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Imagining the Kingdom

How Worship Works

series: Cultural Liturgies

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How does worship work? How exactly does liturgical formation shape people? And how does the Spirit marshal the dynamics of such transformation? In the second of James K. A. Smith's three-volume theology of culture, the author expands and deepens the analysis of cultural liturgies and Christian worship he developed in his acclaimed Desiring the Kingdom. Drawing on the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, this book helps readers understand and appreciate the bodily basis of habit formation and how liturgical formation--both "secular" and Christian--affects one's fundamental orientation to the world. Worship "works" by leveraging one's body to transform his or her imagination, and it does this through stories understood on a register that is closer to body than mind. This has critical implications for thinking about the nature of Christian formation and the role of the arts in Christian mission.

Students of philosophy, liturgical studies, and theology will welcome this work as will scholars, pastors, worship leaders, and Christian educators. Imagining the Kingdom includes analyses of popular films, novels, and other cultural phenomena, such as The King's Speech, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, the iPhone, and Facebook.
How to Read This Book
Introduction: A Sentimental Education: On Christian Action
Part 1: Incarnate Significance: The Body as Background
1. Erotic Comprehension
2. The Social Body
Part 2: Sanctified Perception
3. "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live": How Worship Works
4. Restor(y)ing the World: Christian Formation for Mission


"Imagining the Kingdom is a fit successor to Jamie Smith's remarkable Desiring the Kingdom. The new book is, like its predecessor, learned but lively, provocative but warmhearted, a manifesto and a guide. Smith takes Christians deeper into the artistic, imaginative, and practical resources on which we must draw if we wish to renew not only our minds but also our whole beings in Christ."

Alan Jacobs, Honors College of Baylor University

"In this wonderfully rich and engagingly readable book of 'liturgical anthropology,' Smith makes a persuasive case for the thesis that human beings are best understood as worshiping animals. It has important implications at once for practical theology's reflection on religious formation, liturgy, and pedagogy and for philosophical theorizing about just what religion is. And it develops as an engaging and lively conversation among an astonishing mix of people: imagine Calvin, Proust, Merleau-Ponty, Augustine, Wendell Berry, Bourdieu, and David Foster Wallace all in the same room really talking to each other about being human and how to think about it!"

David Kelsey, Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology Emeritus, Yale Divinity School

"This book is a thought-provoking, generative reflection on the imagination-shaping power of Christian worship practices. Smith describes and demonstrates how practices, perceptions, emotions, and thought interact and how together they can be shaped in cruciform ways. What an ideal book for crossing boundaries among academic disciplines and between the academy and the church."

John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary

"Jamie Smith shows us that the gospel does not primarily happen between our ears but in all the movements of the body by which we are formed and in turn form the world. I know of no more thorough and sophisticated account of how secular liturgies form and deform us and how Christian liturgies can help. Though sophisticated, Smith's book is also a delight. Its pages are filled with great poetry and insights from films, novels, and everyday life. Smith shows how we encounter God with our whole selves and how God carries us even when we don't know what is going on."

William T. Cavanaugh, senior research professor, DePaul University

"It is heartening to set one's eyes on Jamie Smith's bold and creative endeavor to awaken Christians, Protestants in particular, to the centrality of worship in even, nay especially, our moral lives. Smith's acute insight into the false and lying stories and liturgies generated by the dominant powers of our economy makes his case for a reclamation of worship within the churches compelling; for this thoughtful book is rightly concerned with a restoration of the Christian imagination rooted in habits of virtue."

Vigen Guroian, professor of religious studies, University of Virginia; author of The Melody of Faith

The Author

  1. James K. A. Smith
    Seth Thompson, © 2017 Green Frog Photo

    James K. A. Smith

    James K. A. Smith (PhD, Villanova University) is a popular speaker and the award-winning author of a number of influential books, including Desiring the Kingdom, How (Not) to Be Secular, You Are What You Love, On the Road with...

    Continue reading about James K. A. Smith


2013 Word Guild Award - Academic category

"Arguing that we are guided primarily by imagination, which is primed through the conduit of the body, Smith maintains that the structure of church liturgies matter deeply in providing a counterweight to the liturgies of self-centeredness promoted in the larger culture. . . . Smith uses literature, poetry, philosophy, and film to make a compelling case that it would behoove churches and seminaries to attend more closely to imagination and aesthetics rather than doctrine as central to developing an other-oriented Christian desire."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"[Smith] vivifies his discussion by analyzing contemporary literature, film, and human creativity as catalysts for worldview transformation. . . . Smith addresses both academic and more popular concerns in relation to his broader definition of liturgy. . . . An important book that may have wide appeal among serious readers in relation to secular education as well as Christian transformation."

