June 26, 2012

Desiring the Kingdom

by Jesse Johnson

The traditional Christian adage “head, heart, hands” has an intentional order to it. The sanctified life begins with the knowledge of God and what he commands, followed by the affect that knowledge has on the heart’s affections, and then the affections manifest themselves in actions.

Desiring the Kingdom, by James Smith, is essentially a challenge to that notion. Smith wants to alter the way we see the Bible influencing our heart and actions, and he argues that the practice of the hands can soon become the affections of the heart, which then act as a filter for how we receive and understand knowledge. Smith purports that if you do something long enough, you begin to love it, and if you love something passionately enough, it affects how you learn.

If you have not read Smith’s book—which is currently making the rounds through the circles of Christian Education—let me be quick to say that this is a very simplistic understanding of his work. Desiring the Kingdom is a profound book, and it touches on a lot of topics. He interacts with Augustine’s view of anthropology, a Cartesian understanding of knowledge, patriotism, the existence of fraternities in American universities, and the history of Christian liturgy. Simply because of its breadth, most readers should find some things they agree with, and some areas where they are challenged in their thinking.

Yet ultimately, after all of the liturgical anthropology is sorted through, Smith’s argument is deeply troubling, and I think it presents an unbiblical understanding of what it means to be Christian. The anthropology that Smith puts forward is hostile to the supernatural nature of regeneration, and ends up slighting the sufficiency of Scripture to affect the affections.

This is not to suggest that I disagree with everything Smith writes. For example, one of his major themes is his argument that the Christian life should be lived in our affections. You are what you love, and you love what you worship. Thus, Christian discipleship should focus on the affections of the heart, more than the knowledge in the mind. The point of Christian education (in fact, often reading this book I felt like Smith’s target audience is Presidents of Christian universities) should not be a focus on developing world view, but a focus on forming the actions of students, and the best way to do that is by having a close connection between the university and the church.

So far, so good.

Actually, if this was Smith’s main point, I would be on board entirely. I loved The Master’s Seminary precisely because of its close affiliation to Grace Church. The Master’s College mandates that students be active in serving in their local church, and has an open door policy for pastors with students at the college. They come and spend time in the class room, on the campus, and in the cafeteria. It is obvious that the school is serving the pastor, not the other way around. And I felt like this is the vision Smith was arguing for.

As I said, in as much as Smith’s point was that discipleship is best measured by a change in the affections, I think he is right in line with the Augustine-Edwards-Lewis-Piper tradition. But throughout the book there is this constant and subtle attack on the sufficiency of Scripture to alter the affections. Smith argues that practice forms Christian affections more than the Word of God does. Now I’ll be quick to grant that this is a false dichotomy, and it is especially so in light of the fact that Christian practices are formed by the Word.

As Trevin Wax pointed out in his review of this book, Smith’s argument is seriously (and I’d say fatally) hindered by his refusal to  grant that it is based on this false dichotomy. Instead Smith digs in, and in one of the most awkward parts of the book he makes his case that Christian practice developed before/apart (!) from the theology of the Bible (135-136; earlier he wrote “humans were religious well before they ever developed a doctrinal theology” 68).

And this leads to my first problem with the book. Smith argues that Christian affections can be trained by shaping the actions, rather than having actions shaped by the affections, which are initially shaped by the Word.

“We have a tendency to think that doctrine and/or belief comes first—either in a chronological or normative sense—and that this then finds expression or application in worship practices, as if we have a worldview in place and then devise practices that are consistent with that cognitive framework. Such a top-down, ideas-first picture of the relation between practice and knowledge, worldview and worship, is often accompanied by a corresponding picture of the relationship between the Bible and worship. According to this model, we begin with the Bible as the source of our doctrines and beliefs and then ‘apply’ it to come up with worship practices that are consistent with, and expressive of, what the Bible teaches” (p. 135).

