James K.A. SMITH, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. Pp. xx + 198. ISBN 978-0-8010-3578-4. Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, Mount St. Mary’s University, Emmitsburg, MD, 21727
Smith’s accessible, lively book introduces us to an “understanding of human beings as ‘liturgical animals,’ creatures who can’t not worship and who are fundamentally formed by worship practices” (3). Since the book’s ultimate aim is “to provide an adequate account of Christian action” (4), the book should be read by ethicists as well. However, Smith’s project is even more ambitious than this: he means to subordinate the twin temptations of theological dogmatism and subjectivism with a rigorous, embodied sense of the centrality of the imagination for our knowing and living in the world. Religion is not simply a matter of personal feeling, nor of propositional beliefs, but “a nexus of loves, longings, and habits that hums along under the hood, so to speak, without needing to be thought about… [which] orient and propel our being-in-the-world” (12). But he is quick to note that this isn’t a matter of instinct or subjective emotion, but of inclinations, images, and a directionality that is acquired and reinforced (or disrupted) through our daily life. The book is packed with vivid examples and strong use of movies and literature, but the key image he introduces early on is of himself reading Wendell Berry at the Costco food court (8-10, 186) – his intellect may be agreeing with Berry, but his body and its daily life is still captured by a different way of being in the world. His overall project is to name more clearly how Christians overcome these kinds of dichotomies between intellectual convictions and everyday practice.
The word “culture” appears here, but Smith is careful not to separate “culture” from our economic lives, as if it is mere leisure. The first half of the book is devoted to a fine exposition of Merleau-Ponty’s Primacy of Perception and Pierre Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice – both thinkers try to develop an account of human being and action that escapes the Cartesian/Romantic dichotomies of body/mind, reason/feeling, theory/practice, etc. The use of Bourdieu is particularly strong; much Catholic arguing could be more constructive were both liberals and conservatives to recognize the notion of a “habitus” as central. The second half of the book uses this theoretical “toolbox to understand how worship works” (101), in order both to alert us to the constant “under the hood” functioning of “secular liturgies” and to recover a “general poetics” of worship that attends especially to the body and to the arts (124).
In this latter focus, Smith’s concern to speak to fellow Evangelicals and their theatre-style, word-centered megachurches is most apparent. However, again, Catholics have their own challenges in this area – the isolated reverence and “originalist” translations are understood as a “response” to the barren, kneeler-absent, unbodiliness of some instantiations of the Vatican II Reform. Bells or no bells? Hand-holding or no hand-holding? These polemical debates often lack a common understanding of “how worship works” which Smith’s account provides.
His concluding chapter focuses on “redeeming” ritual, repetition, and reflection, in particular discussing the appropriate “sentimental education” (189) – that is, education of the sentiments – that is required for the Church. This final area is probably the greatest problem for Catholics: while we have retained the ritual and repetition, we lack the proper sentimental education and ongoing reflection for it to “work.” This is also a problem common to liberals and conservatives, such that a certain “tone-deaf-ness” to good and bad liturgy becomes widespread.
Smith’s book should also be required reading for ethicists, because he has such a deft touch in describing what amounts to Aristotelian virtue, but in a non-mechanistic way that (more than Thomas does) appreciates the “environmental education” of cultural imagination and sensibility. Indeed, Smith’s brief but extremely telling engagement with the ethics of technology and touch-screens in particular (142-150) displays why a clunky focus on individual actions and absolute norms is wholly inadequate for a real account of the Christian life. In short, Jamie Smith’s project makes accessible and less polemical a view that pushes us beyond modern dichotomies of interior/exterior, individual/community, body/mind, theory/practice to a richer understanding of what Christian identity really means. Instead of simply vilifying one or the other term in the dichotomy, he develops language that helps us escape from our own conceptual dead-ends. That he does so in just over 200 pages, with consistently engaging examples and stories, is particularly impressive.