James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom is a book which has the potential to revolutionalise people’s approach to preaching and the Christian life for the better. And yet it is unlikely that many will persist in reading it. Its 200+ pages represent the struggle of a professional philosopher to talk about the nature of humanity, the shape of our culture, a new vision for the Christian social life (particularly church and higher education)—all in a non-academic way. The prose varies from gripping and clear to anaemic and opaque from one page to the next. It is not an easy read for those unaccustomed to the academic dialect.
Neither is it a very practical book. There is no quick way to convert its key insights and practical tips into new preaching skills or church ministry tools. Once you have finished reading the book you are still going to be faced with the long task of trying to digest, critically evaluate and explore its ramifications for your life and ministry. Making things even more tricky, many readers will (I hope) not entirely agree with Smith’s vision. There is an awful lot of assembly required.
Worth the Effort
Nonetheless, if there was one book written in the last few years that I would want to put in the hands of pastors and preachers, this would be it. (It’d come with a warning that they’ll need to clear some time and their heads to attempt it.) Although it doesn’t offer easy answers or clear techniques, it does invite you to embark on a journey where you will encounter a very different vision of what it means to be human. It will challenge you to reconsider your approach to Christian formation—both how you live privately, and how we act corporately. It even offers a “worked example” of its vision, which—although I’m not sold on that example—has the virtue of grounding and earthing the abstract discussion into the concrete particulars of actual daily and weekly life.
In this way, the book’s difficult nature becomes its strength. It functions as an intellectual midwife. It gets inside your head and reprograms your brain. It’s like a conversation partner that you sit with in a sustained way. It forces you to read more slowly and work for it. While this reduces the pleasure of the reading process, it means that you become actively engaged. Ultimately the challenge opens you up to be changed more deeply by the process. And this book merits that kind of investment.
Philosophically, the book seeks to replace an Enlightenment anthropology with an Augustinian one. In Christian terms, it seeks to change our view of people from being fundamentally rational thinkers to being fundamentally desiring worshippers. This is a profound game changer.
Desiring casts a picture of people whose lives are set on fire and take their shape over a lifetime, not so much by their view of reality or their beliefs, but by their vision of the good life, by those goods that are lodged most deeply in their hearts. We are not characters in an episode of CSI; who dispassionately follow where the evidence takes us; for whom life is nothing more than thinking well; whose morality just means remembering to carry the one when doing complex ethical calculations. We are not simply rational computers in bodies.
In place of this Enlightenment picture of people as biological thinking machines, Desiring taps into an older more Christian vision of humanity—that of Augustine. Thomas Cranmer in the 16th Century held a version of this summarised by Reformation scholar Ashley Null as: “What the heart loves, the will embraces, and the mind justifies.” Here we are first and foremost creatures who love and who worship. Our lives take their course, not by our minds’ search for the Truth, but by our hearts’ being captivated by a vision of the Good. What we desire, at the core of who we are, what we love as our greatest Good, that’s what shapes our decisions and our lives more than anything else. And what we desire is what we serve and worship. Hence, if you want to predict the shape of person’s life don’t look at their beliefs but rather look at the kind of worshipper they are, and what loves drive them. We are teleological beings, and our vision of our end or goal is more determinative for our lives than anything else about us.
There, in a nutshell, is the core idea of the book. Here is the second one, that takes that first idea and gives it a big “pointy end.” Our hearts are shaped by our practices. The things we do either strengthen our desires or cultivate new desires. Hence we need to be intentional about our lives individually and privately as well as corporately and publicly. We need to see the way we live in both these spheres as liturgy—as a way of deliberately building in habits that train our hearts to love what truly is the Good for us, and to disengage from those cultural practices that seek to train our hearts to love false Goods. It is liturgy because it is the deliberate, systematic, habitual, worshipping of what we see to be our true Good. Our corporate and individual practices should be intentional structures that form us as lovers, lovers of the Good.
A Potential Revolution
Taken together these two ideas have the potential to revolutionise people’s approach to preaching, church life and personal life more than anything I have read in years. While I am not convinced by the way Smith “cashes out” this insight, he has done us an enormous service. His book signals an anthropological revolution that offers us new ways to think about both ourselves and our practices.
In an effort to tease out the implications of what Desiring offers us, I’m going to reflect upon its two big ideas in the next four posts—first positively in two posts, looking at the ways I think Smith’s proposal helps us proclaim and live in light of the gospel and make sense of life in this world. Then, in the final two posts, I will offer some more critical responses, indicating where I dissent from Smith’s applications and what issues the book didn’t examine that I wished it had.
The value of a book like this is the conversation you have with it—not the doggy-bag of takeaway goodies you can quickly pluck from it. So as part of trying to convince you that this book is worth that kind of investment from you, I’m going to try and “close the deal” with a worked example of my own. But understand, it’s all in the interests of encouraging you to take this same walk with Desiring yourself.