Book Review: Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works

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.

Education and the Recovery of the Non-Modern Mind

The movement to recover the insights of classical pedagogy is one of the most encouraging cultural phenomena of our time. While many parents may choose classical schools because they provide a wholesome moral environment and seem to equip students well to take standardized tests, teachers and administrators realize that there is something much deeper at stake in this approach to education.

In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith asserts that “Behind every constellation of educational practices is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons — about the kinds of creatures we are.” Pedagogy reveals anthropology. But we can extend Smith’s observation further: educational institutions (the structure of curriculum, the form of classroom practice, the expectations and training of teachers, even the design of buildings) reveal a lot about our understanding of the nature of the cosmos — about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach — how we approach the conveying of knowledge — is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.

The assumptions that typically animate the lives of most of our contemporaries are a product of living in what we carelessly (and sometimes arrogantly) call “the modern world.” The whole world may not be as modern as this phrase suggests. But it is accurate to say that we live in a society that is shaped by assumptions properly distinguished as “modern.” To be modern is not just to be up-to-date; it is to care deeply about being up-to-date. Michael Gillespie has observed that “to think of oneself as modern is to define one’s being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time.”

Contemporary Christians who are serious about their faith necessarily struggle (sometimes without understanding the nature of the struggle) with the conflict between being fully Christian and being fully modern. Many Christians — failing to understand the consequences of being fully modern — believe that there must be a way to reconcile being a modern Christian. But surely we must be people who define ourselves in terms of our God, not in terms of time.

The preoccupation with being new that defines the modern goes hand in hand with a radical view of freedom. The modern mentality or posture (words more descriptive than worldview in this context) eagerly anticipates the new, often at the expense of traditions and in denial of claims of “permanent things.” To be modern, writes Gillespie, “is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition, but to make history.”

Christians affirm that our God is the Lord of history and the Maker of meaning. The modern mentality, by contrast, asserts that meaning is whatever we want it to be, and history is no more than the sum total of projects generated by sheer human willing. There is a stark and consequential contrast between belief in a cosmos ordered and given meaning by God and a universe devoid of meaning — a mass of raw material awaiting human ingenuity to confer purpose. That contrast is at the heart of C. S. Lewis’s most important book, The Abolition of Man — a book about two models of education and the radically different visions of human nature and cosmic order they represent. Near the end of the book he contrasts the ancient way of wisdom as seeking “how to conform the soul to reality,” and the modern preoccupation — sustained by
an obsession to technological advances — with “how to subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

In insisting on a conflict between a Christian mentality and a modern one, I may be criticized by some for “wanting to turn the clock back.” But what assumptions are embedded in that metaphor? An inexorable and demanding clock is not a neutral image adequate to adjudicate the conflict between the modern mentality and its critics.

Fear of being behind the times is a valid fear only if one is preoccupied with being new and up-to-date. This is a posture that presupposes the non-existence of permanent and timeless realities by which our lives might be ordered. I’ve adopted “non-modern” as a term to describe the character of the Christian mind, rather than anti-modern, post-modern or pre-modern. These latter terms have their uses, but they tend to reinforce that biased temporal metaphor.

Can we imagine the contrast between the Modern and Non-modern spatially rather than temporally? Think of a land (rather than an era) in which, by habit, citizens glibly forget the past and compulsively hatch plans for A Better Future, a land in which people move with aggressive speed and confidence, despite the sense that they have no idea where they are going. In the neighboring land, by habit, the residents evaluate their actions in accord with a beautiful pattern of meaning known by their ancestors and conveyed to their children, a land in which past, present, and future are understood in terms of fulfillment rather than displacement and disposal.

Christians in modern societies need to think of themselves and their children as aliens from one land living in another, not as people pining for a lost past. The recovery of a non-modern mentality may be difficult, but it is not improper (unless one is already biased in favor of the modern mentality).

The difference between the modern and the non- modern concerns more than how we situate ourselves in time. More fundamentally it involves questions of how to live well. Music historian Quentin Faulkner has summarized two different mentalities that answer in radically different ways the question of how to live a good and meaningful life. According to one view:

An inherently mysterious, awesome power has created me to be part of the world, a world I can never hope to understand or control. Following the teachings or laws revealed to my people will enable me to remain pleasing to that creating force and at one with my family and tribe, and thus will provide my life with meaning because it is integrated with theirs. Following the teachings or laws requires me to fulfill certain duties and obligations, and I am fulfilled in doing these the best I can. Indeed I am compelled to do them: since living is an everlasting struggle between life and death, good and evil, blessing and curse, growth and decay, unfaithfulness to my duties and obligations will lead to my destruction.

