The relationship of Christianity and culture and its implications for education continue to be fascinating topics. In Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith, philosophy professor at Calvin College, has written one of the most
interesting and thought- provoking studies of Christianity and culture in recent years and provides, by his own admis-sion, some fairly radical ideas for making Christ-ian education more integrally Christian. Smith intends this book for the general reader (not the scholar), and it should certainly be of interest to all sorts of people concerned about culture and Christian education.
Smith's big claim is that Christian education needs to be more intimately connected to Christian worship and liturgy, which ultimately means that Christian schools (he focuses on colleges and universities) should be ecclesial schools–extensions of the church and its worship. He argues that education is not primarily about imparting information but about the formation of hearts and desires. Our characters are being formed (that is, educated) all the time in anti-Christian directions by the "secular liturgies" of this world, and Christians should be much more intentional about educating their youth in ways that counteract these secular liturgies and impart Christian character.
In chapter 1, Smith challenges the Platonic, Cartesian, and modern assumption that human beings are primarily thinking creatures, which in turn encourages a view of education focused upon the intellect. He believes that much contemporary Christian education, which focuses upon imparting a "Christian worldview," has been insufficiently critical of this perspective and is overly concerned about training students how to think. Most fundamental to the human person is not how we think but what we love and desire. Chapter 2 explores how "material, embodied practices" shape our loves and desires, and Smith identifies our "thickest" or most weighty practices as "liturgies." In chapter 3, Smith explores and critiques many of the "secular liturgies" that constantly threaten to direct our desires in anti-Christian directions. In light of his American context, he focuses upon the mall and consumer capitalism, the "military-entertainment complex," and the university as cultural institutions that seek to impart their own vision of the good life.
Smith turns in chapter 4 to the relationship of worldview and worship. He argues against the common assumption that our ideas and doctrines come first and then our worship practices follow from them. Instead, people are shaped by worship before they develop worldviews. This formative Christian worship, he claims, is a physical experience grounded in a broadly sacramental view of reality. In chapter 5, Smith takes his readers through the various elements of Christian worship and reflects upon how these practices ought to form our loves and desires in a genuinely Christian direction, thereby correcting the influence of the secular liturgies.
Smith concludes his study in Chapter 6 by unpacking some implications for Christian higher education. Because worship/liturgy is so crucial for Christian education (understood as the formation of proper desires), Christian universities must be "extensions of the mission of the church." Instead of Christian colleges we need ecclesial colleges. This involves, Smith suggests, a thorough rethinking of curriculum and pedagogy, which we would expect to look quite different from those of non-Christian institutions. It also means that chapel and classroom must be more thoroughly integrated and dorms should become worshiping Christian communities. Christian universities should represent a kind of monastic experience, albeit without the anti-cultural connotations often associated with monasticism.
Though not particularly lengthy, Smith's book is rich and deserves more thorough interaction than a review of this size can provide. Positively, Smith's writing is clear and winsome, and he lays out a case both theoretically substantive and practically engaging. He is compelling in calling attention to how the heart determines who a person is. As Augustine recognized long ago, what we love and desire is central to our identity. Smith is also very insightful in unveiling the severe threats to proper Christian loves posed by the practices of mainstream cultural institutions. Though my own views on proper worship differ in some respects from Smith's, his exploration of how Christian worship should shape us in all sorts of distinctive ways is stimulating and profitable. Whatever one concludes about his proposal for rethinking Christian education, there is much to gain by wrestling with his sympathetic critiques of worldview-focused Christian schools in the light of the centrality of worship and character formation for authentic Christian living.
Despite the stimulating insights throughout this book, in my judgment Smith's proposal for Christian (higher) education is ultimately not the direction in which we should go. A key difficulty pervading the book is the loss of the uniqueness of the church and its means of grace. In Smith's analysis, the church offers a formative liturgy in a world filled with formative liturgies, it gathers for worship in a world filled with various Christian worshiping communities, and it celebrates sacraments in a world filled with God's sacramental presence. It is difficult to see, from this perspective, how the church is truly a unique institution and community. To his considerable credit, Smith acknowledges the danger of relativizing the church's importance. But his attempts to ward off this danger–for example, by seeing the church's sacraments as "hot spots" where God's presence is particularly "intense"–seem only to make the church quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from any number of other "Christian" institutions. This blurring of the boundaries between the church and other Christian institutions, in fact, is essential for his advocacy of "ecclesial" universities. When we grasp the power of worldly practices and institutions, which Smith so well describes, it may indeed be tempting to respond by extending the work of the church into the college chapel, classroom, and dorm; but I fear this may subtly reflect a lack of confidence in Christ's amazing decision to establish the church alone as the institutional community of the new covenant and to entrust the keys of the kingdom only to it. A powerful foe demands a powerful counterattack, but the church with its unique word and unique sacraments is precisely that.
Smith warns that his educational proposal may not make our children successful participants in the broader culture, since Christian education aims to shape citizens of a different kingdom (Christ's). Undoubtedly Christian parents, teachers, and professors should take opportunities to inoculate youth from the harmful practices of the world, but do we need to be embarrassed to say that general education is largely about preparing people to be productive contributors to mainstream cultures? God has called us, after all, to live as citizens not only of the kingdom of Christ but also of the kingdoms of this world. Smith's book should be read carefully and pondered long, but I wonder if, in the end, we need to be more modest about what general education can and should accomplish and much more confident in the ability of the church–if it will but shepherd God's people faithfully through Christ's powerful means of grace–to shape citizens of the everlasting kingdom of Christ.