Desiring the Kingdom Book Club

I am so excited for this book club and conversation! I know in years past the book clubs on Leisure, the Basis of Culture and Poetic Knowledge planted seeds of ideas in my own mind and heart that have grown and affected decisions I make and how I evaluate our homeschool. I believe thinking through and conversing about Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will do the same, for this book is in the same vein as these others. Smith wants us to return to an Augustinian anthropology, because doing so will change how we teach – and also parent, I would add, for parenting is teaching.

Summary: Education is Formation

Desiring the Kingdom, introduction

Smith introduces his book with a statement about what he believes the goal of education should be:

formation of radical disciples who desire the kingdom of God.

This statement struck me. It is not that they do anything for the kingdom, simply that they desire it.

He wants us to stretch our concept of worldview to include more than just our knowledge and how we think about the world, but also how we feel about and identify with the world.

A large part of the introduction is a description of the mall in religious terms. The mall is not about ideas or thoughts, but about desires, identity, and habits. Is it possible to embody our own teaching as holistically and as gut-level as the mall?

Smith argues that our theories and practices of education do not need more accurate statements than they already have, but that they need more fully embodied practices, so that we touch and train our children’s gut instincts through habits and practices.

What defines us is what we love.

What we love is who we are and who we are trying to be. It shapes us on a “precognitive,” “affective” level, which is on a completely “different register.” For those who read Poetic Knowledge, this clearly is Smith’s verbiage for Taylor’s “poetic.” Personally, I think “affective” is a much better and more clear term to use than “poetic,” but they are speaking of the same thing.

Discussion: What Is the Good Life?

We are all aiming at something, even if we are not consciously aware of it. We are aiming toward our conception of what the Good Life looks like, and it is so easy to be influenced by our modern culture (with mannequins at the mall and catalogues galore) about what would make a beautiful, happy life.

What do we think constitutes human flourishing?

What does the good life look like?

As we go through the study of this book, we’ll be forced to examine if our practices line up with what we claim constitutes the Good Life. But truly, it is the choices we make, even unawares, that display what we actually define as flourishing.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

In this section we’re discussing the first part of chapter 1, pages 37-46, about anthropology, or What is Man? in Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

Is Man Rational or Affective?

educational strategies that traffic only in ideas often fail to actually educate; that is, they fail to form people.

We are what we love, more than we are what we think, and our loves are shaped by our actions, our lifestyles, because that is how we learn who we are and what the world is about. We are unavoidably religious creatures, and we all have an ultimate aim, whether we are conscious of it or not, that directs our choices and our affections.

What we need to tap in education is the heart, as well as the mind. We need to consider how our children orient themselves to the world, how we orient ourselves to the world.


ideas, fed somewhat intravenously into the mind through the lines of propositions and information

is ineffective because it ignores the core of who we are: a whole, embodied person, mind, body, and soul.

I loved this statement on page 46:

I want to articulate a more robustly Augustinian anthropology that sees humans as most fundamentally oriented and identified by love.

Discussion: Anthropology-Shaped Pedagogy

What are some educational practices that you think are based on a faulty concept of what man is, what people are?

Building Identity at Home

In Desiring the Kingdom, Smith begins by emphasizing a full-orbed anthropology, because what we believe man is will directly influence how we educate. Is man primarily a brain? Primarily a consumer? Primarily a believer?

These have all been answers to the question “What is man?” in the past, but Smith wants to take us back to a more Augustinian, to a more biblical, view of man: a body and a soul. Rather than saying man is a thinking thing or even a believing thing, Smith says man is a loving thing.

Being a disciple of Jesus is not primarily a matter of getting the right ideas and doctrines and beliefs into your head in order to guarantee proper behavior; rather, it’s a matter of being the kind of person who lovesrightly.

What is the sum of the law and prophets? To love God with all our hearts, minds, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love, rightly ordered love, is the sum of what God wants of us. And what does He give us as means of grace?

Yes, prayer and the word proclaimed, but also water and wine and bread. God gives us tangible practices to repeat again and again as the means of imparting grace to us.

We are made to be such people by our immersion in the material practices of Christian worship – through affective impact, over time, of sights and smell in water and wine.

And we can take that principle and apply it to education, to our forming of the next generation.

The liturgy is a “hearts and minds” strategy, a pedagogy that trains us as disciples precisely by putting our bodies through a regimen of repeated practices that get hold of our heart and “aim” our love toward the kingdom of God.

