Desiring a Kingdom School: A Review of Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith

A review of Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, by James K. A. Smith.

By Christopher A. Perrin, PhD

We all have ideals—ideals for a wonderful marriage, the best job, a superb vacation.   Our ideals, however, are often fuzzy.  What does the ideal church really look like?  An ideal government?  What about an ideal school?

Well to outline an ideal marriage involving the intersection of two inscrutable human beings is a difficult challenge, to actually live out an ideal marriage is beyond difficult.  What might an ideal school look like—with the intersection of two to three hundred human beings—parents, teachers, administrators, board members and….students?  And that would be a small school.

If James K. A. Smith is right, we simply cannot help imagining an ideal future, an ideal of human flourishing.  According to Smith in his book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, imagining ideals is a large part of what it means to be human.  We all are seeking some version of the good life, we all desire a kingdom.  What is more, we are all being shaped and formed in various ways to love and desire one sort of kingdom or another.

Smith contends that before we humans are cognitive, rational beings we are creatures of desires, passions and loves.  He further contends that the way we change is not primarily a matter of the mind, but primarily the result of the heart-shaping forces of the “cultural liturgies” we encounter in the world.  He writes, “Because our hearts are oriented primarily by desire, by what we love, and because those desires are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate, it is the rituals and practices of the mall—the liturgies of the mall and market—that shape our imaginations and how we orient ourselves to the world.  Embedded in them is a common set of assumptions about the shape of human flourishing, which becomes an implicit telos or goal of our own desires and actions.  That is, the visions of the good life embedded in these practices become surreptitiously embedded in us through our participation in the rituals and rhythms of these institutions. “

Smith takes time to examine the ways that various institutions do in fact act as cultural liturgies.  He begins with the mall, imagining what it might be like for a Martian anthropologist to study its culture.  Smith is convinced that such an anthropologist would see the mall as a thoroughly religious institution.  The mall has a daily visitation of pilgrims who enter a large and dazzling cathedral of glass, concrete, light and ornamentation.  There are banners and flags in displayed in a large atrium; there are familiar texts and symbols placed on walls to help us easily identify what is inside the various chapels that are contained in this labyrinthine cathedral.   Rich iconography lines the wall of each chapel, and there are many three-dimensional statues adorned with the garb that we too can acquire in imitation of these ideals.  These same icons, statues and exemplars can be found in similar temples across the country and around the world.  In fact the wide distribution of these colors and icons are found in many places in the outside world and have drawn us as pilgrims in the first place.  The power of the gospel message of these temple is the power of beauty, “which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in the envisioned good life.”

At this point, Smith is just getting started with his analysis of the “religion of the mall.”  He goes on to describe the purchasing experience as a kind of secular Eucharist.   Understandably, he does not like or praise the religion of the mall.  He does acknowledge, however,  that the mall understands something profound about human beings.  It embodies its view of its kingdom, rather than merely talking about it.  He writes, “Indeed, the genius of mall religion is that actually it operates with a more holistic, affective, embodied anthropology (or theory of the human person) than the Christian church tends to assume. Because worldview-thinking still tends to focus on ideas and beliefs, the formative cultural impact of sites like the mall tends to not show up on our radar.”

As you might guess, the point of Smith’s book is to help us turn on our radar to the formative impact that various cultural liturgies have on us all.  Of interest to classical educators will be his liturgical analysis of university education and of Christian college education.  Using Tom Wolfe’s book I am Charlotte Simmons, Smith points out that the college experience is far more than the 15 hours a week a student spends in a classroom.  Secular university experience exerts a dynamic and intentional shaping influence on college students in dozens of ways.  Dorm life, frat house life, football games, drinking, bar and club escapades, hooking up and an exhausting, frenetic rhythm of classes, study, exams shape and form students for the “real world” of “corporate ladder climbing and white-collar overtime needed in order to secure the cottage, the boat, and the private education for the kids.”  Smith concludes that while the classroom, laboratory, lecture hall and library have performed some role in shaping a student, it does not compare to these other ways students are shaped.  The information provided in the academic areas is “not nearly as potent as the formation we’ve received in the dorm and frat house, or the stadium and dance club.”

His look at Christian colleges is not much more encouraging.  Too many Christian colleges in his opinion simply take the basic secular approach to education and add the integration of a Christian worldview or Christian perspective.  Smith suggests that the dominant paradigm of Christian education asserts that “goal of a Christian education is to produce professionals who do pretty much the same sorts of things that graduates of Ivy League and state universities do, but who do them ‘from a Christian perspective,’ and perhaps with the goal of transforming and redeeming society.”  For Smith this is a regrettable reduction as it “unhooks Christianity from the practices that constitute Christian discipleship.”  For Smith, the worship practices of the church must be vitally bound up with the rhythms and practices of a Christian college (and school).   When the Christian college is unhooked from the liturgies of the church we end up with an intellectualization of Christianity, leading students to think that “being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and wants, our practices and habits.”  This happens because for far too long Christian education has “been concerned with information rather than formation; thus Christian colleges have thought it sufficient to provide a Christian perspective, an intellectual framework, because they see themselves as fostering individual ‘minds in the making.’  Hand in hand with that, such an approach reduces Christianity to a denuded intellectual framework that has diminished bite because such an intellectualized rendition of the faith doesn’t touch our core passions.”

