Book Review: Imagining the Kingdom

Awaiting the King

If you’ve been reading my blog since its heady days at university, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of the work of James K. A. Smith. I loved his ‘Letters to a young Calvinist‘, which I still recommend, and really enjoyed the first volume of this Cultural Liturgies Trilogy, ‘Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation‘. Today I’m writing a brief review of ‘Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works’, the second in the trilogy, ahead of my longer review of ‘Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology’, which I picked up at AAR/SBL. One of the best features of this book, though, is Smith’s excellent introduction that neatly and concisely summarizes the content of ‘Desiring’, in a way that means you could slip into the Cultural Liturgies trilogy at this volume (though you probably shouldn’t).

The subtitle of this book is deceptively simple – having painted the basics of a ‘liturgical anthropology’ (that is, talking about being and becoming human in terms of our loves and patterns in/of our lives) Smith focuses this book in two parts that explore, in very different ways, ‘how worship works. Part 1 ‘Incarnate Significance: The Body as Background’ is a fascinating and provocative blend theology, philosophy of religion, and the importance of the body in the way that humans ‘practice’ and understand the world. This emphasis on the body as fundamental to understanding and becoming human is very helpful – and intimately (deliberate word choice) linked to the way that worship work. The initial part of Par 1 is a helpful challenge to those of us involved in education, discipleship and worship. The second part of this first half of the book deals with the concept of habitus, emphasising the importance of the social nature of the body. Smith puts it well, in what is almost a trailer for the third book in the Cultural Liturgies trilogy: “my acquisition of a habitus is always at the same time matter of my being acquired by a people or a polis. I am incorporated into the body politic just to the extent that the social vision of the community is embedded in my body… To have been so educated is to have become a new person“. If that sounds like a series of mouthfuls, then note that Smith actually writes in a very accessible way – carefully explaining what he means and why it is so practical.

As we move into Part 2 of Imagining the Kingdom Smith switches up a gear. ‘Sanctified Perception’ is where we go next – and this neat little phrase wonderfully encapsulates what this book is about. It is not just that our minds are renewed (as in Romans 12:22) but that the entire way we see, percieve and engage with everything is renovated and re-formed. The significane, importance and power of ‘story’ is key here – stories that we remember together, partake in together, and shape the way we live. This is a key part of the kind of worship that Smith envisages. I love how he puts it: “In short, the way to the imagination is through the body. We become a people who desire the kingdom (or some other, rival version of ‘the kingdom’) insofar as we are a people who have been trained to imagine the kingdom in a certain way“. It is notable to me – as someone passionate about the importance of embodiment to understanding what it means to be human – that Smith is not reducing human being down to the mind (‘I think therefore I am’) and thus excluding a number of categories or stages of humanity, but rather this notion of becoming or being what we love; the mind is vital and included, but not fundamental, it is part of the overall human. This careful distinction is characteristic of Smith’s writing, and I look forward to seeing how this is teased out in Awaiting the King. As we come to the close of this review, another quote helpfully illustrates some of what Smith is getting at. Introducing a section called ‘The iPhone-ization of Our World(view): Compressed Stories and Micropractices’, Smith writes: “Liturgies are formative because they are both kinaesthetic and poetic, both embodied and storied“. Think of how you use your iPhone (other platforms available!) – with your hands, eyes and mind, you engage in stories, and you regularly return to it to see what is going on. Whether we like it or not, we regularly worship at this mini-altar, and it shapes us.

This has been a brief review of a book that has significantly shaped my thinking, and one that continues to influence me. Imagining the Kingdom forces us to think about the way we arrange our lives – because ultimately this will affect how we ourselves are arranged. I would recommend this book – in spite (or, perhaps, because) of the blend of technical and practical – to those involved in worship leading (pastors, preachers, musicians and interested congregants like myself), those involved in education, and anyone wanting to think deeply about what it means to be human or a worshipper in the Christian sense. A good companion to this book would be Stephen Guthrie’s Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human, which touches on similar themes, albeit from a more academic standpoint.

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