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[Common Places] James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom: A Gospels Perspective

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Michael Allen introduced this series of Common Places on J. K. A. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project by noting that at its heart, Smith’s project is to show us that it is indeed the heart, not the head that lies at the root of why we do what we do. We are lovers before we are knowers (both chronologically and logically). Our loves are developed in profound ways by our habits, more than just by our thinking. Thus, as Christian educators and leaders we should be cognizant of the liturgies we partake in and that we produce for others, as these are what lie at the heart of people’s way of being in the world.

Cultural Liturgies 1Smith’s books are well worth reading and reflecting upon and have already received many reviews, including a review article of my own. As the director of my school’s PhD program I have pondered, appreciated, and implemented many insights from Desiring the Kingdom (DTK) and Imagining the Kingdom (ITK) as part of my wrestling with what Christian higher education should look like. These are stimulating books.Cultural Liturgies 2

For this post I am wearing my New Testament hat, specifically, my most comfortable headgear, that of a Gospels scholar, to dialogue with Smith about how his arguments correlate with discipleship.

The Gospels provide a robust picture of the Christian faith as one of following—of being a disciple of a master/teacher. To be a Christian is not to have faith in a doctrine, but faith in a person, Jesus the Christ (John 11:25; 14:1). Having faith in Jesus means to trust him, to obey him, to follow him, to listen to him, to imitate him. Thus, Christians are ones who are called disciples (“learners”) because they learn how to be in the world in their loving, thinking, and doing by learning from what Jesus loves, thinks, and does. Because of this understanding of what it means to be a Christian, the dominant writings of the New Testament—in both quantity and primacy—have always been the Gospels because they provide theological biographies that instruct people how to become trusting disciples.

How does this relate to Smith’s Cultural Liturgies project? Using current insights of philosophy, social psychology, and the cognitive science of literature, Smith seeks “to articulate a liturgical anthropology that accounts for the importance of the kinaesthetic and the poetic—that recognizes and explains the intertwinement of the body and story as the nexus of formation that ultimately generates action” (ITK, 16).

I suggest that Smith is seeking to explain to us in non-theological terms what the Gospels have long modeled—forming active disciples by inviting people into the kinaesthetic and poetic imitation of Jesus. That is, the power of the Gospels is that they provide a picture of Jesus as Pedagogue who uses poetic imagery to form the vision and desires for the kingdom of God. At the same time, they show Jesus’ kinaesthetic actions—healing with compassion; feeding the destitute; disputing the self-righteousness; overturning injustice.

Smith observes that imagination is the way in which we make sense of the world; it is the orientation to the world and vision that motivates what we do even though it is visceral and bodily more than cognitive (ITK, 19). I suggest this is precisely the purpose and power of the Gospels, providing just such a Christ-imbued imagination. Key to Smith’s anthropological insight is the effect of habits. This is what the Gospels have always provided—pictures of habits to form. The Gospels correspond very closely with the kind of anthropological vision Smith offers in that they provide models (and ultimately The Model) of the way of being (human) in the world, a life of habitual following in faith.

But here too we may offer some mild, dialectical critique of Smith. Doers come from believers who come from hearers (Rom 10:14). Hearing, doing, and believing are all necessary for being a Christian disciple (Jas 1:22-25). I am certain Smith would agree. But in the philosophical anthropology he provides one walks away sensing that habits are everything; there is little to no discussion of the role of hearing, that is, of the content that is heard and believed. Again, I can imagine Smith responding that he is assuming the basic cognitive Christian content. But in presenting his philosophical anthropology there is no clear input stream for the cognitive—what corresponds to the teachings of the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament). It is habits that we learn from outside of us (liturgies) that shape who we are—almost exclusively, Smith’s model implies. But the New Testament offers a more robust and balanced picture of cognitive content and discipleship-habits in a mutually informing dialectic. The Gospels themselves provide the ultimate example of this—both teaching and modeling.

One final thought along these lines: The Gospels, along with the Greek and Jewish traditions of the ancient world, depict an anthropological understanding that emphasizes the inner versus the outer person. Specifically, “heart” in Holy Scripture refers to the entirety of the inner person, the seat of both emotions and especially one’s cognitive faculties. Smith’s anthropological model does not quite line up this way, instead, often pitting cognitive versus emotive/internal mechanisms. In this way Smith corresponds with a more typical modern Western mind/heart duality, even feelings/intuitions versus thoughts. (Note his constant refrain against “bobbleheads.”) But this is a mismatch relative to the biblical witness, which sees both thinking processes and emotions in a different kind of dualism—these are together in contrast to mere external actions. This difference is worth further reflection and provides a way forward to avoid the potential non-cognitive anthropology that Smith implies with his model.


Jonathan T. Pennington (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation and Director of Research Doctoral Studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Jonathan is the author of several books and articles including Heaven and Earth in the Gospel of Matthew (Brill) and Reading the Gospels Wisely (Baker Academic). His most recent project is a theological commentary on Matthew 5-7 entitled, The Sermon on the Mount and Human Flourishing (forthcoming, Baker Academic). He tweets @DrJTPennington.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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