The second view situates individuals quite differently:

I am significant because it is a matter of common knowledge and observation that our species is superior and in control on this planet. The democratic ideal guarantees me freedom and the right to pursue my happiness. Therefore I am free to follow my own personal goals and to pursue comfort, satisfaction and personal pleasure. That which I do not now understand about the universe will eventually be explained by science, so that things which now seem mysterious will ultimately be provided with rational explanations. I am not compelled to be faithful to any higher order of existence, since there is none.

The first of these views fits the non-modern mentality quite well. It is communal, it affirms permanent realities that guide personal and corporate decisions, it recognizes the smallness of human efforts to achieve comprehensive knowledge, and it is essentially humble and reverent in the face of mystery. The second view bows before nothing (hence my preference for posture over worldview in this discussion), it enshrines the isolated, autonomous individual and can imagine no limits, it values knowledge for the sake of power and control, not for the savoring of wisdom, it knows no duties or obligations. This paragraph offers a good summary of the ethos embedded in all truly modern institutions — including modern education. The falseness of this mentality prevents modern educational structures from fulfilling aims of education that are humane and liberal in the best sense.

More than differing about explicit moral or religious matters, the modern and the non-modern mentalities disagree about the very nature of reality. C. S. Lewis makes this quite clear near the beginning of The Abolition of Man when he talks about the loss of belief in “objective value.” This phrase may cause some to stumble because the vocabulary of “values” has become so thoroughly subjective in our time. Lewis held the venerable if now unfashionable belief that some things are truly, really valuable, objectively worthy of valuing, “that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” The universe has a givenness to it, human nature — including the purpose of human existence — has a givenness to it, and the challenge of living well is to learn to honor that givenness in our hearts as well as our heads.

Education is thus the training of the affections, the moral imagination, the mind, the intuitions, even the bodily disciplines of young people to be in synch, in harmony with that givenness. As Luigi Giussani has summarized it, “to educate means to help the human soul enter into the totality of the real.” To educate is to train in the essential task of giving form to objective value: education involves the imparting of habits of mind and body that incarnate the true value of things. Our lives must have some shape to them; our convictions will take form in personal habits and practices, as well as in public institutions and artifacts. And the task of education — understood classically and by Christians not under the sway of modern assumptions (what people in that other land believe) — is to train the young in how to give form to value.

If I had to isolate a single priority for Christians in educating their children, it would be to convey to them a deep and abiding confidence that there is a givenness to the universe and to human nature, a confidence that is the foundation of ordered desire to spend one’s life learning to fit into that givenness. The classical model of education — as opposed to modern models — is a great boon to Christians precisely because it assumes a prescriptive understanding of human nature and the cosmos. It assumes that human beings, individually and socially, have an objective purpose that calls us to certain ways of life. Education is vocational, not principally in the sense of career training, but in the root sense of vocation: that God has called humanity to a purpose rooted in divine love and truth, a vocation that fits us for life in a world God has made with our flourishing in view. The pedagogical strategy of classical education establishes and is shaped by an affirmation of this givenness to things, and part of that givenness is the unity of head and heart. Classical thought and Christian thought (before it was contaminated by alien preoccupations) was confident that truth was something to be loved, not just understood analytically. Just as language is a gift enabling loving communication and not just a tool to accomplish practical tasks, so reason is a gift enabling our understanding — a valid if incomplete understanding — of the world, of each other, and of the divine.

James S. Taylor, in his book, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, notes that “An important point of the ancient, classical, medieval tradition on man as knower was the consistent view that it was the whole person who experienced the world — not just the eyes or just the mind, but the composite being, body and soul, man.” This understanding of human nature and human knowing gave rise to the Western model of education in the liberal arts, a model that originated in pre-Christian antiquity and was adapted and deepened by Christians, finally giving rise to the invention of the university.

The end of that knowledge was assumed to be more than the achieving of useful facts. In The Logic of the Heart: Augustine, Pascal, and the Rationality of Faith, philosopher James Peters, confronts “modernity’s unfortunate legacy of a deep and ugly divide between reason and affection.” As he explains, “Despite the legacy of modernity that pervades our lives today, I believe that we can reasonably embrace the following radical claims: first, that the proper function of reason in human life is to enable us truthfully to locate ourselves in our world and to live wisely by recognizing who we are and what our proper place is in this world; and second, that reason cannot function apart from the guidance of the human heart.”