Smith then claims that this view is flawed because “just as worship precedes the formation of the biblical canon (‘the Bible’), so too does participation in Christian worship precede the formulation of doctrine and the articulation of world view” (p. 136). Putting aside the problems with that statement—which are legion—it is a fair representation of what Smith is arguing for. The structure of his anthropological vision is this:

1. People are what they love. Modern (and even classical/western) anthropology is all wrong. They describe people as predominately thinking creatures, when in fact we are predominately desiring creatures.

2. People’s desires are shaped by their practices. We learn to love the mall by going to it so many times (his most common example).

3. Thus the role of Christian education is to develop practices that shape the desires. Underneath all this is the problem of Christian education.

I have sympathy for Smith, because he is dealing with the problem that all youth pastors and Christian educators face: why do some students follow Christ, while others do not? Is that a reflection of some problem in the method of education? Does it indicate a short-coming in our understanding of anthropology?

I don’t think so. Rather, it is the simple reflection of the supernatural nature of regeneration. Pastors and educators can expose students to the gospel and to the Bible, giving them maximum opportunity to hear and believe. But ultimately, it is out of our control.

But I’m not sure Smith sees it like this. My fear after reading his book (which I have read now twice) is that underneath his appeal to what he calls “cultural liturgy” (things we do in our culture over and over again that shape what we love) is a lack of clarity about what a Christian is. I get the impression from Smith that he is arguing that if people do more Christian things, they will find themselves falling love with Jesus because they are serving him, and liturgy leads to love.

For example, he writes:

“the key to directing and increasing one’s desire for God is the acquisition of the virtues—which you’ll recall, we described above as noncognitive ‘dispositions’ acquired through practices. So how does one acquire such virtues, such as dispositions of desire? Through participation in concrete Christian practices like confession” (p. 71).

It seems like he is saying that he key to developing a love for Christ is developing Christian virtue, and the key to that is practice (he even charts this on p. 69). That strikes me as the essence of rank moralism and the seeds of legalism. I could be reading him wrong, but it sounds like he is saying that the secret to loving Jesus more is acting like a Christian.

He repeats that refrain elsewhere. He compares training Christians to training baseball players (pp. 59-64). Players drill and drill, so they learn  how to respond in a given situation by reflex and instinct. But the difference between the Christian life and baseball is that you can’t drill faith! No amount of practice and ritual makes a person a Christian. It just doesn’t work that way, and this is my rub with Desiring the Kingdom.

And this leads to my second problem with Smith’s book. Smith discounts and diminishes the Bible’s teaching on the nature of humanity. The Bible describes people as different from animals, made in the image of God. Smith consistently and persistently undercuts this by calling people “desiring animals,” “imaginative animals” and “liturgical animals.” He uses these phrases dozens of times, to make his point that humans are ruled by their animal-like passions and lusts. This undercuts his credibility when he tries to argue that he is putting forward a more developed understanding of humanity.

The discount of the Bible is not limited to his evolutionary language. It is actually a symptom–the cause is that he builds his argument about anthropology not from Scripture, but from a sort of history philosophers. He does not begin with Genesis 1-3 (or Col 1, or John 1, etc.), but rather with Plato, Augustine, Descartes, and others. I read this book right before I read Nathan Wilson’s Notes from a Tilt-a-Whirl, and Wilson has a similar tour of the history of philosophic anthropology in the Western World. I couldn’t help but notice how much more effective Wilson’s was, as he showed the folly of trying to develop an anthropology by starting with what men have said about themselves. It seemed like Smith did not get the irony.

There are many other quibbles with the book. Smith presents the great commission as a call to make other people participate in the cultural mandate (p. 206), he conflates common grace with “sacraments” (p. 148), he quotes the Pope approvingly (pp. 203, 216; by the way, if the Pope is quoted as agreeing with your understanding of the relationship between faith and works, it is time to step away from the computer and start over), and his description of the gospel is completely missing substitution (pp. 163-7; instead, Jesus dies to take way the affects of sin on the world, and the main sin of the world is failure to participate in the cultural mandate). Smith’s understanding of patriotism is so condescending and dismissive that it is difficult to know where to begin. This kind of list can go on and on.


