James K. A. Smith is currently Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI where he also teaches in the Department of Congregational and Ministry Studies.  He also serves as Executive Director of the Society of Christian Philosophers.  His book Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation was awarded The 2010 Word Guild Award in Leadership/Theoretical, as well the Christianity Today2010 Book Award in Theology/Ethics.  His new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, was just published by Brazos.

1. You’re currently teaching philosophy at Calvin College, and you’ve written a series of books, from academic philosophical studies to collections of op-ed essays about contemporary Christianity. For Patrol readers who aren’t familiar with your work, tell us a little about your journey: when you became a Christian, when and why you decided upon a life in academia.

I wasn’t raised in the church and became a Christian when I was 18 years-old, back in Canada (through my girlfriend—now wife—doing a little missionary dating).  This was a sort of Damascus Road experience for me, not because I’d been a licentious frat boy but because I quickly discovered why I had a brain.  I immediately abandoned my plans to become an architect in order to pursue what I sensed was a call to pastoral ministry.  When I was a sophomore in college, I discovered Reformed theology and then, shortly afterwards, began reading Francis Schaeffer and later Alvin Plantinga.  All sorts of lights went on for me and I began to sense that perhaps my calling was to be a Christian scholar.

So at the end of college, I had to choose between seminary and grad school in philosophy.  It was a real struggle for me—one of the few really existential choices I had to make.  But when we settled on the academic direction, everything sort of fell into place and I was at peace with the decision.  I’m sometimes still tempted by pastoral ministry a bit, but it’s a heck of a lot more work, so that usually passes pretty quickly.

However, I do think it’s been that sort of “pastoral” side that has always made me inclined to be a scholar who tries to serve the church—trying to think through issues and challenges in order to help the church be a faithful witness in our late modern culture.  I think that’s what’s behind my more “popular” work: I sometimes describe that as “outreach scholarship.”  My exemplar here is Rich Mouw, one of my predecessors in the philosophy department at Calvin and now president of Fuller Seminary.  Rich is the model of what we might call an “ecclesial scholar.”

2. Part of your own story has been a navigation between philosophy and theology, between Pentecostalism and Reformed Calvinism, and between Christianity and contemporary Western culture. What has drawn you in these different directions? You edit a book series, and you’re completing a series of volumes that seems to navigate these issues more concretely (The Cultural Liturgies Project, 3 volumes) – what are you hoping to accomplish? Where do you see yourself moving in the future?

When you put it this way, I just sound like a kind of theological mutt!  There’s a pilgrimage that can be plotted in my trajectory from dispensationalism through Pentecostalism and into the Reformed tradition, but I won’t bore you with that here.  (In Letters to a Young Calvinist, I talk about this as a path to becoming catholic, oddly enough.)  I think the Pentecostal and Reformed streams come together in my new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy.  Anyway, these are features of autobiography more than some intentional “choice.”

As for the diverse projects and what I’m hoping to accomplish—that’s an interesting question.  I guess I’m working on multiple fronts.  A lot of my work has been on “postmodernism” (including my editing of the “Church and Postmodern Culture” book series).  This is where I’m trying to take my expertise in European philosophy and use it to help Christians understand cultural shifts and the impact of ideas on contemporary culture—again, with the goal of thinking carefully about the shape of Christian practice.

It was this that gave rise to my “Cultural Liturgies” trilogy, of which Desiring the Kingdom is the first volume.  In a way, I can plot the trajectory to this project from chapter 7 of my earlier book, Introducing Radical Orthodoxy and the chapter on Foucault in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? In general, I think Christians have operated with a reductionistic notion of “culture”—reducing it to the level of ideas—and failed to appreciate the affective dynamics of cultural formation.  That can be both detrimental and a missed opportunity.  It’s also part of why Protestants—and evangelicals in particular—have been largely unreflective about the formative role of worship.  So the second volume, tentatively titled How Worship Works, is going to explore what I’m calling the “mechanics” of liturgical formation by exploring an analogy between literature and liturgy, drawing on research at the intersection of literature and cognitive science.  The third volume will focus on politics: the wager there is that thinking about the politics in terms of liturgy changes the debate.  In doing so, I ultimately hope to respond to Jeffrey Stout’s critique of what he calls the “new traditionalism” (Hauerwas, MacIntyre, Milbank) in his very important book, Democracy and Tradition.

Alas, I’m rambling.  I won’t bore you with all my projects.  What am I trying to accomplish?  Well, on the one hand, you could say that I’m regularly trying to get evangelicals to remember they are catholic.  That is, I’m trying to press evangelicals to see themselves as connected to the catholic heritage of Christian faith and practice.  On the other hand, I’m hoping to help Christians understand the dynamics of contemporary culture—to appreciate, celebrate, mine, and criticize contemporary culture as both an expression of humanity’s culture-making mandate while also recognizing how disordered cultural institutions can be.  My hero in this respect is St. Augustine, and his City of God is doing something similar, I think, in a different cultural context.

