Foundations: No.65 Autumn 2013

Review Article: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works  (James K. A. Smith)


Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
(Cultural Liturgies, Volume 2)
James K. A. Smith, Baker Academic, 2013, 224 pp, £14.99 

In 2009, James K. A. Smith embarked on a three-volume project called the Cultural Liturgies trilogy. The first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, [1]  sought to highlight the role of desire as the leading aspect of human personhood, and how desire is formed through worship. Ultimately, it’s not about what we think, or what we believe. It’s about how and what we love. That’s what truly shapes our human existence. And what we love is formed through repeated practices (“rituals”) that inevitably project an imaginative horizon – ritual shapes our outlook on what the world is, and what the world should be. These repeated practices, these “liturgies”, shape us far more profoundly than what we think or consciously believe. On balance, worldview doesn’t matter – at least, not as much as we think it does. Desire formed by ritual worship (secular or Christian) weighs far more heavily.

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (2013)is the second instalment of the trilogy. ITK is designed to fill in the gaps and refine the argument of Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, French Marxist anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu, as well as various thinkers in social psychology and cognitive linguistics, Smith attempts to give a theoretical basis for his redefinition of human being. He sees Christian scholarship as having a skewed, overly-intellectual vision of human existence, and he seeks to redress the balance by relativising the role of the intellect. He wants to put the mind in its place, so to speak. And the mind’s “place” seems to be something akin to a janitor or office organiser: it comes along and arranges things once the real work has been done. So who or what is doing the real work? The body, which turns out to be the proper seat of the imagination. The body, through repeated practices, inhabits various narrative spaces (the liturgy of the mall, or of the church). And that narrative habitation moulds the imagination, which in turn forms our desire and character. Formation, not intellection, is the name of the game. This formation happens not only privately, but in shared social spaces within which we are habituated to certain ways of life. This is the process that anthropologist Bourdieu calls habitus. [2]  

Smith offers an illustration of this bodily social space trumping intellectual orientation. One day, he finds himself inspired by the words of Wendell Berry (poet and Christian agrarian activist). There is just one problem: he is reading these words from the book table at Costco, an American wholesale megastore, and symbol of all that is evil about American consumerism for Smith. [3]  One almost feels the desperation of Rom 7:15-20 in the scene: What I read I want to do, but what I want to do I cannot do because my desires and imagination have been co-opted by Costco! Our Christian lives and imaginations (that is, images of the world informed by Christian compassion) are undermined or established by the kinds of practices and social spaces that we allow our bodies to inhabit.

Worship (or “liturgy”), both secular and Christian, is the key player in this drama. Therefore, Christian worship must pay attention to the rituals and forms employed, for ritual praxis and aesthetic form project a shared narrative space that shapes our imaginations – out of which we live and breathe and have our being. Smith comments:

an adequate liturgics must assume a kinaesthetics and a poetics, precisely because liturgies are compressed, performed narratives that recruit the imagination through the body. [4] 

Smith defines worship as any repeated, social, ritual action that projects an imaginative, narrative horizon that becomes the assumed context for our living and action. Christian worship, then, is a type of shared habitation that captures and trains our imaginations and orients our desires, presenting our bodies with an alternative habitus where we can unlearn worldly imaginative praxis and relearn/recapture a sound Christian imagination. Imagination is not, then, primarily a thing of the mind; it’s a thing of the body, a “bodily intelligence” (or praktognosia) that escapes conscious reflection. [5] 

Part I of the book seeks to establish this philosophical anthropology through a careful reading of various theorists like Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu. Part II of the book deals with the practical implications of this theory. Part I is for philosophers. Part II is more for practitioners (worship leaders, etc.). In Part II, Smith applies his theory by warning his readers of the imagination-warping dangers of “secular liturgies” such as consumerism. Such practices shape character through the back door of imagination and desire. Worship, Christian or secular, is not just (or even primarily) a feeding of the mind. Rather, worship is a narrative space that we inhabit through repeated ritual action together. Therefore, in thinking through Christian worship, we should focus primarily on form, texture, and movement more than on theological (that is, intellectual) content. Preaching counts for less than we think it does, precisely because what shapes us isn’t thinking. In the last few pages of the book, he tries to reserve a space for engaged thought and conscious reflection so that we can avoid superstition and hypocrisy. [6]  But such a trifle, almost a postscript, does little to alter the impression that he has little use for conscious reflection or biblically-informed theology… except at those crucial interstices where one must choose which liturgical regime to expose one’s imagination to, such as sudden awakenings while reading Berry in Costco.

