I’ve spent the last month working through two brilliant books by Christian philosopher, James K. A. Smith: Desiring the Kingdomand Imagining the Kingdom. After reading these books, the Center for Pastoral Theologians, of which I’m a member, invited Jamie to come mix it up with us at our annual gathering through dialogue, discussion, and debate. It’s been a brilliant couple of days! Jamie’s work has been nothing short of revolutionary in my thinking. If you’re a pastor, lay leader, worship leader—especially if you’re a worship leader—or any sort of thinking Christian, I can’t more highly recommend that you buy, read, and re-read Jamie’s first book, Desiring the Kingdom. (The second one is good, but the first one is groundbreaking.) It’ll reconfigure everything you’ve thought about human nature, worship, liturgy, and what it means to be a Christian.
I’m not going to do justice to the book in one short little blog, but let me share some nuggets. Jamie’s overarching thesis is that humans are not fundamentally thinking creatures, or believing creatures, but desiring creatures. Yes of course, thinking is important, and believing is super important, but what pushes and pulls our actions has more to do with what captures our desires, our affections—our hearts.
A 13-year old girl living in America, for instance, doesn’t become a consumer through analytical reasoning. Rather, her heart is wooed into the mall through forces that touch her heart and inflame her affections (branding, marketing, friends, secular narratives, etc.).
This is true of all people. Yes, we think and believe, but what moves us to action is our heart, our affections, our desires. “[O]ur identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love AS ultimate” (Desiring the Kingdom [DK], 26-27). Or more picturesque: “the way we inhabit the world is not primarily as thinkers, or even believers, but as more affective, embodied creatures who make our way in the world more by feeling our way around it” (DK, 47).
If Jamie is right (and he’s certainly not alone in his argument), then Christian discipleship and education that seek only to transform the mind will not produce true holiness until it captures our hearts—which includes our imaginations, bodies, and emotions.
Therefore, the church that focuses almost exclusively on the mind (reconfiguring worldviews) treats Christians like walking “bobble-head” dolls. But we are more than just minds with legs, as Smith says: “We do not merely have bodies, but are our bodies.” Discipleship must capture our bodies, hearts, emotions and imaginations—our whole humanity, not just a piece of it. When it does, it will be more effective in producing holistic holiness.
Jamie’s thesis cuts against the age-old paradigm that right thinking will lead to right living. Such “read these two verses and call me in the morning” type sanctification has not proven to be very effective. As one member of our society said, “I memorized Romans 6-8 so that I wouldn’t masturbate any more, but 30 years later, I’m still masturbating.” The problem is not that cognitive affirmation is bad; it’s just insufficient. We must confess with our mouth and believe with our hearts. The gospel must capture, captivate, and reconfigure both our minds and hearts, our intellect and emotions, our bodies and our imagination. We must affectionally desire obedience as “the good life.”
One of the more incisive implications to Jamie’s project relates to Christian education. “According to this dominate paradigm,” referring to how most Christian universities do education, “the goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that gradates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective.” But “what if a Christian perspective turns out to be a way of domesticating the radicalism of the gospel” (DK, 218). Smith goes on to prophetically say:
In too may cases, a Christian perspective doesn’t seem to challenge the very configuration of these careers and vocations. To be blunt, our Christian colleges and universities generate an army of alumni who look pretty much like all the rest of their suburban neighbors, except that our graduates drive their SUVs, inhabit their executive homes, and pursue the frenetic life of the middle class and the corporate ladder "from a Christian perspective" (DK, 219).
Wow. Stuff that in your theological pipe and smoke it.
What if the entire project of success, career, vocation, the values of the marketplace, and (the American) life as we know it is at odds with the gospel? What if the gospel of suburbia is far from the good life of Eden?
In many ways, Christianity has affirmed what secular culture affirms as “the good life” and simply added Jesus to that vision. But what Smith is proposing is that we turn the entire system inside out. That we think about education, discipleship, and “the good life” through the lens of the countercultural gospel that announces: blessed are the meek, weak, and lowly of heart.
What would education look like if the goal was not information but formation; dying to worldly values rather than becoming vivified by worldly success seasoned with a pinch of Jesus?
I must say, that I was nearly laughing as I read Smith’s work, because he articulates with philosophical sophistication and rhetorical persuasion what Eternity Bible College has been seeking to accomplish for the last ten years.
What if education was more about formation than information?
What if theology was organically connected to doxology and practice?
What if students could exegete culture as well as they exegete the Bible?
What if rigorously studying the Bible cultivated worship and humility?
What students were free to engage the story of God through writing, art, poetry, rap, videography—or whatever other creative avenue they’ve been gifted with by their Creator?
What if a Bible College targeted all aspects of our humanity in order to transform it by and for the gospel of the risen Lamb?
Come to Eternity Bible College and find out.