Since the Enlightenment, the primary way to think about education has been in terms of information, the acquisition and impartation of knowledge to students in order to make them productive citizens. James K.A. Smith challenges this notion, suggesting instead that education is primarily formational, that its chief end should be the modeling and establishment of good character and imagination. And this end, he posits, is best accomplished through an understanding and application of liturgy, or ordered ritual behavior.
In an age when genuine imagination has been marginalized it might seem strange to suggest its strongest impetus is in the repetitive function of liturgies, but Smith capably turns modern conceptions on their head, and offers surprisingly innovative, yet at the same time deeply traditional and historical responses rooted in Augustinian theology. He urges a turn away from strict "worldview" thinking with its emphasis on cognition and intellect, to a more litrugrical understanding of the world and our place in it.
With a striking description of a generic American mall and the ceremonial activities which take place inside it, Smith demonstrates how not only our religious ceremonies are liturgical, but how so-called "secular" rituals are just as liturgical, and thus no more neutral than Sunday worship in a church or cathedral. This religio-secular interplay forms the basis for the rest of the book, as Smith examines how we are formed by the liturgies inherent in our culture, and how we should be formed by the liturgies we consciously adopt.
If you're wondering where a proper philosophy of education comes in, this is it—Smith's anthropological standpoint presents mankind as motivated primarily by desire rather than intellect, and that to form such a creature it is his behavior that must be guided, not simply his mind. Of course he doesn't dismiss the life of the mind (this first volume of a projected trilogy concerning cultural liturgies is intellectually astute), but he recognizes that people act more often according to urges and repeated behaviors than according to objective reflection, and urges Christians to develop their educational philosophy accordingly.
Neither strictly scholarly nor merely popular, Desiring the Kingdom is a fascinating investigation about how we are formed culturally and religiously, and what we can do to control that formation. Taking on everything from socialism to baseball to consumerism, Smith approaches the concept of cultural liturgies respectfully and warily, neither offering universal condemnation or blind approval. He writes this volume for teachers and students (and not scholars), implementing a clear yet lean prose that ably conveys his ideas. Destined to be a classic of philosophical theology, Desiring the Kingdom should be required reading for anyone interested in religious liturgy, culture and Christian education.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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