All in all, Imagining the Kingdom is a book to be reckoned with. Smith writes with imagination and scholarly precision, and shows a remarkable ability to turn scholarship to practical use (though those untrained and unused to philosophical discourse may find it heavy going). But to the real question: is Smith correct in redefining human being away from mind and more towards body? He certainly has a point (that he pushes repeatedly). Much of the evangelical church (particularly Reformed circles) over-emphasises theology, as if the mind were the only thing that matters. There has been a healthy reaction away from disembodied, attenuated Christianity towards a more robust, incarnational understanding of the faith. Good theology has always understood the importance of orthopraxis alongside of orthodoxy. This reaction movement is why we have lately seen an intense interest in sacramental theology and practice and liturgy, whether in the form of a renewed interest in the Mercersburg theology, the “ancient-future” emphasis in some emergent churches, mining ancient resources on spiritual formation, or simply experimentation with “high church” forms of worship among Presbyterians (a.k.a. “Prescopalians”). However, in trying to swing the pendulum away from intellect back towards body and social praxis, Smith may have pressed his case too far, leading to several problems. Here are a few (painted with an admittedly broad brush):

First, in trying to emphasise practice and ritual, he leaves the question of the authority of Scripture ambiguous. He addresses it nowhere in DTK or ITK, perhaps because he wants to steer clear of the theological and conceptual. It is a most troubling ambiguity, a silence that might speak volumes, or might not. The closest he comes to even broaching authority in faith and practice is when he talks about acknowledging our debt to Augustine. [7]  If not the Bible, what then is the source of authority for Christians? His locus of authority seems to be “historic Christian worship practices”. [8]  This seems to be a particularly dubious move, as tradition and practice are anything but united in church history, and they are constantly on the move and fallible. Our readings of Scripture are fallible as well, but at least we have a text to struggle and argue over. And there are normative readings of that text: there are right and wrong ways of reading the Bible. In other words, just because hermeneutics exists does not make Scripture into a wax nose. If God wanted to communicate inscripturated truth to his people (and that seems to be the consistent presupposition of the Bible), our own interpretive limitations do not pose a barrier to him. It would have been most welcome for Smith to present a clear position one way or the other.

Related to this first point (ambiguity regarding Scriptural authority), Smith seems to uncritically embrace the secular writers he employs. Without a clear set of biblical presuppositions, he seems happy to let Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu and company set the agenda, as if they were simply giving us neutral, unbiased, unmotivated data. This is clearly not the case. A careful reading of Bourdieu’s theory and biography shows otherwise. Bourdieu, for all his brilliance, was/is a scholar with a mighty big axe to grind. He came up the ranks of the French academy as a marginalised, provincial outsider, and he sorely resented the treatment he received from those at the centres of academic power. One can read much of his work as an outworking of a mission: to dethrone the intellectuals and socially powerful in France, and to empower the culturally disadvantaged, the proletariat through a quasi-Marxist theory of everything (especially social and cultural power). [9]  One way to achieve this goal was to dethrone the regal position of the mind and emphasise bodily disposition such that everything is relative to praxis. There is no truth, only social spaces that have certain rules that make this or that opinion function as truth. There is no truth; only habitus. Bourdieu presents us with very helpful tools for understanding social action and mindset, to be sure, but he is anything but a neutral scientist calmly interpreting data. His is a thoroughly engaged and biased perspective. And there are similar arguments to be made about other figures that Smith draws from. Overall, I would have liked to see a more Christian-critical engagement with these thinkers, rather than simply taking their findings at face value (or “as gospel”, so to speak).