Carolyn Craft,

Library Journal

"We find Smith's argument largely persuasive and helpful. . . . Smith provokes readers to question the habits of the Christian university, particularly as a part of the larger body of Christ. . . . Smith's assertion that we are embodied social beings embedded in our culture has very practical implications for all college personnel. . . . We take Smith's claims in Imagining the Kingdom seriously in informing our 'work' in partnering with God in kingdom work. We are called to be faithful stewards--cultivating good soil receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit. Smith reminds us how to cultivate good soil, but ultimately, it is the Holy Spirit who infuses and changes lives."

Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern,

Books & Culture

"The most influential example of public theology in the last decade."

John Wilson,

Books & Culture

"There is much to welcome in Smith's advocacy for the 'formative practices of intentional Christian worship.' Not least among the implications of this is the re-engagement of the body in practices of reverence at a time when there is less and less habituated knowledge of what to do when we pray. The third volume promises to be an interesting continuation of some of the issues not quite resolved in this lively work."

Bridget Nichols,


"A provocative contribution to theological anthropology, ecclesiology, and liturgical studies. . . . Imagining the Kingdom prompts readers to wrestle with the staying power of Christian formation in people's bodily lives. Scholars and church leaders concerned with theological anthropology, liturgy, or Christian education will benefit most from this book."

Jodi L. A. Belcher,

Anglican Theological Review

"Imagining the Kingdom is ambitious in its attempt to develop a new conversation between Merleau-Ponty, Bourdieu, and theological anthropology in a way that is accessible to the nonspecialist, and it succeeds in advancing the scholarly conversation, and offering a theory of liturgical formation that will doubtless be of great interest to some practitioners. . . . Smith is to be applauded for inhabiting this 'between' space as successfully as he does here."

Orion Edgar,

Modern Theology

"This is a demanding but rewarding book, far-reaching in argument, with conclusions that demand attention and deserve consideration. Not a quick read--it wants to get under the skin, to lodge there and work powerfully on how we nurture and live out of our imaginations. Smith's argument, while sustained throughout, weaves widely and roams suggestively across his four main chapters. Being the second volume in a projected trilogy, this scope is expected and welcome. . . . I came away persuaded liturgies and pedadogies must address desire and formation, not simply knowledge and information. My formational practices are more intentional as a result. This book will feed teachers, church leaders, artists, and ordinary Christians. Hopefully, it will inspire more liturgists, broadly understood. . . . My imagination is engaged by [this book], and hungry for the finale of Smith's stimulating trilogy."

Matthew Sleeman,


"The second volume of this three-part series of 'cultural liturgies' has been highly anticipated. . . . Smith's opportunities of imaginative musings give readers the chance to study in such a way that it is more in line with the topic of study, so that reading itself becomes a type of practice. . . . Smith forces non-specialized readers to read slowly and carefully, dwelling in their expositions, drawing on repeated themes from volume one in order to make even the reading of his book more like a practice: drawing us into the argument by appealing to the imagination more than the intellect. . . . Readers who enjoyed Desiring the Kingdom will appreciate hearing more of Smith's insights. It is possible to read volume two without having read the first volume, but I would guess reading them in order would situate the reader better."

Jasmine Smart,

Englewood Review of Books

"I don't know if I've ever left a book more dog-eared and battered in less time than James K. A. Smith's Imagining the Kingdom. Like his previous work, Desiring the Kingdom, Smith covers an immense amount of territory in an economy of well-written pages. Phenomenology, anthropology, theology, culture, art, poetry, liturgy, literature, Downton Abbey, and David Foster Wallace are all discussed with coherence. . . . As a pastor of worship and one who enjoys reading philosophy, I absolutely loved this book. Smith profoundly underlines the importance of the practices of the gathered church, while offering salient critiques of much of the contemporization of those practices. . . . Smith challenges, entertains, and worships in his writing. He leaves the reader with a vision for humanity and worship that is at once humbling and wondrous."--Mike Cosper, The Gospel Coalition

Mike Cosper,

The Gospel Coalition

"Smith provides an excellent metaphysical look at worship."

Warren Anderson,

Worship Leader

"Imagining the Kingdom is relevant and compelling. It may be challenging for practitioners, but is worth the work, as it will likely have an impact on how they think about leading and structuring worship. . . . If [scholars] keep their eyes to the footnotes, there is great fodder for deeper exploration of relevant scholarship. . . . Smith's sources are broad and varied, ranging from French theorists to pop-culture. However, his treatment is very coherent and his thesis is always in view. . . . Smith makes a strong argument for the formative power of worship practices, and effectively communicates the importance of capturing our imagination in them."

