BOOKS READ August 2018


Desiring the KingdomJames K A Smith

James K A Smith: Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Volume 1 of Cultural Liturgies,  Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic 2009

Jamie Smith is associate professor of philosophy and adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and has written widely from a Liberal Reformed Presbyterian point of view about many aspects of twenty first century culture and Christian thinking including Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism, Who’s Afraid of Relativism,  The Fall of Interpretation, You Are What You Love and Thinking in Tongues just to name a few tempting titles.  Desiring the Kingdom is the first of three volumes in the Cultural Liturgies series, Volume 2 being Imagining the Kingdom and Volume 3 entitled Awaiting the King.  Smith’s dialogue partners are broad in the extreme and include Roman Catholic scholars and a consistent interplay with Stanley Hauerwas, Martin Heidegger, Alisdair MacIntyre, Nicholas Wolterstorff and N T Wright amongst many other authors ancient and modern. In addition his books contain regular attributions and references to films, novels, music and other cultural icons.

Reading Smith requires concentration because (i) he is working at a consistent graduate or post-graduate level although there is no particularly unique philosophical terminology except perhaps for his considerable use  of Charles Taylor’s term a social imaginary*; (ii) his stye is not so much complex as bordering on the prolix…when he makes an argument he really makes it! (iii) along the way in each section he picks up related ideas from a vast array of co-thought creators, many of whom are only vaguely connected with his argument and the reader has to spend some time thinking through how the latest author quoted gels with Smith’s argument as it proceeds. The result is not so much a tedious book but a tiring book (although at times I did find it in need of some editing!)

Fundamentally Desiring the Kingdom is a reflection with two key divisions. The first is a critique of American Christian education particularly at the level of the Christian University or Liberal Arts College. Smith argues that such Christian colleges major on an intellectualized “world view/ cognitive beliefs approach which is heavily “head/brain centred” resulting effectively in a secular university with a “Christian world view wash”.  He contrasts this with the ”heart/kardia centred “ cultural liturgies of the average American twenty something which centre on the emotion/desire/ happiness/fulfilment/ attain liturgy of the shopping mall and the military/nationalistic liturgy of the sporting arena with its hand on heart anthems. In this section Smith effectively demonstrates that most of the human race, including theological and Christian College students operate more from the heart than the head!

The second major section of Smith’s work is an out and out plea for Christian universities and colleges to revert to a heart based “you are what you love”  and practical and practised approach to Christian education at all levels but focussing on the Christian university. To achieve this goal he redirects us away from cognitive Christian intellectualism to a social imaginary that orients, guides and shapes our desires and understanding of the world that is precognitive and pre reflective ….’carried’ in images, stories, myths and related practices. To achieve this Smith writes at length about worship and in particular about the importance of liturgy in worship with a significant nod to the work of Martha Dawn and Robert Webber.

At this point Anglican, Lutheran and Catholic readers stop and blink in amazement as Smith carefully, fluently, eloquently and theologically writes powerfully about all the desirable elements of worship (stuff they do every Sunday and don’t even think about!) including the welcome, the materiality, the praise singing, the confession, the absolution, the readings, the intercessions, the creed, the proclamation, the giving of the peace, the baptism, the eucharist, the collection and the farewell. He calls his reformed presbyterian colleagues  to a new monastic approach which forces us to put into practice the service and servant-hood proclaimed in our academic learning.

As I say readers who are members  of sacramental churches will wonder what all the fuss is about although the analysis of worship is indeed thoughtful and helpful. The concluding brief chapter is a direct attempt to explore how the above liturgical approach to learning and studying could be actually carried out in a Christian university or college. I understand these issues are dealt with in more depth in volumes 2 and 3 of this series.  In the end I found the effort of reading this book stimulating and deeply thought provoking but, yes, quite hard work!

The book comes with a useful set of diagrams and “to think about”  squared off sections which are further thought-provoking and encourage wider reading. There is a subject and author index but one has to troll through the footnotes for a detailed author bibliography which is not helpful.

