Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology by James K.A. Smith

Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology

In this culmination of his widely read and highly acclaimed Cultural Liturgies project, James K. A. Smith examines the political through the lens of liturgy. What if, he asks, citizens are not only thinkers or believers but lovers? Smith explores how our analysis of political institutions would look different if we viewed them as incubators of love-shaping practices--not m...

Title:Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology
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Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology Reviews

  • Michael Nichols

    This is the book I’ve desired to read for about the past three to four years. Someone finally wrote it. (I was starting to worry I’d have to write it myself). Chapters one and two bolster the political nature of the church. Then chapters three through six work out the implications for Christian participation in earthly politics. Smith sketches what it might look like to do politics in a hopeful key, from a place of cruciform authority rather than sheer power.

    In brief, Smith takes the concept of

    This is the book I’ve desired to read for about the past three to four years. Someone finally wrote it. (I was starting to worry I’d have to write it myself). Chapters one and two bolster the political nature of the church. Then chapters three through six work out the implications for Christian participation in earthly politics. Smith sketches what it might look like to do politics in a hopeful key, from a place of cruciform authority rather than sheer power.

    In brief, Smith takes the concept of “church as polis” seriously (contra court-evangelicals), without over-realizing eschatology (contra Hauerwas). The church is the primary polis, which forms saints and funds imaginations. But—and this is a crucial but—we live in the saeculum, a passing age in which earthly authority has a mitigated, but necessary role. And because Christ is king over all of creation, Christ’s kingship has implications for political authority (Psalm 2). The church is to constantly witness to the state that it’s living on short time and borrowed authority; the King will return soon. But this does not mean abandoning the political arena. Rather it means calculated, measured participation driven by the evangelical proclamation for the sake of the common good.

    (If this sounds like Christendom, that’s because it is. And if that scares you, it’s almost certainly because nobody knows what Christendom actually is; they just know it’s an undesirable political scheme of ages passed. Read this book if you’d like to hear a winsome case for actual Christendom.)

  • Tim Hoiland

    In this final installment of the heralded Cultural Liturgies trilogy, James K.A. Smith invites us to reexamine the way we approach politics – and, even more, the ways politics "disciple" us. Continuing his ongoing engagement with Augustine, Smith argues that we are liturgical creatures, shaped for better and worse by rites both within and outside the church. For those of us who are persuaded of "the good of politics" but recognize all the ways governments and citizens fall short in this time bet

    In this final installment of the heralded Cultural Liturgies trilogy, James K.A. Smith invites us to reexamine the way we approach politics – and, even more, the ways politics "disciple" us. Continuing his ongoing engagement with Augustine, Smith argues that we are liturgical creatures, shaped for better and worse by rites both within and outside the church. For those of us who are persuaded of "the good of politics" but recognize all the ways governments and citizens fall short in this time between the times, Awaiting the King is the book we have been waiting for.

    I received an ARC of this book. Full review to come.

  • Josh Skinner

    Smith is a scholar for whom I have great respect. I have not had the chance to read the first two volumes of the Cultural Liturgies series, but I am planning on it. "Awaiting the King" is a volume that can stand on its own, especially if you have read some of Smith's other work. "You Are What You Love" remains one of my favorite books, and serves as a nice appetizer for "Awaiting the King."

    In this newest volume, Smith examines the idea of public theology. To do so, he engages in significant co

    Smith is a scholar for whom I have great respect. I have not had the chance to read the first two volumes of the Cultural Liturgies series, but I am planning on it. "Awaiting the King" is a volume that can stand on its own, especially if you have read some of Smith's other work. "You Are What You Love" remains one of my favorite books, and serves as a nice appetizer for "Awaiting the King."

    In this newest volume, Smith examines the idea of public theology. To do so, he engages in significant conversation with many texts and authors, but most extensively with Oliver O' Donovan and Augustine's "City of God." With the appropriates caveats of "I am not a scholar" and "Remember, I have not spent much time with the previous volumes of this series" in place, I will share a bit of what I took away from the text. First, Smith is fun to read. He interacts with complex ideas but is able to convey them in a manner that is both approachable and enjoyable.

    Smith describes how our nation's democratic structure rests on ritual and worship. He is not making a "The U.S. is a Christian nation" argument. Rather, he is making the argument that our democracy is structured around worship. He continues by examining the "Church as Polis" and what it should look like for Christians and the church to faithfully engage the world in which they exist.