Third, I found Smith’s focus on praxis and habitus to be insular, bordering on sacerdotalism. Let me unpack that a bit. What is it that generates our sense of truth, our internal compass, our desires, etc.? For Smith, the answer seems to be straightforward: repeated social ritual action generates certain forms of desire and imagination, and these give us certain states of consciousness. The real dynamo of our faith and life seems ultimately to be our own praxis. In this, Smith comes very close to the Catholic doctrine of sacraments that proclaim that the sacraments are efficacious ex opere operato (that is, they benefit the believer quite apart from the faith of either the priest administering the sacrament, or of the parishioner who receives it). Ritual praxis generates grace through the movements of its own operation, like a self-winding watch. This is problematic on a number of levels, not least of which is that it runs counter to the insistence of the Reformers on the close intertwining of the operation of Word and sacrament. The sacraments (and all other ritual elements of worship) become efficacious as incarnational embodiments of the Word (incarnate and inscripturated) that God has given to us. Without the biblical Word, sacrament becomes superstition, a type of magical salvation. It is no coincidence that the origin of “hocus pocus” was a parody of words instituting the Catholic mass. It is the biblical truths as grasped in faith that keeps the sacraments and ritual elements of worship from becoming magical or superstitious.

On a more general level, there seems to be no reflection on the category of revelation as such, special or general. This is less a question of sacramental theology than of the ultimate context that surrounds us, that notifies us, that shapes us. Smith shows no (apparent) awareness of the revelational matrix within which our bodily action takes place (à la Ps 19:1-4 or Rom 1:18-25). He does acknowledge that we are transformed by a power outside of ourselves, but it always only seems to come through worship rituals. He writes rather vaguely about worship as a “habitation of the Spirit”, and the “Spirit’s transformative power”. [10]  But I would have liked some reflection on the revelational context that surrounds our practice and ritual, especially given that our imaginations are so closely woven into our bodily activity. If Smith is right about our imaginations being so closely tied to the body, then it raises some fascinating theological questions regarding the nature of revelation. Given that it is divine revelation that renews our minds and transforms us from inside out (e.g. Rom 12:2, 2 Cor 3:18), how does it do that? What is it that impacts our embodied imaginations? Just to answer “our liturgy and ritual praxis” seems to foreclose the question before it is properly investigated. Surely more can be said in terms of rethinking or refining our notions of revelation and how it is received in our imaginations. [11] 

Fourth, Smith’s emphasis on practice and worship produces a strangely Manichean universe; there are only white hats and black hats. On the one hand, there is Christian worship which forms us into people who desire the right things. On the other, there are secular liturgies that deform us and our imaginations counter to Kingdom purposes. There is no room for the grey, no room for common grace, for the ways that God’s revelation resonates in and through secular liturgies and artifacts. If there is no area of overlap, if it is simply black versus white, then the only logical option is withdrawal, though Smith repeatedly denies that he advocates such a course. He wants instead a worldly monasticism. That is, instead of withdrawing into a monastery, Smith wants those spiritually forming practices to be brought out into worldly vocations, to make the whole world a monastery (at least for the Christian). [12]  This is obviously true to the intentions of Calvin and Luther, and good spiritual advice. And yet, there is still an element of withdrawal here. We don’t truly connect with the ways of the world, for our alternative set of rituals buffer us against the rituals that might contaminate our imaginations and desires. The stance is still stolidly self-protective. Whatever happens, don’t get your hands dirty with the cultural currents of the world (whether that is nationalism or consumerism, or entertainments, or what have you). But self-protection is not our calling. If we want to truly understand the lost in the world around them, if we want to speak into their world with wisdom and compassion, then we need precisely to get our hands dirty. We need to participate with them in some of the ways of the world, not just create spiritually safe versions that further our own spiritual formation. [13] While I appreciate his emphasis on the spiritual antithesis between church and world, the fact remains that if you do away with common grace, you do away with our point of contact for apologetics and evangelism. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that apologetics gets no mention in ITK, and evangelism is mentioned only twice in a single footnote.

Fifth, there is what I call the Serbian Orthodoxy objection: heavily liturgical traditions often do not produce the kinds of imagination or desires that Smith thinks they will. An example: years ago, I taught a university class called Letters of Paul. In this class there was a student who just could not get his head around the idea of the gospel, especially substitutionary atonement. I did everything to communicate to him, even taking the concepts down to a children’s Sunday School level for this young man. Nothing worked. I scheduled a meeting with him to try to figure out what the mental block was.

I said, “You’re wearing a cross, so I’m guessing you’re Christian?”

“Yeah, I’m Christian.”

“So you must have talked about the gospel at home?”

“No, we never talk about religion at home.”

“Okay, well what about when you go to church?”

“We only go at Christmas and Easter.”

“Okay, well, at least at Easter, the priest must have talked about Jesus dying on the cross and stuff like that?”

“We never listen to what the priest is saying. We just sit and talk among ourselves. He does his thing and we do ours.”

