21 November 2017

Blogging Jamie Smith: An Occasional Series on "Awaiting the King" 1.0

This past week I posted here with a link to an interview by Michael Horton of James K.A. Smith touching on Smith's latest book, "Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology." That post also contained links to some of my earlier posts about Smith's work. (Read a helpful and short review of AtK here.)

I bought a copy of AtK last week and have read partway through the second chapter. I plan to blog about it along the way so I can keep track of what strikes me as important/useful for a current project.

I am more interested in AtK than Smith's first two books in his "Cultural Liturgies" series because it promises to touch on the "political" implications of Smith's mashup of virtue ethics, neo-Kuyperian-one-Kingdom theology, and neo-Anabaptist ecclesiocentrism. (In other words, Alasdair MacIntyre meets Abraham Kuyper meets Stanley Hauerwas.) And all three channelled through Smith's reading of Augustine's City of God. Being in the law business makes AtK of special interest because law is, after all, "political."  (Putting "political" in scare quotes is appropriate to account for Smith's use of the term, although I don't plan to keep it up.)

I was pleased to see that Smith plans to draw extensively on the work of Oliver O'Donovan. (You can read a three-parter dealing with a limited critique of O'Donovan herehere, and here.). After all, O'Donovan's dense prose could do with a popularizer. And I am certainly pleased to see restoration of the Church to its rightful place in any theology. (After all, the Church is the body of Christ, not each and every individual Christian.) But the proof is in the pudding so following are a few observations on Chapter 1: "Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy."

No Stackable Silos
The commonplace distinctions world/kingdom, world/church, state/church, penultimate/ultimate, worldly/heavenly, political/eschatological are unhelpful: they do not reflect a "happy distinction of labor we imagine, mostly because the political is not content to remain penultimate." To whatever these distinctions refer in the experience of market-driven, late-modern human life, they are neither airtight jurisdictional silos nor temporal sequences. Instead, these dualities constantly interact with each other because "our biblical eschatological vision is not just a prescription for a distant eternity; it is also the norm for what good culture-making looks like now ..." And more to the contemporary point (where a biblical eschatological vision is largely absent from the rational-technical form of contemporary life), the form of democratic self-government and the market effectively--modern liberalism (here and here)--inculcate virtues that are inconsistent with a biblical eschatological vision.

Flight or Fight or ? 
If Smith is right about pernicious effects of liberalism, what is a Christian to do? Smith moves on to consider two wrong answers. First, and more surprising to me, was Smith considered rejection of neo-Kuyperian associational pluralism articulated by Richard Mouw and Sander Griffioen. In Smith's words, their articulation of directional, associational, and contextual pluralism ends up as "a kind of macroliberalism" in which the virtues of modern liberalism will eventually wear down associational distinctives. On the other hand, and of no surprise, Smith also rejects David VanDrunen's jurisdictional approach in which liberalism is free to rule the city of man and Christ the city of God. As if that isn't a recipe for disaster.

Then What? 
If neither of the leading contemporary approaches identified with the Reformed tradition grasp the nettle of the deforming effects of political and economic liberalism, then what is Smith's solution? Well, that's why AtK has five more chapters plus a conclusion.

Some Recurring One-Time Complaints 
Rather than repeatedly remarking on some of my irritations with Smith's writing I'll observe them here and then not again. First are Smith's constant pop cultural asides. Why do we need a disquisition on the Kevin Costner film The Postman? Or Adam Gopnik's book The Table Comes First? And why, oh why the multi-page interaction with a David Foster Wallace novel? Maybe one self-indulgence but not three.

Second, Smith blow-by-blow account of the contested readings of Augustine by MacIntyre/Milbank/Hauerwas, on the one hand, and Jeffrey Stout on the other,  belongs in a journal article, not this book.

Enough for now. More to follow in due course.


  1. "one self-indulgence but not three" -- That's precisely the response I emoted the last time I read a chapter of Smith. Eager to read the rest of this series.

  2. Scott, Thanks for this. I'm eager to read the rest of your good work. Appreciate the time and effort your putting into this. One little comment, though: as a teacher, I'd suppose you know the value of a good illustration, and how younger learners, especially, need some pop culture touchstones to enhance their understanding of the material. I thought that the comments about "The Postman" were a bit much, I don't think it's quite fair to call it self-indulgence, as I'm sure he's trying to be teacherly. And, as a matter of fact, some readers have commented to me that it is these references and case studies that helped the book come alive, and helped them stay interested.

  3. I absolutely agree, Byron, that judicious use of illustrations or applications makes teaching (and writing) come alive. I believe that Smith goes beyond judicious use and is showing off his skills of film and literary critique. Ultimately, however, this is a matter of degree (and taste).