I think by now you sense Smith’s thesis beginning to sink in.  Christian worldview instruction is not enough.  Appealing to the mind and intellect is not enough.  Not that instruction in Christian worldview and ideas should not be done—such instruction is vital.  But it is not sufficient, not enough. We must address the core passions of our students, and we do this by means of creating community, atmosphere, rhythms, practices, traditions that shape the hearts of students by engaging them as affective, passionate lovers, not mere minds.  The church, rightly worshiping, seeks to do this.  Welcoming, greeting, singing, hearing, tasting, standing, kneeling, we worship with all of our person—mind and body.  Embodied worship is formative and shapes our love for the kingdom of God and acts a powerful counter-formation over against the formative influence of a dozen secular liturgies we witness and experience.  In fact the liturgy of worship helps subvert the power of these secular liturgies, wising us up to their power and methods.

This is where things get interesting.  Could it be that our children are being shaped to love a version of the good life that is primarily determined by the “liturgies” of the mall, football stadium, TV sitcoms and the iPod?  Could it be that our schools privilege direct engagement with the mind, and the presentation of ideas and a Christian worldview but are nonetheless failing to thwart the power of these other shaping influences?  Any teacher with experience can tell you about scores of students whose minds and hearts are seldom truly present in the classroom.  They are instead occupied with the shopping for the next fashionable item, the next soccer game, the latest movie, Monday Night Football, the coming rock concert.   These things shape them and engage them as lovers, and the teacher often feel powerless standing before her whiteboard with a black marker in her hand.   She wonders if would not be better to show then an educational movie—something they can relate to.

Consider the atmosphere and community of your school.  What is its liturgy?  That is, what are its rhythms, rituals, practices and traditions?  We carefully plan our curriculum and lessons.  Do we carefully plan and create rhythms, rituals, practices and traditions?  Do our teachers carefully plan rhythms, rituals, practices and traditions for each class of students?  If Smith is right, then it is these things that will most profoundly shape what our students will love.  Every teacher knows that students will forget 75% of the content you “teach” them in a classroom.  Might it be wise then to pay attention to more than just content think about form with the same rigor?  How can we shape, form and engage hearts, minds and yes, even bodies?  Is there vibrant worship in you school?  Does music echo through the halls and the great art adorn the walls?  Are their dinner parties and great conversation with students and adults alike?  Is your facility attractive and conducive to worship and learning?  Are poems read and recited, stories written and told?  Is Scripture read at lunch for a time?  Are there traditions of hospitality when existing students welcome new students into the school, when upper school students warmly welcome new 7th graders or 9th graders?  Do teachers and parents gather socially to read books, cook, dine and pray?  Do high school students babysit for the young children of teachers (maybe at no charge?).  Do you older students help teach the younger students and join them for games on the playground from time to time?  Do teachers and students go hiking together or bike-riding or running?  Are pastors visiting your school counseling students and speaking in your classrooms or chapel services, or teaching a Bible class?  Do you pray for the churches represented by your school and for each pastor by name? Does your school fast occasionally and give money or food to the needy?

These and dozens of other questions might enable us to think more deeply about embodying classical Christian education, such that students absorb it with all five senses and with their hearts as well as their minds.  By considering such questions (and generating more) we might clarify our vision of an ideal classical school, and remove much of the fuzziness and confusion that impedes enthusiasm and momentum.  Classical education has historically been communal and ecclesial and Smith poignantly reminds us of this.  He also helps us to see more clearly that a classical Christian education involves the collaboration of family, church and school as we seek nothing less than the kingdom of God.  Classical educators and leaders would do well to learn from the insights of this valuable and timely book.

This Journalist Understands Classical Education

Let’s face it—it is hard to speak clearly about classical Christian education.  I have been studying it, implementing it and writing about it for almost 15 years and I still can become tongue-tied when someone asks me “What is classical Christian education?”  I am always brushing up and revising my elevator speech.

That is why the recent article about Covenant Classical School (CCS) in Naperville, Illinois, is so remarkable.  CCS is not an established school.  It opened its doors barely a month ago with 87 students.

And yet journalist Jane Donahue of the Naperville Sun was able to crystallize the complex mission of CCS in a relatively short story.  I am astonished that this happened.  It usually takes new parents about a year to gain the kind of understanding displayed by Donahue.  In her story, Donahue quotes a board member, head of school, teacher, two parents and a student. Taken together, the comments of these people tell us that Covenant Classical School:

  • is a new school rooted in an old tradition
  • has a classical curriculum (grammar, Latin, logic, rhetoric, music, etc.)
  • employs a pedagogy appropriate to the developmental stage of students
  • seeks to train students “to think, reason, read, write and speak well”
  • learns from the best ideas, thinkers and literature of the past
  • aims to build character: “Everyone is cheerful, friendly and thoughtful.”
  • integrates biblical teaching and faith
  • provides a joyful, warm environment
  • develops community and strong bonds

I think this surpasses my elevator speech.

