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Imagining the Kingdom (Cultural Liturgies): How Worship Works [Kindle Edition]

James K. A. Smith
3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Book Description

A Liturgical Theology of Culture

"Imagining the Kingdom is a fit successor to Jamie Smith's remarkable Desiring the Kingdom. The new book is, like its predecessor, learned but lively, provocative but warmhearted, a manifesto and a guide. Smith takes Christians deeper into the artistic, imaginative, and practical resources on which we must draw if we wish to renew not only our minds but also our whole beings in Christ."
--Alan Jacobs, Honors College of Baylor University

"In this wonderfully rich and engagingly readable book of 'liturgical anthropology,' Smith makes a persuasive case for the thesis that human beings are best understood as worshiping animals. It has important implications at once for practical theology's reflection on religious formation, liturgy, and pedagogy and for philosophical theorizing about just what religion is. And it develops as an engaging and lively conversation among an astonishing mix of people: imagine Calvin, Proust, Merleau-Ponty, Augustine, Wendell Berry, Bourdieu, and David Foster Wallace all in the same room really talking to each other about being human and how to think about it!"
--David Kelsey, Yale Divinity School

"Jamie Smith shows us that the gospel does not primarily happen between our ears but in all the movements of the body by which we are formed and in turn form the world. I know of no more thorough and sophisticated account of how secular liturgies form and deform us and how Christian liturgies can help. Though sophisticated, Smith's book is also a delight. Its pages are filled with great poetry and insights from films, novels, and everyday life."
--William T. Cavanaugh, DePaul University

"A thought-provoking, generative reflection on the imagination-shaping power of Christian worship practices. What an ideal book for crossing boundaries among academic disciplines and between the academy and the church."
--John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary

"It is heartening to set one's eyes on Jamie Smith's bold and creative endeavor to awaken Christians, Protestants in particular, to the centrality of worship in even, nay especially, our moral lives. This thoughtful book is rightly concerned with a restoration of the Christian imagination rooted in habits of virtue."
--Vigen Guroian, University of Virginia

Product Description

About the Author

James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1777 KB
  • Print Length: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Baker Academic (15 Feb. 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
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  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #402,936 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A complicated presentation of a simple idea 2 Aug. 2013
By Ray V
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is almost several books in one. Its main message is that effective religious education is not achieved by intellectual means, teaching people what to believe, but by creating an environment involving physical and social experience that stimulates the imagination and shapes desires. People acquire religion not by being convinced of its truth in their minds but by experiencing it with all their senses, forming habits of worship, and being part of a community of faith. This is a simple and important message, but the author seems to need to wrap it up in complicated theory with phrases such as "liturgical anthropology" and discussing the theories of various philosophers. He is (by his own admission in the preface and introduction) trying to address ordinary readers and his fellow academics at the same time, and this somehow doesn't work. Perhaps I'm too much of a simple soul, but while agreeing with the main point of the book I found myself wondering what all the philosophical fuss was about.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thought-provoking, must read 21 Sept. 2013
Format:Kindle Edition
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.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Tell a story that captures hearts 2 Mar. 2013
By E. Ritzema - Published on
Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a projected trilogy by James K.A. Smith called Cultural Liturgies. In the first book, Desiring the Kingdom (which I have not read, but Smith gets the reader up to speed in the early parts of this book), Smith argued that humans are primarily shaped more by the imagination than the intellect. It is the stories we inhabit, and not the arguments we believe, that give our lives purpose. In other words, "we don't think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice. Much of our action is not `pushed' by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense `pulled' out of us by our attraction to a telos." We are shaped by the liturgies that tell attractive (not attractive in the sense of "pleasant," but rather "resonant") stories and fuel our imaginations, whether those liturgies are secular or religious: "Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves.... So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week ... without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18)."

In this book, Smith looks specifically at what that insight means for the practices of worship and Christian education. The book comes in two parts. In part 1, the theoretical part of the book, Smith walks the reader through expositions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, asking what their theoretical models of how we are formed might mean for how we worship. In part 2, the practical part, Smith talks explicitly about how the theory discussed in part 1 reframes Christian formation and gives a fresh understanding of how worship works.

Smith intentionally pitches this book to be accessible to both worship practitioners and the academy, meaning that one audience will think there are too many footnotes, and the other will think there are not enough.

