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Book review: Imagining the Kingdom

James K. A. Smith. Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013.

Review by Matthew Emerson–

In James K. A. Smith’s most recent work, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, he argues that we as human creatures operate with a level of knowledge that he calls the imagination. This imaginative knowing is intuitive, functioning on a sub-conscious level, and is developed through ritual and habit. Smith spends the first two chapters of the book, with help respectively from philosophers Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bordieu, demonstrating that this intuitive level of knowledge is indeed knowledge on a sub-conscious level and that it is formed and shaped through repeated practice. Building off of the first volume of his Cultural Liturgies project, Desiring the Kingdom, and in his latter two chapters, Smith again makes the point that both the secular world and the church have competing habits that shape and form the imagination. The upshot is that the church’s liturgy, therefore, ought to reflect carefully on their repeated worship practices, as it is through these that holistic discipleship and the development of a thoroughly Christian (as opposed to secular) imagination occurs.

Both Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom offer a helpful critique of the intellectualist model of Christian discipleship. Smith successfully argues in the first volume that a human being’s love, what drives and shapes him, is formed primarily by practice coupled with right understanding. In this second volume Smith again cogently builds his case that this formation happens to our sub-conscious knowledge and that it happens through repeated practice. Both of these arguments helpfully call Christians away from a discipleship model that is solely focused on the intellect, on consciously knowing the “right things,” and on action as an always completely conscious activity. Instead, Smith rightfully points to the way human beings work, mostly on an intuitive level, and guides the reader to the conclusion that this area of human knowledge, the imagination, must be cultivated and shaped along with the intellect in order to form the entire person for Christ.

Readers of the first volume may have been, along with me, a bit anxious about the place of right doctrine and understanding in Smith’s model. At times he does seem to swing the pendulum a bit too far, perhaps coming too close to an ex opera operato view of liturgy. He balances this, though, in Imagining the Kingdom, noting in a number of places that the project at hand is one of conscious reflection on practice and that Christians who participate in the church’s liturgy only benefit from it if they rightly understand what is happening (e.g. 187, 189–90). Still, one might desire to see a bit more of a dialectic approach consistently and explicitly stated throughout the work, where habits shape intellect and vice versa. Though Smith does address this towards the end of his book, it would have been helpful to hear it throughout the project.

Overall, though, Smith’s work is one with which all theologians and pastors ought to wrestle. On an academic level, Smith’s articulation of how knowledge and formation work is convincing, and should shape conversations about epistemology, discipleship, and worship practices. On a pastoral level, Smith’s case is seemingly airtight for reflecting on worship practices. The author calls us away from doing whatever is trendy or getting people in the door at the moment to ordering our church services in ways that habitually shape the body of Christ for imaginative (intuitive) engagement with the world once the service is over. Further, for both scholars and pastors, Smith’s work provides insightful critiques of modern culture and the implicit liturgies in them. His articulation of the liturgy of the iPhone is particularly striking, since I’m constantly checking mine. He also ties in his ideas with recent movies (The King’s Speech; Rise of the Planet of the Apes), literature, social media, and philosophy. Although it does take some heavy lifting philosophically and theologically, I could not recommend Smith’s book more highly to both theologians and pastors. He is a phenomenal writer and a careful thinker, and his argument is one that must be dealt with by those seeking to understand “How Worship Works.”

Matthew Y. Emerson is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University (OPS).

This review is from the recent issue of Credo Magazine, “The Trinity and the Christian Life.” Read others reviews like it:

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The Trinity and the Christian Life: Why a triune God makes all the difference

One of the dangers every church faces is slipping, slowly and quietly and perhaps unknowingly, into a routine where sermons are preached, songs are sung, and the Lord’s Supper is consumed, but all is done without a deep sense and awareness of the Trinity. In other words, if we are not careful our churches, in practice, can look remarkably Unitarian. And such a danger is not limited to the pews of the church. As we leave on Sunday morning and go back into the world, does the gospel we share with our coworker look decisively and explicitly Trinitarian in nature? Or when we pray in the privacy of our own home, do the three persons of the Trinity make any difference in how we petition God?

In this issue of Credo Magazine, we have brought together some of the sharpest thinkers in order to bring our minds back to the beauty, glory, and majesty of our triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we do not merely want to see him as triune, but recognize why and how the Trinity makes all the difference in the Christian life. Therefore, in this issue Fred Sanders, Robert Letham, Michael Reeves, Scott Swain, Tim Challies, Stephen Holmes, and many others come together in order to help us think deeper thoughts about how God is one essence and three persons, and what impact the Trinity has on who we are and what we do as believers.

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