In Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith develops a refreshing and convincing “theology of culture” (p. 35). His main argument is that human beings are “affective, desiring, liturgical animals,” who are being formed by the cultural liturgies competing for their devotion (p. 24). I found this book changed my life, both as a writer called to help transform the hearts and actions of my audience, and as a child of God seeking to strike a balance between cognitive belief and heart-felt transformation.
When I started seminary four years ago, I believed I was on a journey of intellectual learning and character formation. However, as time passed, I was faced with the reality that cognitive ability and theological reasoning was the primary measurement of success in graduate studies, so that is what I spent most of my time focused on. Studying and reflecting on the theology of historical figures like Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer has touched my heart (made me passionate about knowledge) and sharpened my mind in ways that have been life-changing. Much of this has been knowledge-oriented and useful for forming theological arguments and analyzing culture—two very important tools for a writer seeking to impact their audience. I’ve also been somewhat critical of Christian culture in North America, which for the most part is “a mile wide but an inch deep”— as the popular saying goes. So to speak into this culture as an informed and passionate writer meant to disseminate ideas, albeit in creative and imaginative ways. But after reading Desiring the Kingdom, I began to see Christian education—and my audience—in a new and refreshing way.
Smith says that “how we think about education is inextricably linked to how we think about human persons” (p. 18). When it comes to my own journey in seminary and in my calling as a writer, I use to see change taking place solely through informing the mind. I saw a danger in a faith and Christian culture that didn’t know how to think reflectively about God and reality. Although this may be true to a certain degree, Smith convinced me that we need to “re-vision Christian education as a formative rather than just an informative project” (p.18). Engaging people cognitively is still important, but we need to engage their affections, because human beings are “embodied agents of desire or love,” he says (p.47).
He is right in saying that Christian Protestant educational institutions “have taken on board a picture of the human person that owes more to modernity and the Enlightenment than it does to the holistic, biblical vision of human persons” (p.31). Smith’s vision of Christian education has given me permission as a person who is passionate about theological reflection to talk theologically about things like human desire, love, imagination, feeling, affections—non-cognitive realities about human beings—in a way that can help me engage my audience through their desires, rather than solely on a cognitive level.
Human Beings and Desire
As “affective, desiring, liturgical animals,” human beings are pulled by a telos that they desire, rather than being pushed by beliefs that inform our minds (p.24, 54). Thus, Smith contends that our worldview deals more with the imagination than the intellect. Human imagination is powered by cultural images of the “good life”—a picture of human flourishing that we desire. In this approach to cultural anthropology, a person’s senses—as opposed to beliefs—act as the primary channel through which desires are formed in the imagination and heart. “The senses are portals to the heart,” Smith writes, “and thus the body is a channel to our core dispositions and identity” (p.59). The heart and imagination of human beings are aimed at a picture human flourishing—an ultimate telos—that pulls their desires and shapes their behaviour.
I think Smith is right when he says that in the church today discipleship is seen as “getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behaviour” (p.32). I am reminded of a pastor I know who has dedicated his whole life to memorizing scripture and offering courses on the Bible as the primary means of building discipleship in the church. It’s not that learning facts about the Bible and memorizing God’s Word is wrong. The point is that this particular pastor’s philosophy of anthropology—seen in his approach to pedagogy—assumes that worldview, information and beliefs are what forms individuals to be like Jesus. Smith offers a more holistic and balanced approach to Christian pedagogy that sees discipleship as a “matter of being the kind of person who loves rightly—who loves God and neighbour and is oriented to the world by the primacy of that love” (p. 33). Smith’s philosophy of anthropology sees the imagination and heart as the primary channel through which a person is formed to live like Jesus in the world.
Liturgy as Formational
The way Smith casts cultural liturgies as desire-forming rituals was a major insight for me. One of the core claims of his book is that secular and sacred liturgies “shape our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p.25). He gives the example of the shopping mall and other cultural institutions that are by nature liturgical and religious—institutions seeking to “capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life” (p.90). The problem is that the liturgies of many cultural institutions cast a vision of the good life that is “antithetical to the biblical vision of the kingdom of God” (p.94). The problem deepens when we realize just how immersed we are in these secular liturgies; “we are being trained to be people who desire the earthly city in all sorts of guises” (p. 94). Given that commercialism and its many brands represent billions of dollars of market consumption, we can easily conclude that millions of people have bought into a version of the good life that is essentially misplaced and eternally empty. As Christians, this should shock us into missionary unrest. And yet,
While secular liturgies are after our hearts through our bodies, the church thinks it only has to get into our heads. While Victoria’s Secret is fanning a flame in our kardia, the church is trucking water to our minds. While secular liturgies are enticing us with affective images of a good life, the church is trying to convince us otherwise by depositing ideas (p. 127).
This was convicting for me as a writer seeking to engage Christians to live out their faith reflectively and creatively—to present the gospel with a holistic understanding of the human person as an embodied agent of love.
In today’s culture, Christians are called to present the gospel as eschatological hope; the love of God made concretely universal under the Lordship of Christ. But I don’t think this takes place primarily in the local church, but also—and increasingly more—in the lives of ordinary Christians as their lives converge with the world in the marketplace and in the creative spaces of post-modern media. We are called to use creative media to present the gospel in a way that speaks to the desire of every human being for meaning, wholeness, security, companionship, dignity, healing, eternal life—for shalom.
A few years ago I covered an apologetics conference for Tyndale in which theologian Alister McGrath remarked that Christians are called to “out narrate the competition.” Not only are we called to use creative media to tell stories and engage our culture’s imagination and desires, but we are also called to tell a story to our culture through how we engage with each other in Christian community.
Desiring the Kingdom presents a theology of culture that draws on anthropology, apologetics, theology and ecclessiology. It casts the human person as an embodied agent of desire formed through cultural liturgies. There are so many competing liturgies in the world seeking the devotion of human beings who are looking to escape the worldly realities of suffering, hatred and death. The Christian message offers healing, love and eternal life—it offers hope in the coming universal shalom promised by God through His Son Jesus. We need to tell this story in as many creative ways as possible, so God’s message will be absorbed into the imagination and hearts of people in our culture today.