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Imagining the Kingdom: How worship works

Paul Bickley

RImagining-the-Kingdom.jpgJames K. A. Smith

Baker Academic

Christianity's most effective critics are those who take it seriously. Dawkins et al., make for great copy but only by way of knocking down risible straw men. The hardest punches are landed by those who accept Christianity at face value, and then point out the contradiction in the lives of its adherents. 'The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German / Distinctly at odds with the theme of the sermon / And during communion I study the people / Threading themselves through the eye of the needle' ('Eye of the Needle', The Divine Comedy).

This is more than the simple uncovering of individual dishonesty and hypocrisy, of which there is no shortage anywhere. It is also to reveal that Christian practice often lacks any formative power. In the words of theologian John Witvliet, 'If liturgical participation shapes us, why in the world are lifelong participants in worship not better people?'

The question is one which Canadian philosopher James K. A. Smith raises in the closing pages of Imagining the Kingdom. And it is the most obvious question to be asked both of this book and its impressive predecessor, Desiring the Kingdom, part of a three-volume series on 'cultural liturgies'. The core argument is simple, and important: we are not primarily thinking but feeling animals, yet Christian education and formation (in churches and in Christian education institutions) focuses almost exclusively on the head and not the heart, on 'worldviews' rather than loves.

Meanwhile, culture is littered with 'liturgies' into which we are constantly being conscripted, and which orient our desires towards alternative kingdoms. Smith cites William Cavanaugh's vivid question: 'How does a provincial farm boy become persuaded that he must travel as a soldier to another part of the world to kill people he knows nothing about?' We might ask, without suggesting moral equivalence, how do two Londoners become persuaded to hack a soldier to death on a London street, or how do thousands of people become convinced that it is necessary to queue for hours to obtain a new Apple device on the first day of its release? These are decisions, but they are not in the main part rational - they emerge from the affective nature. The farm boy does not 'enlist for an idea, though he certainly signs up for an ideal - but the ideal to which he is devoted (the nation, freedom, a god) is not something he knows; it is something he loves ... he identifies himself with a story that has seeped into his bones at levels he is not even aware of ... the product of a sentimental education.'

That education, offers Smith, is better thought of as worship than the transmission of information. For him, worship is not merely expression, the upward act of the gathered people of God, or whoever. Worship is formative, where something happens to us.

The author focuses on the precise nature of the relationship between liturgy and desire, relying heavily on two Frenchmen, philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. From the former Smith draws out that 'knowing' or perceiving is not a matter of mind but of our whole corporeal selves (I think of the way I often can't remember passwords or phone numbers until I get to the point of dialling them in). From the latter, Smith establishes that any teaching is a matter of establishing a 'habitus' - dispositions to see and construct the world in a certain way. We are physically trained by insignificant rituals or acts ('which means, of course, that nothing is banal, nothing is insignificant'). Remember The Karate Kid? Wax on, wax off. Smith thinks something like the swipe of an iPhone screen could be such a ritual, one that inclines us to think that 'the world is "available" to me and at my disposal - to constitute the world as "at-hand" for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed'.

How, then, should Christian worship work? Physical engagement should define our habitus, which would enable us to imagine, desire and act for the Kingdom. Repetition is important. Story is important. Form is important. What is essential is not just the intellectual 'content' of a liturgical act, but the actual physical mode of engagement (evoking for me Paul's words to the Corinthian church on abuses of the Lord's Supper). It is primarily through immersion in regular worship that we are properly educated, though intellectual work retains a place. How does it fail? Because we insist that we can change people by changing their ideas alone; because we are addicted to novelty and self-expression; because we engage in worship to symbolically mark ourselves out as members of the Christian crowd, rather than approaching it as a formative practice.

So what? First, 'reading' culture means understanding that it is an environment rich with liturgical practice. The processes of Muslim 'radicalisation' are again in the spotlight, but if Smith is right then we are all being recruited for some kingdom or another. We ought to pay attention to how people are being trained to live and what they are being trained to worship. This is not a moral crusade, but a question of politics and citizenship. Second, the Church - and churches - matters. Not just as institutions or carriers of ideas, but places of practice. Christianity is not simply a deposit of more or less coherent or more or less persuasive ideas, but also summoning people to a particular set of practices in which the Christian story is encoded and the Kingdom breaks in: confession, breaking of bread, prayer, song.


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