Imagining the Kingdom: How worship works
James K. A. Smith
Baker Academic £14.99
£13.50 (Use code CT550)
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
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.