Stephen Richard Turley reviews the second book in James K.A. Smith's trilogy on cultural liturgies.
Reading Time: 10 minutes

James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, is the second volume in what will be a Cultural Liturgies trilogy, which seeks nothing less than to overturn what Smith perceives as the dominant paradigmatic approach to Christian education. In his first volume, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith challenges the notion that education is essentially about “ideas and information” which seek to cultivate “the life of the mind” into a distinctly “Christian perspective, or more commonly now, a Christian worldview.”1 For Smith, this line of thinking entails the Cartesian assumption that human beings are essentially minds, “thinking things,” and thus places a premium on the cognitive and propositional relative to the practical and aesthetic. Instead, Smith argues that human beings are essentially desiring beings, in that “before we are thinkers, we are believers; before we can offer our rational explanations of the world, we have already assumed a whole constellation of beliefs – a worldview – that governs and conditions our perception of the world.”2 But this precognitive sense of the world is not arbitrary;
it is developed by the shaping of our dispositions and habits which inscribe what Smith refers to as a ‘social imaginary’ within us. And the primary means by which our dispositions and habits are shaped is through social and bodily practices. Thus, Smith proposes that we “re- vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project,” paying particular attention to how “Christian education shapes us, forms us, molds us to be a certain kind of people whose hearts and passions and desires are aimed at the kingdom of God.”3

With this second volume, Smith supplements the central argument of Desiring the Kingdom by developing three interrelated constituents of a liturgical anthropology: first, the centrality of the imagination for our desires and actions; secondly, the role of the body in the formation of the imagination; and thirdly, the role of narrative in the integration of body, mind, and environment. “In short,” Smith writes: “the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story.”4 The focus of the second volume is thus the formation of the kind of imagination that is behind the desire for the kingdom.

The book is made up of an introduction and two parts, each comprised of two chapters. Part One, “Incarnate Significance: The Body as Background,” provides an overview of how the body is the site for its own unique form of knowledge. In Part Two, “Sanctified Perception,” Smith develops how such physiognomic knowledge primes the human person to perceive the world through metaphor and narrative.

In his Introduction, “A Sentimental Education: On Christian Action,” Smith sets the stage with an inquiry borrowed from political theologian William Cavanaugh: how does a provincial farm boy become persuaded to join the military and travel thousands of miles away to another part of the world to kill people he knows nothing about? The answer is not that he has been convinced by an argument, but rather “he has been conscripted into a mythology: he identifies himself within a story that has seeped into his bones at levels not even he is aware of… He is the product of a sentimental education” (16). Smith observes that the dynamics of inscription operate more at the level of the imagination than the intellect, and that our imaginations are shaped by the cultural ecosystem that we both imbibe and shape by virtue of our bodies. For Smith, the ‘imagination’ is “a quasi-faculty whereby we construe the world on a precognitive level, on a register that is fundamentally aesthetic precisely because it is so closely tied to the body” (17). Thus, he notes, becoming a soldier, “takes practice;” it involves innumerable kinaesthetic and poetic reinforcements that persuade by attuning the desires of the provincial farm boy in accordance with frames of reference constitutive of nationalist narratives (19). In the interest of Christian education and formation, Smith intends to account for these desire-shaping dynamics by “recognizing and understanding this intertwinement of embodiment and story, of kinaesthetics and poetics” (20).

In Chapter One, “Erotic Comprehension,” Smith draws from research that has foregrounded the role of the body in knowledge acquisition. In as much as the mind exists in a body, it has been recognized by scholars that we as humans cannot but experience ourselves simultaneously in and as our bodies. Smith observes: “My body is not something I have, but something I am; it is the ‘me’ that dwells in the world” (49). Statements such as ‘My foot hurts’ and ‘I am in pain’ are in fact synonymous statements that indicate I don’t just have a body, I am my body. We experience things done to our bodies as done to ourselves. This means that there is no such thing as ‘disinterested’ thought; all human perception entails an aesthetic evaluation, such that our thinking is affected invariably by our affections, the ways in which we feel. This combination of emotion and perception, what Smith links to the imagination, is primed or trained by narrative, a “storied pedagogy,” that is inextricably linked to embodiment (36- 7). It is this interface between imagination, narrative, and embodiment that serves as the nexus for Smith’s liturgical anthropology.