    Smith highlights how political life is not to be separated from the rest of life, all of life is political. Options of life that suggest wholesale assimilation or total abandonment of the culture are both wrong. He also shows how politics is not a sphere solely comprised of common grace issues, the death and resurrection of Christ is of the utmost political importance. He revisits the formative power of liturgy and addresses how to account for "the Godfather Problem" in Christianity.

    From his particular Reformed tradition, Smith has an interesting take on the renewed embrace of certain Kuyperian ideals. He seems to be concerned that pendulum for many Evangelicals has swung from the Fundamentalist "I'll Fly Away" anti-creation perspective to an over-realized Kuyperianism that has lost its eschatological and alien hope. Nature is neither bad nor all, and it is important to keep this balance in mind.

    Suffice it to say; there is much more in the book. And it is better structured and more connected than I am sure that I am representing it to be. The key takeaway from my thoughts should be, go and read the book. "Awaiting the King" is thought-provoking, challenging, and entertaining, and it warrants more than one trip through.

    ARC provided.

  • Justin

    I was worried I'd feel like I'm coming in in the middle of a conversation. I haven't read the preceding books in Smith's Cultural Liturgies series. I'm also not as steeped in Kuyper or Augustine as the ideal reader would be, and I'm totally unfamiliar with Oliver O'Donovan, the key figure in this work. Even so, it's easy enough to get up to speed, and there's plenty to reward the work in this book.

    The answers to the various issues raised in this project aren't simple. Smith finds a spot that's n

    I was worried I'd feel like I'm coming in in the middle of a conversation. I haven't read the preceding books in Smith's Cultural Liturgies series. I'm also not as steeped in Kuyper or Augustine as the ideal reader would be, and I'm totally unfamiliar with Oliver O'Donovan, the key figure in this work. Even so, it's easy enough to get up to speed, and there's plenty to reward the work in this book.

    The answers to the various issues raised in this project aren't simple. Smith finds a spot that's neither a pietistic retreat nor a theonomic imperialism. His understandings of how the political is religious and the religious is political. Christian formation leads to a people who “Share terrain – and political responsibility – with their neighbors.” How this works drives much of the book, which remains optimistic without turning prescriptive (or at least not prescriptive in a legislative way – there's much to understand and apply throughout the book).

    Smith's work feels well-timed. It answers the fallout from the culture wars on one side, but it engages the anti-Augustinian, “down with Constantine!” side on the other. Smith sees an opportunity for Christians to pursue the common good without hiding their faith in the public square, but without indulging in an overwrought nationalism.

    Each of the chapters here are both demanding and fascinating in their own ways. The look at the connection between Christianity and liberal democracy, the reflections on pluralism, and the objections answered all make for fine reading (the “Godfather Problem” stands as a particularly memorable illustration, as does Smith's use of The Quiet American).

    I'll need some more time mulling this one to have better thoughts, and I'd be aided by a study group, for that matter, but it's clear that this is a highly relevant, carefully argued and nuanced, and insightful exploration. If it's particularly timely, it's also valuable in a broader sense to anyone interested in religion in the public square, sphere sovereignty, or more.

    [Based on a NetGalley copy.]

  • Chad

    One of the brilliant insights of Smith’s book (and others in the trilogy) is that we are worshiping creatures whose hearts are formed and deformed by the million competing liturgies to which we are exposed. In the past, I've envisioned myself as keeping politics at arm's length. I had no use for its "liturgies." I've come to realize, more and more, not only the impossibility of such insular living but the abdication of my responsibility in doing so. What this books calls for is an awareness and

    One of the brilliant insights of Smith’s book (and others in the trilogy) is that we are worshiping creatures whose hearts are formed and deformed by the million competing liturgies to which we are exposed. In the past, I've envisioned myself as keeping politics at arm's length. I had no use for its "liturgies." I've come to realize, more and more, not only the impossibility of such insular living but the abdication of my responsibility in doing so. What this books calls for is an awareness and critique of those political liturgies, which all too often are idolatrous in their goals, and the need for the liturgy of the church to (re)shape our hearts so that we are prepared to live and work and vote in the world as Christian citizens. This liturgy of the Gospel, in recalibrating our hearts toward the love of God and neighbor, prepares us to engage politically in such a way that, remaining faithful to our King, we endeavor also to shape culture and politics to reflect, however feebly, God's design for creatures made in his image.

