully demonstrates how immersion into these cultures forms our desires and communicates what "the good life" looks like.
"The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether "sacred" or "secular" - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love." (25)
Smith's proposal is very thought-provoking. But I have a few concerns.
My first concern is a personal pet peeve. I dislike seeing Christian writers refer to humans as "animals." Smith uses the description "desiring, imaginative animals" when speaking of humanity. As someone concerned about our culture's diminishing of the uniqueness of human life, I prefer that our terminology better reflect our theology about human value.
Secondly, Smith puts forth too many "either-ors" in this book. One example concerns patriotism. For Smith, there is no complexity when it comes to competing allegiances. It is so black and white that one must choose between God or country. I agree that some evangelicals overemphasize national allegiance, but this problem is not resolved by denying the place of patriotism altogether.
Another example is Smith's downplaying of the role of the intellect. It is one thing to say that worldview is not enough (point taken). But it is quite another to tip the scales in the other direction. Though his picture of "bobble-head" Christians is memorable, I don't think it is the most accurate description of contemporary evangelicals. When considering our lack of biblical knowledge, we might picture instead a bloated body with a shrunken head.
I wish Smith had addressed many of the objections that one could raise. For instance, how does he explain the fact that many people immerse themselves in Christian worship week to week and are still not formed into the image of Christ? How do we deal with this unfortunate reality? Liturgy cannot be the only (or even primary ) answer.
Likewise, in arguing that worship precedes worldview, Smith says that Christians worshipped "before they got around to abstract theologizing or formulating a Christian worldview." (139) True, but their worship was based on common beliefs. Worship eventually propelled them to "abstract theology" about Jesus Christ - his person and work.
For Smith, liturgy births doctrine, rather than doctrine birthing liturgy. I am not convinced that this is the case. The early Christians worshipped because of the truth of the resurrection of Christ. They believed; therefore, they worshipped. In turn, their worship solidifies their belief. There is a synergy between worship and worldview, not a direct cause and effect.
I love high-church liturgy. I am attracted to Smith's call to consider how our worship practices affect our discipleship and formation. I would like nothing more than to go along and say "yes" to everything in this book.
But some of Smith's dichotomies are false, and so while I greatly enjoyed this book, and found it to be one of the most thought-provoking books I read this year, I remain unconvinced that Smith's proposal offers the best answers to the problems in evangelical life.
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
David George Moore
- Published on Amazon.com
I spent a fair bit of time reading, pondering, and taking notes on this book. It is well-written, insightful, and it made me think harder about some important matters.
My three star ranking is due to one fundamental issue that kept nagging me throughout the book, namely the claim that worship precedes thinking/doctrine/beliefs. There is no doubt we love things many times before we can properly explain them, but I do not find the clean progression of moving from worship to thinking about our beliefs the right alternative. It seems there is a more dynamic interplay rather than the clean progression Smith argues for.
16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
Phillip H. Steiger
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It is a ubiquitous question for thinking and engaged Christians everywhere in every age: How do we understand the tension between the influence of the culture upon the church and the influence of the church upon the culture? In much of the recent evangelical literature on this subject, the focus has been on worldview. The big ideas have been ideas, beliefs, and doctrines and how Christians ought to transform theirs or recapture a distinctly Christian set. Smith sees the project in a different light. In fact, he sees the matter of influence to be upon our ideas and not necessarily through our ideas.
In many ways, Smith reaches back through modern and enlightenment-influenced theology and philosophy to Augustine and his belief that we are primarily affective creatures before we are rational creatures: we love before we think. And if the central questions about our character and formation are about our loves, we ought to get to what forms and shapes our loves. Smith's fundamental claim and the one that drives the book is that "liturgies" form our loves, and thus, form us. Early on he notes, "The core claim of this book is that liturgies - whether `sacred' or `secular' - shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people and what defines us in what we love." (pg. 25)
Though the primary audience of the book is Christian education, Smith is aware, and I wholeheartedly agree, that his work has far-reaching application outside of the academy. If his premise is true, then this work has implications for the form and shape of the church as much as the university. I will briefly summarize the two sections of the book with some of his major points, and then offer some questions and analysis.
The first of two sections is devoted to an expression of anthropology, focusing on humans as loving/affective creatures and how those loves are formed. Cultural liturgies are examined and exposited as Smith makes the case for loving as the fundamental act of the human being in place of reasoning. Most worldview thinking, he argues, has the human creature exactly upside down as it emphasizes rationalistic behavior over affective influences.
For someone familiar with some of the basics of virtue theory, it will not come as a surprise that Smith argues that habits and practices play a large, if not primary, role in the forming of loves and the human character. He also employs the structure of "social imaginary" to describe how the practices of our lives and our worship form us as "noncognitive" directors of our actions and dispositions toward the world.
