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. Read part 1 of our interview here.
How does Imagining the Kingdom continue the argument laid out in Desiring the Kingdom? What can readers of the first volume look forward to in this book?
The new book builds on the argument of Desiring the Kingdom but delves deeper into the importance of formation. But instead of just focusing on Christian education, I expand this to include worship and discipleship as well. The point is that sanctification—becoming like Christ—is a matter of formation, and formation takes practice.
One of the themes that is mentioned in Desiring, but really expanded and deepened in Imagining the Kingdom, is the importance of habit. I think one of the reasons Christians today don’t really understand the language of virtue is that we no longer appreciate the power of habit. And yet historically, the spiritual disciplines emerged precisely because Christians, drawing on philosophers like Aristotle, recognized the power of habit. It’s interesting that the wider culture, through the influence of social psychology and neuroscience, has sort of rediscovered what Christians knew for millennia: that virtues and vices are products of habit formation. So you see books like David Brooks’s The Social Animal or Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit emphasizing the role of preconscious habit formation. In some ways, you might think of Imagining the Kingdom as my way of trying to point out—and explain—the power of habit and the implications of that for Christian formation. God made us creatures of habit, so the way the Spirit transforms us is by giving us practices that are habit-forming. I think this has important implications for how we think about education, worship, discipleship, and even family life.
The subtitle of your new book is the simple but loaded statement, “How Worship Works.” How should we understand worship in this context?
Yeah, I had to fight a bit to keep that subtitle, as I recall! I’m glad we did. It’s actually a bit of a play on James Wood’s fantastic book, How Fiction Works.
If you’re going explaining “how worship works,” you need to remind contemporary evangelicalism of something it has tended to forget: that worship is not just “expressive.” Worship is also formative. So worship isn’t just something that we do; it does something to us. Christian worship is not just the upward sacrifice of praise by which we show our devotion to God. Christian worship is also the gathering of God’s people wherein God gets ahold of us—meets us where we are and remakes us in his image. Contemporary evangelicalism has largely reduced worship to its “expressive” side; I’m trying to get us to remember its “formative” side.
Then the goal is to try to explain just how the Spirit forms us through worship practices. This is why we need to think about habit formation, embodiment, the importance of repetition, and why form matters. All of Imagining the Kingdom builds toward a reflection on these matters in the final chapter.
But to explain how worship works—how liturgy works—also explains how “secular” liturgies work. In other words, I hope my account explains the dynamics of Christian worship formation while helping diagnose our deformation by cultural liturgies that want to capture our imagination with a very different vision of “the good life.” If we understand how worship works, we’ll also begin to appreciate how temptation works.
For more information on Imagining the Kingdom, click here.