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Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (Cultural Liturgies: Volume 2)

James K. A. Smith
Published by Baker Academic in 2013

Reviewed by Tawa J. Anderson, Philosophy, Oklahoma Baptist University

James Smith’s 2009 Desiring the Kingdom was the first of a three-part series on envisioning ‘Cultural Liturgies’ to enrich Christian spiritual and education formation. Imagining the Kingdom continues the narrative and exhortation, insisting that imagination must lie at the center of Christian formation. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom is arranged in two major parts (Incarnate Significance; Sanctified Perception) of two chapters each that follow a lengthy but necessary introduction. There is considerable rich material to mine throughout Imagining the Kingdom, certainly too much to cover in this review. Instead, I will give a brief outline of Smith’s arguments, insights, and suggestions, and engage a few essential elements of the book.

Smith’s helpful Introduction (1-28) recaps the thesis in Desiring the Kingdom. Smith argues that humans are inherently liturgical creatures; if we do not worship God (through Christian liturgies), then we will engage in secular liturgies that set something else up as the object of worship. Hence, Christian education needs to be formative, not just informative—shaping loves, not just teaching us what to love. Accordingly, Smith insists, worldview education is inadequate; we are creatures of desire and imagination, not of thought or belief.

Smith extends his anthropology, arguing that we are embodied, narrative creatures. The shaping of our loves, desires, and imagination thus happens primarily through the imagination (not intellect) via story (not proposition). “In short, the way to the heart is through the body, and the way into the body is through story” (14). Smith helpfully defines imagination (in terms that echo C. S. Lewis1) as “a kind of faculty by which we navigate and make sense of our world, but in ways and on a register that flies below the radar of conscious reflection, and specifically ways that are fundamentally aesthetic [bodily] in nature” (19).

Part I (Incarnate Significance: The Body as Background) focuses on the habituated nature of the human body and the influence that bodily perception and imagination have upon action. Chapter 1 (Erotic Comprehension) interacts approvingly with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception.2 Along with Merleau-Ponty, Smith argues that an accurate anthropology embraces our embodiment and rejects mind-body dichotomies in favor of “our ‘betweenness’ and … ‘peculiar preconscious knowledge’” (43-44). Human “horizons” and perception of the world are neither consciously thought through nor “hardwired givens” (51). Instead, “I am regularly ‘making sense’ of the world on a register that has nothing to do with logic or … ‘intellectualism’” (51). Thus, Christian education and formation “will require attending to the formation of our unconscious, to the priming and training of our emotions, which shape our perception of the world” (38). Christian formation is about proper and intentional teaching and training of the body and its habits, not just imparting correct doctrine.

Chapter 2 (The Social Body) carries Smith’s anthropological embodiment into the social realm, drawing upon Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of habitus.3 Smith, through Bourdieu, rejects the twin perils of intellectualism and determinism—seeing all of our actions as either rationally chosen or mechanically determined. A habitus, unlike an autonomous decision or a determined action, is “a communal, collective disposition that gets inscribed in me” (81). A habitus is more than a habit; it is “the nexus of dispositions by which we constitute our world without rational deliberation or conscious awareness” (82). It is the pre-theoretical lens through which we see the world and our place within it; a “practical sense” that provides its own type of logic that allows us to “feel” and understand life appropriately. Significantly, a habitus is socially inscribed—it is not an individualistic construct, but rather the result of the rituals into which we are initiated. Finally, Smith notes that the development of a habitus is largely unconscious and primarily kinesthetic.

Having laid out his philosophical anthropology, Smith considers Christian formation in Part 2 (Sanctified Perception). Chapter 3 (We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: How Worship Works) focuses on the narrative nature of human beings. Story moves us in ways that arguments and propositions cannot. Smith sees liturgies as “compressed, repeated, performed narratives that, over time, conscript us into the story they ‘tell’” (109); hence the significance of intentional liturgics. Smith leans heavily on Mark Johnson’s theory of narrative and meaning4 throughout chapter 3, noting particularly the centrality of metaphor and poetics in connecting with the human imagination. A liturgy, Smith states, emerges from this understanding: “Liturgy is the shorthand term for those rituals that are loaded with a Story about who and whose we are, inscribing in us a habitus by marshaling our aesthetic nature” (138). Secular and sacred liturgies both “work on the imagination” to conscript us to a particular vision of the good life (140).

Chapter 4 (Restor[y]ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission) brings the payoff of Imagining the Kingdom: Smith’s insights and suggestions for renewing Christian education and worship to give a significant place for embodied liturgies that enact the Christian story. Smith begins by drawing on John Calvin’s vision for reviving social life in Geneva, noting that “for Calvin … the way to ‘clothe’ oneself with the virtues of Christ was to be immersed in the practices of prayer and worship” (156). Calvin wisely understood that Christian discipleship and formation required bodily habituation and practice. In rethinking worship, then, Smith notes several essential aspects that have marked traditional Christian worship since the fourth century, and expounds upon their continued importance today: bodily posture that comports with the Story being told; meaning in liturgy that goes beyond the words spoken; corporate engagement or involvement in expressing the truths embraced; the necessity of repetition in worship to enable the Story of the Gospel to become deeply entrenched in our very being.