This young Serb man spent a lifetime going through motions of ritual observance, and it made no impact. I’m not convinced that even if he had gone to church every Sunday it would have made any difference. That is not to say there are not devout Orthodox believers in Serbia; there are. But simply repeating rituals without conscious theological reflection on those rituals does not produce the kinds of imaginations and desires that please God. After all, ritual-heavy Serbia was the land where priests (those most steeped in an ancient Christian liturgy) came out to bless the boys’ Kalashnikovs as they went out to massacre Albanians. The fact is, the whole European continent (and the UK) is filled with ritual observance… and it has produced a largely dead church. Smith’s theory gives no reason why that should be (save the couple of pages at the end of the book where he allows that reflection may have a role after all).

The real question for Smith is: Do ideas have consequences? Or are they merely consequent on our bodily praxis? I am willing to concede an important role for the body, but I believe that Smith needs to concede a much more important role for the mind (despite his attempts to serve as counter-balance). It seems probable to me that the imagination is an arena of dialogue between the precognitive and the cognitive, between the body and the mind, of passive disposition and actively chosen direction. That seems to be the case in, say, the imaginative activity of day-dreaming. It is part unconscious wandering and part directed tour. Sometimes our mind wanders into places that surprise (or dismay) us, and sometimes we want it that way (or more properly, both). Imaginations are both precognitively caught and consciously driven. I would have liked more recognition of that delicate interweaving of active and passive, of mind and body, rather than so strenuously asserting the primacy of body over mind.

Finally, I have a soteriological concern. By placing so much emphasis on our ritual action, Smith runs the risk of shifting the focus from the gospel of grace, that is, a dynamic centred squarely on God’s unmerited action. That is not to say that Smith ignores grace altogether – it figures prominently, for instance, in his discussion of the liturgical elements of confession and assurance. [14]  I am also not arguing for “cheap grace” that suppresses the need for a response of faith and repentance. But when one focusses on one’s own action because, after all, that’s what counts in spiritual formation, there is a danger of confused motivations. Why do we worship and obey? Isn’t it out of a sense of gratitude for our salvation and adoption, freely given through no action of ours? The worship itself may form us, but that is almost secondary. We worship because we rejoice in the God who has captured us, who has drawn near to us at great cost to himself, who abides with us, and who will teach us obedience, and lead us through whatever crisis comes, who will complete what he began in us, who will bring us at last to glory. Without that conscious, theological reflection on the manifold grace of God, worship is stillborn. Yes, there are times when we’re not feeling grateful, when we must “go through the motions”. But if worship never engages the mind, then it is no better than dead formalism, and we’re back at the Serbian Orthodoxy objection. A better formulation of this relationship inherent in worship, then, might be that worship is a place of dialogue between body and mind, embodied imagination shaped by ritual, and conscious reflection, shaped by theology.

For all of my reservations about Smith’s perspective, we ought not to miss the fact that ITK is delivering a message that we would do well to heed. There is no doubt that the world is full of worship, as full as the church ever is. There are myriad liturgies projecting myriad narrative spaces which beckon us to enter in and participate. And these spaces do form our desires and imaginations. I believe that it is crucial that we reflect apologetically on these systems of worship, not just for the sake of our own spirituality, but to understand the world in which our friends and neighbours live. [15]  But it is also true that apologetical reflection alone will not “defuse” all of the formative influence of these liturgies upon our imaginations and desires. A childhood filled with Godzilla and Gamera will shape one into a certain kind of adult. Believe me, I know. A lifetime of consumer practice will leave its mark on desire and imagination. And there are numerous other influences, traces upon the shape of my imagination. Such things will always leave a remainder, a residue of formative influence that bends our desires away from God and his Kingdom. That is why worship is so important as a counter-formative influence so that we may desire and imagine and live the way God desires. That is what we must hear from ITK. It may be that the problems and imbalances I perceive are addressed elsewhere in Smith’s corpus. If so, my apologies; I have read only these two works of his. But I think many evangelicals would appreciate clarification on those points in the text of Embodying the Kingdom, the forthcoming final installment of the Cultural Liturgies project. It would make the whole project not just provocative, but more theologically sound as well.


Ted Turnau
Lecturer in cultural and religious studies at Anglo-American University and Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic, and on popular culture and Christian worldview at Wales Evangelical School of Theology