James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation sat on my bookshelf, coffee table, and office desk for a few months before I finally picked it up this week to read it well. To be fair (to myself), I’ve been moving, traveling, and pastoring (every day), and reading anything other than fiction (oh, GOOD fiction, though: Swamplandia! and Runaway and The Houseof Mirth!) has been low on the list of priorities. But the Brethren intelligentsia have been reading and reflecting (here, here and here, at least), and I wanted to catch up. Plus, who can resist a book that includes sentences like this: “The mall's liturgies reflect a Hobbesian construal of human intersubjectivity as a war of all with all"?!
As an Anabaptist/Radical Pietist born and bred into the particular benefits of peculiarity, I found Smith’s general idea of Christian worship as counter-formation in a world bent on consuming souls to be familiar territory. As Brother Brockway pointed out in his Brethren Life andThought blog, Brethren were hawk-eyed in their vigilance over practices of worldliness, outlawing everything from buttons and birthday parties to Sunday schools and card playing as practices grounded not in Christian worship but in the greedy, soul-sucking culture of the “world.” We have a history of being careful about allowing ourselves to be co-opted. Paying attention to what our practices DO is how we operate. It’s why James McClendon started his theology with Ethics and it’s why our written theology and polity are so paltry and confusing. What we DO, together, matters. We know that, and we sense, implicitly, why. Just don't ask us to write it down. [Though Brother Brian Gumm starts doing just that in HIS (yes, parenthetical parenthetical to note the exclusively male pronouns used for the Brethren Intelligentsia. COME ON, LADIES!) BLT blog post.]
But Smith’s formulation – from a reformed perspective – offers an incredibly helpful correction for our Anabaptist tradition as well. Because his starting assumption is so familiar, we can take to heart several important lessons.
First, Smith’s argument is built upon a particular anthropology: human beings are first and foremost desiring beings. We are not human because we think; we are human because we love. This is an old idea, but particularly applicable to current cultural assumptions, whether they be modern or post-modern in their motivation. And if we are, first, lovers, then we ought to begin to order our perspectives as such and be intentional not only about the patterns that govern our thinking or our doing, but also those patterns that direct our loving, our passions.
I’m especially interested in this idea of ordered passions (ht, Augustine!) because I currently (and recently, let’s not invest too much faith in this particular detour, Dana) work with youth. And these youth, 11 to 19 year olds in middle school, high school and college, are ALL about finding order for their passions. Yes, they think (a lot, and about things you might not expect) and of course they DO (even more than they think – these are high-powered suburban youth just outside DC…try scheduling a lock-in mid-summer!), but more than either of those, these youth of mine LOVE. They love their families. They love the church: we walked into the building just this afternoon and a 6th grader declared loudly as he stepped over the threshold, “Man, I LOVE this church!” They love each other (Navigate a 6th grade love triangle? Just part of the job description!). They love the world and want deeply, passionately, to be at work out there. And they love Jesus, a lot. Kenda Creasy Dean has said all this a lot better than I can in her book, Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Suffice it to say, these kids LOVE, and they love hard.
And that is a GOOD thing, according to me and according to Dean and according to Smith. What we lovers need is not morality or shushing, but direction – a way to rightly order our passions and our love so that we might direct all that loving energy into keeping us real and human and dependent on the God who created us to love so deeply.
And that, I think, is probably helpful for a group of tired Anabaptists weary of arguments about how we THINK and what we DO. That false dichotomy (believe the right things! no, do the right things!) forgets that we are also emotive, desiring creatures who need relationship with God and other people in order to be human. Scott Holland, in his Brethren Life and Thought blog post, makes this point in regard to our recent debates about sexuality. I think the corrective may reach much farther: instead of worrying ourselves about whether or not we’re dressing the right way or whether or not we’re being clear enough about our position on soteriology, we might do well as a body to focus, instead, on how we love…together. How are we asking one another to direct our passions?
At an informal chat at the recent Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, a young adult asked moderator-elect Bob Krouse about how he would stand up for justice and inclusivity. Krouse answered by explaining that he (like, I assume, every human) is passionate about a few issues and sensitive to a large range of them. When the questioner pressed him about using his privilege to stand up for the LGBT community, Krouse responded that what we ought to do is to “stop telling each other what we should be passionate about.” I love that. If being passionate is what makes us human, then being inclusive is holding open space for ALL of our diverse passions, and working together to figure out how it is we ought to order those passions – individually as well as communally.
Second, Smith outlines a careful distinction between the “structure” of cultural practices and the “direction.” Passion is inevitable. Culture, as the directing of passion, is inevitable. The structure – human-crafted cultural institutions and societal practices – is not bad in and of itself. What becomes problematic are the DIRECTIONS that those structures channel our passions toward.
Smith points out that the elements of sacramental traditions are not raw wheat or grapes on wild vines – they are bread baked by human hands and wine cultivated in human vineyards. Creation AND THE PRACTICES of creation – culture – are blessed.
Smith makes the same point as he exegetes several biblical passages dealing with “the world,” pointing out that while “clearly the meaning of world in Scripture is not univocal…the Scriptures affirm that the world as structure (as a given reality) is created by God and, as such, is fundamentally good. On the other hand, world is sometimes a sort of name given to human society that has taken the world (as structure) in the wrong direction.”
While this distinction still leaves unsettled the process of discerning whether or not a particular direction is good and faithful, it nonetheless offers a thoughtful path out from the classic world-renouncing Anabaptist stance. In this formula, we can still say that buttons (etcetera) are “worldly,” taking us in the wrong direction, shuttling our passions toward vanity and excess (etcetera). But we are not forced to denounce the very idea of FASHION in and of itself as evil. Fashion – that cultural practice of clothing ourselves claiming tradition all the way back to Eve and Adam – can be a redeemed structure, a part of the God-given world. We just have to be vigilant and careful about the directions in which it funnels our passions.
Yes? No? I can see fruitful discussions of Anabaptist involvement in politics; simple living; pacifism and peace-making; intentional communities; congregational accountability and discipline…all benefitting from this distinction of structure and direction. Am I wriggling out from under the radical tradition, here?
Either way, James K.A. Smith, thanks for offering Desiring the Kingdom. I love it, as one ought (though, of course, "even idolatries are a sign of our nature as liturgical animals").
 Smith, James K.A. Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009.
 Ibid. 99.
 Dean, Kenda Creasy. Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004.
 Smith, 200.
 Ibid, 188.
 Ibid, 123.