The PCA is filled with Godly men, influencing the church and culture around us. The legacy left to us by men like Francis Schaeffer and C. Edward Koop, and continued on in projects like the Chalmers Center are some of the strengths of the PCA. Yet we are not perfect and have a lot that we can learn from men outside our specific tradition. We too need the larger body of Christ. One such man who has been shaping the thinking of many of us here at Vintage ’73 is James K.A. Smith.
James K.A. Smith is a professor of theology and philosophy at Calvin College. He is a prolific writer at both the academic and popular levels. He sees himself firmly in the tradition of Kuyper as a part of the Christian Reformed Church and an heir to Augustine as a philosopher.
To be perfectly honest, Smith will push most of the leaders in the PCA. Smith is the kind of writer that doesn’t just create good questions, or even answer good questions; he creates questions that haunt you long after you put the book down. On a personal level, he has reshaped the way that I look at ministry, especially as it relates to worship and formation. He claims that the pastor is a sort of public intellectual and his work will certainly move you in that direction.
If you want to read Smith for yourself, the best gateway into his thought is the recently published collection of essays, Discipleship in the Present Tense. These essays offer a helpful peak into his thought and contain practical applications of many of his other books. Beyond this, Desiring the Kingdom (and it’s sequel Imagining the Kingdom) are incredibly helpful books; though these books do venture into areas of philosophy and social theory that test the limits of a seminary education, so be prepared for some deep thinking and more than a couple visits to Wikipedia.
But what can we, as the PCA learn from Smith? He is a brother from a closely related church who has the potential to be incredibly helpful to us.
A Big Idea – The main thrust of Smith’s work towards the church is this: We as humans are not primarily thinkers, feelers, or doers; we are first and foremost worshipers. That is to say, we desire; therefore we are human. Often times you can divide churches up by their emphasis on Orthopathos (right feelings – this tends to be characteristic of pentecostal churches), Orthopraxis (right actions – this is usually seen in far right and far left churches), and Orthodoxy (right doctrine – we are pretty good at this). Each of these betrays a presupposition about what we think humans are and what the real problem of sin is. Some churches believe that our minds are broken and if we give folks the right data, they will adjust their feelings and actions accordingly. Other people think that we are so emotionally depleted that if we just get caught up in the right feelings our problems will melt away. Others still want to correct our actions and let everything else flow from there. While these are over simplifications, they go to the point. And that is that we are missing it. We are at our core worshipers. We desire things. We in our deepest places are shaped by these desires. These desires are what drive our minds, feelings, and actions. Out of our hearts the rivers of life flow. Smith reminds us, I desire, therefore I am. One particularly poignant section of Desiring the Kingdom describes a trip to the mall and a sporting event as religious experiences. His vivid description is an indictment of the way we often and unknowingly take our worship cues from culture. From this premise, he branches out into all sorts of facets of our ministry. Let’s just let this sink into three areas.
Erotic theology of preaching: If we are primarily worshipers, how does this affect the way we preach? Are we presenting the heart changing truths of scripture in a way that really connects to the hearts of our hearer? Victoria really does have a secret. Do we know what it is? Do we know why it has such a grasp on both our men and women? Do we know how that is a bad thing and a good thing? Can we articulate that? Further how are we designing our sermons aiming not just for the head (as we as Presbyterians are want to do) but at the deeper level of desires? One way we do this is by connecting our sermons and stories to a larger narrative. In the early days of the PCA churches loved to connect themselves to the narrative that the PCA was the fastest growing church in America. Church planters often connect people to a deeper narrative associated with planting and being on the front lines of ministry. What narrative are you connecting your people to in your sermons? We need to learn a way to connect not just to our congregants minds but also their imaginations. James K.A. Smith can help us as PCA pastors and leaders spark the imaginations of our people to the glory of God and good of His Kingdom.
Bodily theology of worship: We in the PCA are no strangers to worship wars. Our recent debate over methods of communion shows just that. No matter what side of the regulative principle debate you fall on, are you missing a greater point? No matter what the occasions and elements of worship are, both in the scriptures and in our churches, they aim at our hearts being caught up in a desire for what we were made to worship – the Triune God. James KA Smith offers questions that cut across the regulative principle debates. How is our worship tapping into our desires? How does it draw our hearts, minds, and bodies into alignment? Does our worship reflect the content and intent of worship in scripture? When you read about the beauty of worship in ancient Israel, you are inevitably struck by its awe and wonder. Does our worship do this?
Holistic theology of Formation: Our views and practices of spiritual formation are the most obvious tells of our views of the nature of man. Do we focus solely on intellectual lecturing? Are our small groups simply therapy groups? Are we just looking to modify our people’s behavior? Thinking of spiritual formation in terms of affections (no matter what our model is – Sunday School, Small groups, Adult Bible Fellowships, or whatever) is hard work. It requires that we understand our people in a way that they probably don’t understand themselves. It requires us not just to do cultural exegesis, but to serve as community ethnographers. We must understand our peoples motivations alongside their actions. And then, we have to carefully and creatively design means to bring those motivations in line with the worship of Jesus. Spiritual formation becomes a training of our bodies and hearts to desire the right things. Our Reformed heritage gives us a number of resources in this, like the catechism. But instead of blindly instituting these things, we must be equipped with a reason why. Smith pushes us to think deeply about what the goals of spiritual formation are. He gives us new handles for our traditions. He warns us that we are always teaching something, not just with our content, but also our means.
Alongside this big idea, Smith sets himself apart as a cultural critic in the best Kuyperian sense. In the past few weeks, the reformed community has had a fresh outbreak of blog post about the nature of cultural transformation and our place in it. Smith stands in between a number of these nuanced sides, calling us back to the biblical narrative. Smith points out that in Genesis, we were created to be co-creators by God. This was marred by the fall, but not destroyed. This is not new to the churches theology of culture, but Smith cast it in a helpful light again. He goes on to show how redemption and the cross of Christ really do return men and women to this office of positive cultural co-creation. (Smith’s recent review of Playing God by Andy Crouch, found here, lays this out simply and succinctly) At the same time he stands against those who want to see a Christ figure in every movie. His thoughtful, measured take on art and film are a helpful corrective to those of us who grew up and out of the staunchly anti-cultural fundamentalism of the late 20th century.
The temptation for us as PCA members and elders will be to ignore Smith because he can be hard to apply. I remember finding out that a pastor friend has just read Desiring the Kingdom. We sat for an hour discussing how in the world you would apply the concepts in the book to our particular ministries. It was a difficult conversation. Smith is not offering simple steps or model to carbon-copy. He is giving us high level principles to discuss with one another.
If you have read James K.A. Smith, please, comment on some of the ways he has effected your church and ministry!
If you haven’t read Smith, here is a list of recommended books:
Desiring the Kingdom – Smith’s best work of worship and cultural formation.
Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism – A not too deep look at philosphical postmodernism and the way it intersects with Christianity.
Letters to a Young Calvinist – A helpful read on the breadth of the Reformed tradition.
Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition – This collection of essays edited by Smith along with James Olthius is an excellent introduction to the Radical Orthodoxy movement and how it interacts with Reformed theology.