Later in the book, Peters summarizes the Augustinian view of Reason, displaying how stark the contrast is between Augustine’s understanding of rationality and that defended or assumed by most modern thinkers, an understanding which is embedded in many modern institutions, from education to politics to journalism to the arts. Following Augustine, Peters insists that the proper function of reason is not merely to make true judgments concerning a world of neutral, nonmoral facts, but to enable the rational individual to make proper contact with reality, a state of being that requires not only ‘true belief,’ but the transformation of the will and affections needed to put us in touch with — to align us fully with — reality. Assisted by divine charity, the proper function of reason is thus both cognitive and unitive. The perfection of reason requires our being transformed into the kind of persons we are designed to be — persons who are able not only to describe but also to affirm and become united with the God of love.

The methods and goals of modern education — along with the shape of much of modern culture — are rooted in the assumption that reason is a mechanism of heartless technology, just a matter of calculation. Reason has been constricted in modern usage and in modern culture to refer only to those things that can be established by science, by empirical verification. So the matter of cultivating the mind is commonly assumed to be no more than training in mechanical reasoning skills, the sorts of things that computers can do. Since all speech about value and values, about purpose and providence, is assumed to be subjective, personal, and private, it is outside the realm of reason, and hence, not properly within the jurisdiction of educators.

These are all assumptions that most of us need to unlearn if we are striving to be faithful to the givenness of things. Children who have been schooled in the tradition of classical education (along with their parents and teachers) need to be more confident that their education will help them truthfully to locate themselves in the world and thus live wisely.

The structure of teaching in classical Christian schools is rooted in the assumption that the universe has meaning and purpose, that human nature has meaning and purpose, and that reason itself is a capacity that is fulfilled as human beings come to know and honor the objective value present in Creation. The most urgent educative priority of parents is to enable their children to acquire a confidence in the givenness of things, a confidence which I believe classical Christian schools are uniquely equipped to convey. At this time in the history of the world and of the Church, it is crucial that the education of our children be fully Christian; we should pray not simply that our kids will keep their faith, but that they will grow to surpass us in faithfulness and godly maturity, pursuing all of the ramifications of the Kingdom.

Book Review

In 2009 shortly after taking office, President Obama appointed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. After only two months on the job Mr. Duncan announced that up to 82% of America’s public schools could be failing under the standards of the No Child Left Behind Act. He argued for immediate changes to the law and initiated the “Race
to the Top” to encourage innovation in the public sector of education.

Simultaneously, a less-noticed project, but one of vastly greater importance to Christian educators, arrived from James K.A. Smith. I picked up a copy right away, and I’ve since been savoring it privately and with my faculty. No “race to the top” here; if anything, it’s a race to the past, in a vein classical educators should relish. As we often muse in classical, Christian circles, most of what we teach is not new, though nearly all of it seems revolutionary.

The burden of Desiring the Kingdom (DTK) is to explore the relationship between learning and worship, and the book is organized neatly into two sections around this theme. Dr. Smith challenges the notion that learning is merely cognitive, an assertion with which we would readily agree, but which, as he points out, we often fail to recognize in practice. Because cognitive learning takes place in the context of a set of pre-cognitive, affective dispositions, the learner possesses a whole web of desires that constitute the pre-conditions of learning. Those desires are rarely, if ever, addressed through cognitive methods teachers learn in undergraduate majors such as education or even early childhood development. Rather, affective desires
are shaped by habits, practices and influences, some of which are experienced unconsciously. Even those that are recognized are rarely comprehended as having anything to do with learning.

In short, “…because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is…rituals and practices…that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world”(25). This assertion finds broad support in Aristotle and in St. Augustine, and, as such, it is neither new nor innovative. It does answer the nagging question that makes teachers scratch their heads about why Johnny can’t read (Latin). It’s not that he can’t. It’s that he won’t. He doesn’t want to do that or many other challenging inclusions in the classical, Christian curriculum because so much of his basic desire is bent in other directions by a hundred influences that put downward pressure on Latin.

Thus, Dr. Smith moves us from the modern and reductionist view of man, homo sapiens (thinking man), to the more robust view, homo liturgicus, or worshipping man (39). It is here that DTK is most relevant, taking aim squarely at “world-view talk in its distorted form” (63). I understand his argument as offering a much needed corrective to the deficiencies that have developed in the evolving concept of “worldview.”

With the broad influence of C. S. Lewis and to a narrower degree, that of Francis Shaeffer, Christian educators have become increasingly sensitive to the fact that our presuppositions are the primary drivers that determine how we make sense of our world and inform our worldview. To give due credit, we have to admit that it has been those in the reformed tradition that have led in shaping our awareness, not to mention our understanding of this important fact. Though he doesn’t say so directly, Dr. Smith, who teaches at Calvin College, seems to be conducting an intramural critique of this 50-year old worldview project, which has been influenced by a (narrowly) resurging Calvinism. Classical, Christian educators, many of whom share the reformed tradition, have good reason to pay attention. The overt emphasis upon rationalism is evident in the literature of this tradition, and it is not an overstatement to suggest that a straight line exists from reformed theologians to the centrality of logic in the classical curriculum.

