James K.A. Smith is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the award-winning author of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church and Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Dr. Smith serves as editor-in-chief of Comment magazine.
Faithfully Magazine interviewed Dr. Smith by email about his newest book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, focusing on topics of the church’s role in racial justice conversations.
Your latest book, Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology, is the third and final installment of your Cultural Liturgies project. Can you give our readers a bite-sized breakdown of the goals of the project and what you hoped to bring to the table in terms of Christian engagement in the world?
In many ways, the project is trying to diagnose the cause of evangelicalism’s cultural assimilation. How is it that American Christians have come to largely mimic the dominant culture? What I suggest is that all of our “worldview” analysis hasn’t done much to stem the tide of our assimilation. That’s because it focused on the “messages” in the broader culture and completely missed the rituals of the cultural waters we swim in. Or as I put it in You Are What You Love, too much of evangelicalism wrongly assumed that we are “thinking things,” mere brains-on-a-stick, fixated on ideas, beliefs, doctrines and messages, completely missing how these cultural rituals—cultural liturgies—bypass our intellects and instead captivate our hearts and imaginations. The problem isn’t what we know or what we think as much as what we love, what we want. And our wants are shaped by the rituals we give ourselves over to. So the Cultural Liturgies project tries to provide a new lens to look at our cultural immersion, highlighting the formative—and de-formative—power of cultural liturgies like the mall and the stadium.
Who has your intended audience been for the Cultural Liturgies project, and has that changed with the final installment, especially as you dove down into public theology?
Well, when I started the project in Desiring the Kingdom, I suppose the target audience was assumed to be those in Christian higher education. But then, much to my surprise, it ended up being read by audiences well beyond that, including pastors, K-12 educators, those engaged in a range of ministries and vocations. So volume 2 (Imagining the Kingdom) tried to address both worship leaders and artists, and volume 3 (Awaiting the King) is hoping to reach pastors as well as a range of folks who work in vocations devoted to the public good, including those working in the spaces of government and civil service.