An Interview with James K.A. Smith on Imagining the Kingdom – Part 1

James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology & Worldview at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition, he is editor of Comment magazine and a senior fellow of the Colossian Forum. Smith is the author or editor of many books, including the Christianity Today Book Award winners Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? and Desiring the Kingdom, and is editor of the well-received Church and Postmodern Culture series (www.churchandpomo.org).

We recently got a chance to ask him a few questions about his just released book Imagining the Kingdom.

Since its release in 2009, Desiring the Kingdom has been well received by a wide range of audiences. It won a 2010 Christianity Today book award. John Wilson of Books & Culture recently called it one of the most significant books of the decade. We’ve seen positive reviews from publications ranging from The Christian Century to Homecoming magazine. Has this response surprised you? Why do you think the book has been embraced in so many circles?

I was completely surprised by both the extent and enthusiasm of the first book’s reception. And very grateful. When I was writing Desiring the Kingdom, I had in mind a fairly narrow audience of those engaged in the project of Christian higher education: my peers who are professors at Christian colleges and universities, along with their students. What I didn’t anticipate is that the book would be read by a wider audience, including Christian educators at every level, as well as pastors and church planters and worship leaders. I had always sensed that the theology of culture offered in Desiring the Kingdom had wide-ranging implications (and I tried to implant some footnotes that dropped hints in that regard), but I wasn’t sure how to reach those audiences. It turns out they were willing to work through the book.

As for why it’s been embraced, I think it’s a combination of factors. A lot of North American Protestants have a growing sense of unease with how we’ve been “doing church” over the past generation. They are beginning to question the model of “talking-head” worship and discipleship that has tended to dominate evangelicalism, even in the “seeker-sensitive” era. In a similar way, we’ve come to appreciate that culture is about more than “messages” and ideas. I think the analysis of cultural formation in Desiring the Kingdom gave people new eyes to see their experience and a new way to put their finger on something that they’ve sensed. So Desiring the Kingdom arrived at a moment when people were open to it and sensed they needed something like this “liturgical” account of culture.

Imagining the Kingdom was originally to be, in your words, a scholarly monograph, more narrow in scope than Desiring. In writing the second volume, however, you decided to retain the voice and format of the first. What led to this change?

Well, originally I thought Desiring would be an accessible overview of a “liturgical” model of persons and culture. To keep it accessible I utilized film and novels and pop cultural examples to help non-scholarly readers picture the argument. Then I thought the next two volumes would follow up on all the scholarly details in the format of a more proper “monograph” (think: a book just for other scholars, with lots of jargon and footnotes).

But when Desiring was received so widely and enthusiastically, readers of the first volume kept telling me they couldn’t wait for volume 2. I didn’t want to disappoint them, so I decided to retain the same voice and strategies for the entire trilogy. The new book certainly asks readers to put their thinking caps on, but readers will also find examples from novels, film, poetry, and popular culture. (At the beginning of the book I provide a bit of a “user’s guide” to help different readers navigate the book.)
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Check back next week for the second part of our interview with James K.A. Smith.
For more information on Imagining the Kingdom, click here.

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