So yeah: that’s sort of my goal.  And of course: I’d like to be mildly famous.  Any Christian scholar or public intellectual who doesn’t own up to that sinful desire has obviously not read Augustine’s Confessions, especially Book 10.  There Augustine gives a great, almost psychoanalytic analysis of the tensions we experience: when we try to do what’s right and good, we end up getting praise, and then we can easily fall into the trap of doing this stuff in order to get fame and praise.  I’m enough of a Calvinist to be constantly aware of this.  In fact, doing interviews really fuels such vainglory.  Maybe we should stop right here.

3. Given both your academic and more popular work, what has drawn you to write for both audiences? How does a Christian academic trained in continental philosophy attempt to contribute to contemporary discussions of Christianity in both a critical but accessible way? Is there anything about the nature of this commitment that you see embedded within Christian belief and practice itself?

Well, I don’t want to imply that all Christian scholars have to write for more popular audiences.  It is of course a legitimate calling to simply speak into the conversations in a specialized discipline and I don’t want to diminish the importance of that sort of “witness” as a Christian scholar.  Plus, writing for wider audiences isn’t always easy and certainly isn’t automatic.  The guilds of scholarship don’t often train us to communicate in ways that are widely accessible: instead they tend to inculcate us into specialist jargon that we use as a shorthand with the other 6 people in our subdiscipline.  So some scholars just won’t have the skills or gifts to be able to speak to wider audiences.  And that’s OK.

On the other hand, I do think Christian scholars have a special sort of obligation to the church as a “public.”  I think we owe debts to our Christian brothers and sisters, and that the life of the church often buoys our imagination more than we realize.  I know I’ve always had a sense that I’m able to do what I do because of Christian communities and constituencies that make it possible for me to be a scholar and a teacher.  So I think I owe something to them, and the best way to love my brothers and sisters is for me to share my gifts with them—which, in my case, means trying to find ways to share the fruits of my scholarship.

4. There seems to be a reinvigorated debate amongst Christians about how they should understand and engage the culture in which they live. You have written a review of James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World, and you’ve interviewed Hunter himself. Perhaps you’d like to be a bit more explicit about what you see as at stake in these debates? Although it’s complex subject, how would you suggest Christians today might better understand and engage their cultural context?

I think we’re in a time of some ferment about Christianity and culture right now, especially amongst evangelicals.  Granted, you still have the kind of “relevance” phenomenon—post-fundamentalist evangelicals who are geeked to learn that they might be able to listen to Coldplay and go to R-rated movies and thus tend to just have a naïve enthusiasm about cultural engagement in the name of being “relevant.”  I tire of that really quickly and have to work hard not to be condescending.

But there is another interesting development afoot.  I think something like a watered-down, distorted Kuyperian project has taken hold of evangelicalism over the last generation (think of Chuck Colson’s book, How Now Shall We Live? which was kind of a Schaefferian Kuyper for evangelicals).  This sort of woke evangelicals from their a-cultural slumbers, but it really only woke them to partisan federal politics and, as such, underwrote the rise of the Religious Right.  And the big problem with the Religious Right is the instrumentalization of Christianity for the sake of American civil religion.  In other words, the real danger is confusing faith in God for faith in America.

Now there’s a generation of people who are entirely disenchanted with this confusion and conflation, but they’re expressing that in very different ways.  You have the sort of Shaine Claiborne/Greg Boyd vaguely “Anabaptist” response on the one hand, but then also a renewal of “two kingdoms” thinking amongst the young, restless, and Reformed crowd.  Both share concerns about the shape of American civil religion, I think, but have different prescriptions.

Hunter’s book drops into this ferment.  I think it’s a very important book, hopefully displacing the tired, overblown influence of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.  Hunter diagnoses this situation with a more sophisticated understanding of culture and cultural change.  And what I think is most significant is the extent to which he is sympathetic to the “neo-Anabaptist” project, as he calls it.  Of course he’s ultimately critical of it, but I think he appreciates it more than most “mainstream” commentators.  Indeed, I think his prescription for “faithful presence” in the elite spaces of culture-shaping institutions is closer to the Anabaptist vision than he sometimes realizes.

I hope my work, especially Desiring the Kingdom, sort of supplements his analysis by also helping us to appreciate the formative power of cultural practices.  Indeed, I describe them as “secular liturgies,” and I think analyzing culture through the lens of worship raises the stakes.  And again, I think this is exactly the sort of analysis Augustine was undertaking in City of God: the empire was not “just” a political reality—it was informed by disordered worship.  I think we need a similar “liturgical” analysis of culture.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

0 Responses to James K.A. Smith on Philosophy, Culture and Communication

  1. Russell says:

    I quite enjoyed the article and thank you gentleman for taking to the time to complete it. I have finished both Desiring the Kingdom and Hunters To Change the World this past year and enjoyed them both, especially Smiths work. Look forward to the conversation surrounding these themes.

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