James KA Smith summarizes the battle of the 21st century

I’ve just started reading James KA Smith’s new book Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s basic argument is that our actions are not really based on conscious rational choices but rather on how ritual behaviors have caused us to imagine the world around us. Most Christian thinkers from the beginning have unconsciously bought into a Platonic “rationalist” conception of human nature in which our behavior is supposed to be regulated by our conscious rationality, and the fact that it isn’t reflects our fallenness rather than a condition innate to our humanity.

A lot of disastrous silliness has resulted from our Platonist “rationalism,” particularly the scandal of sexuality which was scandalous to Augustine and other church fathers not because of social issues related to wedlock pregnancy but because men cannot decide rationally when and when not to be aroused. In any case, it’s exciting to see a reformed theologian like James KA Smith going down this path, though I have to confess that I’m not sure what remains of reformed theology post-rationalism. If Smith is right, then liturgy is far more important than doctrine, which would mean that 45 minutes of “Biblical truth” can’t undo the damage of going to church in a shopping mall.

In any case, Smith offers the following summary of what I consider to be the basic conflict of the 21st century and what is at stake when we recognize that we have been liturgized into zombie consumers instead of grateful worshipers of God:

We have a “feel” for the world that is informed by stories that dispose us to inhabit the world as either a bounteous but broken gift of the gracious Creator or a closed system of scarcity and competition; and as a result, either I will just “naturally” be disposed to see others as neighbors, as image-bearers of God, whose very faces call to me in a way that is transcendent, or I will have a “take” on others as competitors, threats, impositions on my autonomy.

The basic problem of much of American evangelical Christianity is that liturgically our religion is capitalism so that while we might “believe” the right ideas about Jesus, our real values and instincts are shaped by assumptions of scarcity, self-reliance, and competition. Furthermore, the doctrinal emphases we discover “naturally” when we look at the Bible are shaped by the true objects of our worship in capitalism, such as the total depravity of the other, which is the raison d’être of suburbia and an atonement theory defined by God’s obedience to the fundamental principle of the market: that no debt can go unpaid.

So the question we face is whether Dow Jones or the communion table will be the orienting truth of our reality (a question which has already been answered when we avoid germs by doing the Lord’s Supper with crackers and shot-glasses). We can argue all day about gender hierarchy, sexuality, Biblical inerrancy, and so forth. What really matters is whether we believe that everything we have is a gift from God for us to share, no different than the body and blood of Christ which give us life, or else private property to be accumulated and defended, in which case we stake our identity in things that are death without the sacramental presence of their Creator.

14 thoughts on “James KA Smith summarizes the battle of the 21st century

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  6. Some of this really resonates with me. I am definitely going to follow your blog man. The only thing that I would disagree with is the private property issue. While we should share and be generous to those in need, I think it’s actually dangerous to not have any boundaries with your property and finances. Is not man entitled to the fruit of his hands? And was not the tree of Knowledge God’s private property? What are your thoughts on that matter?

    I’m just being provocative there though. Most of it really made me think about my own views. The “shot glass of grape juice and cracker” compartmentalizing. The viewing of others as Elohim’s image bearers. The suburbs existing as a reaction to fear of the “other”. Interesting. I’ll be sure to read some more posts. Thanks!

    • I would say all property is God’s and I am steward over some of it which is my responsibility to protect from theft, abuse, etc. It’s fair to say as was argued initially in the late medieval times that dividing stewardship between individuals makes for better stewardship than for the king to own everything. But it never becomes *private* if it’s really stewardship because its never about rights but only about blessings and faithful servanthood.

    • I have another post on here called the Entrepreneurs vs. Moneychangers: A Theology of Capitalism. Curious to hear your response.

  7. I’m an Anglican clergyman who is (obviously) committed to liturgical worship. One of my best friends is an Evangelical pastor who’s church is huge, has fancy light show production, video screens across the whole back of the platform, Starbucks-like coffee bar in the foyer. He wrestles with “the show” mentality of the church at large and we’ve talked about it. But might not the dynamics pointed out in this article be (a) the *reason* such churches are huge in our culture, and (b) at the same time a problem – that these churches don’t provide any sense of “the other,” with which to disengage their congregants from the self-absorbed culture around them? In other words, at some level are these churches actually products of a capitalistic culture, unable to be a prophetic voice to the same?

    By the way – the part about Penal Substitutionary Atonement being related to a capitalist mentality is very intriguing.

    • Exactly! And I tend to be suspicious that some of the social stances we take have more to do with our self-justification than genuine prophetic concern.

  8. Have you read also *Desiring the Kingdom*, the 1st volume in this “trilogy-to-be”?

    You did an excellent job of piquing interest in it — just added it to the Amazon Wish List queue…

  9. I am not sure whether I “like” this or not. I tend to “like” the writer, but the question is not whether we attend to the religious disciplines of our faith, or succumb to the “world” all about us, it ought to concern us if we ignore the facts of the Christian “walk” as was demonstrated by our Lord when He walked among those who “farthered” out faith.

    The Apostle Paul anticipated our concerns when he encouraged us with these words from his first letter to the church at Corinth. “The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them….” “But he who is spiritual appraises all things…” Therefore, he continues, “who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.” (2:14-16, paraphrased)

    When our Lord Jesus walked among men, He was surely aware of the ways of the world and he abstained from them, by caring for those who followed in His footsteps. That is good advice. We have but one life here on earth. It ought to impress on us, our need to use our gifts accordingly and not get involved in worldly debates.

    • I’m not trying to get into worldly debates. It’s not about whether our country has a state-controlled economy or a free economy. It’s a question of whether we as individuals become primarily consumers and investors in the market or disciples of Jesus Christ. We often compartmentalize between the two of those. We have to make everything discipleship; I’m not sure how exactly. But we need to be living in a story instead of just learning a set of data. In my interpretation, the “mind of Christ” is not so much an encyclopedia of axioms to draw from as it is an intuition that guides our steps which emanates from the living Christ Himself. The Biblical truths we have inherited from the apostles are critical to being able to discern Christ’s voice from the much louder other voices, but the book is not all there is; it is a guide to our intimacy with the person who is Truth. And I agree with James KA Smith that we need real Christian liturgies not just on Sunday morning but for living every day in general. We need our lives to be habitual Eucharist. I realize this is all abstract at this point. I’m hoping that Smith will give concrete examples that will help to flesh this out. I honestly don’t know how to flesh things out differently in my life. But I know it needs to happen because I’m an ideologue who knows a whole lot of nice facts and falls woefully short on living a life of worship every day.

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