December 31, 2009

Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith - A Book Review

Why is it that the everydayness of many Western Christians' lifestyles often reflect the values of their culture instead of Christ? How do our ways of engaging and teaching discipleship often leave our actions thin but our heads heavy? What is it that our actions betray our words or beliefs so that we proclaim God as highest but pay homage to the other gods of entertainment, consumerism, or nationalism? James K.A. Smith's newest reflection on education at its core is a reflection on discipleship. In this quest, he gives a fuller and more correct understanding of humans as affective, desiring animals in able to work towards a deeper discipleship, but fails to go beyond classical liturgical practices. This book is valuable to many: students, teachers, Sunday Schools, professors, preachers, and academics.

While I'll hold off on a full review I will say that he takes off better than he lands. Part I of the book is devoted to constructing a deeper philosophical anthropology than the anthropology modernity or romanticism. The core argument of Desiring the Kingdom is that humans at their core are not thinking or even believing animals, but rather are precognitive, pre-rationalist lovers. We are what we love, we are what we worship. Furthermore, the first part of the book reflects upon the power of "secular" liturgies that form and shape human desire and love, so that our love is misdirected. Much of my aggravation from my own as well the discipleship of the Western church, is that the true formative practices of our daily lives come less from the church than the mall, White House, flag, Jerry World (the newest Mecca of entertainment and competition: the Dallas Cowboys Stadium). While these things are not evil in themselves, they should not be the focus of our desire as they tend to claim.

Overall, the power of Part I is Smith's aim is to unveil the truth that behind every pedagogy or practice for teaching is a philosophical anthropology, or understanding of human existence. I fully appreciate Smith's understanding of human anthropology: "loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don't inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines."
So, instead of being pushed by our beliefs, we are "pulled by a telos that we desire."

Part II builds off of the anthropology of humans as "fundamentally and primordially- lovers," to instill worship as the creation of habits that "constitute the fulcrum of our desires." Smith claims rightly that instead of focusing on changing beliefs or worldviews, the church or particularly the Christian university must inculcate habits that counter the cultural practices that are "thick"- or powerful enough to (mis)guide human desire. The final section of Desiring the Kingdom reflects on the worship practices in the Christian tradition that are "formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life." Possibly the most important piece in this section for myself is Smith's argument that the imago die is basically the participation of humans in the missio dei, but not in those words.

This is where Smith gets closest to being right. The practices that will ultimately guide human desire lie with and beyond the Sunday morning worship service. "[T]he image of God is a task, a mission," writes Smith. Thus, beyond classical liturgical practices found in "worship," the church must create an ethos and ethic of participation in the mission of God. It is only by moving from doing mission and worship, to being mission and worship through ministering, living among, and fighting for caught up in God's mission of redemptive love that the church will claim once again the hearts of the church with "thick" practices. Counter-formation must occur beyond the walls of Sunday morning.


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