It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking (as well as, it is hoped, practice-provoking) read. Throughout, Smith attempts to practice what he preaches by telling his readers stories that enable them to imagine what he is talking about. One of my favorites comes early in the book, when he talks about the disconnect between thought and action he experienced when he was reading (and approving) the agrarian writer Wendell Berry while sitting in a Costco.

But since the ultimate goal of the book is the renewal of practice, I was hoping for a bit more in part 2. How can this formation take place? What are some habits of worship that can be used to re-orient us? If we are shaped by stories, I wanted Smith to tell stories about how it has been done in a few communities. Smith points, for example, to the importance of the arts for the church, but by the end of the book I was not quite sure exactly what he meant: painting during a worship service? Liturgical dance? Preach stories instead of sermons? Although I deeply resonated with the argument of Imagining the Kingdom, I think there is a danger--like reading Wendell Berry in Costco--of reading, agreeing, and yet not understanding how to get to the place Smith is pointing us to. Perhaps Smith plans on doing more of this in volume three.

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.
18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent work, with one (semi-significant) caveat 15 July 2013
By Brian M. Howell - Published on
Let me start with as clear an admonition as I can: This is a book that every Christian should read. That is, everyone would benefit from the argument here, and find something to encourage his or her Christian walk. It's not a simple read - I'm not sure everyone would love it, or understand it - but this, like the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, covers critical ground of what it means to worship, why we do what we do, or should do what we should do.

Smith's underlying argument is that human beings are feeling, emotional, affective beings, shaped and molded by our actions and arts. He pushes against the dominant intellectualist, "world view" approach to the Christian life that says our doctrines and knowledge are the bedrock on which faithful Christian life exists or from which action inevitably flows. In this second volume of a planned three volume set, Smith focuses on the practices of worship, and how worship serves (or should serve) as a set of, context for, and arrangement of practices that orient us as individuals and communities towards loving, serving and knowing God.

As a cultural anthropologist teaching at a Christian college, these have been the waters in which I have been swimming for a long time, and I am profoundly grateful for a text that makes this point so wonderfully. I am particularly appreciative of Smith's extensive use of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, an anthropologist and social theorist I have also found enormously helpful in my own research and teaching on Christian life. I've had my students read his first book, and would likely assign this one as well, as it brings this complex theory into helpful dialog with Christian practice and story, rendering the argument relatively accessible; as accessible as I think it could be without losing its power to convince.

After reading the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, I eagerly looked forward to this volume, but I had also hoped it would address a gap in the first one. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically given the purpose of the text, this one also fails to think deeply about cultural diversity. As well as Smith addresses mainstream U.S. consumer and media culture, he does not give us much to think about in terms of the varieties of cultural traditions present in the church. Toward the end of the book, for example, he returns to a trenchant critique (present in both volumes) on the tendency of the (White) U.S. American church to separate form and content, viewing the gospel to be merely a "message" to be communicated by whatever means most compelling. He points to historic (European) liturgies as antidotes or correctives, and I agree with this view, yet it strikes me that he missed one of the more powerful examples of the church pushing back on a separation (or distinction with) form and meaning, the African American church tradition. In the black community today, to speak of someone as a "church person" is to remark on far more than church attendance, but to index their whole being - dress, language, tastes. Unlike the white church, who today tend to ape the musical style of the moment, the black church has created the artists shaping the world outside the church; these artists are cultivated, in voice, manner, and body, in the church, and bring these sensibilities to performances on "American Idol" and the Apollo Theater (often in a highly twisted form, but recognizable.) The black church, unlike the evangelical white church, seems better able to stand apart as a prophetic voice of the wider culture, resisting temptations to bring casual flip-flops, Twitter feeds and corny dramas into the Sunday service, instead holding to a story of the gospel told through the suffering and salvation of a people held up by the hand of God through some of the worst the world had to offer. While certainly not perfect, nor monolithic, black Christian traditions know who they are, and shape their people for life beyond the Sunday service in powerful ways.

In addition, the black church has never struggled to bring emotion into the context of worship the way white liturgies have. Smith addresses head on the tension some might have at his argument that humans are more emotional than intellectual with the predominantly emotionless practices of many Euro-American congregations. He notes at several points that the rituals of liturgy often seem dry or unappealing to those conditioned by the mall and movie theater to receive instant stimulation and personal gratification. He rightly pushes back on this perception, noting that the repetition of "dry" liturgy is part of the genius of shaping a person into a member of a holy communion, often apart from any particular "understanding" of what's happening.

