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A reflective review of Desiring the Kingdom

July 29, 2012

Private Christian liberal arts college, or public state university? I wrestled with the question during my gap year after high school. In the end, I listened to my gut and decided on the Christian school (and the money decided which private college after that). Now that I have completed my final semester at a fine institution, I hope to figure out what exactly I just did, and what I’m going to do next. In the process of this battle for — let’s call it mental resolution, I have enlisted James KA Smith’s first volume of “cultural liturgies,” Desiring the Kingdom.

Early in the book, Smith invites us to do a thought experiment in which we imagine ourselves to be aliens visiting earth from a strange world, and doing a qualitative analysis of our behavior. The point is to look at what has become normal to us, and challenge our perspective. Well, that is what this is about: looking back over my college education through observers eyes to see what it might say about the whole project.

Context

It was not long ago that the drastic news came out from the Barna Research Group that less than one percent of millennial Americans have a Biblical world view, and less than twenty precent of millennial Christians have it. The study was first done in 1995. The results from a 2003 update revealed that only nine percent of American Christians have a biblical world view. So, in response, a host of conferences, organizations, seminars and institutions sprung up to fix our worldview. How’s it going? Not well, apparently.

The numbers haven’t gotten any better, and now James Smith is trying to show us why the focus on a Biblical world view is incomplete. For the sake of my Christian education, I hope he’s right. If all I needed was a Biblical world view, I could have watched Focus On the Family’s worldview seminar The Truth Project on my computer, and saved myself from the formidable monster of college debt. I digress.

Desiring creatures

The book brings our understanding of education forward, discussing implications from the cognitive sciences, while simultaneously pointing backward, ad fontes, to the Scriptures and Augustinian anthropology. The result is a model of Christian education that views man not as a rationally autonomous being, or as a purely social animal, but as a lover — a desirer.

Even though the message about desire isn’t new, we seem to have misunderstood it to be talking about mere feelings. I grew up with the teachings of John Piper, who was preaching Jonathan Edwards, who was preaching Augustine. The message that our affections, our ultimate ends and deepest joys, define the core of our being has been taught down the ages, and many of my peers are familiar with it.

The implications of that message, though, may have been lost on some of us. Desires are descriptive of human nature, not prescriptive. Godly desires should result in changed habits, not emotional swooning at the Passion conference or during worship at your local theater-style church. We orient our lives Godward by training ourselves in a second nature that goes against our primary, sinful nature. (Hear NT Wright’s message in After You Believe).

We’re to conquer the flimsy feelings that rise and fall; we’re to cultivate steadfastness (James 1). For my generation, the challenge is to be aware of the many gods in the world who are fighting for our affections; we’re all performing sacraments at the temple, but rarely at God’s temple. Here’s Smith:

My concern is to develop a cultural theory that has a radar, so to speak, attuned not primarily to ideas but to practices, and more specifically, to identity-forming practices that I’ll describe as liturgies.  . . .  By looking at cultural institutions through the lens of worship and liturgy, I hope to raise the stakes of what it means for us to be immersed in such cultural rituals. And as a result I also hope to give us a new appreciation for what is at stake in the practices of Christian worship as an alternative cultural formation. (35)

Our liturgies are either pointing us toward the Kingdom God or the Kingdom of man which, though more appealing, will pass away. God gives us a new sense of the heart that goes beyond the common appeal of food, drink, sex, relationship drama, self-pity, video games, general time-wasting, chocolate. . . name your weakness. Smith even goes so far as to say that the marketing industry operates with a better anthropology than many worldview-espousers (76). Advertisements and marketing appeal to us more holistically, and exploit our desires more fully than most Christian world view espousers, he says.

I would hate to over-emphasize something that seems to be an aside in this thoughtful book, but I would like to push back on that statement. I do not believe Christianity needs to learn from the marketing industry (which would be an implication, though Smith doesn’t explicitly say it). Ironically, Christians were pioneers in the marketing industry with Christian radio and television broadcasting the gospel on every advancing medium. Creeping modernism, not poor marketing, is what afflicts the world view people. In fact, one helpful observer of this is an atheist by the name of Alain de Botton. He sees in Christianity (and other religions) what enlightenment modernism can’t account for: community, beauty, and love, or what Augustine called caritas. In short, it is a virtue of Christianity that it accounts for the affections.