At the end of the book, a contrast emerges. Wading through the effects of the mall and Friday night football games, the reader ends the book being forced to answer a few questions:

1. Does doctrine affect the affections, or do the affections lead to doctrine?

2. Is God honoring obedience seen in the heart first and then the hands, or the hands, and then the heart?

3. Can faith be learned through practice, or is it supernatural?

4. Is the goal of the church to teach the Bible in such a way that people’s affections are transformed, or is it to give people the opportunity to participate in a set of rituals that will shape their affections?

Desiring the Kingdom presents all of these as dichotomies, and to the extent that is true, Smith and I would disagree on all four of them.

I agree with Smith that the goal of discipleship is the heart. Inasmuch as that is what he is arguing for, we are in full agreement. But inasmuch as he leads us from that point to his argument about the nature of liturgy in forming the affections, I must categorically disagree, and sound the alarm that what he is arguing for sounds much more like moral conformity through repetition than it does gospel contrition based on the demands of Scripture.

Ironically the best part of his book was where he walks  through the liturgy that he would like to see practiced inside of churches on the Lord’s day. The reason I call this ironic is that in that section he based his liturgical elements on the propositional truths of the Bible, replete with cross references and everything. I hope readers see that Smith is most persuasive when he is most propositional and most confusing when he argues that the Bible should not be the source of changed affections.

Smith responds to some of these same objections–posed by Trevin Wax–at TGC.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • Anonymous

    Thank you for a great review. We were members of a conservative PCA church that made a left turn regarding exactly what Smith is promoting. All members were invited to a class where we were instructed when to hold our hands up in the air during the worship service, when to kneel during the worship service, etc. All this was promoted in the name of exactly what Smith is promoting, i.e., physical posture results in spiritual worship.

    An example given by the pastors of our church was if one arrives at church in a nasty mood, adopting the physical posture recommended during worship would turn that attitude around.

    I cannot disagree more.

    What will change that attitude from anger, or hate, or irritability, or whatever, to an attitude of worshipful praise and adoration is cognitive prayerful repentance, based on Biblical precepts that say to repent and then praise.

    This was the beginning of the left turn the church made. The introduction of Federal Vision was the next step although that doctrine was never denominated as such, but it was a total package that drove us from the fellowship.

    Smith has it backwards. Thanks for an honest and forthright review.

    • Thanks for the comment. I could have written more about this, but what surprised me most in reading the book was the focus on the actual liturgy of a Sunday morning (standing, choosing between these three benedictions, etc.). Many people take this book as an argument for more social justice ministry, but I’m not sure Smith is arguing for that as much as he is simply arguing for a more liturgical church. Anyway. Thanks for your comment.

  • Michael Delahunt

    Jesse, thank you for this review.  I am not familiar with Smith, but I can say from knowledge of the Word and myself that right doctrine informs and produces a right heart, which in turn affects behavioral change.  I have seen myself change only after I begin to understand what Christ has done for me, and not attempt to change my actions to change my heart.

    That said, I can understand a person saying that they must, for example, get in the Word even though they aren’t “feeling” it.  I often times need to drag myself to the Bible and start reading.  However, this is only done as a result of knowing that I need the Word of God in my life; why do I know that? Because I have read it or heard it taught.

    “Thy word have I hid in my heart, that I might not sin against Thee.”

    • Exactly Michael. And that is why liturgy, especially when it involves the Word, is an essential element of sanctification. In that sense I agree with Smith. But in the sense that the liturgy can be developed apart from the Word… uh oh.

  • Scott Faught

    Coming from a background where we went through the motions (liturgical practices) without the gospel, I thought I was a Christian.  It wasn’t until college that I was confronted with what Scripture had to say about being a Christian.  I’m not a Christian because of my “Christian” practices but by faith.  That love for the Lord then drives my actions.  Smith could be setting up a lot of people for believing that they are in right relationship with the Lord because they are “doing” the right things.  Sadly, many will hear “depart from Me.” Then as believers, so many of us are sidetracked in being busy “for the Lord” that we lose focus on the importance of “being” before “doing.”  Thanks so much Jesse for your review and insight!  This one hit home with my background. 