*Charles Taylor In his book Modern Social Imaginaries, [Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004] describes a social imaginary as the unconscious way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings with “thoughts that are much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality.”  Our behaviour and imagination and desire  when we are deeply in love, or at a grand final, or in a luscious shopping mall, or for that matter in powerful worship is “not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in emotion and deep feeling and in “ images, stories and legends.” The imaginary is more a kind of noncognitive understanding than a cognitive knowledge or set of beliefs.  [cf Heidegger’s distinction between “knowledge” (Wissen), which is objective and propositional, and “understanding” (Verstehen) which is “an inarticulate understanding of our whole situation.” ..more “know-how” than propositional knowledge..more imagination than intellect.” [Smith p65]   4 stars

Sylvia Plath: Ariel, London, Faber & Faber, 2015 [1965]

Unknown-1.jpegUnknownThis is my third attempt to read and feel positive about the poetry of Sylvia Plath. Ariel contains many accessible poems as well as a good collection of quite difficult material. As a young person Plath’s pre-occupations with death, horror, illness, Nazism and hurt overwhelmed me and made me angry.  Now in later life I still see these themes but they are interspersed with intense beauty and thoughtfulness..the power of moonlight, the brightness of a little child, the uncertainty about whether the bees should be kept or let freed, golden apples,  I am so stupidly happy and much more

As I approach the end of my sixth decade and much closer to the end than the beginning of my life I see a strength in Plath’s refusal to bend to the poetic prettying up of much of life’s brutality and horror including her own powerful and in the end undeniable drive to end her own life. I understand that she is “bored by eternity” and that she loves “the piston in motion”. I do not crave eternity either. I love the beauty, the passion and the joy of this life but I acknowledge also the tragedy in many lives, the vicious death of millions, the seeming meaningless suffering and death caused by random accident and illness.

So finally, I am glad to be reunited with Ariel and I am glad that she has written what she has written, even if it would take almost a lifetime to nut some of it out and a very good teacher, which I have had. [ ps I am still not persuaded that Plath should be inflicted on youthful and sheltered VCE students!]  4 stars.

Trevor Dudley – Smith (Elleston Trevor): By a Silver Stream, London, Gerald G Swann, 1947 (1944).


By A Silver StreamTrevor Dudley Smith

Beautifully written story for children about an English forest glade of talking animals and their activities based around the four seasons commencing with Winter. Sapiens the Owl leads a cast of Boggy-the-Frog, Smoky Barge-Rat, Little Push and Little Pull the field mice, Ted Hedgehog, Madge Magpie, Cyril and Towny Squirrel, Hector Woodpecker and Jackdaw. It is gentle and poetic writing with a romantic Wordsworthian air that is free from melodrama and quite enchanting. I must have read this book perhaps fifty or sixty times when a child and it made a deep impression on me. Reading it again today some sixty years later, it has lost none of its charm. Dudley-Smith wrote a whole series of “Glade” children’s stories but this is the only one I have read. Under many pseudonyms including commonly Elliston Trevor, he wrote a very large number of published works in a variety of genres.  This book for me will always be the book which began my reading career.  5 stars.

Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility, Camberwell, Penguin, 1995 (1811)

Jane Austen jpegSense and Sensibility

Jane Austen’s first novel describes the joys and sorrows of two sisters, Elinor (Sense) and Marianne  (Sensibility) Dashwood with a very minor role given to youngest sister Margaret.  The  two eldest and very charming ladies’ restricted financial circumstances and other complexities that unfold inevitably mean that the course of true love does not at all run smoothly but as could be expected it all comes right in the end. As with all Austen’s work the joy is not really in the story but in the rich and complex delineation of the chief characters and their relations and beaux, the intricacies and multiple levels of early C19th English class divisions, the extraordinary elegance and fine distinctions in language and style and the inevitable tensions caused by various upsetting events.  The novel was produced in two widely separated drafts and still shows some evidence of a lack of cohesion in places but is, as with all of Austen, engaging and intriguing.  This Penguin edition is assisted by excellent notes and further reading and not one but two introductions, a fairly academic effort by Ros Ballaster(1995) and the original and brilliant Penguin Classics introduction of 1969 by Tony Tanner.  An amazing and complex first novel and the commencement of a career and popularity which has not run out of steam over 200 years. 5 stars.