It has been over ten years since the publication of philosopher James K. A. Smith’s paradigm-shifting, Desiring the Kingdom—Smith’s first title in what would become his three book Cultural Liturgies series. When it was first released, Kingdom received well deserved praise and tied for best Theology/Ethics book of 2009 in Christianity Today’s annual book awards. It has since been quoted by and written about in numerous books and articles. The book makes its home in the sweet spot between a purely academic work and the more accessible popular titles aimed at general readers. It is written with Christian colleges and universities in mind, but because of its emphasis on education, which is in many ways closely related to discipleship, the book also has proven helpful to pastors and parishioners.
Smith’s thesis is that man is not primarily a thinking or even a believing creature, but rather a desiring animal. We are shaped and formed by our practices and liturgies both secular and sacred. These liturgies, or “thick practices,” as Smith calls them elsewhere, are never neutral and they aim our hearts at one kingdom or another. They are “rituals of ultimate concern…that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life.” In this way Smith moves away from the traditional concept of worldview and into the realm of what he calls the “social imaginary.”
Perhaps the most well known part of Smith’s book is his analysis of one such secular liturgy. In his “Martian anthropology of the mall” Smith takes the shopping mall experience and likens it to a form of worship, where the mall is the temple of the religion of consumerism. This religion comes with its own evangelism (commercials) and outreach (billboards) and the mannequins are a type of icon. In the temple of the mall, Smith even points out the altar (cash register) and acolytes (employees) who are there to aid the faithful in their worship. The gospel of the mall and consumerism offers a particular vision of the good life that hinges itself on our inability to ever be satisfied living under it.
I will never forget the first time I heard Smith’s Martian anthropology of the mall at a seminar for classical educators in the Twin Cities area several years after the book was published. We sat, enraptured as Smith walked us through the familiar scene of the mall, opening our eyes to see it from a fresh perspective. To be honest, the mall has never been the same for me.
Updating the Kingdom
While Smith’s premise has for the most part remained strong over the last ten years, there is something about his explanation of the mall that might be due for an update. The decline of malls and brick and mortar stores in general over the last decade is well documented. In 2017 alone 6400 stores closed their doors and one Credit Suisse report suggests that 20–25% of malls will be shuttered by the year 2022. A Business Insider photo essay from 2018 shows the insides of some malls that have already gone the way of the phone booth, their cavernous insides empty and unkempt.
But we all know that the death of malls isn’t because Americans are abandoning their ties to consumerism. Instead that consumerism is taking on a new form with online shopping. Ten years ago e-commerce only accounted for around 5% of all retail purchases. Today that number is over 12%. As Americans’ penchant for online shopping increases, it pokes a hole in one aspect of Smith’s theory: the “thick” practices and liturgies that form and shape our desires are always communal and social.
The last decade seems to suggest otherwise. People might go weeks, months, even years without going to a mall. But they shop online incessantly. Smith’s claim, “[we] shop with others,” is no longer true. We spend almost 10 hours a day looking at our screens. At first this change might seem superficial. But is it?
Jesus, in his conversation with the woman at the well, detached worship from a specific geographic location, the mountain or Jerusalem, and ushered in an era of worshipping in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). The internet and iPhone did the same for consumerism, untethering its brand of worship from the mall. Now we carry our worship portals with us wherever we go. Instead of entering a physical space to practice the liturgical rhythms of consumerism, that space has become virtual and lives in our pockets. The most powerful secular liturgies of our day no longer inhabit physical spaces, they are no longer social or communal.
At any time we can take out our worship portals and make an offering. The priests, driving around in brown vans, lay the gift at the altar, and drive away without ever coming into contact with the worshiper. All of this is done individually. But instead of merely revealing a slightly altered version of consumerism, or even a syncretistic consumerism/individualism (consumervidualism) it betrays something much deeper.
The worshiper, when making an offering, isn’t doing so to the gods of consumerism, but to his or her self. The altar where the gift is laid makes this clear; it’s at the worshiper’s front step. In that way the person is both worshiper and worshiped, revealing further the unseemly forms of the unfortunate exchange Paul writes of in Romans 1:23 (just as another main activity our worship portals are used for—watching pornography—confirms the perverted lusts of the human heart Paul also mentions in Romans 1).
Consumerism (of things or human flesh) isn’t the main problem then, it is only the tool the self uses to worship its god—self. The final primary activity this worship portal is used for—social media (which, though contains the word social, functions as a proponent of isolation, making it perhaps the quintessential misnomer)—seems to confirm that selfism is the deeper religious allegiance millions in our country have pledged themselves to.
Smith claimed that we live “in a culture whose civic religion prizes consumption as the height of human flourishing.” This updated iteration of his “martian anthropology” claims that the ultimate vision of the good life is one where self is king, is god. It’s not that the civic religion is consumerism or even consumervidualism; consumerism is a method, the scaffolding used by our culture to achieve its selfist ends. Smith was close to capturing this point when he wrote, “…consumerism is an expression of individualism — of both self-interest and self-absorption.” But by maintaining that secular liturgies are always communal, he misses the deeper truth that selfism is the engine that drives our consumerism.
Affirming the Kingdom
If we take a step back we realize that in updating Smith’s “Martian anthropology of the mall,” though we come to a different conclusion, we get there by following his basic framework (minus the condition that liturgies must be communal). In that way we can affirm Desiring the Kingdom as being relevant today and suspect that it will still be powerful and relevant ten years hence.
A decade ago when Matthew Anderson wrote his review of Desiring the Kingdom in First Things, he articulated his praise for the book along with his concerns. But above all he emphasized one thing that I can echo wholeheartedly. In order to fully appreciate the claims made by Smith in his book, one really must read it.