Imagining the Kingdom

Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship WorksImagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James K.A. Smith

[I]f the gospel is going to capture imaginations and sanctify perception we need painters and novelists and dancers and songwriters and sculptors and poets and designers whose creative work shows the world otherwise, enabling us to imagine differently—and hence perceive differently and so act differently. (163)

Growing up I was often confused and conflicted about worship, and I was very nearly an early casualty of the “church music wars.” Choruses came into my life in a big way when I was young, and though they left me frustrated and uneasy, it seemed equally useless to argue for hymns. Arguing about music seemed pointless because both sides were beginning from differing premises. Worship was either a commodity to consume or a means of didactic instruction: was there better theology in the hymns or greater emotional (and thus “spiritual”) resonance in the choruses?

Choruses or hymns—either way, it was still all about me. I remember feeling a hunger for worship—for something—that pushed me out of the spotlight and yet still did something fundamental to me that wasn’t just the addition of a certain feeling or information. I had lots of conversations with youth leaders trying to help me sort this out. (And it was patient mentors who kept me searching for answers within the Church, who made it clear that my questions were okay and that Christianity was big enough for me to find my answers within.) They explained that some people connected more emotionally and others connected more intellectually and that I just needed to find the right means of connection for me.

Part of me still agrees with this to some extent. I am an epistemological post-modernist: I hold that there are multiple ways of searching for and engaging with truth. I know enough of the history of human thought to recognize the validity of such a claim. But at the same time I felt (and continue to feel) there is something objectively lacking in much contemporary evangelical worship and that simply saying some people are too “intellectual” for worshipping that way doesn’t really work. Moreover, I think some of our forms of worship are doing active harm to those who practice them.

This is where James K. A. Smith’s second volume of his Cultural Liturgies series, entitled Imagining the Kingdom, becomes so incredibly helpful—for those who can wade through the philosophical apparatus Smith constructs to make what seem like largely intuitive points. Smith examines the importance of forms of worship. Worship, he believes, is missional—it’s a call to action. But, as he spends most of the book explaining, the mistake most evangelical Christians make is assuming that humans are rational actors, that we act primarily on the knowledge that we have. If this is the case, then experiencing Christianity would be absorbing knowledge through hymns, sermons, Sunday School, etc. But this is not the case. Instead, worship, according to Smith, should be the education of our imaginations.

[P]erhaps the mind of Christ is also something that is acquired through practice and formation, something that emerges as a result of sanctification rather than an informational deposit. (114)

Smith marshals a host of psychologists and philosophers to argue for a philosophy of action based on something deeper than intellect, based on our “embodied knowledge” and habitus. He discusses this in a few different ways, but his argument at the core is one I think most would agree upon: that our cultural forms predispose our perceptions on a largely unconscious level and that every day we act on these assumptions prior to conscious thought. These “lenses” or “frameworks” (and Smith has to bracket a lot of his expressions in scare quotes throughout the work) Smith argues are shaped in two primary and related ways: through “embodied knowledge” and through narrative. The first is based on the fact that our bodies learn over and above our minds huge amounts of social and cultural cues that unconsciously effect our actions. He uses the example of learning to properly hold a fork or eat at the table. That physical habits embodies a whole spectrum of cultural and social knowledge that we learn by “feel” rather than intellect.

I “think about” the world second; first I’m engaged in it as an actor whose motivations and ends are practical and largely “unconscious.” It is habitus that is “the basis of perception” and all subsequent experiences. Indeed, in some significant sense, experience is only possible because of habitus. (83)

In regards to narrative, Smith argues that the stories were are taught (and the stories we embody) also inform our actions prior to conscious thought. The panhandler on the street, for instance: our initial, unthinking response is shaped by whether we have imbibed a narrative of personal responsibility and American opportunity or a narrative about generosity and the value of all as children of God. That narrative shapes our perceptions themselves, not simply how we chose to act on those perceptions. It is narrative that trains our emotional perceptual apparatus to perceive the world as meaningful. (108) Narrative is the unconscious framework structuring our perceptions prior to though. Story is the lingua franca of incarnate significance. (160)

[W]e have too often pursued flawed models of discipleship and Christian formation that have focused on convincing the intellect rather than recruiting the imagination. Moreover, because of this neglect and our stunted anthropology, we have failed to recognize the degree and extent to which secular liturgies [consumerism, nationalism, egoisms] do implicitly capitalize on our embodied penchant for storied formation. (39)

