Imagining the KingdomBy James K. A. Smith (Baker, 2013)

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies)

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This is the second in a trilogy by James Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College, a prolific writer on matters hermeneutical, a polymath who can adeptly discuss literature, art, and film, alongside theology. His trilogy (at least the two-thirds in print) is turning out to be a magnum opus. This volume, like its predecessor, is a challenging work, but there is no question that Smith will cause us think and stimulate us to grow as a result of interacting with his ideas.

The author is attempting something vast, to see humans in a new light: “an alternative anthropology that emphasizes the primacy of love and the priority of the imagination in shaping our identity and governing our orientation to the world,” as opposed to “an intellectualist model of education,” that sees Christianity as “primarily a set of doctrines, beliefs, and ideas,” and which ends up reducing Christian education to the acquisition of knowledge. This traditional view assumes that the way to life change is critical reflection: think correctly and all else follows (7, 10, 12). If I may put words in his mouth, Smith is, on the other hand, arguing: “love correctly and all else follows.” How do we shape those loves, those desires, those longings, and how differently will this look from culture doing the same thing, capturing hearts rather than minds?

Needless to say, the implications of such an investigation are manifold, affecting a number of pastoral activities, not the least of which is preaching.

Smith observes that “[m]uch of our action is not ‘pushed’ by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense ‘pulled’ out of us by our attraction to a telos.” It is, therefore, “not enough to equip our intellects to merely think rightly about the world. We also need to recruit our imaginations” (6). Indeed! Preaching is the casting of a biblical vision of the ideal world of God (the telos). Thus, “Christian formation is a conversion of the imagination effected by the Spirit, who recruits our most fundamental desires by a kind of narrative enchantment—by inviting us narrative animals into a story that seeps into our bones and becomes the orienting background of our being-in-the-world” (14–15). For Smith, this means the worship of the church, that enchants the worshiper. While worship is certainly an integral part of this “enchantment,” I would think a more fundamental and authoritative way of casting this ideal-world vision is by preaching. Scripture offers us blueprint of this world, and the community of God puts into practice the precepts, priorities, and practices of this world, which would, of course, include worship. Preaching is thus a kindling of our imaginations and a stimulating of our longings for that ideal world.

Drawing from the literature of character formation, Smith proposes the concept of habitus: “those ‘dispositions’ we have to constitute the world in certain ways—the habitual way that we construct our world” (81). Such a construction of a world is really what Scripture is all about, pericope by pericope projecting segments of God’s ideal world. It is in this world that God bids his people live. And to do that one has to abide by the precepts, priorities, and practices of that world. Insofar as the community buys in to that divine view of the world and seeks to inhabit that ideal world, God’s kingdom is becoming a reality. Habitus makes us inhabitants of God’s world, the world projected by Scripture.

So, extending Smith’s titles—Desiring the Kingdom (volume 1 of his trilogy) and Imagining the Kingdom (volume 2)—I’d say preaching is Conceiving the Kingdom, for it is the text of Scripture alone that gives the script for the new world of God—its precepts, priorities, and practices. And it is in the exposition of Scripture by preachers that this kingdom is conceived. And, in the subsequent application of the script by the people of God, this world is realized—Realizing the Kingdom.

I wish more Smith’s discussion linked to this scriptural world, the only authoritative depiction of God’s world. And I’d have like to have seen more attention to the work of the Holy Spirit, who imprints this world in our souls, that we might desire, imagine, conceive, and realize the Kingdom of God. “Thy Kingdom come; Thy will be done!”

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 14.1 (2014): 76–77

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