Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Club :: Desiring the Kingdom :: (Intro - Part 1)

 book club

A big thank you to Mystie for hosting this discussion! I have wanted to read Desiring the Kingdom for quite awhile now and I'm glad to have others to discuss it with as I go through it. I may not have a post for every week, but I will do what I can. 

First off, the intro. The author of the book, James K. A. Smith, begins right away by challenging the basic assumption that most people have about what education is. I think most of us have that basic assumption operating at some level: that education is about ideas and facts and about the things that we know and not so much about who we are or what we do. It's very easy to fall into a mindset that values quantity and acquisition of words and facts which can be assessed via testing and other concrete methods. We want to know how much we have gained and how much we have yet to gain. We want to check off the boxes and show people that we've got it done. We want a starting point and an ending point and a straight line in between. 

But what Smith is saying from the start is that maybe we've got it all wrong. Or at least partly wrong. Perhaps education is about more than just ideas. He says,

What if education wasn't first and foremost about what we know, but about what we love? 

What if education... is not primarily about the absorption of ideas and information, but about the formation of hearts and desires? 

Formation. Being formed into something that we are not. Potter and clay. Changed by what we know; changed by the things that we do. If this is the case then our actions matter, and they matter deeply. 

He goes on to describe the way a shopping mall is set up and how it uses rituals and physical objects and space to inform our desires with regards to the "good life".  He calls the pedagogy of the mall 

...a pedagogy of desire that gets hold of us through the body.

His point is that this a physical, concrete reality that is purposely designed to shape and form our desires. The things that we do affect the persons we are

He then describes how he uses the term liturgy to encompass actions or rituals which are repeated again and again and which shape our desires. He says,

Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. 

An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. 

God knows this about us. After all He created us to be this way. He designed us as beings with both a body and a soul and did not purpose the two to be separated. If we look closely we can see that He set up the laws for His people in the Old Testament and established the Church (His Body) with everything present that we would need to be formed and shaped and changed into the image-bearers that we were meant to be. 

If we look at the way worship has been handed down to us over the past two thousand years (and even longer since the Church really is the Old Testament fulfilled) it's easy to see that this is so. Everything we do during our worship is physical. We cross ourselves, we bow, we see rich colors and beautiful images of Christ and His saints, we kiss these icons, we sing, we smell the incense, we hear songs and beautiful hymns, we taste His Body and Blood. All the five senses are used and we do these things again and again. Our Orthodox Divine Liturgy is filled from beginning to end with these little liturgies of ritual that shape our desires. 

When we leave the church building and return to our homes we can continue with these little liturgies throughout the week. We can say our prayers - still with all the physical actions of crossing, bowing, kissing, etc. We can fast and give alms. We can build up a culture of love in our families whose day to day actions continue to form and shape our affections. Our habits become the overriding factor and it takes a huge effort to change those things that we have repeated so often. 

This is why it is not enough to merely teach our students about Christianity and about Christ. They have to be shown how to live it:  they must be shown how to be little Christs - imitators of God's Anointed One. The ideas are food for the mind, but if the body is not nourished as well the mind cannot carry the burden alone; and indeed the body is the vessel that carries out the ideas living in the mind. We act based on what we believe to be true, and what we believe is formed and shaped by what we have physically lived


  1. Yes, "to be little Christs" – to imitate Christ – is our purpose, it is glorifying and enjoying Him. Beautifully written.

  2. I am interested to keep reading your thoughts as we go through this book. You come from a much more liturgical background and mine is protestant with much less focus on liturgy, although some. I'm sure our viewpoints will differ sometimes. Smith is Reformed Protestant. So we should get quite the different viewpoints from reading what everyone writes. This is wonderful, so much to think on and pray over.

    I love when you say that it is not enough to teach our children about Christ and Christianity, but they have to know how to live it. The difference between "knowing God" and having a "relationship" with God. Although I do feel the knowing does help to deepen the love of the Lord, but it can't be all head, it must be heart as well to make it personal and lasting. And yes, the body is the vessel that carries out the ideas living in the mind. What a lovely way to say that. Too bad the vessel so often doesn't follow those ideas. Oh, to keep praying that the Spirit teaches us how to control them better. But then, one day, that will no longer be so. We will have our resurrected bodies and the bodies and ideas and heart will all be glorious and just like Christ! Loved your thoughts.

  3. I really thought it was a mistake that you had two links, but I see you have written twice. I can't wait to read your other post!

    I really loved the way he raised the question "what if?" What IF education isn't what our culture tells us that it is. It's such a powerful question because I think we all have the haunting suspicion that it isn't!

    1. So true. I think Willa's post had a lot of those "what if" questions. They really make one think.


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