What is the virtue of the marketing industry? The opposite of caritas, cupiditas. It’s about competition and exploiting the affections. We should not be surprised that the Gospel doesn’t sell like sex. The Kingdom of man diverts our attention with its houses of worship – theaters, malls, universities, political organizations. The Kingdom of God is about cultivating a higher affection.
It’s as if forming habits happens to us:

“[Institutions] take on a kind of systematic power that gives them an influence that is independent of individual agents.”

What happens to us at Christian colleges, then? Smith wants to see a Christian institution that tells an alternative story, a counter-formation of redemption. To that end, he lists 14 ways the Christian community shapes us:

time, worship, community, song, order, confession, baptism, creed, prayer, Scripture, eucharist, offering, witnessing, and discipleship (Chapter 5).

He elaborates how each of these practices and sacraments form the Christian community. It’s a long list, and that’s why I think it’s not the best institutional approach for Christian colleges: he’s trying to get Christian colleges to do everything… which it can’t.

Public Theology of the Kingdom

It seems to me that Smith has conflated the function of the church and the college with his list of what forms us. As a plan for creating the right kind of Christian educational institution, the list is too long to be enacted from a “top-down” approach — which, incidentally, seems to be one of the weaknesses of the very institutional churches. Is it a coincidence that Smith is a professor at a Christian college where students have probably been more shaped by culture than Christianity? His answer seems to be: use the university as an institution to reorient his wayward students. There are two problems with this public theology. One concerns the Public and one concerns the Theology.

The Public If the family and the church are doing their job raising up young people, then the issue that Smith is indubitably seeing (ie, young Christians who aren’t living like Christians) will be less of an issue. Many of us (millennial Christians) have been led astray by seductive stories of the world. Instead of entering the world as salt and light, we enter the world tasting as bland as Russian food. When Christian colleges try to stand in for Churches, it may help for the 3 or 4 years that students live there, but by then most of the damage has been done. Most of habit-forming takes place between the ages of 1 and 7. Problems occur when we try to solve individual problems institutionally. College exists to form us, yes. But if we’re so far off the boat that we’re worshipping other gods, we’ve got to take a step back and return to catechetical school. College, in my view, should focus not in its training us how to orient myself toward God, but in giving us tools to figure out our talents and skills to use for the rest of our lives.

To my mind, the trick of the Christian life is being in the Kingdom of man while being subservient to the Kingdom of God. This book tells us how to desire the Kingdom of God, but when it comes to living in the world the message is: flee! Don’t dare risk contamination the industrio-consumer-militaristic empire. That’s not helpful. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next volumes to see what Smith thinks about Christian vocation and living faithfully in daily non-college life.

The Theology This is nit-picky, but Smith at one point makes a distinction which he suggests gets missed by Reformed folks. They want to affirm “the world” as created, and therefore inherently good, he says. Amen. However, Smiths warns us not affirm the telos of the world while we affirm its structure. The structure of the world is created and good — the direction of the world is less so, he says.
This is an important distinction, but I still have reservations. If one pays attention to the footnotes, it is evident that Smith is using the cultural analysis of folks like Stanley Hauerwas and others, who critique more than simply the “direction of the world” — they have quite a bit to decry about its structure. The book is too short to explicate those analyses; however, if one takes issue with the view of “the world” as an industrio-consumer-militaristic complex (which I do), then the eschatological implications will naturally be different.

Conclusion

As I leave the Christian college, I have more than a worldview. I have a way to navigate the world that is trying to capture my desires. I’ve been involved in a habit of life that cultivates the virtues of learning and Christian community. But now that my tuition dollars have ceased, my problem is now to navigate life beyond the Christian college. I suppose I’m all equipped to be salt and light now, right? Wrong — my struggle now is to find another community where I can use the tools God has given me. One grain of salt may be salty…but it’s one grain of salt. Pretty useless on it’s own. Meanwhile, I’ll eagerly await the next volumes of cultural liturgies.

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