Tapping into the “Aesthetic Know-How” of the Worshiping Bodies
A Feature Review of
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.
James K.A. Smith
Reviewed By Jasmine Smart
In 2010, Christianity Today awarded Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation a book award for the category of Theology/Ethics. Englewood Review of Books, similarly, awarded DTK as the “best theology book” of 2009. With these accolades, it is not surprising that the second volume of this three-part series of “cultural liturgies” has been highly anticipated.
Smith aims to be both accessible and scholarly in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, but recognizes doing so may get him critics from both camps: “Such is the fate of a hybrid book: too many footnotes and references to German philosophers to qualify as ‘popular’; not enough footnotes and too many creative asides to be properly ‘academic’” (Imagining the Kingdom, xi). Originally, ITK was supposed to be aimed at a more specialized audience of scholars, but thankfully for us non-specialized readers, he has changed his plans and will continue to go the hybrid route for volume two and three.
Smith’s work is ultimately about anthropology (what makes humans the way they are). In DTK, he established that humans are desiring animals. But he would sometimes receive the critique: “Before I love something, don’t I need to know what I’m loving? So doesn’t that mean that knowledge precedes love, and hence that intellect is prior to affect?” (125). Instead of intellect as a foundational orientation, Smith argues, with the vocabulary of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, humans develop a “know-how” that “seeps into their bones,” that is deeper than intellect. This aesthetic logic of my body is formed by habits that ultimately “construe my world in certain ways” (51) which means more often than not, I do not primarily think my way through the world; thinking emerges secondarily to this “bodily interaction with the world” (82).
*** Other Books by James K.A. Smith
Our bias of humans as “thinking things” is quite hard to break. Smith discusses Bourdieu’s criticism of the type of theorist who “studies a community of practitioners ‘as if they were asking themselves the questions he asks himself about them’” (78), as if there is no other way of being than the way of the “thinker.” Smith notes that perhaps the claim “every believer is a theologian” might be falling into this bias as well. Smith recognizes the difficulty of his own project: he is trying to prove by “intellectual analysis… how incarnate significance eludes our intellectual grasp,” giving us the image of a “hypocritical tightrope” (120). Yet, Smith agrees with Bourdieu’s claim that “There is a virtue to theoretical reflection on practice and the attempt to understand what’s at stake in communities of practice” (76).
Reflecting on practice, then, should be done in such a way as not to intellectualize it. Smith’s opportunities of imaginative musings give readers the chance to study in such a way that it is more in line with the topic of study, so that reading itself becomes a type of practice. For practitioners especially, Smith recognizes that the first half of the book is “ask[ing] a lot of you” (xvii). Personally, I admit my own impatience as I waded through the expositions of Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu. But, by engaging in the entirety of the philosophers’ arguments instead of just “plunder[ing] them for juicy quotes” (xviii), Smith forces non-specialized readers to read slowly and carefully, dwelling in their expositions, drawing on repeated themes from volume one in order to make even the reading of his book more like a practice: drawing us into the argument by appealing to the imagination more than the intellect.