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Book Review: Awaiting the King by James K. A. Smith

November 20th, 2017 | 5 min read

By Guest Writer

By Jeff Bilbro

Awaiting the King, Jamie Smith’s third and final volume in his Cultural Liturgies series, is a provocative and hopeful call for Christians to participate boldly in the messy meantime of the saeculum, confident that our King is on the way. As someone who nods my head regularly when reading MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Cavanaugh, I appreciate the way Smith recognizes the merits of this school of thought and yet sheds light on its blind spots. He rightly insists that we see liberalism not only as idolatrous and de-formative (which he agrees it is), but also as full of opportunities for collaboration and mission. Still, the question that haunts me after finishing Awaiting the King is this: Can the church that liberalism needs survive liberalism?

As Smith claims, drawing on the work of Oliver O’Donovan, “liberalism itself lives on borrowed capital and is only possible because of the dent of the gospel and the formative effects of Christian practices on Western societies” (17). So as liberalism weakens these practices and their formative effects, can churches sustain vibrant, counter-cultural communities that form members into virtuous citizens—citizens first and foremost of the King who is to come, but citizens who also benefit the states in which we dwell in the meantime?

Smith seems to follow John Inazu in being cautiously hopeful and pushing back against the more sober (or dour, depending on your perspective) assessments of Hauerwas and Dreher. While noting the grim statistics of our “post-Christian” culture, Smith rightly reminds us to be cautious about easy “extrapolations from such data.” Christians worship a God who became incarnate and who remains present among us, so we shouldn’t accept “prognostications that assume the future is always and only a straight line” (145). This is an important reminder that the King is indeed coming and that our responsibility is to await his return in faith and hope and love.

My hunch, however, is that in bending over backwards to differentiate his position from the sectarianism of which some accuse Hauerwas (though Smith in large part defends Hauerwas from Jeffrey Stout’s critiques) or, more particularly, Dreher’s Benedict Option (which Smith characterizes, a bit unfairly I think, as simply withdrawal and non-involvement, 212), Smith actually undermines his ability to offer a clear response to what he terms “The Godfather problem.” Smith summarizes the problem in this way: “while I extol the formative power of historic Christian worship practices, it would seem that there can be—and are—people who have spent entire lifetimes immersed in the rites of historic Christian worship who nonetheless emerge from them not only unformed but perhaps even malformed” (167).

It is to Smith’s credit that he honestly grapples with this problem and doesn’t evade it or offer a simplistic answer. He rightly emphasizes—as he has in the earlier volumes of the Cultural Liturgies project—that we are always part of multiple liturgical communities and so are always being pulled in different directions. Smith has masterfully shown how the liturgies of the mall, the sports stadium, and the smart phone warp our loves. (In particular, I think it’s hard to overstate the liturgical power of smart phones, and I have regular recourse to Smith’s description of the “at hand” world they promise to us, see Imagining the Kingdom, 143)

The Cultural Liturgies framework would seem to suggest that we withdraw, at least in part, from some of these de-formative liturgies. For instance, Smith summarizes the work of Willie Jennings on the ways that its historical cooperation in colonial, racist economies has badly damaged the theology and witness of the white church. Surely one implication is that we should do our best to stop participating in the ongoing vestiges of these anti-Christian economies.

Is this “withdrawal”? Maybe, but I think Smith would agree that such withdrawal is necessary. To give an example from the patron saint of the Cultural Liturgies project, Augustine recounts a time when his friend Alypius allows himself to be pulled along to the gladiator games by some friends, thinking that he will have the fortitude to resist the games’ allure. He shuts his eyes, but the sounds he hears finally overcome him, and he is sucked back into the bloodthirsty spectacle. Alypius was not a Christian at this point, but I doubt he frequented the games after he was formed by the Christian narrative and became a bishop.

My point is that an appreciation for the power of liturgical formation would seem to entail both a calculated withdrawal from de-formative liturgies and a renewed emphasis on immersing ourselves in richer Christian formation. This would better prepare Christians to be sent out for redemptive work in the “messy permixtum of the saeculum.” I think this is what Smith ends up endorsing when he calls for us to take up “worship as a way of life.” In fact, Smith recommends that we adopt practices that, at least from the outside, look very much like the ones Dreher recommends. However, Smith emphasizes that we must do so from a more fundamentally hopeful posture (which is by no means an insignificant difference).

To give one telling example, both Smith and Dreher defend the good of private Christian education, but Smith is more careful to articulate this as a public good and to warn that we also have a responsibility to care about those who don’t have the communal or financial resources to go to private school. His section on this is one of the strongest parts of the book because it provides a clear case study of how he imagines Christian formation serving the common good (124-130).

This subtle difference foregrounds a sobering reality: two families can engage in what outwardly appears to be the same practice—they send their kids to a Christian school—and yet for one family this practice is a liturgy that shapes their love for their neighbors, and for another family it is a liturgy that reinforces their worship of the idol of family or personal safety. When the core difference is not the action we take but our motives for doing so, discerning which kingdom our practices serve can be difficult, but this is what is at stake when we are what we love.

Smith seems allergic to the word “withdrawal” (in this book, it invariably has a negative connotation), but I think his own analysis shows that as our loves are formed by the liturgy of the King, we will no longer desire to engage in some of liberalism’s most corrosive liturgies.

Of course, as a homeschooled kid who has never seen The Godfather, and whose students and colleagues often make fun of me (good-naturedly, I think) for being a pop culture ignoramus, my defense of limited withdrawal may be simply self-serving. I’ll need to sit more with Smith’s challenge to see in liberalism not only a problem, but also a set of opportunities. Regardless, I remain convinced that when we immerse ourselves in the flow of 24-7 media, it’s far easier to imagine ourselves as characters in a story narrated by ESPN, Fox News, The New Yorker, or Facebook, than it is to remember the role we are called to play in the King’s narrative.

So, can the church that liberalism needs survive liberalism? Of course. With God, anything is possible, and he is the source of our hope. But it may be that his ecclesia, his called-out ones, will be a blessing to our neighbors to the extent that our loves are formed by participation in his liturgies.

Jeffrey Bilbro is an assistant professor of English at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. His articles have been published in Christianity and Literature, Early American Literature, Mississippi Quarterly, and the Southern Literary Journal.

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