In order to explicate this kinaesthetic link between story, body, and imagination, Smith turns initially to the French philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty’s phenomenology of embodiment, by which Smith disambiguates the nature of bodily knowing, or what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘perception’ (41). For Merleau-Ponty, the world as perceived through the body is not merely the foundation for knowledge of the world, but involves its own unique mechanism of knowledge. He argues that humans are neither solely intellectual nor instinctual, but rather we live between instinct and intellect. There is, as it were, an immediate relationship between the perceiver and that which is perceived. For example, in order to reach for a spoon, one need not first search for his hand and then calculate the distance between the hand and spoon. Nor is the act merely instinctual, devoid of any meaning or significance. The reaching for the spoon is an act that exists in between our intellect and instinct, and it is this interstice that accounts for the way the body knows (44). It is the body that mediates our ‘being-in-the-world’ and inexorably shapes our perceptions of the world; I know what a tree is not by merely analyzing it but by what I do with it (e.g. climb it, decorate it, cut it down, etc). The same goes for tables, chairs, and doorways. Thus, “the body carries a kind of acquired, habituated knowledge or knowhow that is irreducible and inarticulable, and yet fundamentally orienting for our being-in-the-world” (45).

In Chapter Two, “The Social Body,” Smith seeks to answer how such habituation is acquired. Here he enlists the help of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his theory of habitus, defined (somewhat confoundingly) as “systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures…” (81). Human dispositions or inclinations for Bourdieu involve norms, habits, rules, understandings and goals that reflect the constituents of a wider social order. The important insight offered by Bourdieu is that
our dispositions and inclinations are not learned abstractly or intellectually but rather through the unconscious inculcation of objective social conditions inherent in bodily postures, gesticulations and rules of etiquette. The social inscription entailed in various reciprocal practices produces dispositions that are homologous to the social conditions through which they are acquired. Thus, the dispositions of human persons are always structured and structuring; they are produced by the rules, understandings, and goals inherent in the practices constitutive of the larger social order on the one hand, while, on the other hand, the socially inscribed dispositions provide a range of options for the actor to choose from that are appropriate to any given situation. In Smith’s words: “I need the community and social body to enable me to perceive the world; however, the social body needs my body to instantiate its vision and practice” (82). Again, in a wonderful turn of phrase: “I learn how to constitute my world from others, but I learn how to constitute my world. The ‘I’ that perceives is always already a ‘we.’ My perception is communal, a debt I owe” (84).

This practical sense is not so much a formal knowledge per se, but more a kind of proficiency or mastery which does not entail necessarily the ability to mentally process such proficiency. As Smith notes: “There are all kinds of virtuoso players who make terrible coaches, precisely because their practical sense and feel for the game does not necessarily translate into the ability to communicate and teach what they know” (87). This practical sense, this habitus, is thus a belief, a taken-for- grantedness that arises as the result of the body’s interaction with its culturally conditioned world. “To have acquired a practical sense is to have imbibed embodied beliefs in such a way that I ‘naturally’ relate to my world and my environment on those terms” (88). This imbibing is acquired through various rituals that incorporate or initiate us into a culturally defined habitus, such that the social body in effect co-opts my body (94).

In Chapter Three, “‘We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live’: How Worship Works,” Smith develops the concept of the socially invested body by exploring the centrality of stories for our existence. Each of our acts, however mundane, in fact constitute micropractices of larger macrocosmic narratives. “Such orienting narratives are not explicitly ‘told’ in a ‘once-upon-a-time’ discursive mode … We don’t memorize the Story as told to us; we imbibe the Story as we perform it in a million little gestures” (109-10). Stories are imbibed by our bodies through gestures that have a semiotic relationship with our environments; that is, each action of the body corresponds to our environment by virtue of human “meaning- making” (110). For example, the act of kneeling does not merely communicate or symbolize subordination but in fact subordinates the kneeler in the act itself; the act of kneeling is the site of meaning. “Our bodies, brains, and environments function together as the three-legged stool of our experience; any meaning is generated at the nexus of all three” (111). This nexus entails a ‘feel’, an aesethetic evaluation inherent in human perception. It is this aesthetic sense that sketches out our neural maps of the world, providing the plausibility structures by which the world is imagined and interpreted.