    • Thanks Scott. You really hit it on the head with this insight–practices do not equal a love for the Lord. Smith I think is arguing that they can produce love. Rend your garments until you rend your heart. But the problem (as much of the OT indicates) is that clothes rending is not connected to heart rending. 

  • Dwight Davison

    Thanks for that logical and lucid commentary.  I only read through the intro and 1st chapter and was quite unsettled by the very things you articulated, but I couldn’t quite put my head around exactly where he was going off course.  I knew he was minimzing the power of God’s Word in remaking our hearts (Psalm 119: 9.11) and that he seemed to disregard the transformative work of the Holy Spirit in a redeemed life. You did a great job of making that clear for me.

  • Dwight Davison

    It also occurs to me that the ultimate source book on human anthropology would be written by the Creator of those same humans.  Thus the Word of God, rather than modern textbooks on anthropology should be consulted when trying to determine how we ‘Do Discipleship” to build transformed, impactful Christians.

    • Exactly. Anthropology must begin with Scripture. 

  • Pedro

    I am hesitant to wade into this, but . . . I think you are missing Smith’s point (although I do agree that some of the prescriptive material misses the mark).  On the issue of anthropology, I take Smith to be resisting a kind of Enlightenment dualism that divides man into head and heart/passions and then privileges the intellect or reason over the heart and its desires (I’m thinking Kant’s account of the historical movement from heteronomy to autonomy as representative here).  One could fairly term this the “modern” anthropological view, as you do.  I take it that you see Smith as advocating an inversion of this dualism in which the heart/passions/affections are prioritized over the head/intellect, which would place him in the camp of the 19th century romantic protest against Enlightenment rationalism.

    But isn’t Smith actually resisting the modern dichotomy completely, and arguing for an anthropological picture of man as unity, in which head and heart reciprocally influence and are influenced by one another?  And to that extent, he is also implicitly criticizing evangelical privileging of the mind as an unwitting accession to modern anthropology which lacks biblical warrant. If I am right about this, then his critique of modern evangelicalism’s tendency towards an entirely content-focused presentation is not a critique of content per se, but rather a caution that content alone will not ultimately shape disciples (and we should be clear that we’re talking here about discipleship, which does involve discipline, after all).  In that sense Smith’s account strikes me as quintessentially Pauline.

    This becomes particularly salient if one accepts Smith’s claim that a Christian confronts multiple cultural liturgies, each with its own set of practices, and with its own vision of the summum bonum, however unarticulated or subterranean that vision may be (I think the shopping mall is probably his clearest example of this). The consequence for a believer is that his or her affections are subject to a variety of tugs in different directions in daily life.  On Smith’s view, lack of awareness as to how these cultural liturgies subtly shape the affections or desires can eventually lead to a very disordered heart.  So, while I may have been taught that I cannot serve two masters, God and Mammon–and I even affirm the truthfulness of that doctrine–I rarely miss my Saturday afternoon trip to the mall, and I’ve already got my eye on the new redesign of my late model car, the one in the hilarious commercial . . . 

    In any event, all of that is to say that I think your conclusion sets out a series of false dichotomies.  They make sense if one presumes a certain exclusivity between the two poles of each set, but if one sees at least some of the pairs as in a dialectical relation with one another, the dichotomies collapse.  So doctrine might instruct the affections which, awakened by truth, then generate the desire for more instruction, etc.  This view strikes me as fundamentally Augustinian, and probably a better descriptor of the experience of the relation of education to formation than simple indoctrination.

