Awaiting the King

Reforming Public Theology

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James K. A. Smith
Cultural Liturgies
  • Ada, MI: 
    Baker Academic
    , November
     2017.
     256 pages.
     $22.99.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780801035791.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Awaiting the King concludes James K. A. Smith’s “Cultural Liturgies” series. In volumes 1 and 2, Smith argued that people were not first and foremost thinkers motivated primarily by ideas, but rather lovers, whose orientation to the world is driven by what we love and desire. Further, it is “liturgies”—habits, formative patterns of behavior, customs or rituals—which shape our desires, often on a pre-cognitive level. These liturgies, which include visiting the mall or the stadium, or singing the national anthem, embody a vision, often unarticulated, of the good life, and participation in these liturgies inscribes that vision on our characters and influences our hearts in a certain direction.

The putative purpose of the third and final volume of the series is to apply this “liturgical lens” to the political. Thus we would expect Awaiting the King to contain an analysis of how political rituals and liturgies shape those who participate in them, and how the church might provide its own properly oriented liturgies and stories. The book partially succeeds in this goal.

Smith rejects the traditional concern of political theology as amounting to “spatialized” discussions of the appropriate spheres of church and state and focuses instead on the ways in which a culture embodies rituals and liturgies that formatively shape the loves of the people who participate in those rituals: for example, the stadium. Smith wishes to move beyond a narrow conception of “the political,” one that consists merely of government institutions or the public square. But if everything is political, then “political” is devoid of any meaning, and Smith’s argument that worship is a political act (chapter 2) becomes a remarkably unenlightening one. Further, those “spatialized” questions that Smith rejects are very real questions that should not simply be dismissed.

Smith weighs in on some of the key debates in Reformed political theology, including whether principled pluralism is possible, and the limitations of natural law, arguing for a distinctively cross- and resurrection-shaped political theology. Smith’s rejection of natural law is decidedly at odds with the rediscovery of natural law in recent decades in the Reformed tradition. Scripture explicitly affirms natural law; one may then ask on what basis non-Christian rulers can be held to account if the concept of natural law must be rejected.

In many respects, this is a curious volume, with chapters 2, 3, and 5 (about 40% of the book) devoted to summarizing and quoting verbatim from the works of Oliver O’Donovan. While the value of that material is difficult to deny, it renders the volume’s claim to originality rather suspect. Chapter 6 is devoted to discussing the “Godfather problem”: that is, how a person could “liturgically renounce the works of the devil and carry them out at the same time” (168), and seemed out of place in a work devoted to the political; this discussion really belongs in volume 1 or 2 of his trilogy. Adding to the disjointed feel of Awaiting the King are the many digressions into films and novels that distract from the flow of the argument and, with the exception of the Godfather illustration, are rarely illuminating.

While Awaiting the King lacks the originality of Smith’s earlier volumes, the broader message of the book, and the series as a whole, is a deeply illuminating and challenging one, both for Christian formation in general, and political theology in particular. The challenge for the church is to grasp that message and mold its practices, education, and worship accordingly. Smith calls for the church to understand that people are embodied, loving, and desiring: not simply brains on sticks. And so simply filling the head with ideas will not funnel water to the right fire, so to speak.

Smith’s work enables a helpful analysis of the ways in which Christians are imbued, even unwittingly, with the habits and patterns of non-Christian thinking, all the while being able to flawlessly articulate theological doctrine. Finally, Smith challenges the church to develop attractive and satisfying liturgies: the cultivation of a rich Christian imagination and communities of loving disciples, and the presentation of Christianity as a winsome way of life most conducive to human flourishing, rather than only a set of doctrinal beliefs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin B. Saunders is Senior Lecturer at Deakin University, Australia.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he also holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the editor of Comment magazine and is a popular speaker.

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