If all that is the case (and much of the density of this book comes from Smith meticulously building up this case in a rigorous fashion that unfortunately makes it largely inaccessible to the audience I think he’s aiming for) Smith argues that the role of worship is to shape our habitus, to form our embodied knowledge and structure our narrative—not simply by giving us knowledge but rather by having us participate in physical practices that form our perceptions on a deeper level than intellect. Worship shapes the imagination. That means that the forms of worship themselves, especially our physical postures, are important. They are not (and this is critical for Smith) neutral “containers” that can be whatever form (traditional or contemporary) needed to most effectively carry the important stuff, the content. No, the forms themselves embody and articulate perception and postures and aesthetic awareness that shape the worshippers.

[I]f we aim to form Christian actors and agents of renewal, then dispositional deflection requires sanctifying perception—for it is our bodily comportment (praktognosia) that constitutes the world in which we are called and moved to act. To shape perception is to transform action because we transform the “world” in which we find ourselves. . . . We need nothing less than a Christian imagination. (157)

This is where Smith’s argument finds its teeth, but unfortunately it comes very late in the treatise. And, just as most readers will likely agree with Smith’s emphasis on the importance of non-intellectual factors to shape perception, I think many readers would follow Smith here as well. We all knew this on some level, once upon a time. We were taught that you dressed a certain way on Sundays and that you behaved in a certain way in the sanctuary. You spoke in a certain tone. You didn’t run in church. We learned the rubric of reverence before we had the intellectual tools to understand it, and by so doing we understood certain things about our relationship with God on a deeper level than conscious thought. Yet somewhere along the line that embodied knowledge, that habitus, was thrown out because it was seen as legalistic, as divorced from the important stuff: the knowledge about Christ, which could just as easily (and perhaps more “effectively”) be delivered by a preacher wearing jeans and flip-flops.

But Smith’s point is that we have indeed lost something, that the forms are not neutral. I wish he would have gone into more detail here, as this is I think where his argument finds its application and could be a prophetic voice for the larger evangelical church today. He gives basically one example, which again is familiar to most of us, the idea of the consumerist form of worship being considered a neutral package in which to deliver knowledge of Christ but actually and unconsciously forming us to view Christ as simply another commodity to be consumed. I could add my own example from my own experience: the form of worship as emotivist appeal, training us to think of worship as both a form of performance and entertainment and shaping us to view our narrative with Christ through individualist, emotivist lenses.

Wide swaths of contemporary Christianity have bought into a specious form/content distinction: we have assumed that Christianity is primarily a “message” and is thus defined by a “content” that is distillable from historical forms. Along with this distinction comes the assumption that forms are basically just neutral containers for the message, selected on the basis of taste, preference, or cultural relevance. . . .[W]e begin to approach Christian worship as an event for disseminating the message and thus look for forms that will be fresh, attractive, relevant, accessible, and so on.
. . .[S]uch strategies are inherently “intellectualist,” both because they reduce the gospel to a (propositional) “message” and (because of that) completely miss the formative power of the forms themselves. Because such “relevant” paradigms are unwittingly intellectualist, they fail to appreciate that we are liturgical animals shaped by practices that work on our cognitive unconscious. And so they also fail to appreciate that these forms are not neutral; the forms of the mall or coffee shop are not just benign containers that can carry any content. These forms are already “aimed and loaded”: they carry their own teleological orientation and come loaded with a complex of rituals and practices that carry a vision of the good life. So while we might think that reconfiguring worship to feel like the mall is a way of making Jesus relevant and accessible, in fact we are unwittingly teaching worshipers and seekers to treat Jesus like any other commodity they encounter in the mall, because the very form of the mall’s (“secular”) liturgy unconsciously trains us to relate to the world as consumers.

I think Smith is largely correct in his evaluation, but I wish his treatment would have been one that was aimed for a more popular than academic audience. Most Christian thinkers who make it through this book would agree with Smith, but most worship leaders who really need to grapple with the concepts he’s laying out would likely be turned off by the length to which he goes to make them academically rigorous. The appeal to the forms of worship here and their urgency for the Church is real, but it gets rather lost (ironically) in a thicket of intellectual discourse, despite James’s valiant attempts to connect the concepts throughout with examples from contemporary poetry, literature, and film.


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