James K.A. Smith, “Desiring the Kingdom”

this book is rocking my world.  i’ve only read the introduction and first chapter, but i’m very thirsty to read the rest of it.  it is a brilliant critique about the ways in which the church has sought to engage people solely through intellectual means, necessarily ignoring the complexity of the human soul.  he suggests an alternative model which takes into account the human being as first and foremost an affective being which is pushed and pulled toward what it sees as flourishing most significantly by desire (heart) rather than cognition (head).  it is the desire of the heart which precedes and shapes (often unconsciously) what we think or believe on a cognitive level.

why is any of this important?

the last several months i have been asking these very questions as my church struggles through the worship wars.  there are competing views of: what is the goal of worship and what are the practices which push us toward this goal?  the current state-of-the-union is that we are fixated with the idea of human beings as being primarily thinking and believing individuals.  consequently, our worship reflects that.  we have two sermons every sunday, one short (and supposedly “practical”) and one lengthy.  the worship here is centered around preaching of the Word.  the pastor or worship leader does most of the praying.  there are no liturgical elements to the service (ie., no unison prayers — aside from the Lord’s prayer — and no responsive readings or unison recitation of Scripture).  the only real participation that congregation has is in singing; yet the vast majority of the congregants do not sing because they are being inundated with contemporary praise songs which they neither know nor enjoy nor find particularly affecting.

liturgy — in whatever shape or form — appeals to the human soul precisely because it trains and disposes our hearts toward a certain end, a kingdom (our envisioning of “the good life”).  smith claims that liturgy is alive and well in many different aspects of culture, not just the church.  what sets ecclesial liturgy apart from other cultural liturgies?  the end, the kingdom, the good life which finds itself beginning to be actualized in ecclesial liturgy is the Kingdom.  ecclesial liturgy shapes us, forms us, into people whose hearts desire God and the good life He has set apart for us.

what does this mean for my church and the current dilema in which it finds itself?  i’m not totally sure.  i think it means that we can’t be so focused on trying to convince people of things.  i think it means that we can’t come together each week only to guilt one another in our moral shortcomings.  i think it means we need to re-imagine what is the good life.  is the good life that all people think like us, and accordingly act like us?  i sure hope not.  flourishing of the human spirit, for me, means a balance of mercy and justice; an exercising of humility; a continual turn away from sin and turn toward the face of God through Jesus Christ and through the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  these are things you can’t convince people of or convert people to.  instead, they are things that we must first demonstrate and second invite people to.  imagine what our faith might look like if we stopped being so preoccupied with avoiding “secular” things that tempt us and instead became preoccupied with demonstrating the fruits of the Spirit in lovingkindness towards our neighbors.