Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.

–P.J. O’Rourke

As I read and re-read Jamie Smith, P.J. O’Rourke’s quote seems rather apposite to my experience of that reading.  I consider that being found dead with one of Smith’s books open in my hands would be a great way to slip away from this life.

The influence of Jamie Smith’s work continues to grow, and rightly so.  Just as we have digested his landmark work Desiring the Kingdom (DTK), his next work Imagining the Kingdom (ITK) lands on our kindles and desks.  For many of us, Smith’s work is stimulating academically, providing rich and complex fodder for our reflections on worship and Christian formation.  But I think something else has been the experience of many of us with Smith’s work.

For in his work, Smith himself acknowledges the irony of his cognitive process of reflection constructed to convince us that we are primarily formed through non-cognitive, i.e. through somatically habituated and embodied experiences.  And Smith’s work seems to affect many of us on that embodied register.  It is something we read and reflect on, yet is something that we experience, leaving us changed in our deepest dispositons towards the world.  In my estimation, there can be nothing more wonderful than stimulating theological reflection that also orients us towards the deepest possibilities and experiences of the Christian faith.  I dare to suggest that Smith’s work has been that encounter for many of us.

Desiring the Kingdom

You do not have to have read Desiring the Kingdom to access Imagining the Kingdom, for Smith makes clear in ITK how his new work draws on and extends his previous work.  But it would benefit potential readers to come to Imagining the Kingdom after a review of Desiring the Kingdom.

There is an Augustinian background to Smith’s works, interwoven through methodologies of philosophy, phenomenology, aesthetics, anthropology, and theology.  Through this Smith makes an account of how human beings are motivated and oriented not so much by what we think, but what we love.  For Smith it is community, the habits and practices we make in those communities that train and shape our desires.  Then those desires once given shape continue to orient us into communities of practice around those desires.  These are the main theological anthropology claims by Smith in Desiring the Kingdom.

In DTK, Smith correlates this understanding of desire with the nature of education and the university.  Smith himself sees the possibilities for his work for understandings of worship formation outside the university.  Indeed many of us on reading Desiring the Kingdom saw such possibilities, too and have been making own attempts at correlating Smith’s work with our understandings of worship.

So it has been exciting to see Smith continue that trajectory himself with Imagining the Kingdom.

Imagining the Kingdom

If Smith is right that we are primarily desiring creatures, oriented to the world by what we love through embodied experiences, how does that experience actually take place, i.e.  work? Smith makes an explanation of this process and experience, continuing his cultural liturgies work (BTW if you have read Imagining the Kingdom already and are familiar with Smith’s method and reasoning, do jump down to the section Critique and Possibilities).

As you might expect from Smith, he makes this account with his usual rich, multi-disciplinary approach, with particular use of the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Pierre Bourdieu and Mark Johnson.

With the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, Smith establishes that human beings primarily make meaning in the world through bodily knowing, something Merleau-Ponty calls ‘perception’.  Smith does not pit this bodily perception against intellectual reflection, but rather shows how the possibility of intellectual reflection is embedded, situated, and dependent upon the primacy of this perception.  This is the space that Smith opens out for us, to help us understand how our minds, bodies, intellects, imaginations, desires, feelings, and emotions work in concert to perceive and make sense of the world.

This understanding of bodily known then begs a question for Smith, ‘How do we teach the body? How are our bodies trained to perceive the world? To answer that question, Smith deploys Pierre Bourdieu to show how we need to understand practitioners as doers, and not as ‘thinkers who happen to be doing stuff’.  Smith locates this idea of ‘practice as practice’ within Bourdieu’s concept of habitus. This habitus is redolent of Aristotelian notions of virtue, where ‘habits are those dispositions that incline us to a certain end’.  Those habits are acquired, they have a history, and are oriented towards a way of life and living.  We are not freefloating actors deciding how we act in the world; rather all the communities we belong to orient and encode into us ways of being and living in the world that seem ‘natural’ to us.  At the same time those dispositions of communities are ‘inscribed’ into our individual histories and understanding of ourselves. There is an incorporation of our bodies into the social bodies of communities. The rhythms and routines of our environment, and communities, are then understood as the liturgical acts that orient our perceptions and being in the world.  Smith asks most importantly how and why some cultural liturgies ‘trump’ and overwhelm others?