Here is the link to the article—compare it to your speech: Faith and Education Combine at Covenant

So how did the journalist figure this out?  Somehow CCS has managed to pass on a clear concept of its mission to all members of its community—even a 12 year-old student.  How is your school doing in this regard?  We could all do worse than to take this article and seek to embody it and communicate it in our own schools.  Pass this article along to your marketing director or head of school and to the board.  Pass it along to your 12 year-old.

Change Your School: A Review of Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

We all have something we want to change.  It might be an organization; it might be your home.  All of us, if we’re honest, want to change ourselves.  If you work for a school, I am sure you can create a quick list of five items you would like to change that would improve the institution.

So how do you set out to make a change?  Another book by Chip and Dan Heath might change the way you think about change.  They have written Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, their second collaborative book.  They also wrote Made to Stick, a book I enjoyed enough to make me pick up Switch.

One has to admire the way the Heath brothers write: they start with some entertaining anecdotes that illustrate the entire sweep of the book, a few stories that illustrate their premise that in order to affect change you must provide people with clear direction, ample motivation and a supportive environment.  Change, they say, tends to follow a pattern and we should pay attention to that pattern.  That is the heart of the book.  But these three insights (seem basic don’t they?) come to life in the dozens of stories and studies that the brothers cite.   Nothing is left to didactic prose.  Metaphors, along with stories abound.

The brothers start their book recounting a study that showed that people will eat more popcorn if you put the popcorn in larger containers.  The study showed that people eating out of large container would eat 53% more popcorn than those eating out of medium-sized container—even when the popcorn was five days old.  Later on in the book the brothers cite another person who discovered that people will eat less food when it served on smaller plates.  These studies point out that sometimes “what looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.”  Change the environment, and you might change behavior.  Certainly a good schoolteacher can tell you as much.  Teachers spend a good deal of time setting up their room and creating and environment “that is conducive to learning.”   Even a pleasantly-designed book (preferably a hardback) with a spacious and readable font is more likely to be read and enjoyed.  I can still remember resisting several great books that came to me on crammed pages of newsprint with banal covers.  The same book in hardback—where’s a comfy chair and a quiet place?  What kind of books do you give your students?

The Heath brothers also cite a study that shows that people grow tired when they work for long periods exerting self-control.   The study showed that a group of college students who had to resist eating freshly-baked chocolate-chip cookies became mentally drained while they instead completed an experiment in which they had to eat radishes (they were told the other group coming in would experiment on the cookies).  When these cookie-resisters were asked to solve an unsolvable geometric problem as a group, they gave up after just eight minutes while the other, cookie-eating group spent nineteen minutes on the task, trying thirty-four times to solve the puzzle.  The point: directly supervising your behavior is draining.  Therefore what sometimes looks like resistance or laziness may just be exhaustion.  Is there a school application?  Sure.  Think of those fidgety boys who must strain their little minds to keep pencil on paper during math class.  Many are not worth teaching by 1pm, appearing lazy and disengaged.  Are they simply mentally worn-out from supervising their behavior?  Quite possibly.  Why does recess bring them back to life?  For twenty minutes they run about like mad men supervising virtually nothing.  Mental strength returns.

In another place in Switch, the Heath brothers suggest that presenting others with a clear destination is crucial for motivating and leading people to change.  Their first illustration features a first grade teacher who announced to her students that they would be reading as third graders (yes, third graders) by the end of the year.  The teacher knew the reading standards for third grade and believed she could get the students to that level.  The class, of course, was captivated and energized.  They rallied to this noble goal and learned that they were scholars and addressed each other as such.  A scholar, they learned, was easy to define: “A scholar is someone who lives to learn and is good at it.”  At springtime her class was reading at second grade level and she held a graduation ceremony for them.  By the end of the year, 90% of the class was reading at the third grade level.  The Heath brothers maintain that a clear, ambitious goal (reading like third graders) united this class and dissolved their resistance to change.  Does your school (or class, or leadership team) have a clear picture of the destination you seek?  Can you define the character, knowledge and skill a graduate of your school should possess?  Clearly, in writing?

The classical Christian educator might point out that lasting change comes from the heart of a child that is led to love God and neighbor.  Furthermore, shouldn’t we be skeptical of change that is based on changing the environment?  I found nothing Switch that contradicted changes that comes from spiritual transformation.   But change as a broad concept cannot be reduced only to the spiritual dimension as profoundly important as that dimension is.  And who can deny that our environment does contribute to our disposition, mood and work?  The Heath brothers do not argue that change is determined by environment, just that it is one important factor that shapes change—along with other factors.  The Heath brothers bring to us something akin to the wisdom literature of Scripture—they have observed practical ways humans are motivated, influenced and conditioned to change.  We might read in the Proverbs that “the plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (Pr. 21:5).   The Heath brothers also reduce their findings to some proverbial expressions: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.  What looks like laziness is often exhaustion.  Clarity dissolves resistance.

Switch just might do more that suggest some proverbial change for your school.  It might help you change as well.