Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology By James K. A. Smith (Baker, 2017).

This is the third in the Cultural Liturgies trilogy (2009–2017) from Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College. True to its subtitle, it deals with public (even political) theology. Smith asks rhetorically: “What if we are creatures of craving, defined by our desires, who make our way in the world governed by what we long for? And what if the political is not just some procedural gambit to manage our mundane affairs but an expression of a creational desire and need …? … If politics is habit forming, it is also love shaping, which means that we are on the terrain of liturgy” (10).

And, if this is the case, as it surely is, the body of Christ plays a critical role in the reordering of skewed loves, to align them with a love of God—the polity of the divine kingdom. Smith affirms that “the body of Christ is a culture, and specifically a formative culture” (xii). Indeed! The author is right: We must see the church “not as a sphere-trumping institution that would reign over society but as a habit-forming polis in which we gather to be shaped and (re)formed by the Spirit in ways that make us good neighbors, even to our enemies” (150). The kingdom of God is to be subverting and overwhelming the kingdoms (and loves) of the world. How exactly is this accomplished? For Smith, continuing the thesis developed in his prior volumes of Cultural Liturgies, worship does it all. To counter the liturgy of politics means to undertake the liturgy of worship. “Worship is the ‘civics’ of the city of God, habituating us as a people to desire the shalom that God desires for creation” (16).

If worship according to Smith included preaching, I’d have been satisfied his thesis, but alas! “As I’ve already shown in … Desiring the Kingdom, the rites of worship—confession, offering, baptism, communion—carry a social imaginary that is an inescapably “political” vision of a people called as a royal priesthood” (53). Preaching—and that includes spiritual formation by Scripture and its Author—finds no place, it seems, in Smith’s conception of how a divine kingdom is established, how divine loves are inculcated! For him, “liturgical catechesis [in worship] is the theological exercise by which we come to understand our heavenly citizenship” (197).

Thus, unfortunately, there is no vision of Scripture spiritually forming the people of God, pericope by pericope, as citizens of a world in front of the text, the kingdom of, and according to, God. Without such a comprehension of spiritual formation, without catching the thrust and theology of Scripture, pericope by pericope, we will hard pressed to discover specifics on what kind of life God’s people, citizens of a new kingdom, ought to lead. The revelation of such specifics and their concrete application into real life are, of course, the functions of pericope-by-pericope preaching.

At one point, Smith confesses: “My goal is to make things more complex, not more simple. These are knotty realities, and our theoretical and theological accounts should be sufficiently complex” (14). In this Smith is successful. There’s far too much interaction with other writers which an average reader like me will not have read or be immediately familiar with. Just in the 33 pages of Chapter 1 are references to works by 51 discrete authors, the vast majority of who were unfamiliar to me. Indeed, at one point we even have third-order references: “VanDrunen sees Luther as simply extending Augustine” (46). That might be proper for a thesis or dissertation, but it is too esoteric for a popular book. The plethora of references also probably dictated the elimination of a bibliography at the end of the work. There is something to be said for rendering ideas accessible, especially those that are consequential. Convinced though I am that Awaiting the King was a book worth writing, my recommendation is that Smith also provide the rest of us a “dumbed-down” version of it, just as he did for the second volume of his trilogy. May it come soon!

Journal of the Evangelical Homiletics Society 19.1 (2019): 92–93

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