Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology
James K.A. Smith. Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017, 256 pp. $22.99.
Reviewed by Michael Nichols
Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology completes the three-part “Cultural Liturgies” series by James K.A. Smith, a project dedicated to recovering an anthropological account of humans as lovers shaped by liturgies. The first two books focus on Christian worship and imagination, and are recommended prior to engaging the third. In book three, Smith takes this anthropology public and rebuffs prevailing tendencies to spatialize and rationalize politics. He successfully realizes both aims of the work: to “work out the implications of a ‘liturgical’ theology of culture” and “offer an alternative paradigm that moves us beyond contemporary debates in political theology” (8).
Chapters one and two uncover the religious nature of politics and the political nature of Christianity, blurring neat distinctions between state and church. Supposedly ‘neutral’ liberalism directs people towards ultimate ends; supposedly ‘apolitical’ Christianity engenders penultimate, earthly justice (28). Leaning on Augustine and nodding toward Hauerwas, he argues the earthly city is constituted by “formative practices aimed at a telos that is often antithetical to the goods of the city of God” (51). Smith then “delineate[s] how Christian worship carries the scriptural vision of the church as polis” (54). The liturgy of Christian worship is a “twofold political act involving the formation of political agents and the proclamation to [rulers] that the created order of culture is subject to a higher law” (60). Christ’s resurrection and ascension reorganize and reconfigure earthly authority: rulers now serve a temporary (i.e. secular) function under Christ’s kingship, which negates their “claims to be mediators of ultimacy” (79).
Chapter three takes a constructive turn to highlight the oft-overlooked “Christian legacy and imprint on Western liberalism,” thereby “complicating any simple demonization or distance” (95). In many ways, political liberalism descends from the Christian political witness; to entirely eschew liberalism is to eschew Christianity’s prodigal son (112). But Christian participation in earthly politics requires careful discernment, governed by the “Christological distinctiveness of the gospel and the incarnational specificity of the body of Christ” (123). Despite common assumptions, public commitment to particular dogma does not undermine pluralism; in fact, Smith contends traditional religious communities, which form virtuous people, are necessary to sustain pluralism in liberal democracy (132). Smith continues with unembarrassed earnestness, arguing that political witness must not rely on ahistorical and minimalist natural law, but be “nourished by the Christological specificity of the gospel” (151). The civil rights movement acts as an archetype for the gospel-informed, ecclesially-driven, neighbor-focused political witness he advocates (163-164).
The significant contribution of the book is that Smith locates the political center of gravity in the church without resorting to sectarian rejection of earthly politics. By premising politics on an Augustinian anthropology in which humans are affective creatures, not just political animals, he reveals humans are formed by political practices that direct them toward a telos. Politics, it turns out, is for lovers. But the church, not the state, is (or should be) the primary polis, which funds the imagination and animates believers. Drawing on Oliver O’Donovan, Smith recovers the concept of saeculum—as in, limited and passing—and can account for the mitigated function secular authorities play before Christ’s return. He offers a political theology with a robust ecclesiology that does not capitulate to earthly politics but does not deny the impact of Christ’s kingship on the political sphere either.
In chapter six, Smith squares up to the pressing question for the cultural liturgies series: “why should we think liturgy is the counterformative discipline we’ve suggested?” (178). He dubs this the “Godfather Problem,” riffing off the Godfather movie, in which the family commits heinous crimes but regularly attends the liturgy. Given the liturgically-centered church’s participation in atrocities like the African slave trade and Rwandan genocide, it seems liturgy does not furnish imaginations and form saints like Smith suggests. He readily admits Christian liturgy is no panacea. Yet he notes other visions of the good life (e.g. capitalism, nationalism) conscript people in their own liturgies. If his anthropology is correct, competing liturgies are constantly training people to love certain ends: “We are liturgically deformed; and by the grace of the Spirit, we are liturgically reformed” (207).
It is fitting that Smith ends the cultural liturgies series with the “Godfather Problem,” as it is a substantive critique, and this section is one of the more stimulating portions of the book. While simple solutions to deformation evade, Smith proposes ecclesiological ethnography as a means to at least detect deformation. “There is no witness that isn’t empirical…insofar as witness is embodied…all of our ecclesiological claims are [open] to empirical assessment” (189). He suggests local pastors act as ethnographers, conducting cultural exegesis of the rites of empire in their context. Pastor-ethnographers, by taking liturgical audits, help congregants “unmask” the rites of the earthly city and “cultivate” their heavenly citizenship (197). This conversation and coordination between theology and social science (on theological grounds) is intriguing. My one critique is that he seems to gloss over the fact that pastors themselves are prone to be inscribed in the same deformative liturgies that capture their congregants’ hearts. It is good for pastors to be ‘locals’ (1 Corinthians 9:22-23), but the above case studies of theologically-justified slavery and genocide are indictments against pastors who had been inscribed in liturgies of racism, capitalism, nationalism, etc. So ethnography, it seems, must involve some outside readers, an ecumenical dimension—because deformative liturgies can make even local pastors become ever-seeing but never perceiving. Smith has long been a proponent of reformed-catholicity, and exploration of an ecumenical approach to the “Godfather Problem” could strengthen the ecclesial ethnography he proposes. Other than that, this chapter will act as a helpful charter for future pastors and theologians.
Overall, Awaiting the King is a productive work that accomplishes much. It is recommended to Christians concerned about worship, formation, and witness (that accounts for quite a few of us). For those familiar with contemporary debates in political theology, Smith provides a new voice worth heeding. But for the un-initiated, he manages to take some of the influential voices off the top of the bookshelf and make them more accessible. He also laces the book with brief, enticing analyses of narratives (films and novels) that illustrate and illuminate his arguments. Perhaps most importantly, the book is recommended because it does politics in a hopeful key—an instructive feat in these turbulent times. Smith demonstrates that when Christians are formed by the story of God bringing them into the kingdom of the Son (Colossians 1:13), they have an opportunity to offer the world “a radically different way to imagine politics—a rival version of faith, hope, and love that doesn’t paper over reality but discloses it” (223, emphasis original).
Michael Nichols, MA(TS) Student, Princeton Theological Seminary