To answer this question, Smith then draws on the work of Mark Johnson, arguing that the habituated orientations of practice can be understood as an aesthetics of meaning.  Here our meaningmaking is not restricted to the propositional, but how our ‘bodily comportment’ in the world generates between our brains, bodies and environments, ‘meaning-making’.  Ultimately, this meaningmaking – how we make sense of the world – is with and through the primacy of metaphor. Here Smith makes the claim that this allows us to understand the Christian faith, not just as a set of propositional beliefs, but also as primary metaphors, ‘that attune us to the world on an aesthetic register’.  Smith is then able to show how if this is the case, we can better understand how liturgies or, more generally, Christian worship provides the conceptual metaphors that make sense of our embodied perceptions, whilst at the same time our bodily actions generate these very conceptual metaphors. Smith suggests from this that we might therefore understand human beings as characters in a drama, living out stories generated by our actions and generating stories from those actions we undertake. If Smith is right, all of life is worship and all our actions are liturgical ways of making meaning, living out competing stories, and generating stories that we live out.  It is not just that we live out competing stories of life, but that the vast repertoires for being in the world shapes our orientation to the world.


General Receptivity

Whilst Smith’s doctrine of receptivity is Augustinian, and applicable to all human beings and human nature, I was left wondering what is unique about a Christian receptivity, of how the Spirit works through worship to compete in the training of human desires. Is Christian identity formation just one of many competing cultural metaphors with this general human nature, or is this something about human nature that means we are attuned to or more able to resonate with certain Christian practices?

Smith is careful to state that we cannot instrumentalize worship, to make worship more affective for the sake of our worship practices that such practices are to be ordered around God himself. But how does Christians worship function uniquely and specifically for that telos in the competing market of cultural liturgies?

Corporate Worship

Which leads me to my other general criticism, of how Smith’s work focuses on corporate worship.  Where he makes application of his work to reading the micro practices of how we use technology, such as smart phones, the nature of Christian worship seems reduced to

the range of some rather narrow reformed and anglocatholic liturgies (see p170-171).  I know Smith is making claims for the reading the affectiveness of those worship strategies, to re-story Christians in the face of competing stories.  But the reality is that those strategies already exist and seem epiphenomenally incapable of competing with the much broader micro practices of cultural liturgies that Smith has his sights set on. There seems to be a missing link in Smith’s work, of how those particular worship strategies and curriculums might be deployed, or operationalised in such a way that they are better able to counter competing cultural liturgies.

This brings me to the possibilities of Smith’s work, of how such an operationalisation by others might be made (and perhaps where Smith might take his ongoing work).


I’ve already given my hand away as to what I think the greatest possibilities for Smith’s work might be, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Getting Close to Worship Practices

Smith’s work gets us up close and better able to read real worship practices, to understand and produce thick ethnographies of the kind Nicholas Healy invited us to make (see Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology, Cambridge University Press, 2000). Healy has shown us the pitfalls of intellectualist ‘blue-print’ ecclesiologies.  This is where conceptions of the church are made from idealisations around conceptual metaphors that are abstracted from the human forms of church. How much we understand the church in via is occluded by these ‘blue-print’ ecclesiologies. Moreover I suggest that many of the fashionable theories of participation of late, which whilst being so attentive to using our bodies to make meaning, idealise those conceptions of participation, with no real understanding of what our bodies and the social bodies being formed by those actions are making.

For example, previous conceptions of the Church might have been ‘the mystical body’, that then leads to false dichotomies of the spiritual and physical of the Church. But the latest trends of labeling the church relational, organic, nodal, organic etc., perpetuates the same blueprint problems. Whilst paying lip service to embodied participation, these ecclesiologies are often unable (and unwilling) to examine their embodied worship practices and the actual affective metaphors at work in them. Jamie Smith’s work has huge correlations for addressing this task, and enabling us to make better ecclesiological accounts of worship.

Here we might locate Smith’s work not just with Healy, but the exciting Ecclesiology and Ethnography project that Smith has himself contributed to. All too often ethnographic surveys of church worship are blind the theological commitments embedded in those practices already (something John Milbank has long alerted us to), and then seek to map idealised theologies or social theories onto their ethnographic survey. For example, people surveyed about their worship might talk about ‘relationship’ and there is then the temptation to apply a theory about relationship that is forced onto that worship survey. Instead what needs to be done is to ask what relational practices those people are already deploying and what conceptual metaphors those very practices are developing and perfecting. That would then enable us to perceive what social bodies are being constructed by those practices and asses if they are giving rise to something more or less Christian?

Smith’s work is immediately applicable for this kind of work. Where once we could only talk about worship conceptually, or make surveys of worship practices and then map idealised conceptions around those practices, we can now read those worship practices in via with Smith’s method.