  • Robert D. Cornwall

    Preachers are often cautioned to steer clear of politics, and yet the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to claims of being a king. So, Pilate had him executed. The prophets of Israel often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. So it goes. Politics and religion have long been connected, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the

    Preachers are often cautioned to steer clear of politics, and yet the biblical story is very political. Jesus himself was executed as political figure. The Romans didn't care about intricacies of Jewish theology, but they did pay attention to claims of being a king. So, Pilate had him executed. The prophets of Israel often stepped on the toes of the political establishment. So it goes. Politics and religion have long been connected, even if the relationship is often tenuous. This leads us to the point of "Awaiting the King," the third volume of James K. A. Smith's Cultural Liturgies project. It is, as the subtitle claims, an attempt to reform public theology (by public he means more than simply the state).

    I approached this book with a degree of eagerness. For one thing, I am very interested in public theology (having written a book titled Faith in the Public Square and having been actively engaged in public life as a pastor. Although I hadn't read the first two volumes in this series, I had read his book "You Are What You Love," which is a more popular version of the earlier volumes. The point of that book, which I read and enjoyed, was this -- we are what we worship. That is, liturgies form us, whether they're Christian or secular (thus the liturgies of the mall or sports have an important formational effect on us.) Having completed the book, I'm not sure what to make of it. In large part this has to do with my own spiritual/theological inclinations. I'm not evangelical in the current sense of the word, nor am I Reformed in the way that Smith is?

    What caught my interest in this book was Smith's response to the Hauerwasian "church as polis" perspective on political theology. He does respond, calling into question that project that suggests that the church should be an alternative polis, with the focus on building the community as a witness, but not necessarily participating fully in public life. While I'm not a Hauerwasian, neither am I a Kuyperian. In fact, I'm more a Niebuhrian in my political theology.

    There is much to like in the book, but there are parts that I found less than helpful. I appreciate the emphasis on worship forming us as people of God, who can enter the world and be change agents. Like Smith I'm cautious about the relationship of church and state, and with him affirm that there "liturgies" related to the state that can form us in ways contrary to the Gospel. I appreciate the conversation about the "military-entertainment complex" that has so captivated us as a people. At the same time Smith has a higher view of Christendom than do I (though I do think some of the critique of Christendom is overblown). There is something about being a "resident alien" who is invested in the state that is appealing, I at times found myself uncomfortable with his understanding of the relationship of church and state. That is, he seems to envision a return to power on the part of Christians that I'm not as comfortable with. But such is his reading of Augustine's City of God and the political philosophy of Oliver O'Donovan.

    Part of my problem is of my own making. I've read O'Donovan, so I'm at loss there. Neither am I all that acquainted with Abraham Kuyper, other than knowing that he was an important political figure who sought to bring faith and politics together in a way that has influenced Reformed political theology in the United States.

    So, he begins in chapter one exploring the notion of liturgy and worship in relationship to democracy. Then in chapters 2 through 4, he gets to the heart of the issue, that is understanding what it means for the church to exist in a political context. He addresses the question of the church as polis, and then moves into a discussion of the influence of Christianity on liberal democracy. He suggests that are many ways in which the church has influenced the development of democracy. Thus, it is appropriate to engage. It is here in chapter three, as he begins to engage with Oliver O'Donovan, that I became uneasy. There is a strong inclination here toward affirming the priority of law and order. I'm not against law and order, but I'm more open to the need for revolution on occasion (I didn't know that the name of Kuyper's party in Holland was the "Anti-Revolutionary Party."). There is in this proposal a certain conservativeness that doesn't resonate with me. This is seen in an extended conversation about "school choice," which Smith seems to endorse, and which Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education is seeking to install nationally. DeVos comes out of this Kuyperian milieu, which gave me pause. The chapter that follows, on pluralism, also gave me pause, because Smith appears to me to be suggesting that we should embrace a "Christian Diversity State." There is room for pluralism in the land, but one granted by Christians. I'm not sure this works out well in practice. In any case, these are questions we need to wrestle with in this time and place where religion and politics are increasingly intermingling, not always with good effect.

    Chapter five raises questions about natural that are worth exploring, but more imporant is chapter six, which is subtitled "Our 'Godfather' Problem." The point of this very important chapter, in which Smith engages in conversation with Willie James Jennings, an African American theologian who is a graduate of both Calvin College and Fuller Seminary (we overlapped briefly). The focus of the chapter is addressing the reality that Christian liturgy has too often failed to form us into good citizens. That is, one can worship and still be a racist. Thus, the point of the Godfather films, which the Godfather participates in religious ritual, but then engages in criminal behavior. There seems to be a disconnect. Smith understands this dilemma because it challenges his premise that liturgy forms us. So the question is, why do we see malformed persons engaging in worship, but living contrary to the Gospel. In this chapter he invites pastors to become ethnographers who examine the culture and its liturgies, so as to be better prepared to respond. He suggests that "part of the pastor-theologian's political work is to enable the people of God to 'read' the practices of the regnant polis, to exegete the liturgies of the earthly city n which they are immersed." (p. 195). This is good advice, though it is dangerous, for we have too often merged cities in such a way that the faith side gets submerged. By helping cultivate heavenly citizens, resident aliens, who can engage in public life in ways that are just and right is good, but not easy.

