I have now finished James K.A. Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom. On my Goodreads page, I rated it at 3 stars, not because it was a mediocre book, but rather because parts of it were outstanding and parts were atrocious. 3 was taking an average.
The main failing of the book was that while Smith had some good punches, he managed to pull them all. He had some nice moves but it was shadow boxing (1 Cor. 9:26). In other words, he doesn’t really want anyone to actually embody what he is arguing for, which is odd because he is arguing for a worship that shapes our desires, and results in a robust and embodied life. This might take a minute to explain.
His thesis, on paper, seems great. Worship shapes desire, and we should measure our success in the church and in the academy by how well we do in forming particular kinds of people — people who love Christ and one another. Education is about formation, not information. All this is great.
We have bodies, given to us by God, and our bodies matter. What we do with those bodies matters. It matters a lot. And that is what Smith is arguing for here. They matter a great deal. It would seem that there would be a great deal of common ground here — in Moscow, we have been arguing for precisely this kind of potent worship for many years. I pray for this regularly — that worship would become and remain central for us. I pray that we would worship God rightly, and that the water of life would flow over the threshold of Ezekiel’s temple, getting deeper and deeper as it goes, until it inundates the world. I pray that our worship would be central, and that it would shape everything that we do — in business, in the arts, in education, in medicine, and so on. Worship, rightly offered, changes us and it transforms the world.
Smith looks like he is saying this, but he isn’t really. Let’s start by taking a look at the obvious.
“Worship, like creation, ends as it began: with God’s blessing. The minister raises her hands, we stretch out ours to receive, and God’s blessing is proclaimed” (p. 207).
Her hands? What is wrong with this? Why is it not permissible for a woman to raise her hands to give a ministerial blessing? St. Paul forbids it (1 Tim. 2:12), of course, but why? It is not because Paul believes women to be incapable of the requisite knowledge, or that he thinks women cannot exhibit the necessary godly character.
No, the reason is her body. Women can’t be ministers because they are women.
Women have breasts and wombs, and breasts and wombs matter. Women were
embodied with a different calling than was assigned to men when they were given their bodies. Bodies matter.
If sermon content were the only thing that mattered, I can think of quite a few unordained women that I would rather listen to than quite a few ordained men. But the content is not the issue. Here is a place where conservatives know that bodies matter, and liberals want to focus on ethereal ideas, floating above the congregation.
Now it is apparent that here is a place where Smith is actually abandoning his case. He cannot spend a book arguing that embodiment is the thing, and that bodies matter, and then, when we reject women as ministers because they have women’s bodies (proving that they are in fact women), say that we are obsessing about bodies.
Bodies matter in the faithful obedience of men and women. Bodies also matter when we sin with them (Rom. 6:12). We are to present our bodies a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1-2). This is why conservative believers have been so adamant about issues like abortion (which is the destruction of one body, the desecration of another, and the defilement of a third) and homosexual ordination and marriage. Bodies matter. But here is Smith.
“I don’t mean to communicate an alarmist fear of culture in the spirit of the ‘culture wars’ (which, by the way, I think are often tilting at windmills rather than targeting the real, substantive threats to Christian discipleship — fixated on gay marriage but eagerly affirming capitalism)” (p. 126).
Get that? Gay marriage is not a substantive threat to Christian discipleship, and building a business is. And note that opposition to gay marriage is represented as an alarmist fear “of culture,” instead of what it is — a dedicated opposition to the degradation of culture. When some performance artist wants to spray paint a priceless painting at the National Gallery, and the security guard tackles him, he does not do so because he has an “alarmist fear of culture.” He is defending culture, not attacking it.
In short, Smith wants worship to shape and form folks, but the formation he has in view involves disparagement of free markets, accepting the Word from feminine mouths and the sacraments from feminine hands, and sniffing at believing efforts to beat back the sodomization of America, then whatever kind of worship service he wants, we should not want it. If that is what is cooking, why should we want to eat?
“And yet the integration of a worship practice that is economic, tethered to the wider scope of Scripture, functions as a kind of haunting reminder of an economics that refuses the assumption of the capitalist imagination” (p. 205).
Now if he meant resistance to crony crapitalism, then amen. But from a number of comments made throughout the book, that is not what he is talking about. He is talking about getting rid of free markets — the kind of markets the Holy Spirit loves to create. He wants to substitute coercive markets for free markets, and he wants worship services that will form the kind of people who would go for that. But biblical worship will form men who hate such statist coercion.
But then there is an odd, twisty-turn. First, he says this:
“Intentional Christian worship that includes the elements we’ve described above, and that draws upon a holistic tradition of worship that activates the whole body, is packed with formative power” (p. 208).
Formative, yes, but not too formative.
“Such a monastic abstention for cultural labor sees itself as engaged in a struggle, but it forswears any pretension to a ‘culture war’ because it doesn’t think it’s the job of the church to transform the world” (p. 210).
What? Engage with the world, but make sure you don’t change anything?
“Abstention, in this case, is not a matter of seclusion. But neither does it see itself engaged in a triumphalist project of changing the world” (p. 210).
In case you were curious, a footnote cites a troubling example of this “transformationist” approach as embodied by Patrick Henry College. I use the word embodied deliberately. The folks at PHC actually want to make a real difference, and Smith finds this troubling and triumphalist. It seems that some Christians have gone out on the football field, and have allowed themselves to begin to entertain notions of actually winning sometime. This is despite the efforts of the Calvin College cheerleading squad there on the sidelines. “Fight, fight, fight!” (clap) “But don’t you dare win!” (repeat)
This is what I meant by pulling the punches. This is not the kind of worship that will ever produce a prophet who is any kind of handful for the authorities. John the Baptist got arrested, not for challenging the norms of economic justice, but rather for talking about Herod’s sex life. But if the ancient schools of the prophets had followed this pattern, the results would have been pretty thin. The prophets in Elisha’s school would have had to spend a lot of evenings in their cave doing amateur renditions of Penzance. “We go, we go, we go!” “But you don’t go!”
Notice how this absolutely gags the possibility of the Church having a prophetic voice. We are resolved to speak truth to power, but we let said powers know (through back channels) that we are just making noise to keep our base happy. We have absolutely no intention of actually changing anything. If we had that kind of intention, the powers that be might actually fight back. And if they fought back, somebody on our side might get hurt.
Here is the bottom line point. Smith is right about the centrality of worship. But if it is “triumphalist” to want to change the world, why should we care about changing our worship at all? We have anemic worship now. We are successful at not changing anything now. Why go through a lot of fuss and bother to develop a form of worship that will also not change anything?