Matthew Overby,

Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care

"This is an excellent book, a profound theological evaluation of worship. It should be required reading for every pastor or minister, especially those who lead worship. But any Christian worshipper will find the insights challenging, stimulating, and encouraging. . . . Read this book."

Glenn R. Kreider,

Bibliotheca Sacra

"Smith has delivered yet another well-argued and provocative thesis. Even if one does not agree with each and every one of his answers . . . the questions, and the answers, merit serious consideration. . . . Recommended for practitioners comfortable with philosophical language, as well as scholars interested in conversations of embodiment and worship."

Christopher R. Brewer,


"Imagining the Kingdom will be familiar to those of us who have followed Smith's important arguments. He has a lot of proverbial irons in the fire--speaking and teaching and writing on all manner of things--they are of a piece, for those with Biblical ears to hear. . . . Smith covers a lot of ground. . . . Not too many serious philosophers are as familiar with early church sources as well as contemporary Pentecostal thinkers, are conversant with Reformed theologians (older and newer, stricter and looser) and are in ecumenical discussions with, say, Church of England leaders and Orthodox theologians--and have such interests in civic life and public justice. . . . This is one heckuva book. Praise God for such a serious scholar doing this caliber of work, with such a vast horizon of interest."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"Both Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom offer a helpful critique of the intellectualist model of Christian discipleship. . . . Smith rightfully points to the way human beings work, mostly on an intuitive level, and guides the reader to the conclusion that this area of human knowledge, the imagination, must be cultivated and shaped along with the intellect in order to form the entire person for Christ. . . . Smith's work is one with which all theologians and pastors ought to wrestle. On an academic level, Smith's articulation of how knowledge and formation work is convincing, and should shape conversations about epistemology, discipleship, and worship practices. On a pastoral level, Smith's case is seemingly airtight for reflecting on worship practices. . . . Smith's work provides insightful critiques of modern culture and the implicit liturgies in them. . . . I could not recommend Smith's book more highly to both theologians and pastors. He is a phenomenal writer and a careful thinker, and his argument is one that must be dealt with by those seeking to understand 'How Worship Works.'"

Matthew Y. Emerson,


"Pastors and educators will benefit from the ways in which this book helps readers reflect on important questions. The book also offers a helpful, accessible introduction to French philosophy and creatively integrates film and fiction into the theological conversation."

Paul Galbreath,


"Smith's work is stimulating academically, providing rich and complex fodder for our reflections on worship and Christian formation. . . . There can be nothing more wonderful than stimulating theological reflection that also orients us towards the deepest possibilities and experiences of the Christian faith. I dare to suggest that Smith's work has been that encounter for many of us. . . . Smith's work gets us up close and better able to read real worship practices. . . . The possibilities for using Smith to understand the social practices of any kind of group or people are immediately evident. I suspect there will be many fruitful future PhDs that undertake the reading of communities, with Smith, that allow us to better understand what is really 'working' and taking place in those communities."

Jason Clark,

The Church & Postmodern Culture blog

"[An] accessible, lively book. . . . [Smith] means to subordinate the twin temptations of theological dogmatism and subjectivism with a rigorous, embodied sense of the centrality of the imagination for our knowing and living in the world. . . . The book is packed with vivid examples and strong use of movies and literature. . . . Smith's book should also be required reading for ethicists, because he has such a deft touch in describing what amounts to Aristotelian virtue, but in a non-mechanistic way that (more than Thomas does) appreciates the 'environmental education' of cultural imagination and sensibility. . . . Smith's project makes accessible and less polemical a view that pushes us beyond modern dichotomies of interior/exterior, individual/community, body/mind, theory/practice to a richer understanding of what Christian identity really means. Instead of simply vilifying one or the other term in the dichotomy, he develops language that helps us escape from our own conceptual dead-ends. That he does so in just over 200 pages, with consistently engaging examples and stories, is particularly impressive."

David Cloutier,

Catholic Books Review

"Books by Jamie Smith are always engaging, thoughtful, provocative and enlightening. But what I love most is that for every confusing, obscure French philosopher he quotes, there is a contemporary example from film, music, or literature to drive home the main point."

Derek Melleby,

College Transition Initiative blog (named Imagining the Kingdom one of the "Top 10 Books for 2013")

"Smith's follow-up to Desiring the Kingdom continues a provocative and immensely helpful exploration of the meaning of worship and the shaping influence of 'cultural liturgies' in the Christian life. The book offers an important corrective for an evangelicalism that has seen worldview and thinking Christianly as the most important elements of Christian formation; Smith argues that the embodied practices of life (he skillfully interacts with Bourdieu's notion of habitus) are at least as important (or more) in shaping our desires for Christ and his kingdom."

