3 Reasons You Should Read the Work of James K.A. Smith
A book series I’ve heard a lot of talk about in recent years is James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy: Desiring the Kingdom, Imagining the Kingdom, and Awaiting the King (plus the one-volume popularization I really enjoyed, You Are What You Love). Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College and editor of Comment magazine.
I will not provide a thorough review of the trilogy here—that might take a few years; they’re the kinds of books that need to percolate. Rather, I will mention just three emphases I have found helpful in his books generally.
1. Smith has corrected a common imbalance in “worldview” talk
First, Smith has mounted a helpful corrective to a lot of thinking about Christian worldview (a corrective that helped me in my own work on the topic). He has done this by critiquing the “thinking-thing-ism”—a “priority of the intellect” view—which tends to see people as brains on sticks. Instead, Smith argues (along with Augustine, Paul, and Jesus Christ himself) that our loves are what ultimately drive us. And though filling our heads with facts and arguments is crucial—Smith’s books do this very thing—these are not sufficient alone to shape a heart.
“You are what you love,” Smith says. “And you worship what you love. And you might not love what you think.” (xi)
Smith shows that “every approach to discipleship and Christian formation assumes an implicit model of what human beings are,” and if you assume people are fundamentally driven by their reasons rather than their loves, you’ll stray from the biblical model. He asks these probing questions:
Do you ever experience a gap between what you know and what you do? Have you ever found that new knowledge and information don’t seem to translate into a new way of life? Ever had the experience of hearing an incredibly illuminating and informative sermon on a Sunday, waking up Monday morning with new resolve and conviction to be different, and already failing by Tuesday night? You are hungry for knowledge; you thirstily drink up biblical ideas; you long to be Christlike; yet all of that knowledge doesn’t seem to translate into a way of life. (You Are What You Love)
He shows how rival “cultural liturgies” from the mall to the football stadium shape our loves—and argues that we should look to Christian “cultural liturgies” to form Christian habits of the heart instead. I’m not yet sure how much weight to give to his solution, or what it would look like in my own family’s life, but he certainly set me on a fruitful quest. These ideas have not stopped percolating, and any author who can do that for me is one to whom I owe a debt.
2. Smith is an intellectual you can read
My favorite Smith book is How (Not) To be Secular, which is a short, evangelical Protestant distillation of Charles Taylor’s massive A Secular Age. I actually bought Taylor’s tome and resolved to read it in 2017. I didn’t get far. I needed help.
I got that help from Smith, an intellectual who translates the work of the academy for the benefit of the church. He takes the wisdom of philosophers and makes it accessible to those without his time and training. (C.S. Lewis has suggested that some of the great philosophers are easier to read than are the introductions to their work, but I have often found that good introductions are necessary to set my mental stage so I can profit from bigger and tougher books. That’s what a good popularizer does.)
One point Smith drew out of Taylor’s work and applied to people like me, for example, is that the very question of “theodicy”—of justifying God’s righteousness—may be hiding rebellious assumptions about what kind of beings we are in God’s cosmos. It takes a philosopher sometimes to see the obvious.
In Awaiting the King, Smith popularizes the work of Oliver O’Donovan. Logos carries one of O’Donovan’s books, but I have to admit that he’s challenging: I need help benefiting from his work. Smith has come through for me.
You and I may never be the kind of intellectual Smith is, but we can take advantage of his gifts.
3. Smith has explained the importance of institutions
Mark Dever observed recently,
In a lot of young pastors today there’s a lack of patience with institutions; there’s a lack of patience with taking on other people’s problems. They don’t see the value. . . . Integrating yourself into a larger institution is as alien [to them] as a thirty-year career in the same company.
That hit home for me—and perhaps for you.
Smith has done a lot to help me disabuse myself of the notion that going alone is a good idea. If I want to see certain values stabilized, preserved, and promoted, I need to contribute to the admittedly imperfect institutions doing that work. And if I want to guard myself and my children from malformation, I will arm my family against the pervasive-and-therefore-invisible power of some of my own culture’s institutions.
Smith appeals the categories of creation, fall, and redemption when discussing institutions, and with an ultimately hopeful perspective:
Christendom is a missional endeavor that labors in the hope that our political institutions can be bent, if ever so slightly, toward the coming kingdom of love. (17)
The redemptive bent may only be slight—Smith is not triumphalistic. He doesn’t think human institutions can bring in the kingdom. We are awaiting the king, not yanking him down from his throne.
Do I have to say, “I don’t agree with every last thing Smith says”? I hope not. For example, I agree with the critiques Jonathan Leeman recently issued toward Smith’s latest book. (I agree with his praises, too.) All I can say is that I highlight something on just about every (digital) page, and over and over again Smith raises questions I’ve raised and provides insight I hadn’t yet reached. Can I give much better praise to an author, agreement or no?
If Smith’s books look daunting, start with You Are What You Love, a summary and popularization of his own trilogy. And then move to How (Not) To Be Secular. If those don’t scratch any of your theological itches—and help you contribute to ongoing conversations with extra Christian wisdom—I will be surprised. If they do help you, get the whole “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a writer for Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.
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