Yet ritual theorists note that while part of the power of ritual is in the pattern and repetition, changing elements of ritual serves to highlight elements of the experience in powerful ways. This is, as Smith himself notes, part of the impetus for making church look like a mall, or a rave, or a night club, believing (wrongly, he says) that such forms can bring all the fun, but just be filled with a Jesus message. But the form, he argues, carries a logic of its own, that works again, and more powerfully, than the mentions of Jesus or the prayer at the beginning of the "concert." Such borrowing, he avers, undermines the integrity of the bodily practices shaped by the traditions and life of the church. I would suggest, however, that a white congregation "borrowing" gospel music is a very different thing from them "borrowing" the sound of the Rolling Stones or Katy Perry in an attempt to be "relevant." Instead, for many in the white church (or anyone not accustomed to it), a gospel choir raises the emotional temperature, and disrupts the ritual in a productive way, moving many into practices that are dramatically embodied, gospel centered and, perhaps, a bit uncomfortable. This can, and I would say, does serve the very purposes argued by Smith.

This raises a question for the whole church: how might the traditions of cultures outside ourselves push us towards postures we currently can't imagine? While the substance of Smith's argument in this volume is exactly right, he leaves out a tremendously important conversation about the ways social power, race and culture are "performed" in the context of church in ways that can work for or against the gospel. Bringing traditions into worship from outside the dominant cultural traditions of a congregation should be a vital part of re-forming the people of God as a single body, under one Lord and one baptism. It can alert us to the ways we live our lives unaware of the differences around us. It can bring into our worship practices a sensitivity to the diversity of the body of Christ in every sense of the term "diversity." (NB: I would argue this to be true for all congregations, not only Euro-Americans.)

This shortcoming notwithstanding, this is a brilliant book, and I anxiously look forward to the third volume. Smith has done us a tremendous service by bringing philosophy and cultural anthropology into such a productive conversation with the most practical aspects of Christian life. As we eagerly wait for the third volume, I hope there might be something there to help us think about how our Imagining of the Kingdom needs to occur in multiple languages.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and fitting follow up to "Desiring the Kingdom" 23 Feb. 2013
By Keefe H. Cropper - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
What a wonderful exploration into the mystery of the human. Smith's "liturgical anthropology" avoids the often reductionist approaches to anthropology, taking seriously the depth and differentiation of what constitutes humanity. Smith's anthropology integrates the whole person into his analysis, including in it the body, the imagination, the narrative aspect of experience, story, emotion and consciousness. I particularly appreciate his appreciation for the pre-cognitive, pre-conscious dimension of knowing - and the realization that that is the world in which we "live and move and have our being". It is being in touch with this deeper world rather than the more ephemeral "worldview" that is the key to transformation and discipleship. Bravo.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Harder work than "Desiring the Kingdom" with less reward 30 Mar. 2014
By Dave - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I really like James K. A. Smith's work generally. I find his arguments quite convincing. This is probably because I read Alexander Schmemann's "For the Life of the World" 25 years ago and I have been steeped in an sacramental worldview ever since.

If I could give it 3.5 stars, that's about where I'd put it. This book was much harder slogging than "Desiring the Kingdom". Far too much of the book was spent laying groundwork through explicating the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu and their theoretical models of habituation and formation. In the preface, Smith notes that he had intended volumes 2 and 3 of this Cultural Liturgies series to be scholarly monographs, but due to the cross-over popularity of the first volume with pastors and educators, he had decided to broaden this appeal of this volume as well. Sadly, I don't think that he accomplished that.

The last part of this book is certainly brilliant and ties in well with the first book. Individuals not well versed in Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, and modern French philosophy may have a hard time getting to the last part of the book. I know I did.

I had hoped to find more material that I could translate pastorally and practically. I will certainly draw upon ideas in part 2 for inspiration in that regard.
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Incarnating Imagination and Perceiving Worship 13 April 2013
By Dr Conrade Yap - Published on
Worship is something many Christians do week after week. Each weekend, churches all over the world will be filled by people desiring to worship. What is worship? Is it just about music and song? Is it simply going through liturgy and rituals, based on tradition? Or is there something more? Perhaps, if one has cultivated a desire for the kingdom, how then is one going to do about that? How do we desire after the kingdom? In other words, how then do we worship? This book helps us do that through the incarnating imagination and responding to perceptions of "How worship works."