    • Thanks Pedro. I appreciate this thoughtful comment. I grant that much of my review does rest on this false dichotomy between practice and the Word. But that is the dichotomy that Smith puts forward. I agree that Smith does distance himself from the Cartesian anthropology, but I also got the distinct impression that he simply wants to reverse the direction of the arrows on my chart above. He has a chart in his book that actually does just that. 
      Augustine’s testimony is a good example of what I am going for: He heard “take up and read,” he took up and read, and he had his heart changed, and this dictated a change in his actions. I took Smith as arguing that when you change your actions you end up changing your heart. Do you agree? 
      Or, do you agree that the four questions I end my review with show a distinction between Smith’s view and mine/the traditional view of how we learn Christian affections?

      • Pedro

        Thanks for the reply.  Your original post was particularly
        timely for me, because I meet in a monthly men’s theology group whose topic
        last evening was “culture as liturgy,” in which we used Smith’s
        lecture at Redeemer last May (you can find it on youtube) as the
        “text” for our conversation. Your question about whether Smith is
        advocating a kind of neo-Pelagianism was exactly the critique that one of my
        interlocutors raised. 


        To respond to that first question, I do think that Smith is
        arguing that a change in behavior, when made habitual, can reorient the
        affections. But I don’t take that to be a repudiation of doctrine in favor of
        activity so much as I take it to be an argument in favor of expanding the
        standard (and proper) evangelical focus on impartation of doctrine to include a
        recognition that humans are embodied (incarnate?) creatures, and therefore that
        our physical activity impacts upon our affections as much as does the knowledge
        we receive.  Because we are essentially philosophical moderns, Smith believes that an adequate understanding of the relationship between body and heart has been largely lost in favor of a more rationalist anthropology.  


        But I think it’s very important to distinguish between
        conversion and discipleship in the course of this discussion.  I do not take Smith’s position as
        having to do with conversion/salvation, but rather with offering a normative
        account of Christian education and discipleship. He’s narrowing the field to
        the question of “how does the Church make disciples/educate the
        congregation?” and then raising the role of action in shaping human behavior.
        Maybe a simple way to put it is that for Smith, discipleship involves both
        education and formation, and he is counseling evangelicals to be sure that both
        are addressed in the course of discipleship.


        So, I don’t see it so much as a stark either/or dichotomy,
        on which Smith takes the opposite side that you do.  Rather, I think he’s advancing a fairly involved
        phenomenology of practices, reflective and unreflective, and habitual behaviors
        that impact the heart attitude.  And I take it that in the context of discipleship, both
        preaching/teaching and the “Smith” model presume some element of human agency
        that can be educated, prompted or formed in some way.  From what I can tell, you and Smith would part ways as to the
        appropriate means of prompting that agency–for you, the delivery of
        information in a largely propositional format constitutes the primary means of
        producing disciples, whereas Smith views discipleship as concerned less with
        presentation of information/knowledge than with proper habituation of the attitudes
        of the heart—given his phenomenology of the affections.  (incidentally,
        not to get too philosophical, but this dispute is a transposed version of the
        debate between Plato and Aristotle). Obviously, correct me if I am
        misinterpreting your view.


        Of course, what constitutes appropriate habits depends on
        church doctrine and the authority of the Word, so in that sense proper habits
        themselves depend upon right doctrine – hence my view of the dialectical
        relationship between the two.  But again, I think the point Smith is
        making is that education by itself is rarely sufficient.  I take him to be
        arguing that the “incarnational” aspect of the human condition requires activity of
        the body in tandem with instruction of the mind.


        What I find most interesting about his argument is actually
        not this debate, though.  To me,
        his most interesting and potentially provocative claim for believers is his
        assertion that:


        “our cultural practices and institutions are not just venues
        for conveying “messages” or “abstract values;” rather, they
        constitute liturgies which function as pedagogies of desire bent on getting us
        to love rival kingdoms, visions of human flourishing that are
        antithetical to the biblical vision of shalom.”


