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Christmas, 2015: Dr. James K.A. Smith

Photo: Orvin Lao

Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith was the keynote speaker at the

Desiring the Kingdom conference held in

Toronto Oct. 22-24. Sue Careless

interviewed Dr. Smith there. 

This is the second part of an interview that first appeared in the Advent issue.

TAP: Did you grow up in a Christian home?

JS: I did not. I grew up in a genetically Scottish village in southern Ontario with a vaguely Presbyterian culture that had a strong sense of morality and a kind of civil religion. But I was not raised in the church or with Bible stories. I would never have thought of myself as an atheist – I had some vague awareness there was a God. I was a good kid. But I felt I hadn’t heard the gospel ’til I was 18. I was dating Diana, a nice backslidden Plymouth Brethren girl. It’s a twofold story: on the one hand Christianity made perfect intellectual sense to me, but I was also loved into the Kingdom. I came from a broken, very messed-up family context. What I found in Diana’s extended family was an embodiment of community that I had probably been longing for my whole life. I think that explains my work too. On the one hand, I’m a philosopher so I want to think about these things but I also appreciate the affective aspects of the Body of Christ.

Diana was not living as a Christian, so when I became a Christian, it was, “Are you kidding me?” Then five days later she had an experience of returning to the Lord and we’ve been journeying together ever since. Her dad and her uncle immediately began discipling me for a year. It was absolutely foundational. I would not be doing what I am doing if they had not invested in me. 

TAP: That’s a wonderful testimony to family witness.

JS: Yes, I don’t want to make an idol of the family, but for me it’s been this incredible sacrament. In my new book I talk about the liturgies of a household, and how they propel you into worship in different ways. In many ways the home is a more formative space than the church for many children. Yet I do think the church is our first family. You have to relativize the nuclear family; there has to be a place for singleness in the church. So if you think of the church as the first family in the Household of God, ask “How do our households gear into that?” In Baptism even the natural biological parents recognize they can’t do this [raise a Christian child] on their own. So the home can’t be this autonomous, self-sufficient unit.

TAP: You’ve said that children, and all of us, need exemplars. Are you talking about the saints? Protestants have not traditionally valued the saints.

JS: Protestants have not actually valued virtue.

TAP: We value morality.

JS: Yes, morality, duty, obligation. We haven’t really understood virtues as habits and so we haven’t understood the importance of imitation. Yet how often does Paul say ‘Be imitators of me.’ That’s virtue language. There are sectors of evangelical piety that would never talk about saints but that hold up Hudson Taylor and Jim Elliot and their powerful stories. I think the lives of the saints are so powerful. And this is why multigenerational faith communities are so crucial. There are local saints too. As a father, as a husband, I have depended on the models of older men in my congregation who show me how to do it. Parents are called to be exemplars for their children, teachers for students. It’s showing rather than just telling – which can be scary too when we fail but we demonstrate confession and humility when we say ‘sorry’ to our children.

TAP: Too often for Anglican adolescents Confirmation becomes the exit door from church.  How do we keep them involved after Confirmation?

JS: If we’ve framed Confirmation as graduation, then they leave. Let’s ask more of young people to own that rite so it is not just an automatic thing you do at a certain age. The ancient model of the catechumenate frames this as just the beginning. I would also say, sometimes we need to not freak out so much. Even the young Jonathan Edwards didn’t go to church for a few years. It’s not an ideal scenario but let’s not be alarmist about it. Let’s have some confidence in the formation we’ve given our children. The church also needs to think a lot more intentionally about campus ministries: that can be a wake-up season for young people. I think expecting a lot of young people is what keeps them. I think young people want faith to be hard. We keep lowering the bar so we’re not asking too much of them. And they’re saying, “Really if that’s all it takes, why do it?” Notre Dame’s National Study of Youth and Religion found the traditions that have the most thriving teen and early twenties involvement have the strictest expectations. Mormons kick our butt. And I think young people respond to high expectations.  

TAP: You’ve spoken about worship as being both an upward movement from us and a downward movement from God. In the upward movement we praise and thank and petition him. Could you tell me more about the downward movement?

JS: Whenever we worship we are answering a call to worship from God. God is the initiator and the agent who is leading us in worship and is doing something to us in worship. We need to be attentive to the form of worship. If worship is just bottom-up expression, then you might feel you can do whatever feels sincere. But if worship is also top-down formation then you need to ask, what story is this form telling us? What often goes under the rubric of worship renewal is wheeling in Trojan horses of secular liturgies and dropping gospel content into them. There is less transcendence and it can sometimes be less biblical. The grammar of much contemporary worship is singing about ourselves. That said, there is a new movement of recovering the psalms as the hymnbook of the Church, with the new hymnal Psalms for All Seasons compiled by John Witvliet

Joyce Borger and Martin Tel and the latest album Psalms by Sandra McCracken. 