This tripartite complex of body, brain, and environment accounts for the primacy of metaphor for how we make sense of our world. Citing theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie, metaphors are mechanisms for the enactment of meaning. When someone makes a statement, “This rose is my love for you,” the rose is presented not merely as a rose, but as a tangible expression, a concrete manifestation, of the person’s love. The metaphor represents one thing in relation to another, and in so doing, it transforms the object of representation; the rose in our example is no longer merely a rose, it now embodies an idea, an expression that transforms its connotative significance. But metaphor is not merely linguistic; Smith argues that metaphor is in fact “characteristic of the aesthetic aspect of human being-in-the-world” (118). We experience our world tacitly, such that our learned tastes and distastes and the cultural shaping of the senses provide the aesthetic lens through which we know our world. For example, when someone points something out with his finger, we see the finger, but we are not looking at it but rather through it. Our awareness of the finger is the subsidiary means, the instrumentality, by which we may focus on the object to which it points. For embodiment theorists, knowledge obtains primarily through a tacit collection of subsidiaries that constitute a framework through which our perception of the world is shaped and focused, very much the way sight obtains through the instrumentality of the eyes. It is through this tacit awareness that we know our world, a knowledge that is rooted in the body and sensory experience. The mental, somatic, and ecological constituents of liturgical environments shape the way we see, that is, imagine our world. And it from this imagined world that our desires spring. We simply do not self-generate our desires; rather, “they are birthed in us. There are formed in us as habits, as habitus.” (125) Our desires thus arise from our somatically- and environmentally-shaped imaginations. Smith concludes:

Our incarnate significance, our imaginative being-in-the-world, is governed by the dynamics of metaphor and narrative, poetry and story…. Liturgies – those formative rituals of ultimacy – marshal exactly these dynamics…. [L]iturgies are pedagogies of desire that shape our love because they picture the good life for us in ways that resonate with our imaginative nature … We are conscripted into a Story through those practices that enact and perform and embody a Story about the good life…. [W]e are incorporated into a social body when the stories of a people become the dominant landscape of our imaginative background – when those stories have worked their way into our ‘practical sense’ in such a way that they now (automatically) govern how we perceive the world…. This is how worship works (136-37).

In Chapter Four, “Restor(y)ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission,” Smith applies the previous chapters’ explicated liturgical anthropology to distinctively Christian worship practices. Smith writes: “Worship and the practices of Christian formation are first and foremost the way the Spirit invites us into union with the Triune God.” The discipleship inherent in worship is thus not merely imitating Christ, but rather being formed in Christ, absorbed in the shared lifeworld of the church which is the body of Christ. This Christocentric formation entails the ‘sending’, the missio, distinctive of Christian worship, since to be incorporated into Christ is to be incorporated into the story of God sending his Son, the Son sending the Spirit, and the Spirit sending the church. Thus, Smith argues that if this sending-action is so central to our Christian identity, then Christian missional institutions such as churches, schools, and universities, must form actors. Formative education requires “sanctifying our perception” through “restor(y)ing the imagination” (160). Restor(y)ing the imagination involves, first, foregrounding narrative and art as primary ways in which we know our world and, secondly, ordering our perception in such a way that we take the right things for granted (161). This entails that Christian education must be rooted in Christian worship and liturgical formation, for it is only through such formative practices that we experience a reformation of our habits and dispositions distinctive to a Christian vision of life. Moreover, Christian worship provides the allure or the momentum for such a reformation by virtue of the divine calling that initiates our worship. This calling awakens the obligation of my response to that call, and thus orients my body to a liturgical environment reconstituted by such a call. Smith writes: “Christian liturgical practices and spiritual disciplines are not just means of personal renewal; they remake the world because they transform the perception of the people of God who not only inhabit the world differently but inhabit a different world, a world constituted by God’s creation” (167).

Smith’s Imagining is an important work for classical educators. It helpfully draws together a number of embodiment and literary theories into a singular coherent paradigm, a synthetic vision, of physiognomic logic indispensible to teaching in accordance with the nature of the student. While the content of Imagining is quite dense (a mere four chapters comprising nearly 200 pages of theoretical argumentation), Smith’s writing is lucid, enlivened by nice turns of phrase and inviting prose. There are also a number of sidebars that illustrate richly his points with literature and film, poetry and litany. As Smith himself admits, however, the density of practice and literary theory will likely be a challenge for most readers, especially those not accustomed to the theorists from whom Smith draws. While his Introduction does map out the scope and sequence for his study, it would have been helpful if Smith had delineated his argument at key points within each chapter to guide the reader through what can be rather bewildering content. Furthermore, the theoretical focus of the study does at times come across as ironically ‘disembodied.’ There are a number of studies on historic Christian educational practices which could have been analyzed illuminatively by Smith’s practice and literary theory. Finally, though a small quibble, Smith’s occasional social, political, and economic comments can come across as sanctimoniously selective, predictable, and sententious.

That being said, Smith’s second volume of the Cultural Liturgies project does not disappoint as a supplement to his already well-received first volume, and has awakened within this reviewer an ardent anticipation, a desire, for the third.