A Review of “Desiring the Kingdom” by James K.A. Smith

desiring“Behind every pedagogy is a philosophical anthropology,” (27). How we train others assumes a certain perspective on human nature, says Smith. In particular Desiring the Kingdom aims to point out how a faulty anthropology has led to a reductionist educational approach. It is Smith’s contention that we are not first and foremost “thinking creatures” but “desiring creatures,” and this anthropology requires us to think about education more in terms of liturgical practices and not simply worldview instruction. In short, Smith gives us a whole new paradigm, a more biblical one, for the process of discipleship.

The book is broken down into two parts. Part one makes a strong case for a different anthropology – namely that man is a “Desiring, Imaginative Animal.” While much of Christian education has focused on worldview instruction Smith argues that the Bible’s teaching reveals that man is actually more shaped by what he loves. “We are what we love,” he writes, “and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends” (40). In chapter one he walks readers through a series of reductionist models that don’t align with either reality or Scripture. Jesus himself taught that man was a desiring creature. For it is out of the “heart,” not the head, that “murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander” come (Matt. 15:19). Indeed the heart drives a man. Smith also demonstrates, however, how this same dynamic plays out in our every day lives. He explores the cultural liturgies that surround us, looking particularly at the mall, the military entertainment complex, and the university. In each case he talks about how uncritical engagement with each shapes and influences us. He makes a strong case for this anthropology. He notes particularly the “unconscious self” that we interact with on a daily basis, and the habit formation that happens in all of us apart from intentional cognitive analysis. This is why he is so quick to warn us about our participation in various cultural liturgies, and the deficiency of only focusing on worldview instruction. He proposes, instead, a reshaping of and reemphasis on the Christian social imaginary.

Part two focuses on the shaping of this Christian social imaginary. Borrowing from the works of Charles Taylor, Smith defines his terms.

A social imaginary, you’ll recall, is an understanding of the world that is precognitive and prereflective: it functions on an order before both thinking and believing, and it is “carried,” Taylor says, in images, stories, myths, and related practices. (133)

Chapter five is the heart of the whole book. Here Smith walks readers step-by-step through the liturgy of the church. He highlights the depth of meaning behind each component of corporate worship and how each, whether we realize it or not, is shaping and influencing us. His focus turns then in the final chapter to consider specifically the implications that this new pedagogy has for the Christian university. The ultimate question driving Smith’s work here asks “what does authentically Christian education look like.” He writes:

The genesis of this project was a desire to communicate to students (and faculty) a vision of what authentic, integral Christian learning looks like, emphasizing how learning is connected to worship and how, together, these constitute practices of formation and discipleship. (11)

But all that Smith has to say about Christian education applies to discipleship more broadly. Michael Emlet’s review of the book beautifully captured the implications of Smith’s work for counseling and discipleship (see “Practice Makes Perfect? Exploring the Relationship Between Knowledge, Desire, and Habit“). That’s why Smith’s work is so worthy of our time, it helps us think practically about discipleship.

The reality is that most of the Christians I counsel know what they are supposed to do, but they struggle to do it. They know the gospel, they know their sin, they know God’s commands. They still struggle to obey. This dynamic reminds us that for many of us our impediment to growth in godliness is not primarily mental. It is fundamentally an issue of social imaginary. We are driven by the unconscious habits that we have developed of years and fighting against them requires being reshaped by a Christian social imaginary, by different liturgies. Fundamentally as a counselor I need to focus on people’s desires and habits, not merely on their knowledge. Smith’s discussion is illuminating and refreshing. It can be dense at some points, but he makes up for it by engaging with a wide ray of culture sources that illustrate his points. He interacts with every thing from the novels of Tom Wolfe and Walker Percy to the film Moulin Rouge. He illustrates his points well and helps us to grasp them with more than just theoretical information, but with beautiful imagery that plays to the imagination as much as to the intellect. His book is some ways an attempt to do what he wants to see more Christian education do. Whether you work in higher ed. or you are discipleship pastor, a Biblical counselor, or a parent this is a book worthy of your time. It lends itself well to helping the church as a whole rethink our approach to discipleship which has been languishing for years. I highly recommend Desiring the Kingdom as a great resource for our own growth and for helping others grow.

Trackbacks

  1. […] I have heard praise for this book for too long not to have read it sooner than I did. Smith’s work unpacks the role of practice and liturgy in the shaping of disciples. It is a book that corrects the reductionist understandings of discipleship in the modern church, and offers us a new way forward. Though Smith’s primary interest is Christian higher education, the work he does here has massive implications for discipleship of all kinds. In that regard it has been a great help and encouragement to me this year. Read my full review here. […]

  2. […] “not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends.” (Desiring the Kingdom, […]

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