While this is by no means a critical error, Dr. Smith argues that it is incomplete. The “social imaginary,” as he puts it, “is an affective, non-cognitive understanding of the world. It is described as an imaginary (rather than a theory) because it is fueled by the stuff of the imagination rather than the intellect” (68, emphasis his). Love or desire is a “structural feature of the human being” (51) and as such it aims at a vision of the good life, turning on the “the fulcrum” of habits.

This brings us to the most compelling feature of DTK, which is the attention given to “embodiment” in learning. This theme is woven throughout the first section and leads to his discussion of practices which he helpfully describes as “thick” and “thin” (82). That is to say, many of our habits, such as brushing our teeth, are inconsequential insofar as they do not shape identity—they are thin. Our vision of the good life, however, is shaped by the “thick” habits that are “rituals of ultimate concern” (86), like going to church, engaging in daily prayer. But meeting regularly with two or three friends for breakfast might fall into a thick habit, if it contributes to and expresses our sense of community and identity in relation to others (83)

Alert educators do well to reflect upon the many rituals of day-school education, testing them along the lines of this matrix. For example, a school might establish the ordered habit of having students stand when an adult enters the classroom, a thick habit that fosters respect. That same school might discover upon reflection that the lunchroom is pure chaos between 11 and 12:30 pm, assuming that how we eat is a thin habit that can be ignored. Habits are uneven and often work at cross purposes to one another.

In Part 2 Dr. Smith takes up the specific question of worship and its relevance to the educational endeavor. He admits that many attempts at formative influences in the affective domain are not explicitly religious. Noteworthy is the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh, which overtly borrows religious architecture for an
overtly secular purpose. Nevertheless, such influences are implicitly religious insofar as they mimic religious worship in their power and invitation to a way of being. Christian worship therefore should be considered as a precursor to education, if not its mainspring. At this point, many K-12 educators in classical, Christian schools will find DTK less helpful, but only because they may labor in contexts in which worship is excluded from the weekly or daily regimen of their independent, Christian school. DTK does not assert that chapel should be in your program. More broadly, he maintains that if man is fundamentally homo liturgicus, then what we worship—and most importantly— how we worship moves front and center and should not be overlooked.

This leads to a lengthy evaluation of worship in general, and, judging from the context, reformed worship in particular, although this may be misstating the case. Drawing upon diverse sources that form a broader historical point of view (Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World, for example), Dr. Smith clearly advocates a return to an overtly sacramental view of worship and the world, which those of us in the Anglican tradition, myself included, or other liturgical traditions, would welcome.

The project weakens at this point, however, for, in spite of its length, his treatise on worship is less coherent than the first section. There is plenty to tweak the sensibilities of those in the reformed tradition, whom he assumes will not only be unfamiliar with the terminology, but experientially removed and, therefore, resistant to his liturgical proposals. Those in Orthodox, Anglican, or Catholic traditions—all of which are represented on the faculties of classical, Christian schools—will applaud the effort but leave feeling that the book only makes a good start in the right direction.

These are mild criticisms to which I would add that the book is written to the educated reader, and some will find it unnecessarily complex. While the writing style is clear, it often feels like driving down a washboard dirt road. It is heavily footnoted to the extent that the fine print is almost a book within a book. At times the attempts at emphasis or clarity bleed into redundancy. At other times it seems that the harder word could be replaced with the simpler one with a salutary effect.

Finally, there are oblique references to a variety of issues that are in current debate in the author’s circles, which may or may not attract attention from a casual reader. Nevertheless, they may clang on some ears. Two are worth mentioning, as in the reference to “the minister [who] raises her hands, and we stretch out ours to receive (emphasis mine)” (207). Okay, maybe in his church she is the minister and that’s normal; it’s not in mine. Dr. Smith is not even arguing the point, but one wonders at whom he is throwing the elbow. Perhaps more serious is the following explanatory comment which really doesn’t explain: “I don’t mean to communicate an alarmist fear of culture in the spirit of the ‘culture wars’ (which, by the way, I think are often tilting at windmills rather than targeting the real, substantive threats to Christian discipleship—fixated on gay marriage but eagerly affirming capitalism)” (126). This reviewer doesn’t think that opposing gay marriage is tilting at windmills or that it is such a great trespass to affirm free markets.

No author expects that you will agree on every point, even in serious matters. In DTK, Dr. Smith has given voice to what many classical, Christian educators have been thinking for a long time. Education is not merely the transfer of information from teacher to student, but the shaping of a whole person. If you wish to reflect on how that process might proceed, DTK is a very good place to begin the conversation.