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.

Making Ideas Stick: How Chip and Dan Heath Rediscovered Aristotle Without Even Knowing It

Every summer I read a few business books.  The really good ones are actually filled with insight that not only help me as a publisher and consultant, but also illuminate other areas of the human enterprise.  I put Jim Collins’ Good to Great in that category, as well as the Purple Cow by Seth Godin.  Malcolm Gladwell’s books (though not strictly business books) are also generally enlightening—particularly The Tipping Point and Outliers.

Well this summer I have found another business book of universal value—Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, by brothers Chip and Dan Heath.  Chip is a Stanford business professor and Dan is a consultant and entrepreneur. The book sets out to explore what makes idea memorable and transferable—or what makes them sticky.   They proceed inductively, looking at scores of sticky ideas and seeking to discover what traits are common to them all.  The book is set up similarly to Collin’s Good to Great in which a team of graduate researches (led by Collins) set out to discover what common traits described companies that evolved from good to great companies.  Jus as Collins discovers some six “Good to Great” principles, so the Heath brothers discover six “key qualities” that make ideas stick:

1. Simplicity: How do you strip an idea to its core without turning into a silly sound bite?

2. Unexpectedness: How do you capture people’s attention…and hold it?

3. Concreteness: How do you help people understand your idea and remember it much later?

4. Credibility: How do you get people to believe your idea?

5. Emotional: How do you get people to care about your idea?

6. Stories: How do you get people to act on your idea?

Now several of these key qualities resonated with me because of my study of rhetoric….and G.K. Chesterton (I did my dissertation on paradox in the apologetic of Chesterton).   It is interesting to me that the Heath brothers proceed as businessmen doing an empirical study of what makes ideas sticky, and discover some key rhetorical principles in the process.   If they had studied rhetoric (and there is no evidence in the book that they have), they would have also learned that ideas become persuasive and compelling when they characterized by ethos (credibility) and pathos (emotion).  Under the canon of style, they would have learned the importance of being concrete, using effective metaphors and analogies.  By studying the canon of invention they would have learned how important it is to determine what the discrete issue is for which one should argue (simplicity); by studying the canon of arrangement they would have discovered the importance crafting an arresting introduction that grabs and holds attention.   The Heath brothers tell us that we need more fables to focus our attention and create concrete meaning.  The first exercise of the ancient pre-rhetoric exercises (the progymnasmata) was a fable exercise.   Virtually every important idea in the book is a restatement of a classic principle of rhetoric.

All this makes me very happy.  Made to Stick is modern-day rediscovery and validation of ancient rhetoric without the authors even knowing that is so.  Rhetorical theory could have taught them all their key qualities of sticky ideas and yet it is all the more romantic and gratifying that they discovered these qualities for the first time without hearing them first from Aristotle, Quintillian or Cicero.   The business department has quietly joined arms with the classics department; the Heath brothers have done some of the same empirical work that Aristotle did 2500 years ago.   For Aristotle too, studied what “key qualities” made ideas compelling, persuasive and “sticky.”  Both Aristotle and the Heaths have studied intensely some important aspects of human nature.  The Heaths site various modern examples of sticky ideas from army leadership to anti-smoking campaigns.  Aristotle cites examples of ceremonial, forensic and political speech set in ancient Athens.  But Aristotle and the Heaths are both seeking to uncover something crucial to human beings—what makes us remember and act upon an idea.

Chesterton too was called up by Made to Stick.  Chesterton says that the chief pleasure of man is surprise.  As I read through chapter on surprise (the chapter title is “Unexpected”) I could hear Chesterton laughing in the background.  We all do love surprises don’t we?   Chesterton also says that the reason we go to hear someone give a speech is precisely because we expect to hear what we don’t expect to hear—or else why go at all?  He also believed it was necessary to startle people awake by using paradox to help people “see” the truth that was right before them, yet unseen.  Chesterton was a master of paradox, but paradox that illuminated and did not merely entertain.   Thus he commonly said such things as “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason, but the man who has lost everything but his reason.” Well paradox is a rhetorical trope and a very effective attention-grabber and sustainer.  While the Heaths don’t use the word paradox, they do understand well the basic impact of surprise—“it jolts us to attention.”

Finally, Made to Stick, has (and makes) obvious application to teachers.  Teachers are daily purveyors of ideas.  Teachers are obliged to make good ideas stick.  How can this be done?  A teacher could do worse than to strip the idea down to its core (simplicity), teach the idea as a surprising mystery to be solved, create tension and debate in the classroom (surprise), and generously stir in concrete language, visuals (concreteness), credible authority and evidence (credibility) along with an appeal to human emotion (emotion) and finally enfolding the wisdom of the idea in a compelling story or two (story).   It turns out that what makes ideas stick are what make teachers stick as well.

Thomas More’s Utopian Education

Thomas More’s Utopia (first published in 1516) has been calling out to me from my bookshelf for a few years now, and I finally heeded the call, took it off the shelf and read it. We keep hearing of Utopian visions of culture and society, and I have been itching to go to the sources the word and the concept. More’s book was also a nice complement to the Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. So I read it last week.

More begins by comparing his Utopia (through his fictional character Raphael) with that of Plato’s (from The Republic). Raphael, who has visited Utopia, remarks that the Plato’s ideal was never realized, whereas the Utopians actually implemented their ideal, and with great success. Utopia is an island nation (convenient for implementing ideas without interference and influence) somewhere in the “New World” of the time. There is much to say in summary of More’s ideal society, but let me offer this abbreviation: in Utopia property is held in common, everyone must work or not eat (no one is idle), there is no money nor need for money (gold is common and relatively despised–slave are shackled in gold chains), virtually everyone works on farms. More’s book has been the inspiration for a range of movements from Christian Anabaptism to secular communism.

He does have some Utopian insights for education as well. Not everyone can become a scholar or intellectual. He writes, “Admittedly, no one’s allowed to become a full-time student, except for the very few in town who appear as children to possess unusual gifts, outstanding intelligence, and a special appetite or academic research. But every child receives a primary education, and most men and women go educating themselves all their lives during those free periods I told you about.” (Book Two)

We find in More, another example of a highly-educated elite, and a generally-educated working class. He also finds friendly company with some progressive educational theorists who advocated mental testing in order to separate students into appropriate curriculum determined by student aptitude with a goal of serving “social efficiency.” This clashes with the thinking of Mortimer Adler, who argued that the best education for some, was the best education for all. Adler wanted to democratize classical education, More was content with restricting it to the best and brightest–as did Plato in The Republic.

So should we stand with More or Adler? Or must we choose between them?

Review of Wisdom and Eloquence

Last year Crossway published Wisdom and Eloquence by Robert Littlejohn and Chuck Evans, which presented what they term a “Christian Paradigm of the Seven Liberal Arts.”  The book is excellent in many ways and has become a choice read for classical educators across the nation.  Wisdom and Eloquence respectfully challenges the paradigm advanced by Dorothy Sayers (and taken up by Doug Wilson and the Association of Classical and Christian Schools) that the three subjects of grammar, logic and rhetoric should serve as well as three developmental stages through which children pass.  The most recent issue of Classis (published by the ACCS) features a respectul review of Wisdom and Eloquence by Doug Wilson, which should go a long way in insuring that classical and Chrsitian educators collaborate, challenge and complement one another. The review by Doug Wilson can be found at the under “Classis”.