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[Common Places] On Cultural Liturgies: A Theological Analysis

Categories Common Places

With a new year comes an opportunity to venture into fresh territory with old resolve. For Common Places, this journey begins with a series of books: the Cultural Liturgies project by James K. A. Smith of Calvin College. While he holds the Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview, his ongoing series of books has raised a number of significant questions about the place and nature of worldview in the Christian intellectual culture.

Cultural Liturgies 1The Cultural Liturgies project already includes two volumes. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation offers a new vision for Christian education and formation that centers around desire, love, and the practices that shape them. Its sequel, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works, seeks to flesh out a philosophical anthropology to match that initial foray, employing resources drawn from modern phenomenology.1

Smith’s project centers around the claim that you are what you love, for good or ill. His focus upon love and desire—indeed, upon worship (remember the Olde English: worth-ship)—has raised the ire of some who believe that in so doing he denigrates the tradition of Christian worldview thinking, especially in the Dutch Reformed subculture. Smith notes the seeming paradox in the preface to Imagining the Kingdom—what he terms a seeming hypocrisy or performative contradiction—in that he is offering a thoroughly cranial analysis of the claim that we are shaped basically by things deeper than the cranial (ITK, xii). This reader takes Smith’s response to be both genuine and defensible. He neither intends nor does he render worldview thinking to be moot; he situates that exercise of imagining or piecing things together (vis-à-vis the triad of God, self, and world) within a wider orbit of human practices (cf. ITK, 8, 13).

How does Smith describe his fundamental proposals?

I make three intertwined proposals in Desiring the Kingdom that are at the heart of the Cultural Liturgies project and are all indebted to Saint Augustine, that patron saint of the Reformers: First, I sketch an alternative anthropology that emphasizes the primacy of love and the priority of the imagination in shaping our identity and governing our orientation to the world. Second, I emphasize that education is also about the formation (“aiming”) of our love and desire, and that such formation happens through embodied, communal rituals we might call “liturgies”—including a range of “secular” liturgies that are pedagogies of desire. Third, given the formative priority of liturgical practices, I argue that the task of Christian education needs to be resituated within the ecclesial practices of Christian worship and liturgical formation. In other words, we need to reconnect worship and worldview, church and college (ITK, 7).

You are what you love. Habits shape love. Practices shape habits. Liturgy—whether Christian or otherwise—therefore assumes a pedagogical function with regard to our love—whether of God, neighbor, or some lesser good.

Cultural Liturgies 2It is in this vein that Smith’s series has struck a chord and, as he notes, with a wider and more diverse audience than he had intended or expected (ITK, xiv). Those involved in the leadership of K-12 Christian schools and those with responsibility for planning and leading worship services (whether pastors or artists) have turned to the project with great gusto. The two volumes already released have found a wide and appreciative readership, and the third volume (on culture and politics) has been greatly anticipated (see appetizers of that entrée here and here).

The reach and draw of the project thus far can be attributed to various factors. First, Smith is a master popularizer (as How Not to Be Secular and Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism have also shown) with an ability to situate high-order philosophy of religion, epistemology, and phenomenology in a tone and tenor that can be heard by a wider audience. Second, Smith illustrates his philosophical claims with myriad examples from literature and film as well as everyday life; the reader of Desiring the Kingdom, for example, ought not visit the shopping mall or participate in the singing of the National Anthem in quite the same (naïve) way again. Third, Smith’s project transgresses the traditional lines of nature and grace, of secular and sacred; in so doing it wagers an exciting possibility of mission in the everyday.

Yet a number of questions do arise regarding this project. One might question the liturgical anthropology on offer, whether in its historical or its phenomenological veins. One might question any number of judgments regarding sociological formation, whether with respect to certain practices and their tie to patriotism, consumerism, eroticism. One might question the institutional judgments that are both implicit and explicit in the project, whether church and college really are so separate and what their distinction might best look like. One might even question, I suppose, the liturgical scope and sequence considered in chapter five of Desiring the Kingdom, probing its formative nature as such or its liturgical coherence. Certainly questions regarding philosophical anthropology, moral psychology, systems analysis, and liturgy are worthy of pursuit.