In the second section, Smith moves from anthropology to the more constructive task of dealing with the actual ins and outs of Christian worship. In the first section he argues that we need to form a new way of imagining and seeing the Kingdom of God, and in the second part he goes about dealing with how that happens. He asks, "In other words, what does worship say about Christian faith?" (pg. 134) It is a good question, and it deserves to be dealt with. What do our actual practices as Christians tell us about the shape of our faith in Christ? The term "practical atheist" may be overused in some contexts, but its point fits just fine with Smith's larger idea. Are we as Christ followers worshiping (acting) in such a way as to make good sense of our faith?
While some reviewers have noted that the first part of the book may be stronger than the second, I think a degree of charity needs to be applied to this second part. I must admit that I lost some steam reading through to the end as Smith listed the various "practical" applications of his theory, but I still found them instructive and at times provocative.
I found a lot of Smith's argument to be the kind of thing we ought to be talking about in our churches and universities. Are we guilty of a kind of Gnosticism in which we have disconnected what we believe from how we behave and what we do when we gather together? Have we lost a sense of being deeply affective creatures who are often moved by our experiences more than the latest lecture we heard? We need to wrestle with the implications of these issues. Given that, there are some assertions and arguments in the book to push against.
I'll get a rather small thing out of the way first. From time to time Smith seems to erect scarecrows to knock down. One particular instance happens in his sidebar on The Moulin Rouge. His argument is that there is something valuable in the way love is portrayed (at least in its force in the human being) there, and he notes, "And so one could suggest that the kingdom looks more like Montmarte than Colorado Springs!" (pg. 72) The play, of course, is on a stereotype of Colorado Springs as a kind of evangelical Mecca where nearly everyone is blindly evangelical and in lock-step with the Republican party. I was disappointed in that kind of broad-stroke ad hominem, but it isn't the only place where part of his argument relies on pigeon-holing a set of evangelicals in a cubicle and knocking the whole thing down.
Then there are times where it seems Smith is too heavy-handed with other points of view in order to make his argument. The result of this tact is that he portrays an apparent disregard for and a simple denial of different points of view. Smith clearly argues that we are primarily affective/loving beings, but at times he appears to say we are exclusively affective/loving beings, showing a disregard for what seems to me to be the truth of the influence of ideas and reason. Instead of a both/and or primary/secondary approach Smith seems to want to have an either/or approach, which doesn't help his overall case.
Early on Smith characterizes his foil as "rationalistic," "a talking-head version of Christianity," and provocatively enough a "'bobble head' Christianity" where what goes on in the head far outweighs what goes on in the body (pg. 42). While this can be true of some forms of Christian theology heavily influenced by the enlightenment, is it true of all forms of theology concerned with true doctrine and the content of the propositional messages we proclaim? As seems to be the case with theologians and Christians influenced by a postmodern philosophy, there might be a temptation to make a category mistake here: all who disagree with us are disjointed enlightenment thinkers.
Another example of this kind of reasoning appears in the second half of the book on page 163, "The `image of God' (imago Dei) is not some de facto property of Homo sapiens (whether will or reason or language or what have you); rather, the image of God is a task, a mission" (emphasis his). This is the kind of thing that shoots the argument he wants to make in the foot. We are put off by the unnecessary bifurcation of the two - property vs. mission - and we are on guard from then on. I find it obvious in both the Scripture and in the theology on the subject that the image of God is at least a set of properties endowed to us by God that make us, not worms, uniquely human. It is then be constructive to note that the image of God is a "task, a mission" that we have as creatures living under God.
I simply do not see a logical contradiction in his argument if he took love to be primary to reason, and then argued for the proper places of each in the liturgies of the believer.
There is a lot to be gained through Smith's book, and he raises arguments we need to wrestle with that we don't often think through. And for that, I think this book is very useful for Christian educators and pastors. But I hope that as he fills out this project he will avoid some of the unnecessary rhetorical and argumentative devices that hurt the overall argument.
35 of 40 people found the following review helpful
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Why is it that the everydayness of many Western Christians' lifestyles often reflect the values of their culture instead of Christ? How do our ways of engaging and teaching discipleship often leave our actions thin but our heads heavy? What is it that our actions betray our words or beliefs so that we proclaim God as highest but pay homage to the other gods of entertainment, consumerism, or nationalism? James K.A. Smith's newest reflection on education at its core is a reflection on discipleship. In this quest, he gives a fuller and more correct understanding of humans as affective, desiring animals in able to work towards a deeper discipleship, but fails to go beyond classical liturgical practices. This book is valuable to many: students, teachers, Sunday Schools, professors, preachers, and academics.
