The Gospel Story and Our Cultural Practices: An Interview with James K.A. Smith

Shortly after reviewing James K.A. Smith’s Imagining the Kingdom, I invited him to have a bit of a dialogue about his book, and about some of the core ideas that undergird it. He was gracious enough to engage in the conversation, which ranged from contemporary worship to yoga to David Foster Wallace.

COSPER: Throughout the Cultural Liturgies series, you make the case that our forms in worship are as important as our content. The argument, it seems, is that the form itself does something to us—shapes our vision of the good life.

I think that argument is quite self-evident in some ways. For instance, in an age of celebrity-worship, we’ve adopted a video-driven and celebritized culture around pastors and worship leaders. We watch them on screens, even if they’re in the room. They’re increasingly removed from the congregation. I think you get my point.

With that said, I think you’d agree that contextualization has been a force for good in the church as well. Some of the great gifts to the church—like the English hymns of Watts, Wesley, Toplady, and others, or the Book of Common Prayer—were actually innovations, incorporating creativity and fresh language for the sake of comprehension.

So where’s the line drawn between healthy contextualizing—where the story of the gospel is expressed and embodied in the particular tongue of a particular tribe—and the imposition of a new and destructive form?

SMITH: This is an important question. You’re right: my argument is that the form of worship matters. And it’s true that I think one of the best things the church can do in our postmodern context is remember past forms, not try to invent the “next best thing” that is going to be “relevant” to our culture. But like you, I don’t think this affirmation of the historic form of worship is antithetical to contextualization or even innovation. What we need, however, are some criteria for discerning what counts as a “faithful” innovation or contextualization of Christian worship.

I argue that the form of worship matters, not because it is “traditional,” but rather because the form of worship carries the gospel story in the very form of the practices. It’s true that Christian worship practices do not fall from heaven as pristine a-cultural rituals. The practices of Christian worship have a heritage: there is a Jewish inheritance of the church; there are those practices instituted by Christ himself (which grow out of our inheritance from Israel); there are practices cultivated by the apostles in the book of Acts; and then there are practices that the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, continued to cultivate and develop over time—and, in some cases, these were “recontextualizations” of other cultural practices.

Think of the rich repertoire of spiritual disciplines that we inherit from the historic church. All of these practices constitute the accrued wisdom of the body of Christ, led by the Spirit, who discerned that these practices were formative precisely because they had a God-ward, kingdom-oriented telos.

And that’s the point of discernment: we have to “read” practices in order to discern the telos or goal that is implicit in the practices. Practices are not neutral “containers” into which you can pour just any old “content” that you want. Practices are already loaded. For example, I think a lot of the cultural practices of our consumer culture are pretty much essentially defined by an egoism that puts “me” at the center. So even if you “Jesus-fy” these practices—take them up and insert Christian “content” as it were—the very form of the practice “says” almost the exact opposite (and it “says” this, I argue, to your body, to your imagination, at a gut-level). How ironic to package the God-centric vision of Jonathan Edwards in the entirely me-centric practices of the mall!

However (and here’s why I appreciate your question): this need not be a scorched-earth approach to culture. Instead, it calls for ad hoc discernment. We need to consider cultural practices and “read” the telos that is implicit in them. We might find cultural practices that are ripe for “kingdom co‑option,” you might say. For example, I think we might be surprised how certain practices of community we associate with “bohemian” culture actually resonate with the concerns of the kingdom. Folks who are much more creative and insightful than I could no doubt think of other examples.

My problem is that I’m just not convinced that innovation is our most pressing issue right now. I don’t think it’s precluded, I just think we might be surprised how much the “strangeness” of historic, ancient practices might capture the imagination of our secular age. So I tend to spend my energy convincing people to recover ancient practices, but obviously that is happening in a contemporary context and can’t fail to change how we inherit them and put them into practice.

COSPER: To follow your logic, then for a moment, let me turn to a totally different topic. Awhile back, several evangelical leaders caused a stir over comments related to yoga. In their view, yoga can’t be divorced from its pagan roots, and the practice itself is harmful to the soul.

The reformer in me wants to say that all things can be redeemed. That a Christian, with a redeemed understanding of the body, can practice yoga, emptied of its pagan meaning and meditations, and enjoy its health benefits. Anecdotally, many do.

But it seems that your view—of the body’s way of knowing, of action and form’s ability to hold meaning, and of practice’s formative effect upon humanity—would tend to agree. Am I misrepresenting or misunderstanding you here?

SMITH: That’s a fascinating question. You couldn’t misrepresent me, since I’ve never really thought about this. The intuition behind your question is certainly a fair extension of my argument. Let me think out loud about this a bit.

I should say, first, that I’m not familiar with these evangelical critiques of yoga, but I can imagine how those would go. I should also say that while I’m vaguely familiar with yoga, I don’t know exactly what a yoga session looks like. It would be interesting to run a sort of “secular liturgy” exegesis on yoga as a case study.

What I’d be interested to know is how the bodily rhythms and practices are framed within a story. How are these practices entered? What bookends a yoga session? How—or to what extent—are the rituals embedded within a meta-narrative?