TAP: What attracts you to the Anglican tradition?

JS: Plymouth Brethren was my initiation into Christianity. It was a breakaway in 1830 from the Anglican Church. They have no ordained clergy so I began preaching when I was 19. But they did have the Lord’s Supper every week so there is an implicit sacramentalism there. Then we had a Pentecostal pilgrimage, which was important to me. I joined the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) so that I could be catholic. It was finally making my way to an expression of the Christian tradition that saw itself connected to the history of the church – its councils, its creeds, its confessions and its liturgical heritage. For me the category that’s important is catholicity. There is a shared repertoire or grammar that Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Reformed all share liturgically.

TAP: Is the Reformed tradition very liturgical?

JS: One of the catalysts in the CRC over the last 30 years has been recovering the pre-Reformation heritage of the church’s worship. We need to distinguish between Calvin and Calvinists. Much of the Reformed church was Zwinglian. If you go back to Calvin, it is a much richer sacramental vision. That’s being recovered. That pilgrimage into a catholic tradition introduced me to the theological legacy of the Church Fathers but it also came with a rich liturgical legacy. The Book of Common Prayer has been part of my personal piety. The theological voices of the Anglican tradition have been important to me. I’ve been quite shaped by the current Radical Orthodoxy movement in England [founded by Anglican philosopher and theologian] John Milbank and [theologian] Catherine Pickstock who’s also written on liturgy. I also love Cardinal Newman.

TAP: You suggest that the church should not be just as comfortable as your living room – if it were, why bother leaving it? – nor should it be such a strange place that it is totally forbidding. 

JS: People have to feel the church is different but it’s hospitable. Parishioners need to come alongside newcomers and make them feel welcome. Explain what things mean, be mediators. 

Benedict XVI said that the Church’s greatest witness is her saints and her artists. The arts traffic in the imagination. The arts are how we can invite people into our liturgical spaces, which should be equally imaginative. There is very ancient wisdom that says you will belong before you believe. You practice your way into a place of believing. Augustine and Pascal and the ancient model of the catechumenate said that. You are inviting people into the rhythms of this community, which is why they can have evangelistic formative power. That said, I think the Lord’s Supper contains mysteries preserved for the baptized. You make people hungry so that they want that meal.

TAP: What about children at the Table?

JS: In my Reformed tradition we still make Baptism a condition along with the ad hoc discernment by parents and elders. Since the Lord’s Supper is a meal that nourishes faith, why would we preclude children? It could help them grow into their faith. There is some kind of sobriety with which we enter into the Supper but it is not conditional on Profession of Faith, what you would call Confirmation. That means we have to reframe Confirmation with some different narrative arc.

TAP: Richard Foster in his 1979 book Celebration of Discipline was one of the first Protestants to bring out the idea of historic Christian disciplines. 

JS: Yes. I feel indebted to Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. They recovered an evangelical appreciation of the spiritual disciplines but they tended to frame them as a personal piety.      

I’m trying to write the ecclesiological complement or supplement to Willard’s Spirit of the DisciplinesCelebration of Discipline was a really important book for me and I’ve used it in mentoring others.   

TAP: Who is the new C.S. Lewis?

JS: In some ways, Tim Keller.  He’s a really good communicator and thoughtful. But I don’t see anyone spanning those worlds of both imaginative fiction and theology the way Lewis did. Marilynne Robinson is sort of in the ballpark but she doesn’t have the same evangelical piety. 

TAP: Could you briefly describe your own academic trilogy?

JS: Desiring the Kingdom (2009) is an overview account of human beings as liturgical animals – so reading culture liturgically. Also, what would Christian education look like? 

Imagining the Kingdom (2013) covers how worship works. Awaiting the King (2017), its working title, will focus on political theology. If the Body of Christ is the outpost of the City of God how does that shape us for political engagement? How does it also relativize our tendency to partisan ideologies? I want to rewrite Augustine’s City of God for the 21st century. Augustine’s analysis of the Roman Empire is liturgical and so he’s looking at the rites of Rome.      

TAP: Do you plan to write a book at a more popular level, more in line with your talks that have been broadcast on youtube?

JS: Yes, it’s called You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (2016). When I wrote Desiring the Kingdom, I thought it was a popular book. Only an academic could make that mistake! In my talks I translate more of my concepts into metaphors. With this new book I reworked what works in the talks and developed some stickier metaphors. I’ve added new material on family and household, children and youth, and faith and work. It’s coming out in March.

I do write at a popular level for magazines and two of my books are collections of my magazine articles: The Devil wears Derrida which is a play on The Devil wears Prada and Discipleship in the Present Tense. The latter is a very accessible articulation of my ideas on worship.  TAP     

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