James K.A. Smith – Imagining the Kingdom [Feature Review]

March 15, 2013


Page 2: James K.A. Smith – Imagining the Kingdom



Imagination and desire are interwoven together for Smith, to a degree that one could imagine this book being written first: “…at the heart of a liturgical anthropology is a recognition of not just the centrality of desire but also the centrality of the imagination. It is because I imagine the world (and my place in it) in certain ways that I am oriented by fundamental loves and longings” (124-5). This has direct implications for worship: “…liturgies are pedagogies of desire that shape our love because they picture the good life for us in ways that resonate with our imaginative nature. Over time, we are formed as a people who desire a certain telos because we have been immersed in liturgies that have captured our imagination by aesthetic means… This is how worship works.” (137).


This applies to secular liturgies too, however. Our habits, even with things as seemingly innocuous as interacting with an iPhone, can be shaping us with an “implicit social imaginary”: “To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal—to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed” (143). Smith calls social media a “ubiquitous panopticon” that fosters habits of vainglory (similar to the vice of pride) and tells us a story that be a human is to be someone on display, succinctly humorous, and “the most significant feature of persons is watchableness” (145,7).

What counter-liturgy does (or should) the church offer? Worship begins with a call out of ourselves into the very life of God (unlike social media, where we are the center of the universe). There is still a notion of “display” in the call to confession: “But this is not a competitive display. It is rather a vulnerability that is met with mercy and grace: you confess your sins and are reminded once again that ‘you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God’ (Col. 3:3)” (149). Our secular liturgies of self-dependency and self-absorption are challenged by the Eucharist. Quoting Graham Ward, The Politics of Discipleship: becoming Postmaterial Citizens: “By the act of receiving the Eucharist… I place myself in Christ—rather than simply placing Christ within me” (153). And then at the end of worship, people are sent accompanied with a promise: imagination and action are intertwined, but we can take heart that the Spirit goes with us, and we are not autonomous actors (153-4).


Readers who enjoyed DTK will appreciate hearing more of Smith’s insights. It is possible to read volume two without having read the first volume, but I would guess reading them in order would situate the reader better. I will leave you with this quote, which is a good summary of what James K.A. Smith is up to in the cultural liturgies project:


[Christian] education needs impact the aesthetics of human understanding. It needs to get hold of our gut and capture our imagination—that preconscious, emotional register on which we perceive the world and that, in turn, drives or ‘pulls’ our action… If the practices of Christian formation are truly going to reform our manners and deflect our dispositions to be aimed at the kingdom of God, then such practices need to engender rightly ordered erotic comprehension by renewing and reorienting our imaginations (158-9).