“Desiring the Kingdom” – A Review: (4) Different Paths

Mark Baddeley continues his review of James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom (See part 1part 2 and part 3). 

A book like Desiring gets its value not just from where you agree with it, but also where you disagree with it, or where you want to tack in a different direction at points from the author. As the book forces you to rethink fundamental issues—about how we tick; about the role our practices have in our formation as people—it helps crystalise new understandings and paths forward, even if those are different from those of the author. In these final two posts, I’m going to sketch out a couple of points where I see myself diverging from Smith. First I want to talk about some gaps in the book that I would like to see filled. In the final post I want to talk about what I think is a genuine disagreement in how Smith and I see things. So, first to the things I wished were in the book, which may indicate a divergence between Smith and I in how to appropriate his insights in Desiring.

A Role for Reason?

The first notable gap for me is that there is no exploration of the positive role of reason, of our minds, and our beliefs in the book. We are assured that they have a place but what that means is never explored. All the firepower is reserved for anthropological regime change—from reason to desire. As a consequence of this focus, Desiring certainly achieves its main aim. But in the aftermath of its shock-and-awe campaign, it would have been helpful to have had some serious discussion of how our desires and our reasoning are supposed to work together, once we agree that our desires are the senior partner.

How can desire help us to think well? How can thinking well help us to desire things that are truly good? What resources does reason offer to help us reconfigure our desires when we judge that they miss the mark? What is the positive role of reason in the support position? The absence of this discussion means that all the heavy lifting in reshaping our desires goes to our practices.

Man Person Fog Mist

The irony is that Desiring is a very heady book that has little substantive positive things to say about the head—which means there is a big disconnect between the communication and the meta-communication. There are lots of compelling arguments that have the effect of implying that arguments aren’t important. It wants to change how we think about the heart, which suggests that our thinking is really important, but it struggles to sketch out what that importance will look like in the new regime. For my part, I think we need a clear sense of where we’re going, and what life should like once we get there—not just compelling reasons to take the journey.

Missing Complexity

The second absence is discussion of all of our little desires. There is more to us than reason, heart-desires and practices (individual and social). We also have many secondary desires that might not be our north star, but still exert an enormous pull. It seems to me that much scriptural exhortation about fleeing desires address desires such as these. I’d love to have heard Smith’s thoughts about how to relate these to the heart, the head, and the hand.

Gospel-Directed Desire?

Third, Desiring doesn’t talk much about how ministries of the word, or the power of the gospel, might work to change us and the things we want. It is an understandable omission, since Smith wants to turn evangelicals away from their obsession with the head, and thinks anthropology is the tool to accomplish that. Yet, as I’m convinced that effective practices must rely on the power of the gospel and the Word, this omission needs to be corrected. 

The Power of Scripture 

Finally Desiring reinforces my conviction about the importance of the public reading of Scripture. It’s Scripture—read clearly, and with genre acknowledged—that has the resources to engage the whole person. It offers arguments and information aimed at persuading the mind; it has exhortations and commands aimed at engaging the will. But it also has material that is aimed at reshaping our desires. Bible stories are generally not presented as head-arguments, but (among other things) as a worked examples of what the good life does and does not look like. They help wean us off false gods by highlighting the destructiveness, emptiness and tackiness of so much of what we build our lives around. On the other side, Scripture is constantly seeking to stir us up to want the things that are part of the truly good life, of being blessed. Often it does this by not just articulating truth in the abstract but in a way where the form (like a doxology) stirs up godly desire and doesn’t just inform the head.

Letting Scripture Speak

If we want to Scripture to function in this way—to engage us wholly—we need a robust confidence in the importance of the details of Scripture. It’s not just the message of the Word of God that matters: the underlying content or big idea. The form of the text also matters—historical drama, doxology, poetry, and the like—these are as important as the content they are delivering. Different genres speak to different parts of our make-up. The tendency to focus on just the ideas in the text and not the tone or communication strategy of the text, tends to reinforce the notion that too much emphasis on the word of God produces overly heady believers.

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