The possibilities for using Smith to understand the social practices of any kind of group or people are immediately evident. I suspect there will be many fruitful future PhDs that undertake the reading of communities, with Smith, that allow us to better understand what is really ‘working’ and taking place in those communities.

The Possibilities of Evangelical Charismatic Worship

Which brings me back to my own use of Smith, and where I am most excited by his work for my own research. How might he help me understand and disentangle the worship practices of my charismatic evangelicalism in relationship to the competing culture liturgies of capitalism and consumerism? For I think Smith can help me do that in a way that has not been possible to date, and at the same time, his turn to a limited range of reformed and anglocatholic curricula reveals the need for a broader worship register and range the very kind my Evangelicalism, despite its problems, might be able to uniquely provide.

For as I have mentioned, when I got close to the close of Smith’s ITK, I was left asking what kind of worship can re-storify and compete with the forces of other embodied cultural liturgies?  Smith’s short table of reformed and anglo-catholic resources genuinely surprised me (p170-171). Not that because he used those resources, for that is Smith’s Catholic project, and I am sympathetic to it myself. I do believe those liturgical curricula contain the very stories and orientations towards God that we require. But there seemed to me to be a missing link and step; of how we might see those detailed Christian forms actually work. Like Smith, I agree with him that the very form of worship tells the Story itself. If the common shape of the liturgies Smith highlights is to soak into our imaginations in the way Smith hopes for, what is the narrative mode that will enable that at a macro and micro level?  For I suggest that the narrative mode of those resources he points towards, are not sufficient to his task.

Or to put in other words, where is God in the practices that shape us and is he in all practices?  How is Christ formed in us by some practices and not by others?  Smith has written about this somewhat here, and I understand his suggestion that there is a heuristic value in naturalising Christian practices so that we can see how secular practices are competing with them.   But if (as Smith suggests) ultimately Christian practices are different and the Spirit seizes us and transforms us, how does that work in contrast to other competing practices?  Here I have in mind Reinhard Hütter’s, Suffering Diving Things, which provides a theology of divine participation in Christian practices.  In particular off how the Luthern idea of Pathos, i.e being acted upon by the Spirit, combines with MacIntyres understanding of embodied practice, to provide an understanding of the church as the public of the holy spirit (with a recovery of the church as the res publica).  For ultimately questions of how God works through practices lead us to ask not only where is God, but where is the Church?  Without attending to those kinds of questions we cannot  delineate how and where other cultural liturgies compete and overcome Christians ones.  As Hütter himself mapped these boundaries, he developed a notion of the church as the soteriological locus of God’s actions, as a space constituted by specific core practises and church doctrine.  For Hütter these practices are ‘enhypostatic’, where the spirit works through the church, but is not limited to the church.  I don’t expect Smith to arrive at that same conclusion, but I would like to see how he correlates IMT to these issues of how God is present and how the Spirit constitutes the Church through practices.

Here I also see the need for a holistic whole of life narrative mode where worship is a lifestyle and the desire for God is the dominant telos and logic for that worship. Perhaps you do not get more lifestyleoriented than Evangelical Charismatic worship. For sure, that worship has led to the perfecting of capitalist practices and replaced the providence of God in the world with a ‘Frankenstein’ logic of reducing God’s work in the world to being primarily about how God provides for individuals. In this mode, the church is belittled as a social body and the world is reduced to the space in which God is at work solely in how he provides for us as individuals (Smith outlines a similar process for social justice and secularization here).

For if we can use Smith’s work to read the macro and micro practices of my Evangelical worship, we might be able to see how it might recover the very primary metaphors of Kingdom, that Smith pointed us to in Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith himself in Thinking in Tongues delineates some of the social imaginaries and the ontological possibilities of Pentecostal Charismatic worship in in resistance to competing culture liturgies (see p88).  I would like to see Smith correlate that suggestion with ITK, as I think it would provide the affective link that I perceive as missing in ITK.  It would also bring my Evangelical Charismatic tradition into a place of providing a doctrine of reception able to explain the nature of how the spirit works specifically for and with Christian identity formation in the face of competing cultural liturgies.

At least, my hope and current project with Smith’s work is to explore how the Frankenstein worship of my tribes and tradition might be become more of the body of Jesus that it aspires to be like.  And in understanding this process, how larger worship practices work in the world around Christian identity and formation, such understanding might help Smith with connecting his reformed and anglo-catholic forms in the narrative modes he seeks.

But if Smith did all that, there would be nothing left for me to do with my own research.