As an evangelical Baptist, I was both chastened and inspired by Smith’s exhortation to repetition in worship. Smith notes that evangelicals seem to have an “allergy” to repetition in worship, even though we embrace its necessity in other areas (181). Smith correctly notes that such allergy stems from three sources: Reformation Protestantism’s association of repetition with “dead orthodoxy” and vain ritual; modernistic individualism that values sincerity above all and thereby denigrates the repeated as unoriginal and therefore inauthentic; and the postmodern culture of novelty, where the new and innovative is automatically better than the traditional. Smith’s incisive critique reveals that my worship tradition has much to learn from his liturgics.

Imagining the Kingdom is both rigorously thought through and winsomely written. Smith has the ability to put complex thoughts and theories into both readable and beautiful prose, making his book both pleasing and enriching to read. One of the most helpful aspects of Imagining the Kingdom is Smith’s effective use of sidebars. He engages with various cultural products in “Picturing This” sidebars that illustrate particular teaching points, and draws the reader into deeper reflection through “To Think About” sidebars. While some sidebars did not resonate with this reader (for example, I did not relate to the Jane Campion film “Bright Star” on page 46), others were brilliantly engaging (such as Smith’s interaction with Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine on page 103, and his thoughtful reflections on “Catching” Sleep on page 65).

On the whole, Imagining the Kingdom is insightful and beneficial. There are, nonetheless, a couple of areas of concern I will briefly address. These are not intended as unmitigated criticisms, but rather avenues for further conversation. First, Smith seeks throughout to dance on a tightrope constructed between notions of “autonomy” and “determinism.” Smith insists that cultural liturgies do not mechanically determine one’s actions—to do so would illegitimately remove personal accountability. At the same time, he rejects notions of personal autonomy or pure rational deliberation—the modernistic ideal of an objective and free-thinking subject. The result is a delicate balancing act. Smith seeks to nuance his position appropriately, but it is clear that he is reacting against those who embrace (perhaps uncritically) the modernistic ideal of human nature. Hence he (over-) emphasizes the power that habits learned unconsciously exert in determining (influencing) our actions. Readers who are in a different intellectual context, perhaps a naturalistic context where embrace of instinct and biochemical determinism govern academic dialogue, will likely respond very differently to Smith’s thesis, desiring instead to (over-) emphasize the role that unique Created individuals have in influencing or choosing their direction and actions. In short, while Smith seeks admirably to maintain the balance between the two poles of rational autonomy and mechanical determinism, he too often leans to the deterministic side.

This is perhaps most evident in his powerful sidebar entitled “Picturing the Limitations of Worldview: Reading Wendell Berry in Costco” (9-10). Smith confesses that he is intellectually convinced by Berry’s argument, but his “habits” have not yet been co-opted or altered, because the habitus is not the result of rational deliberation or conscious choice (hence he finds himself reading Wendell Berry in Costco, the antithesis of Berry’s thought). What is needed, Smith argues, is not to think differently, but rather “to change…environment and practices, thereby absorbing different habits and undoing old ones” (10). When reading the sidebar (and several other sections which mirrored the argument), I questioned Smith’s lack of room for conscious deliberation in acquiring new habits. First, I thought, we are rationally convinced that the status quo is unhealthy; second, we see that there is a better alternative; third, we choose a different model to pattern ourselves after; and fourth, we seek to establish that alternative model as a new habit. Unfortunately, none of these elements were present.

At the very end, however, Smith turns to such considerations, laying out very much the argument. Coming back to his Wendell Berry/Costco example, Smith concludes: “Being convinced of the importance of practice for ‘automating’ my behavior, I will then choose to submit myself to different rhythms and habit-forming routines in order to rehabituate my wants and desires to a different telos” (186). Smith’s conclusion finally comes to an appropriate balance between thoughtful reflection and bodily habitus; but the balance needed to come about 175 pages earlier than it did. The majority of the book was unfortunately lopsided.

Second, it seems that Smith often misrepresents or misunderstands what he alternatively characterizes as “intellectualism” and “worldview” thought. His sustained critique is twofold. On the one hand, Smith insists that worldview thought represents an unsatisfactory anthropology that dichotomizes mind and body, elevating intellectual reflection above considerations of the body and/or heart. Such intellectualism, Smith argues, fails to do justice to the embodied nature of human beings as creatures of God. On the other hand, Smith insists that worldview is inadequate and insufficient for proper Christian formation.