But Common Places is a forum for dogmatic analysis. Our engagement with the Cultural Liturgies project will focus upon that terrain. Future contributions to our series will consider the way in which Smith’s emphasis upon love in formation jives with Jesus’s own teaching regarding discipleship, the way in which Smith’s claims that his emphases are all Augustinian do or do not fit the evidence, and, perhaps most significantly, the underlying anthropology that is proposed therein by Smith. We will include three more analyses of the project over the next months to be followed by a response from Smith himself. Our hope is that this project will provoke doctrinal analysis and, hopefully, profit us theologically therein, just as it is has kick-started discussions regarding pedagogy and liturgy.

Perhaps a place to begin and a question with which to end this initial post, then, regards the place of God in this project. One is struck by all those who are included within the project: Merleau-Ponty, David Foster Wallace, Charles Taylor, and Saint Augustine. And one has to be startled by the acuity of Smith’s perceptions regarding so many life situations: ranging from what’s really going on at Victoria’s Secret to the social nature of a college commencement ceremony or of an NFL football game. The books are thick with observation and overflowing with intellectual resources. Yet one thing strikes me as notably absent (at least in terms of explicitness and emphasis): divine presence and action. God is not the subject of many sentences, nor of many actions in this project.

Now I take that divine absence to be a matter of genre, of strategic judgment, and not of substance or theological commitment. In fact, I do note that Smith can portray his project in theological terms: “My project in this book is to … [show] how the Spirit empowers us to so act, through an account of liturgically-formed habituation” (ITK, 6). Smith focuses upon means, then, and explicitly (in this instance) locates that reflection within the creaturely realm wherein God makes use of human social instruments to empower gracious action and agency. The books are meant to operate at the nexus of moral psychology, philosophical anthropology, liturgical design, and institutional systems analysis. It is not fair to ask them to be something else.

However, inasmuch as pastors, worship leaders, and lay Christians with varying responsibilities and interests make up the target audience, and insofar as properly theological questions are of significance for those groups, a number of questions ought to guide the reception of this text: what divine actions have been described, nay, promised in Holy Scripture regarding the formation of Christian men and women, adults and children? what creaturely practices has God instituted to serve as signs and instruments of that spiritual formation? in what way does God stamp our nature in his image such that faith (whether the faith by which we believe or the faith that we believe, to note the scholastic distinction) shapes and mutually interrelates with love and desire, with intention and will? what divine constraints or guidance has been given regarding the shape, scope, and sequence of that formation or, more particularly, the elements, forms, and circumstances of that liturgical setting?2 From his wider corpus (especially here) as well as hints within this project, I trust that Smith would want the reader to consider these or similar questions. That he has delivered a project worthy of such thick probing is a great gift to the Christian community as well as a responsibility to the theological reader. As readers consider his project, these and other doctrinal questions will mark the conversation here at Common Places.

1 A word about terminology: whereas “imagination” has classically been a pejorative term (along with “speculation”) in the Reformed tradition to describe human devising apart from God’s guidance, Smith employs it in the modern epistemological sense (which is itself non-pejorative) regarding how one sees or “imagines” the world to be. An early version of employing this language in the realm of Christian epistemology can be seen in Garrett Green’s Imagining God.

2 In other words, given the Protestant conviction regarding sola Scriptura, we might ask where points of divergence exist between the claims of moral psychology, philosophical phenomenology, and biblical anthropology. Exegesis is needed. And when specifically engaging the liturgical claims of Smith’s project (similar to those of other books well deserving of attention within the literature of Christian ethics and theology, as well as several others with relevance written by those who are not Christians), we might inquire regarding the long tradition of reflection upon the regulative principle of worship and its application to this discussion of liturgical formation.


Michael Allen (PhD, Wheaton College) is Associate Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. Michael is a Presbyterian teaching elder and is the author of several books, including Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (with Scott Swain) and Justification and the Gospel: Understanding the Contexts and Controversies, as well as many articles on Christian doctrine and historical theology.


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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