On the other hand, as I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think the critique of secular liturgies is an all-or-nothing analysis. Let’s consider an analogue: when John Calvin invokes something like “common grace” in the Institutes, it is first in the context of his discussion of pagan philosophy. Without question, Calvin recognizes the pagan background and commitments of Plato. And yet he also says that, of all the philosophers, Plato is closest to Christianity and offers wisdom that Christians can draw upon. This, he says, is because even pagans can hit upon the truth about God’s world—even if they might get the “ultimate” context wrong. Calvin, in a sense, re-contextualizes Plato and deploys his thought in the new context of Christian commitment.

So I’m wondering if there could be a kind of correlate account of common grace practices. As you already mentioned, there are probably things we now inherit as “Christian practices” that are re-purposed and re-oriented cultural practices from Israel, Greece, or Rome. In a way this comes back to our earlier discussion: evaluation about contextualization (and re-contextualization) is always going to be ad hoc.

So I could imagine something similar might be possible with respect to yoga: in the spirit of Calvin’s take on Plato, one could argue that actually yoga is a practice with pagan sources that nonetheless taps into something about our creaturehood and embodiment that we “forgot” in the West. That’s a very tentative suggestion—I can imagine it is possible. But that would need to be informed by careful attention to the practice.

Now, I don’t think this means that you can now just adopt and “baptize” any and all cultural practices. The evaluation is ad hoc; but it is still an evaluation.

COSPER: In Imagining the Kingdom, you make mention of the spiritual disciplines on a number of occasions. There’s a massive amount of literature on the disciplines, and almost as many views on their role in sanctification. I wonder how you’d describe the relationship between worship and the disciplines, and how you’d see their role in formation?

SMITH: I’m deeply appreciative of the literature on the spiritual disciplines. (I’m not always sure that the explosion of books on the disciplines necessarily correlates with growth in the practice of the disciplines, but that’s another matter.) For example, I see a deep resonance between what I’m doing and the sort of work that Dallas Willard has been doing for years. (Interestingly, we were both trained as phenomenologists—maybe there’s something in the water there.) But I think there’s a slight difference of emphasis: much of the discussion of the disciplines still tends to be targeted to individual Christian practice. And in some versions of it, it almost feels like the spiritual disciplines are an alternative to the church’s worship. So my focus has been to re-emphasize the importance—the necessity—of gathered Christian worship as the “hub” out of which the spiritual disciplines spiral.

It’s kind of a hub-and-spoke relationship: the worship practices of the gathered congregation are the center and hub of Christian discipleship. Now, that’s partly because only the gathered practices of the congregation are sacramental (but I know not all of your readers will share that notion of the sacraments). But in addition, I think it is in the practices of Christian worship that the gospel story is enacted and “performed” most intentionally and fully. Indeed, many of the ancient spiritual disciplines that we inherit would have assumed this kind of liturgical “center” to the Christian life.

So it’s not either/or. It’s both/and, with an emphasis on the primacy of gathered worship. I think that’s especially important to emphasize today because the very act of gathering counters the sort of individualist, do‑it‑yourself religion that is such a temptation for North American evangelicalism. That’s why I worry that the uptick in interest in the spiritual disciplines could mistakenly be seen as a way to be “spiritual but not religious.” So my emphasis is pretty blunt: there is no discipleship outside of the church.

COSPER: You and I share a love for the writing of David Foster Wallace, and his writing shows up in several sections of Imagining the Kingdom. What do you think Christians can learn from Wallace?

SMITH: I’m going to have to try not to gush like the fan boy that I am. David Foster Wallace is such a complicated figure. As I tried to suggest in my recent First Things article, “David Foster Wallace to the Rescue” (subscribers only), I think Wallace is a fascinating study in how some people feel what Charles Taylor calls the “cross-pressures” of a secular age. He was not the sort of dismissive literary secularist who dismissed faith as irrational and unenlightened. In his personal life, he explored Christianity pretty seriously at various points in his life. He was a tortured seeker in some ways. You can feel the same thing in his fiction: it’s as if he feels like the secular world is still haunted by something more—a sense of transcendence that kept pushing back on the flatness of secular life, at times puncturing the brass ceiling of immanence.

On top of all that, Wallace was just an incredible anthropologist of sorts. He had a way of analyzing the mundane aspects of our existence in a way that you would all of a sudden see your everyday existence in an entirely new way. He had a nose for our pretensions and our furtive attempts to find that something “more.” There’s something deeply Augustinian almost: he sort of lays out how we constantly look for love in all the wrong places.

And that voice: the tenor and tone and cadence of his writing gets as close as anyone ever has to the way a generation thinks. Someone—it might have been A.O. Scott or Dave Eggers—said that Wallace’s prose sounds exactly like the voice in your head (at least for those of his generation). I think preachers would do well to read Wallace just to see what prose can do. But you also have to be careful: his prose is bewitching, and it’s easy to fall into mimicry. But I think Wallace is a great example of someone who affects you on the level of the imagination as much as the intellect. And it’s just those sorts of dynamics that interested me in Imagining the Kingdom.

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