This is the second of three volumes of works called the "cultural liturgies." Following the format and style of "Desiring the Kingdom," James Smith has decided to shift away from his initial plan of a scholarly monologue, toward something more accessible by the general reader. Nevertheless, he is aware that this volume may still be too "too scholastic for practitioners and too colloquial for scholars." He provides fodder for both kinds of readers. For the scholar, he is more at ease with providing philosophical references, scholastic thought, as well as inviting them to notice what is written and not to be distracted by what is not written. For the practitioner, or the rest of us, he maintains that the book is primarily for us, that we be patient with the academic foundations while getting ready to pounce from that toward action. In other words, the academics form a necessary foundation for any works.

The thrust of the book is about what worship is, how it works, and what it means for us as practitioners. Two words crystallize the essence of the book: Incarnation and Perception. Through the art of imagination, both can be practiced. Through action, imagination of the kingdom in worship will lead to a powerful working out of the kingdom in good works. Smith poses a good question right from the start. "What is the end of worship?" He convincingly shows us that the end of worship is truly the end of worship, and the start of being sent out into the world, after being empowered by the Word through the Spirit. Just like theory needs to lead to action, the end of worship is to be sent out into the world with a mission. Worship is not an exercise in self-sustenance of spiritual activities. Worship is a powerful response to the vision of the kingdom, encountered during worship. The story of "reading Wendell Berry in Costco" is an extremely effective way of describing the limitations of worldview, and makes us hunger for something more kingdom-view. Smith even urges readers to move from "mindful" to "mindless" so one one can allow imagination to take over any predetermination of activities during worship. It is not abandoning our intellect in worship, but to situate them appropriately. This is an important corrective to a world that has often over-emphasized the importance of "thinking." This is primarily because we worship not out of what we can do. We worship out of the basis of our created being, that God has made us to be. We are liturgical creatures and we who want to worship need to do so liturgically. Thinking and wide use of intellect hem us in on the informing domain. Imagining moves us into the "forming" and the "transforming" domain. The book then shows us how to do just that. The three key things to note are:

1) Recognizing the "nonconscious" drivers in us that aid imagination
2) Accounting for how our physical bodies are wired as we orientate ourselves to the world around us
3) Appreciating the centrality of storytelling our "bodies of meaning."

I marvel at the wide intersections of anthropology, neurological sciences, literary criticisms, theology, liturgies, and many branches of higher learning, all brought together under the umbrella of human perception and interpretation, expressed through art, through science, and whatever the human faculties are capable of. Written with much care and critical thinking, the book is packed with insights from many different disciplines. At some point, one starts to wonder which discipline is the author from. What is the author doing with the constant oscillation of theory/practice, intellect/action, science/non-science, the mindful and the mindless? This is cleared up toward the end where Smith focuses on the Christian call to mission. Just like man has been redeemed to do good works, like in Ephesians 2:10, where we are created in Christ to do good works, this book reminds us that we have been created in God to worship God in our words, our thoughts, and our deeds. The more we know how we are wired, we will learn how to live as naturally as possible. We will grow to be more worshipful and more aware of what we are created to do and to be. Most of all, we begin the journey of going beyond the "what-to-do" but toward "who-we-live-for." Though this book can be a little hard to read at times, the diligent and persistent one will find it richly rewarding. After all, the more we realize how empty we are, the more we will long for something more fulfilling. The more we realize how much we need God, the more we will long for Someone most High, most Loving, and most Worthy of our worship. Let me close with this great quote from the book:

"By equipping the people of God to reflect on worship, we can change how we enter worship -- change the "angle of entry" into the community of practice that is the worshiping congregation. The angle of entry to worship seems to be a determining factor in the formative power of worship." (188)

This book can potentially prompt readers to begin the move from mere worshiping once a week to becoming worshipers all days of their lives. It's time to start imagining the kingdom in us, about the kingdom for heaven, and for all of us. Did the book achieve its purpose of helping readers imagine the kingdom? Yes. Even though the going at times may be hard, each pause at a concept, a crossroad of understanding, or an intersection of perspectives, presents to both scholar and practitioner a simple choice: Wait upon the Lord. Such a disposition will be a great beginning to imagining the kingdom by letting the Spirit guides us.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.

This book is provided to me free by Baker Academic and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
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