Review: James K.A. Smith’s “Desiring the Kingdom”

The most thought-provoking book I’ve read so far this year is James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom. (Thanks to Jon Wymer for the recommendation). Every discerning Christian ought to put this book on their reading list.

Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College and an astute observer of cultural postmodernism. His book is fascinating to read but hard to describe – mainly because he’s laboring to dismantle our philosophical assumptions about education, worship, and culture. Desiring the Kingdom is Dallas Willard meets Tim Keller meets Jonathan Edwards. It is, in the language of the book jacket, a paradigm-bending attempt to “provide a comprehensive theology of culture… [focused] around the themes of liturgy, formation, and desire.”

“It is usually understood that education is about ideas and information,” Smith writes in the introduction. “But what if this line of thinking gets off on the wrong foot? What if education, including higher education, is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires… What if education wasn’t first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love?”

Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, and others have proposed similar theses. But their goal has mainly been to highlight the importance of spiritual formation in the church. Smith’s project is broader. He wants us to see that education – formation – is happening to us all the time. He wants to awaken us to “cultural liturgies” – the formative rituals and practices that we often participate in without being mindful of their shaping influence.

I want to give you a heightened awareness of the religious nature of many of the cultural institutions we inhabit that you might not otherwise think of as having anything to do with Christian discipleship. By religious, I mean that they are institutions that command our allegiance, that vie for our passion, and that aim to capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life. They don’t want to just give us entertainment or an education; they want to make us into certain kinds of people… We need to recognize that these practices are not neutral or benign, but rather intentionally loaded to form us into certain kinds of people – to unwittingly make us disciples of rival kings and patriotic citizens of rival kingdoms.

Perhaps you’re intrigued by Smith’s suggestion. But exactly what kinds of practices is he talking about? What would be a concrete example of a “cultural liturgy” – a practice laced with religious undertones and intended to form us in specific ways?

Consider the rituals that constitute the opening of a professional sporting event such as an NFL football game or a NASCAR race… A crowd of a hundred thousand people can be brought into remarkable placidity by the exhortation ‘Please stand for the national anthem.’ Like parishioners who know all the motions of the Mass by heart, these fans instinctively and automatically rise together. They remove their caps, and many place a hand over their heart as an artist or group sings a rendition of one of the world’s most affecting national anthems… [T]he concluding crescendo of the anthem… is accompanied by a flyover from military aircraft… making the scene something that is felt, as the sounds of the jets or choppers is a kind of noise one picks up in the chest more than in the ears. A crowd larger than many American cities then erupts in cheers and applause as this ritual of national unity has united even fans of opposing teams.

We’ve all stood for the national anthem at a football game. And maybe Smith has a fair point that it’s sort of Mass-like in its ritualism. But why would he call this scene a liturgy?

I’m suggesting that this constitutes a liturgy because it is a material ritual of ultimate concern: through a multisensory display, this ritual both powerfully and subtly moves us, and in so doing implants within us a certain reverence and awe, a learned deference to an ideal… Over time, these rituals have a cumulative, albeit covert, effect on our imaginary. And together, I’m arguing, these constitute liturgies of ultimate concern: the ideal of national unity and commitment to its ideals is willing to make room for additional loyalties, but it is not willing to entertain trumping loyalties. (Just try to remain seated at the next playing of the national anthem.)

Smith’s keen observation is that these “rituals of ultimate concern” are seeking to instill in us a certain vision of the good life. Their power is in their subtlety. They affect us not by presenting themselves for conscious reflection, but by shaping us implicitly and invisibly.

Implicit in the liturgies of American nationalism is a particular vision of human flourishing as material prosperity and ownership, as well as… a generally libertarian view of human relationships that stresses noninterference… Many Christians experience no tension between the gospel according to America and the gospel of Jesus Christ because, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies. Thus we now see and hear and read the gospel through the liturgical lenses of the ‘American gospel.’

Smith performs similar cultural exegesis on the “rituals” of the mall, the university, and even Jerry Bruckheimer films. By the end of his incisive critique, you’ll begin to see the world with new eyes. And that will be a very good thing for your growth in the gospel, your cultural discernment, and your effectiveness as a missionary.

Smith’s book isn’t flawless. Like all of us, he stands within a particular intellectual/theological tradition (what James Hunter calls the “Neo-Anabaptists”), and that viewpoint flavors his critique in a pacifist/anti-statist direction. His disdain for nationalism is palpable. But even this can be somewhat refreshing for Christians who are still learning to sort out gospel values from American ones. Readers shouldn’t read Smith uncritically. But then, if you’re prone to read anything uncritically, you’re reading the wrong blog.

I’m jealous for the people of Coram Deo – and those involved in the broader gospel-centered, missional church conversation – to read Smith’s book for two reasons. First, he concisely, cogently, and intelligently frames out a biblical, Augustinian anthropology – the same anthropology that grounds our vision of counseling, discipleship, worship, and spiritual formation. Smith argues that humans are not primarily “rational animals” (contra Descartes); we are primarily “desiring, imaginative animals.” We are moved not by what we think, but by what we love. When we say at Coram Deo that everybody worships… when we argue that true transformation must change our desires, not just our behavior… we’re unpacking this same anthropology. Chapter 2 of Smith’s book will help readers see why a correct anthropology is foundational to any true and reliable model for change – and therefore why a gospel-driven approach to discipleship, biblical counseling, and spiritual formation “works” in a way that other approaches don’t. Leaders who “get” this chapter will suddenly “get” all sorts of things about Coram Deo’s ministry philosophy. Second, Smith is distilling and applying the insights of some of the best Christian philosophers and sociologists in broader academia, including Alasdair MacIntyre, Christian Smith, George Marsden, Charles Taylor, Alvin Plantinga, and Nicholas Wolterstorff. Those called to champion the gospel on the field of ideas – including pastors, church planters, teachers, and students – would do well to be familiar with the works of these intellectual heavy lifters, and Smith’s footnotes provide a reasonable introduction.

Bottom Line: put Desiring the Kingdom on your reading list this year. It’s a short, easy read that will pay huge dividends in your life and ministry.


Leave a Comment

  1. Brandon: depends on the level of interest. It’s a pretty thoughtful read… if lots of CD people are interested, we will get some copies for the resource table.

  2. Bob, glad to see you enjoyed this. I saw Smith in January at Calvin College’s Worship Symposium. Just right up the alley of how we need to be thinking.

  3. If you liked Desiring the Kingdom, I recommend ‘Thinking in Tongues’, also by Smith. I found both very refreshing.

Leave a Reply