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Saturday, April 13, 2013

"Imagining the Kingdom" (James K. A. Smith)

TITLE: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)
AUTHOR: James K. A. Smith
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, (224 pages).

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 auspices of imagination and "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."

In Part One, Smith goes into social theory and the study of human perception, trying to navigate between a search for meaning (kinaesthetics) and an expression of imagination (poetics). Believing that one's imagination drives one's action, stories become a powerful vehicle to do just that. Our actions, our behaviours, our thoughts, are all interconnected through the living out of our stories. That is why worship is like telling a story, in particular God's story in our lives. Smith puts into practice this aspect by inserting interesting stories after each treatise segment. He uses film to engage our imagination. He uses science and statistics to capture the motor intellect. He uses physical postures not just to make things interesting but to keep readers interested. He points out the makeup of our being that we are both erotic and social creatures. "Erotic" in the sense of what piques our physical senses. "Social" in the need for relationships. He makes a keen insight into our conventional way of "putting theory into practice" that it tends to be too "intellectualist." The problem with such "intellectualist" approach is that it reduces ourselves to mere objects. Theory put into practice is to recognize that we are bigger than me. We need to cultivate a "habitus" to help us live as participating members of a community, of communal living, and to be a community both through institutions and elsewhere. Just like "mindless" living, we need to be social creatures without a disposition of "conscious aiming." The more we learn to do it as naturally as possible, the more incarnate will be our acts. Worship is exactly the cultivation of that!

Part Two goes farther on how to move beyond "mindless" or any overly aware states of intellectualism. If we are created in the image of God, we need to ask beyond what we are created for, but Who we are made for. That is the purpose of worship. In "sanctified perception," Smith helps readers to live intentional lives of telling their life stories to live worshipfully. We use narratives and poetry to chart our journey of life. We utilize metaphors and aesthetics to enhance our understanding of bodies of meaning.We learn to perceive life not as segregating the world or breaking life down into different components, but to consolidate the many aspects of life, and to weave them together with our knowledge, our experiences, our thoughts, and our stories. In other words, we are wired to tell stories, and stories are there to aid our telling of our own lives.

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 become 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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