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.