Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review of *Imagining the Kingdom* by J.K.A. Smith

Let me start with as clear an admonition as I can: This is a book that every Christian should read. That is, everyone would benefit from the argument here, and find something to encourage his or her Christian walk. It’s not a simple read - I’m not sure everyone would love it, or understand it - but this, like the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, covers critical ground of what it means to worship, why we do what we do, or should do what we should do. 

Smith’s underlying argument is that human beings are feeling, emotional, affective beings, shaped and molded by our actions and arts. He pushes against the dominant intellectualist, “world view” approach to the Christian life that says our doctrines and knowledge are the bedrock on which faithful Christian life exists or from which action inevitably flows. In this second volume of a planned three volume set, Smith focuses on the practices of worship, and how worship serves (or should serve) as a set of, context for, and arrangement of practices that orient us as individuals and communities towards loving, serving and knowing God.

As a cultural anthropologist teaching at a Christian college, these have been the waters in which I have been swimming for a long time, and I am profoundly grateful for a text that makes this point so wonderfully. I am particularly appreciative of Smith’s extensive use of the work of Pierre Bourdieu, an anthropologist and social theorist I have also found enormously helpful in my own research and teaching on Christian life. I’ve had my students read his first book, and would likely assign this one as well, as it brings this complex theory into helpful dialog with Christian practice and story, rendering the argument relatively accessible; as accessible as I think it could be without losing its power to convince.

After reading the first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, I eagerly looked forward to this volume, but I had also hoped it would address a gap in the first one. Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically given the purpose of the text, this one also fails to think deeply about cultural diversity. As well as Smith addresses mainstream U.S. consumer and media culture, he does not give us much to think about in terms of the varieties of cultural traditions present in the church.  Toward the end of the book, for example, he returns to a trenchant critique (present in both volumes) on the tendency of the (White) U.S. American church to separate form and content, viewing the gospel to be merely a “message” to be communicated by whatever means most compelling. He points to historic (European) liturgies as antidotes or correctives, and I agree with this view, yet it strikes me that he missed one of the more powerful examples of the church pushing back on a separation (or distinction with) form and meaning, the African American church tradition. In the black community today, to speak of someone as a “church person” is to remark on far more than church attendance, but to index their whole being – dress, language, tastes.  Unlike the white church, who today tend to ape the musical style of the moment, the black church has created the artists shaping the world outside the church; these artists are cultivated, in voice, manner, and body, in the church, and bring these sensibilities to performances on “American Idol” and the Apollo Theater (often in a highly twisted form, but recognizable.)  The black church, unlike the evangelical white church, seems better able to stand apart as a prophetic voice of the wider culture, resisting temptations to bring casual flip-flops, Twitter feeds and corny dramas into the Sunday service, instead holding to a story of the gospel told through the suffering and salvation of a people held up by the hand of God through some of the worst the world had to offer. While certainly not perfect, nor monolithic, black Christian traditions know who they are, and shape their people for life beyond the Sunday service in powerful ways. 

In addition, the black church has never struggled to bring emotion into the context of worship the way white liturgies have. Smith addresses head on the tension some might have at his argument that humans are more emotional than intellectual with the predominantly emotionless practices of many Euro-American congregations. He notes at several points that the rituals of liturgy often seem dry or unappealing to those conditioned by the mall and movie theater to receive instant stimulation and personal gratification.  He rightly pushes back on this perception, noting that the repetition of “dry” liturgy is part of the genius of shaping a person into a member of a holy communion, often apart from any particular “understanding” of what’s happening.

Yet ritual theorists note that while part of the power of ritual is in the pattern and repetition, changing elements of ritual serves to highlight elements of the experience in powerful ways. This is, as Smith himself notes, part of the impetus for making church look like a mall, or a rave, or a night club, believing (wrongly, he says) that such forms can bring all the fun, but just be filled with a Jesus message. But the form, he argues, carries a logic of its own, that works again, and more powerfully, than the mentions of Jesus or the prayer at the beginning of the “concert.”  Such borrowing, he avers, undermines the integrity of the bodily practices shaped by the traditions and life of the church. I would suggest, however, that a white congregation “borrowing” gospel music is a very different thing from them “borrowing” the sound of the Rolling Stones or Katy Perry in an attempt to be “relevant.” Instead, for many in the white church (or anyone not accustomed to it), a gospel choir raises the emotional temperature, and disrupts the ritual in a productive way, moving many into practices that are dramatically embodied, gospel centered and, perhaps, a bit uncomfortable. This can, and I would say, does serve the very purposes argued by Smith.

This raises a question for the whole church: how might the traditions of cultures outside ourselves push us towards postures we currently can’t imagine?  While the substance of Smith’s argument in this volume is exactly right, he leaves out a tremendously important conversation about the ways social power, race and culture are “performed” in the context of church in ways that can work for or against the gospel.  Bringing traditions into worship from outside the dominant cultural traditions of a congregation should be a vital part of re-forming the people of God as a single body, under one Lord and one baptism.  It can alert us to the ways we live our lives unaware of the differences around us. It can bring into our worship practices a sensitivity to the diversity of the body of Christ in every sense of the term “diversity.” (NB: I would argue this to be true for all congregations, not only Euro-Americans.)

This shortcoming notwithstanding, this is a brilliant book, and I anxiously look forward to the third volume. Smith has done us a tremendous service by bringing philosophy and cultural anthropology into such a productive conversation with the most practical aspects of Christian life.  As we eagerly wait for the third volume, I hope there might be something there to help us think about how our Imagining of the Kingdom needs to occur in multiple languages.

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