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Habits shaping the worshipper

by
25 July 2014

Jeremy Clines reads an anthropological study of liturgy in its broadest sense

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Imagining the Kingdom: How worship works

James K. A. Smith

Baker Academic £14.99

(978-0-8010-3578-4)

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THIS is the second of James Smith's planned trilogy on "cultural liturgies". He explores how habitually chosen actions, more than thoughts and ideas, shape the way we worship. It is styled as a workbook. The four chapters are peppered with "sidebars" of questions to think through, and assorted stories and stimuli (for example, from the film The King's Speech). It would work well for use by a study group comfortable witha rich mixture of tale-telling and academic debate.

In this programme for reimagining the way we live and worship (by way of our cultures and liturgies), Smith does not create a false polarity between thought and impulse. What he does argue is that our imaginative desires, embodied in our physical actions, are the ground on which our thinking can happen. This means that there are important lessons to be learned about how we learn and how we worship.

The process Smith invites his readers into is one of re-forming ourselves by thinking imaginatively in response to our desires. He describes this as "restor(y)ing" ourselves, our faith, and our action in the world. The book is described as a manifesto and guide in "liturgical anthropology". Smith leans heavily on the philosophical work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty to argue that because our "being-in-the-world" sits "between instinct and intellect", so must our Christian living, learning, and worship.

Smith recognises that we arrive, driven by desires, in many modes of fully established habits that we may barely consider. Smith believes that it is our desires, also, that drive our imagination, not the informationwe gather. Our actions build the dwelling-place for all our thinking; and those actions can, when they are habits, become human liturgy.

There are, in Smith's view, many human actions that can be called liturgical, of which Christian liturgy is a subset. Liturgical action, in an anthropological sense, is those acts that become established and ritualised, whether they are religious in nature or not. Liturgical actionsmay not be the result of an intention, but arise simply from unthinking habits that develop in a cultural milieu.

What Smith wants us to do, to get away from such habits, is to eschew a preoccupation with what information we have acquired and, instead, foster an attentiveness to our formation. This, he reasons (from his own context in a philosophy department at a Christian university), will encourage us to develop a better quality of habitual Christian action.

This, he believes, will moderate an over-emphasis on packing in large quantities of Christian thought into unformed minds - a pedagogy that he sees offered, all too often, in Christian learning environments. He speaks from a Protestant Evangelical context, and recognises there is much to learn from other partsof the Church where imagination, habit, and desire are placed far more centrally in the shaping of liturgical living.

One section that I found particularly engaging was where Smith puts a range of questions about Fresh Expressions of church that seek to recontextualise worship, without thinking of the impact of the context itself. Smith gives the example of a church that wants to relate to shoppers by starting a service in a shopping mall, without noticing what might be endorsed and made habitual by placing worship in such a setting.

An impressive feature of the book is the number of asides, not just in the sidebars, that can take us by surprise and challenge our presumptions about how unthinking we are about our living and worshipping in the world. I like Smith's answer to this: that we need tostop pretending that we have thought everything through, andget some better habits established instead.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Clines is the Anglican Chaplain at the University of Sheffield.

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