Desiring the Kingdom

This post will begin a three part series on James K. A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom. Smith provides us with some food for thought about how both  our worship together on Sunday mornings and our activities throughout the week form our desires and habits. Today,  Rev. Donnie McDaniel provides us with an overview of the introductory chapters of the book. There are some questions at the end of the post. Join in the discussion!

Smith, James K. A. Desiring the Kingdom. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009.

What if liturgy was more important than we had ever imagined? What if, rather than just being a mundane and unimportant set of rituals, the liturgy was absolutely essential in forming us into citizens of God’s kingdom? James K. A. Smith in his Desiring the Kingdom posits precisely this vision of the liturgy. Smith writes:

The core claim of this book is that liturgies—whether ‘sacred’ or ‘secular’—shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than from the head down. (25)

Smith’s belief in the liturgy’s importance arises out of his conviction that humanity is best classified as homo liturgicus. This anthropology is offered in contrast to the main conception of humanity that has dominated western thought—the human-as-thinker model (I think, therefore I am) and its popular Christian counterpart the human-as-believer model. Smith breaks down his work into two parts, and this post will deal with the introduction and chapter 1, while subsequent posts will deal with the other portions of the book. At the end of each post, there will be some engaging questions. We invite you to the conversation and would love to hear from you.

In the introduction, Smith introduces us to liturgy’s importance. He does this not by beginning with the church’s liturgy, but with a much more universal, dare we say catholic, faith—the liturgy of the market as embodied in the mall. Smith demonstrates the liturgy’s importance by making the familiar strange with his invitation us to imagine a trip to the mall. This trip, however, is couched in terms that we usually reserve for the Christian faith. The mall is a “cathedral.” The sales people are evangelists, while the cashiers serve as priests. The items we buy are icons or pictures of the good life. This is a system of salvation by shopping. While picturing the mall like this may at first feel strange, further reflection reveals that the mall does have a liturgy. The mall even has a liturgical year with its own colors. Just imagine with me, the shorts, bright shirts and flip flops of summer unwillingly yielding to the earth-tone sweaters and boots of fall. Next comes the high holy season of the mall, complete with its own series of feasts. One is clothed in orange and black. The next feast is more subdued in its coloring with rich browns and yellows. Finally, the mall’s liturgical year reaches its peak with the supreme shopping season robed in white, green and red. The holy season then blooms into spring with its pastels promising new life and the opportunity for further shopping. There are also a host of smells and sounds that accompany the sights of the mall’s year. It is a liturgical system that is aimed at all of our bodily senses, because it seeks to mold us at the deepest level of our humanity. The liturgy of the mall wants our hearts, that is, it wants our worship.

Smith claims that the secular liturgies have a better understanding of the human condition than the church, because the secular liturgies focus on humanity’s embodiment. Taking our cues from the human-as-thinker anthropology of modernity, the church formulated the human-as-believer model. But our attempt at anthropology was still truncated since it focused only on the cognitive aspects of our beliefs leaving our hearts subject to other liturgies. Smith then claims that the church’s liturgy is the best way to inoculate believers against the competing secular liturgies that are aimed at their hearts.

The author then explains how his anthropology, homo liturgicus or the human-as-lover model, works by reminding us of the community of faith’s importance. Within the church, these communal aspects occur in the Sunday liturgy. Our communal practices in turn should cultivate personal habits in us that should aim our hearts toward God’s kingdom. However, since we all inhabit multiple communities, we have competing visions of the good life. We love rival kings. Smith urges us to reflect upon the church’s liturgy and understand its transformative power as the means to resist the world’s liturgies. We will take a closer look at the world’s liturgies in our next post.

1. Have you ever participated to the mall’s liturgy? Did you realize you were participating in a worship service?

2. Have you ever considered that your liturgy may be affecting your desires and intentions?

The Rev. Donnie McDaniel is a recent graduate of Southeastern Seminary and a recently ordained Deacon, but primarily he is a husband to Shannon and a father to Mackenna, Katie, and T.J. He serves in the Deacon rotation at All Saints and helps out in other areas as needed.

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