        THAT is a compelling point, because Smith offers us a persuasive
        account of why people who sit in church every week and go to their weekly Bible
        study nonetheless actually believe (and live) a thousand other things that do
        not comport with their professed Christian faith. We are literally surrounded
        by rival kingdoms with rival visions of “the good,” and to the extent we
        uncritically engage in their associated practices, we may well be unwittingly
        undoing the very faith we confess. 
        As one of my conversation partners last night put it, the takeaway is
        that we should be intentional about our habitual behaviors, and highly aware of
        the insidious ways that apparently innocuous actions and behavioral patterns
        can reinforce our residence in the City of Man.


        Also, I don’t have a copy of the book handy, so can’t comment on
        the chart (my background in Smith comes from watching the lecture and reading
        another book of his, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and
        Foucault to Church.)


        Finally (ha), as for the last question you raised, I’m not
        sure that I completely understood it…but I’ll try to respond in terms of the
        four issues you raised in the initial post:


        1. Does doctrine affect the affections, or do the
        affections lead to doctrine?

        Both – again the relationship is dialectical (hence my point
        about false dichotomy)


        2. Is God honoring obedience seen in the heart first and
        then the hands, or the hands, and then the heart?

        Again, I don’t see that one needs to lead the other in rank
        order. Which I take to be Smith’s point – although he might make it more
        strongly than would I.


        3. Can faith be learned through practice, or is it

        Here I don’t think that faith can be learned through
        practice—I think any Protestant would affirm that faith is a divine gift.  What is learned through practice is
        discipleship.  We receive the gift
        of faith by the grace of God, and then “work out our salvation with fear and
        trembling.”  I guess I can’t get
        away from the etymology of the term “disciple…”


        4. Is the goal of the church to teach the Bible in such a
        way that people’s affections are transformed, or is it to give people the
        opportunity to participate in a set of rituals that will shape their

        I think Smith’s argument here is most in contrast with your
        position.  His phenomenology of the
        affections would reject the view that they are transformed primarily through
        teaching in favor of a more complicated view in which consistent behavior has a
        salutary (or destructive) effect on the affections (btw, I should note that I am a teacher, so I am not necessarily thrilled at the possibility of my own ineffectiveness!).  So for example, on Smith’s view, there is great value in
        corporate confession each week. 
        Not because the words and kneeling effect some magical dispensation of
        grace, but because they collectively reinforce each congregant’s need for forgiveness
        and humility.  But again, I would really
        resist the either/or character of the question. The church must both educate
        and form. 


        One other point here, and I think it’s the real takeaway from the whole concept of “cultural liturgies”: 
        I think Smith might say that “participation in a set of rituals is
        inevitable.”  We all do it, all the
        time. The question is not whether one participates in rituals—such
        participation is endemic to the human condition–but rather which rituals one
        participates in.  If we remain
        unaware of this fact of our condition, on Smith’s view at least, we are highly
        vulnerable to anti-Christian cultural liturgies.

        • I’m with you Pedro. I think you convey Smith’s points well, but I’d also point out that the false dichotomy is not made by me, but I think it is put forward by Smith. Inasmuch as it is true, we would be on opposites sides of it.

          Smith and I both agree that the battle is won or lost in the heart. We disagree on the method the NT lays out for changing the heart. 

          Finally, you make a great point about the difference between discipleship and conversion. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I think that Smith’s work makes much more sense in a peadobaptistic environment. One where the church is made up of believers and unbelievers alike, who enter it not through supernatural means, but through the human instrument of baptism. In that context, I think his argument makes more sense. Thanks for interacting here. 

          • Pedro

            Thanks for the conversation — and for the article and review – it has been a great prompt to further reflection . . .

          • julie

            Jesse, this type of thing is being done in churches. People who may even consider themselves atheists are encouraged to attend church and even to take communion. Then if they do so, they are told that they are Christians! When you take exception, you are told “you can’t see their heart.” As though there is something “magical” about outward acts that can bring people to faith. “Act” like a Christian, and  you are one. It’s almost like the next logical step from “praying Jesus into your heart.” If people bought that, then it isn’t too far to stretch and say the only thing you have to do is attend church, take communion, or whatever, and you’re in. It’s the danger of easy belive-ism, taken to it’s logical conclusion.

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