Desiring the Kingdom
Published: 8/1/2009
Format: Paperback
Malls, stadiums, and universities are actually liturgical structures that influence and shape our thoughts and affections. Humans–as Augustine noted–are "desiring agents," full of longings and passions; in brief, we are what we love.James K. A. Smith focuses on the themes of liturgy and desire in "Desiring the Kingdom," the first book in what will be a three-volume set on the theology of culture. He redirects our yearnings to focus on the greatest good: God. Ultimately,…

Desiring the Kingdom comes in two parts. The first explores the formation of human identity. Anyone interested in human psychology and sociology will find this part valuable. In the second, Smith seeks to specifically apply part one to those interesting in Christian formation (specifically, Calvinists). The first part of this book alone deserves five stars as it enabled my own journey of spiritual reformation.

For those not familiar with my story, in 2015 I sat down to write my doctoral dissertation on spiritual formation. As I sat in my chair I realized I had nothing authentic to say. When I looked in the mirror, I saw a spiritually deformed man staring back at me.

Oddly compelled by a need to be authentic, I wrote my dissertation on the story we tell about God and my search for a story that brought life. Smith’s work played a key role in that process in two ways.

We Are Desiring, Imaginative Animals

Part one of Desiring the Kingdom moves through the history of human self-understanding. Smith begins with the Enlightenment and Hume’s, “I think therefore I am.” Debunking the power of our neocortex, Smith guides the reader away from the notion that we are “thinking things” to the conclusion that we are “liturgical animals.” We, as people, are lovers and we love what we are formed to love. This sounds complex at first. However, the multi-billion dollar industry of marketing is all about shaping you and I as lovers.

However, modern day marketing only works because we embrace its underlying values. Values like commercialism that teach us to love possessions and status. Individualism that teaches us to love independence. And Neoliberalism that teaches us to love free-markets and the cheapest possible goods and services. These forces, baked into the very fabric of our society, often go unrecognized, yet they shape what our hearts love.

Desiring the Kingdom of Depravity

I find Smith’s project particularly interesting because the religious formation in my early years dominate my life. One of the strongest memories of my childhood is the traditional conservative Lutheran words of confession that opened every weekly service:

I a poor miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities, with which I have every offended Thee, and justly deserve Thy temporal and eternal punishment.

Today, I understand those words to be nothing less than abusive. However, for most of my first forty years, they directed not only my thoughts but my heart. Even when I first cognitively recognized this theology as harmful, it took years of work to reform my heart towards living from belovedness.

In other words, conservative Lutheran liturgy did in my life exactly what Smith argues liturgy does. The only question is what liturgies, cultural or religious, form us and what end do they form us towards?

To this end, without Smith, I doubt I would understand my own story, and without understanding my own story, there is not path to healing from the damage done.

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