Book Response: Desiring the Kingdom, by James K. A. Smith

As part of his Doctor of Ministry (DMin) in Ministry to Emerging Generations (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary), Tom’s written a number of book responses and given several short presentations (personal and group). In this series he not only “shares the wealth,” but also looks forward to your feedback as he refines his project: An argument for vocational discernment for graduate studies in the context of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (Stay tuned to learn more!). Earlier posts on the program: Ministry to Emerging Generations and The Big Picture of Ministry to Emerging Generations.

Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation

In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), James K.A. Smith hits the mark in “communicat[ing] to students (and faculty) a vision of what authentic, integral Christian learning looks like, emphasizing how learning is connected to worship and how, together, these constitute practices of formation and discipleship” (11). I have longed for a “cultural theory” “to push down through worldview to worship as the matrix from which a Christian worldview is born—and to consider what that means for the task of Christian education and the shape of Christian worship” (35, 11). Although only loosely connected with the Reformed tradition at present, what a joy to consider “the Reformed tradition as an Augustinian renewal movement within the church catholic,” one in which education isn’t “first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love” (14).

Smith’s “core claim . . . is that liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. . . . [i.e.,] liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love” (25). As a graduate of several Christian educational institutions (K-8, college, graduate school, seminary), I concur that they are to be “formative institution[s]” constituting “part of the teaching mission of the church” (34). I pray InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA continues to grow in and is supported in understanding its parachurch and para-educational mission along these lines. No doubt one of InterVarsity’s most significant challenges is interacting with the secular liturgies not only present in secular higher education, but also significantly influencing the “liturgical animals” (italics in original, 40. Note: Homo liturgicus is the human as desiring animal, 48.) on campus (112-12). Personally I look forward to the leadership of InterVarsity’s next president, Tom Lin, who brings insights from years of leadership in the campus mission (including serving as the director of Urbana 12 and 15). I ask you to join me in praying for God’s blessing upon his transition into leadership.

Back to the text . . . I appreciated “The Practiced Shape of the Christian Life” offered in Part 2, especially the consideration of “the dialogical nature of Christian worship, a give-and-take, back-and-forth interaction: God calls us, by his grace we respond by gathering, invoking his grace and mercy; and God in in turn responds to our call” (168). This January while celebrating “The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” including the actual practice of baptism and the Eucharist at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church, I could not help smiling when Smith’s offering of Martian anthropologists as a lens for the oddity of baptism came to mind.

Despite my enthusiasm for the book (and Smith’s work in general), I was disappointed by Smith’s lack of direct interaction with education in Chapters 4-5. I found Smith’s return to education in the final chapter, i.e., “Chapter 6: A Christian University Is for Lovers: The Education of Desire,” abrupt. The emphasis on the Christian university without a consideration of “pre-University education” leaves a significant hole as one considers serving the Body of Christ through education. The final paragraph’s confession of the brevity in addressing “liturgically informed Christian teaching and learning invit[ing] correlate reflections on the shape of liturgically informed Christian scholarship” was all too true (230).

Next Steps . . . In response to the footnote linked to the above quote, I will inquire as to whether “a small book for faculty development programs at church-related universities” has been written (230)*. As you most probably know, InterVarsity’s Faculty Ministry has much to offer in the context of engaging the secular academy. Furthermore, I look forward to more of this material being shared/written in dialogue with resources such as Desiring the Kingdom and the small booklet proposed in the footnote. Despite a big Kingdom vision/imagination and superb writing, a whole theory and its application in such a significant area cannot be condensed into one book. This work demands a series (e.g., Cultural Liturgies) and an ongoing conversation as education continues to adapt/change.

Through pieces such as Desiring the Kingdom, Smith inspires me to engage in such labors in the context of the secular academy. Shout out to James K.A. Smith! If you desire to network/partner with InterVarsity’s Faculty Ministry/Emerging Scholars Network in engaging higher education with the Gospel (possibly contributing material be posted online or participating in campus/conference dialogue), please email me and share your insights/interests. Thank-you.

To God be the glory!


Note: I commend to the reader, Smith’s next volume in his “Cultural Liturgies” series, i.e., Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013) — reviewed by Bob Trube, and You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), which I have highlighted in other places. For Trube’s review of Desiring the Kingdom, click here. He begins, “Once in a while a book comes along that crystallizes the things you have been thinking and takes you further down the road. This was such a book. . . .”

* Maybe Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, co-edited by David I. Smith and James K.A. Smith (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011) fulfills his vision. I should give this a second look. Click here for Bob Trube’s review.

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Tom Grosh IV

Enjoys daily conversations regarding living out the Biblical Story with his wife Theresa, four girls, around the block, at Elizabethtown Brethren in Christ Church (where he hosts the Christian Scholar Series), on campus as part of InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Ministry (serving fellowships such as the Christian Medical Society/CMDA at Penn State College of Medicine), online as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network, in the culture at large, and in God’s creation.

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