Brett McCracken,

The Search blog (named Imagining the Kingdom one of the Best Books of 2013)

"[A] great book. . . . Having critiqued in the first volume [Desiring the Kingdom] the rather thin habits of most Christian congregations, and warned of the formative influences of the seemingly more substantial secular litanies, [Smith] now turns to how true Christian worship can, in fact, help turn us into robust Christians who live for Christ in all areas of life. . . . While I am aware . . . that this is a particularly demanding and at times even obtuse work, it is none-the-less of extraordinary importance. This book should be widely known among us, widely read, struggled with, studied, and lived out. It, is, like its predecessor, truly one of the most important books published in this decade."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog (named Imagining the Kingdom the "Best Academic Book of 2013")

"There is much in this latest installation of Smith's Cultural Liturgies series that is commendable. Overall, Smith clearly expresses his argument and builds a strong case for the potency of the liturgies that surround us, the liturgical animals. In doing so, the reader is introduced to the important work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu. By the end of the book the reader will have a better feel for the importance of these early and exciting conversations in the philosophy of liturgy. Moreover, this book is thoughtfully organized. . . . I look forward to Smith's forthcoming third volume. It will undoubtedly be pedagogically rich, insightful, and challenging. Joining academicians and practitioners (hopefully the former are part of the latter) is no easy project, but he does it well. And thus far Smith has done an exemplary job in helping lead the way in this burgeoning conversation on liturgical anthropology."

Jonathan S. Marko,

Calvin Theological Journal

"In this second volume the author continues a practice initiated in the first [Desiring the Kingdom], namely, enhancing his argument by providing illustrative sidebars throughout. These elucidating asides . . . are comprised variously of apt anecdotes, pertinent poetry, and telling literary excerpts or cinematic analyses. . . . The eschatological implications of Smith's work are a welcome alternative to destructive or totally futuristic 'end visions.'. . . We may eagerly await [the third volume.]"

William H. Petersen,

Anglican Theological Review

"Imagining the Kingdom has been much anticipated by those captured by the author's first volume in this series on Cultural Liturgies, Desiring the Kingdom, which provided a rich, stimulating reflection on Christian education and Christian formation. . . . Imagining the Kingdom continues in the same trajectory, providing an expanded account and more robust vision of our being-in-the-world as embodied, liturgical, habituated, imagining creatures. At the heart of Smith's critique in both volumes is the inadequate view that humans are fundamentally motivated by what they think and the intellectualist world of ideas. . . . While the bias towards humans as first of all thinking beings is difficult to break, Smith is tenacious in providing an account where thinking comes second to 'bodily interaction with the world.'"

Irma Fast Dueck,

Conrad Grebel Review

"[This volume] invite[s] serious reflection on what Christian churches and schools can do to help shape citizens of the kingdom of God."

Don Wacome,


"An engaging book of 'liturgical anthropology.'. . . Scholarly spirituality studies libraries will relish the philosophical discussions."

Midwest Book Review

"This persuasive and insightful book consolidates Smith's position as one of the leading voices in current conversations on the cultural significance of theology. This book should be studied with interest and profit, particularly by pastors and teachers who are concerned about how imaginative liturgical practice can contribute to the reinvigoration of worship and spiritual formation in our churches and theological colleges."

Joshua Searle,

Regent's Reviews

"The text illuminates abstract ideas so that they can be grappled with on a practical level. . . . Smith wrote this book for scholars and practitioners alike. In keeping with his intention, the text is not an easy or quick read. It is, however, very useful for those who desire a deeper treatment of how worship, culture, and imagination are interdependent."

Callie Campbell,


"Smith dives into the deep waters of philosophy, but the diligent reader will find a discussion of formation and re-formation that should alter and elevate their view of both personhood and ministry."

Daniel Stember,


"[Smith] deftly bridges the academy and the church--the full footnotes provide the academic support for the arguments and the vignettes provide a more concrete view. Thus, the main text is interspersed with helpful examples utilizing films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Jane Campion's Bright Star, The King's Speech and novels like David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine. . . . His is a transformative approach. This liturgical anthropology Smith develops is important not only for academics but for all Christian educators, from infant through to postgraduate level, as well as for pastors and church worship leaders. . . . I look forward to the third part of this so-far excellent trilogy."

Steve Bishop,

An Accidental Blog

"[Smith] believes that formation for Christian action, like training for any other activity, requires practice. . . . Imagining the Kingdom, the second of the three part series after Desiring the Kingdom, does an admirable job continuing the conversation about practice. . . . Smith is a refreshingly unpredictable read. . . . For the patient reader, Smith is actually an able communicator of abstruse theoretical subjects, and even a rough understanding of these philosophers will expand one's intellectual toolbox."

Charlie Clark,

Fare Forward