While teaching a senior seminar that focused on hospitality, Calvin philosophy professor James K.A. Smith gave his students an assignment off the books: He required them to work with the homeless ministry at the Dégagé coffeehouse in downtown Grand Rapids. Smith was working on the assumption that education, and specifically Christian education, requires more than intellectual exercise. It requires practice.
“Education is formation,” he said. “That formation happens through embodied practice and rituals.”
That intuition was part of the basis of Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, which earlier this year was honored with a Christianity Today Book Award in the category of theology/ethics. The magazine said Desiring the Kingdom was one of the books that “best shed light on the people, events, and ideas that shape evangelical life, thought and mission.”
“It was a nice indication that the book was being well received beyond regular Reformed and Calvin circles, and that was encouraging,” Smith said of the award.
Desiring the Kingdom makes an argument that the foundation of Christian education is not just worldview but something more fundamental: worship. “Humans are motivated by more than what we think. We are moved to action by what we love,” Smith said, “and worship shapes our loves.”
But worship isn’t just where you might expect. In his book, Smith represents the mall as a modern temple, complete with iconography and rituals to show that our consumerism is really a form of worship that celebrates a false kingdom. “The mall is trying to educate young people,” Smith said. “I analyze the mall as a place that has its own liturgy, and the goal of that liturgy is to shape people’s loves—to aim their loves toward a pseudo-kingdom.”
And the mall isn’t the only “secular liturgy,” said Smith: “All sorts of cultural practices or cultural institutions function as liturgies that try to make us love other kingdoms.” As a countermeasure—and a sound educational practice—he argues Christian education should be informed by worship in order to shape students as what author Neal Plantinga calls “prime citizens” of the kingdom of God.
“Because education is formation, if we’re going to educate people you’ve got to form them,” said Smith. He recommends that teachers consider incorporating practices such as hospitality, fasting, prayer, the prayer labyrinth, Sabbath keeping, spiritual readings, forgiveness, healing and observance of the liturgical calendar into their teaching.
“I’m trying to connect the church and the college,” he said, “but it also connects the chapel and the classroom.” He does recognize the possible pitfalls of practice: “I am sort of blurring the boundaries, but I don’t want to give up the intellectual rigor going on in the classroom,” Smith said. “We’re not fasting instead of reading Immanuel Kant. We’re doing it to deepen our understanding of theoretical issues.”
The ideas Smith articulates in his book were the basis of a conference held at Calvin in October 2009 titled “Teaching, Learning, and Christian Practices.” Sponsored by the Kuyers Institute for Christian Teaching and Learning and organized by Smith and Kuyers director David Smith, the conference explored the concept of teaching and learning settings as communities of practice. The two Smiths are working on a book based on the conference.
Smith is grateful that, due in part to the Christianity Today nod, Desiring the Kingdom will reach a wide audience. “I hope it jumpstarts a conversation at Christian colleges and universities—as well as schools and churches—about how to deepen our understanding of both Christian education and Christian worship,” he said. “I hope it’s a catalyst.”