While I'll hold off on a full review I will say that he takes off better than he lands. Part I of the book is devoted to constructing a deeper philosophical anthropology than the anthropology modernity or romanticism. The core argument of Desiring the Kingdom is that humans at their core are not thinking or even believing animals, but rather are precognitive, pre-rationalist lovers. We are what we love, we are what we worship. Furthermore, the first part of the book reflects upon the power of "secular" liturgies that form and shape human desire and love, so that our love is misdirected. Much of my aggravation from my own as well the discipleship of the Western church, is that the true formative practices of our daily lives come less from the church than the mall, White House, flag, Jerry World (the newest Mecca of entertainment and competition: the Dallas Cowboys Stadium). While these things are not evil in themselves, they should not be the focus of our desire as they tend to claim.
Overall, the power of Part I is Smith's aim is to unveil the truth that behind every pedagogy or practice for teaching is a philosophical anthropology, or understanding of human existence. I fully appreciate Smith's understanding of human anthropology: "loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don't inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines."
So, instead of being pushed by our beliefs, we are "pulled by a telos that we desire."
Part II builds off of the anthropology of humans as "fundamentally and primordially- lovers," to instill worship as the creation of habits that "constitute the fulcrum of our desires." Smith claims rightly that instead of focusing on changing beliefs or worldviews, the church or particularly the Christian university must inculcate habits that counter the cultural practices that are "thick"- or powerful enough to (mis)guide human desire. The final section of Desiring the Kingdom reflects on the worship practices in the Christian tradition that are "formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life." Possibly the most important piece in this section for myself is Smith's argument that the imago die is basically the participation of humans in the missio dei, but not in those words.
This is where Smith gets closest to being right. The practices that will ultimately guide human desire lie with and beyond the Sunday morning worship service. "[T]he image of God is a task, a mission," writes Smith. Thus, beyond classical liturgical practices found in "worship," the church must create an ethos and ethic of participation in the mission of God. It is only by moving from doing mission and worship, to being mission and worship through ministering, living among, and fighting for caught up in God's mission of redemptive love that the church will claim once again the hearts of the church with "thick" practices. Counter-formation must occur beyond the walls of Sunday morning.
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
G. Kyle Essary
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What is a human being? Since Descartes, philosophers will ask questions such as "Is the person who loses their legs in battle still the same person, or does his loss of limbs constitute a partial loss of self?" Thus, you end with the human "person" being either the functions of a brain, or a mind or soul. Our embodiment is removed from our being, since we are foundationally "thinking things." The philosophical revolution that followed Descartes ended up having a vast influence upon the Western world.
Smith explains that in terms of education, since the human is foundationally a "thinking thing," the university must be geared at informing the mind. This move, which actually partially began before the Cartesian revolution, fundamentally confronts the origin of the university in the Christian monastery. The Christian monastery focused on forming the person through practice, repetition, method, sacramental living and worship, while also informing the person through scheduled readings, discussions and teachings. The modern university moved toward focusing on pure information. Now, the student reads books, the teacher lectures while the students take notes in order to pass tests. Most students will skip classes, throw together papers and stay up the night before the exam in order to cram in every last bit of information that will fit. After the semester finishes, the student leaves unchanged and ultimately unformed, waiting for other aspects of culture to form them. What about other forms of knowledge? What about the desires? What is the role of the imagination? Am I molded ethically, or can I merely now think "rationally" about ethics? Have habits and life been changed in any formative way, or does the student simply now have access to a larger database of information?
Since the modern university has moved from forming people to informing them, where do they find their formative influences? Smith critiques some of the secular liturgies that actually shape the majority of Western individuals. The finest two examples of formative ideals and locations are the shopping mall and the stadium, both used by Smith to show that we are desiring, worshipping animals that will find our liturgical formation even after the university has excluded formation from their program.
In a masterful chapter, Smith shows the formative aspects of a liturgical worship service. He focuses on the bodily aspects, the scents, the images, the sounds as well as exegeting the very meaning of a people coming out from their general lives in order to take part in this formative practice of "going to church." After reading this chapter, sitting on a bus in SE Asia, I wanted no more than to be in the midst of a worship service. I found myself trying to critique my situation and find what sacramental aspects of the bus ride could inspire my personal worship. Ultimately, this social/theological critique actually moved me as a reader beyond the fascinating discussion of the text, and toward a desire to worship God and serve others.
My only critique of the book would be the final chapter. After a previously engaging and insightful work, the ending seemed abrupt and almost forced. Smith made very clear that his book was not intended to give practical examples, but I still wished that they were there. Furthermore, some of the trajectories of the work seemed left unresolved. Fortunately, this will only be the first volume in a three volume series, hopefully meaning that these ideas will be more thoroughly worked out in terms of cultural engagement and political theology (although the fruits of such are clearly evident in this work).
Do not let this final critique dissuade you. As I read this book I could already tell that it would be one of the best books I read this year, despite it only being January. Smith has provided us with and insightful look at how we are shaped, our embodiment and the philosophy/theology/anthropology behind our being. I highly recommend this book and hope that it will have a wide reading in and out of the church, especially by those who are or desire to be Christian academics, scholars, ministers and educators.