Both critiques miss the force of much contemporary worldview thought. Arguably the two most prominent contemporary evangelical worldview proponents are James Sire5 and David Naugle.6 Both emphasize the embodied and pretheoretical nature of worldview, and the prevalence of Story in shaping one’s heart-orientation, which then forms the center of one’s worldview.7 Insofar as Smith does not provide examples of intellectualist worldview thought which elevates mind and denies heart, narrative, and embodiment, he seems to be constructing a straw man—a version of worldview thought that does not exist in contemporary thought.8

Furthermore, no worldview proponent that I am aware of suggests that worldview is sufficient for Christian formation. Smith admits that worldview thought is helpful and even necessary; he just insists that it is not, on its own, adequate. I share Smith’s perspective, but worry that this is another straw man. Smith does not cite any worldview thinker who does suggest worldview is adequate or sufficient. It seems to me, then, that Smith could more helpfully and consistently acknowledge throughout his book that he is setting forth both worship and worldview as equally essential in Christian formation: neither sufficient on its own, but both a necessary part of the process.

Fully and finally, after all, that is what Smith is pursuing in Imagining the Kingdom. As Smith says in conclusion:

The goal of liturgical catechesis is to invite the people of God to a more conscious, intentional awareness of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it when we gather for worship—and that intellectual understanding will solidify as a conviction that then moves us to be committed to immersion in the practices. (188)

It is essential to note, Smith says, that “a truly holistic Christian education will be formation of both heart and mind, both intellect and affect” (190). To that end, all readers will be able to offer a heart “Amen!”

While there may be some unfortunate (and unnecessary) bumps along the road, Smith’s destination is worth the trip. I highly recommend Imagining the Kingdom to all who are involved in shaping the hearts, minds, and habitus of Christians young and old, in the academy and in the church.

Cite this article
Tawa J. Anderson, “Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:2 , 187-191


  1. See, for example, Michael Ward, “The Good Serves the Better and Both the Best: C. S. Lewis on Imagination and Reason in Apologetics,” in Imaginative Apologetics: Theology, Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition, ed. Andrew Davison (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2012), 59-78. “For C. S. Lewis, the imagination is our capacity to apprehend meaning. … In Lewis’s view, reason could only operate if it was first supplied with materials to reason about, and it was imagination’s task to supply those materials. … According to Lewis, imagination is simply ‘the organ of meaning’.” Ibid., 59-61.
  2. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith (London: Routledge, 1962).
  3. Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990).
  4. Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
  5. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).
  6. David K. Naugle, Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
  7. Thus Sire: “A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (Sire, The Universe Next Door, 21). Thus also Naugle: “A worldview, then, is a semiotic system of narrative signs that creates the definitive symbolic universe which is responsible in the main for the shape of a variety of life-determining, human practices. It creates the channels in which the waters of reason flow. It establishes the horizons of an interpreter’s point of view by which texts of all types are understood. It is the mental medium by which the world is known. The human heart is its home, and it provides a home for the human heart” (Naugle, Worldview, 329-30).
  8. In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith does note a couple of such scholars; it seems, however, that those scholars are not guilty as charged. For example, Smith cites Kenneth Samples as a worldview thinker who advocates “thinking worldview-ishly and [emphasizes] the importance of ‘worldview-thinking’ by putting the Christian ‘belief-system’ at the center of our cognition because ‘how a person thinks significantly influences his actions.’” Smith argues that, for Samples, “A worldview is construed as a set of implicit ideas” (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 32). On the surface, Smith’s critique seems fair. Samples emphasizes the intellectual component of worldview. For example, “The word worldview refers to the cluster of beliefs a person holds about the most significant issues in life…These beliefs…form a big picture, a general outlook, or a grand perspective on life and the world….A worldview forms a mental structure that organizes one’s basic or ultimate beliefs” (Kenneth R. Samples, A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007], 20 [italics original]). Passages like those certainly demonstrate the centrality of noetic structure in Samples’ worldview thought. However, Samples goes on to acknowledge that “worldview perspectives involve much more than merely a set of intellectual beliefs” (Ibid., 21). Samples sees the importance of a deeper understanding of worldview that includes more than its intellectual components. He simply wants to insist, against detractors, that there is an unavoidable rational aspect to worldview. Smith’s critique, then, misses the mark in the main—Samples is no more guilty of construing worldview solely in rationalistic terminology than Smith is guilty of rejecting worldview thought altogether. For the latter accusation, see Elmer John Thiessen, “Educating Our Desires for God’s Kingdom: Review Article of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,” Journal for Education and Christian Belief 14.1 (2010): 47-53; and Smith’s response, “Two Cheers for Worldview: A Response to Elmer John Thiessen,” Journal for Education and Christian Belief 14.1 (2010): 55-58.

Tawa J. Anderson

Oklahoma Baptist University
Tawa Anderson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Oklahoma Baptist University.