    So what do I do with this book? I'm not sure. There is much to engage with, but elements I'm uncomfortable with. While I acknowledge that Niebuhr lacked a strong ecclesiology, I wish Smith had engaged him so as to see how that might work.

  • Ian Caveny

    In a world where the Christian theologians, pastors, and laymen routinely communicate co-opted political stances, where televangelists preach the "gospel" of the Religious Right or where T.V. pastors preach the "gospel" of the Christian Left, and, yet, where Christian engagement in "politics" is often reticent, fraught with overcomplexities, and, in the end, discarded, James K.A. Smith's final entry in his

    project is a breath of fresh air. Side-stepping altogether the monastic

    In a world where the Christian theologians, pastors, and laymen routinely communicate co-opted political stances, where televangelists preach the "gospel" of the Religious Right or where T.V. pastors preach the "gospel" of the Christian Left, and, yet, where Christian engagement in "politics" is often reticent, fraught with overcomplexities, and, in the end, discarded, James K.A. Smith's final entry in his

    project is a breath of fresh air. Side-stepping altogether the monastic approach of Rod Dreher's

    , Smith frames his political theology first and foremost as a critique of his own Reformed (= Kuyperian) tradition's positive politics; a, as he puts it, way of "speaking Hauerwas" to the Reformed community. But Smith's account goes so much beyond a particularized challenge.

    Even beyond that, Smith "speaks Kuyper" to the Hauerwasian community, showing some verve in challenging some (and I must emphasize "some") of its ecclesiocentrisms, pointing out its weaknesses, and calling it to re-engagement with the Augustinian (and, even!, Constantinian) political legacy. In that sense, Smith writes between Kuyper, Hauerwas, and Leithart, always with Augustine on the back-burner, and with some significant, sustained engagement with Oliver O'Donovan. (Maybe too much Oliver O'Donovan, see below.)

    It is hard to distill Smith's work into a review-format, but the big takeaway is the nuance Smith articulates between affirming the "goods" of political engagement without committing to a theonomistic or theocratic vision of the secular government. Dominionism has no room in Smith's theology here, and he (very appropriately) asserts that such oversimplified accounts of Christian political engagement, more often than not, form the Church into the image of the world, rather than (as their proponents suggest) vice-versa. Smith reframes all political thought from that of "spaces" (as the Reformed "sphere" doctrine suggests) into that of "times," keeping the eschatological

    of the Church in view at all times to avoid the dominionist error. With this established, he then delves deeply into Augustine's

    and the works of Oliver O'Donovan (

    and

    especially) in order to navigate the unique complexities of

    qua

    .

    In so doing, at times, Smith overindulges in reference and quotation. There is a middle section in this work that feels like a big clumping of O'Donovan quotes.

    isn't quite as polished as the previously two entries in the

    sequence, and one kind of gets the sense that Smith is hesitant (for more than a few reasons, I am sure) to articulate his own political claims. There is a complexity in speaking to the "political" in our current culture and context, one which calls the Christian theologian to honor the complexities and nuance of a wide variety of political

    . (Although, Smith does not hold back from a snide, and hilarious, rip against American evangelicalism on page 205!)

    Most significant, in

    Smith proves the practical power of his theses from

    . If we see the world as a matrix of competing visions of "the good," as full of idols and pagan gods (if we re-enchant it), as competitive formations, then we must also see that the practices for Christian political formation call us to a different form or structure of political engagement. There are, I think, other possible theses to pursue with

    as their foundations, and I hope Smith's work has a wide receptivity in the seminary and the academy for years to come.

    As a pastor, I feel most empowered in the ethnographic (that is, sociological) end of my work. Smith's political theology does a great job in accomplishing what Walter Brueggemann's

    failed to do: provide the practical and theological grounds for the pastor's social, i.e. creational, work.

    This work is a more-than-suitable conclusion for the

    project, and it deserves not only to be read but to be implemented by pastors and theologians, for the sake of the good of the world.

  • Simon

    The best one of the series. More Reformed, more conservative, and more helpful than was expecting. There are some problems, which I will unpack elsehwere, not least the 'church-as-polis' thing. But more later.

  • Nathan Mladin

    Writing review now for Theos think tank


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