And what better “space of education” is there for a “regimen of repeated practices” than the home? This is why our homes are so vital. That is why Chesterton said the business of the home is the shaping of the bodies and souls of humanity.

The shaping of the souls begins with the body, with an earthy, daily life full of love. Even if education is done by others in a school, still the homes are a primary indicator of success or failure. It is the daily activities within our families that shape us and aim our hearts toward specific ends, that teach us – imperceptibly – who we are in the world and what the world is all about.

We are what we love, and our love is shaped, primed, and aimed by liturgical practices that take hold of our gut and aim our heart to certain ends.

What are the liturgies of our home that shape our identities and our loves?

  • eating together
  • working together
  • playing together
  • reading together
  • smiles shared
  • tones of voice allowed
  • apologies exchanged
  • consequences applied

All these practices shape our children in our homes no matter where they go for their formal education. These practices educate in fundamental ways, providing a foundation for all other instruction.

We are liturgical animals – embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.

Home is where we are first loved, where we first love, and where we drink in our first and primal assumptions about the world and about ourselves. It is the original and primary space of education.

Lots of Augustine

Now Smith begins developing his idea of a more complete, holistic anthropology, one where man is not only a thinking or believing thing, but also a loving thing. And, that love or care is not general or abstract, but always intentional. Our love and care in the world always has direct objects, direction, aims.

Again we get echoes of Poetic Knowledge: Smith writes that most of the time we are not making deliberate, conscious choices, rationally decided, but are “simply involved in the world,” making choices on the gut-level, a prerational, affective place rather than a cognitive place. We can’t always articulate why we make the choices we do, but it is a prerational (poetic) love that directs those choices.

Smith says that love is what ultimately governs our vision of the good life. What we love is what we pledge allegiance to. What we love is what we worship.

Page 63 contained what I thought was a perfect summary of his position:

This love or desire – which is unconscious or noncognitive – is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented – and act accordingly – is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily senses.

I did a little googling to find a summary of Augustine’s development of rightly ordered loves (other than C.S. Lewis’ more-often quoted summary), and I found this helpful article: St. Augustine on Rightly Ordered Love.

Again we get echoes of Poetic Knowledge: Smith writes that most of the time we are not making deliberate, conscious choices, rationally decided, but are “simply involved in the world,” making choices on the gut-level, a prerational, affective place rather than a cognitive place. We can’t always articulate why we make the choices we do, but it is a prerational (poetic) love that directs those choices.

Smith says that love is what ultimately governs our vision of the good life. What we love is what we pledge allegiance to. What we love is what we worship.

Page 63 contained what I thought was a perfect summary of his position:

This love or desire – which is unconscious or noncognitive – is always aimed at some vision of the good life, some particular articulation of the kingdom. What primes us to be so oriented – and act accordingly – is a set of habits or dispositions that are formed in us through affective, bodily means, especially bodily practices, routines, or rituals that grab hold of our hearts through our imagination, which is closely linked to our bodily senses.

I did a little googling to find a summary of Augustine’s development of rightly ordered loves (other than C.S. Lewis’ more-often quoted summary), and I found this helpful article: St. Augustine on Rightly Ordered Love.

Imagining What Flourishing Looks Like

In this chapter Smith begins to develop a more complete anthropology, one that takes into account our imaginations, our hearts, our gut, our bodies, as well as our minds.

Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have a telos – an end or purpose we are striving for – and, in fact, it is almost always unconscious. In fact, our true telos, our true love, we are aiming for, can even be contrary to what we think or sayour end is. We might know the “right answer” to such questions as “What is the chief end of man?” But what we actually believe is our chief end is what will direct our actual choices. Smith writes,

what is human flourishing?

Rather than being pushed by beliefs, we are pulled by a telos that we desire. It’s not so much that we’re intellectually convinced and then muster the willpower to pursue what we ought; rather, at a precognitive level, we are attracted to a vision of the good life that has been painted for us in stories and myths, images and icons.

The sources of these stories, myths, images, and icons are various: catalogs, advertisements, tv shows, novels, dinners with friends, church services, family stories handed down, Christmas mornings, the endless succession of average school days. All these things converge to impress upon our unconscious imaginations what it is we hope life is.

It is not primarily our minds that are captivated but rather our imaginations that are captured, and when our imagination is hooked, we’re hooked (and sometimes our imaginations can be hooked by very different visions than what we’re feeding into our minds).

This is one reason why fiction is essential. I admit, I enjoy non-fiction for fun reading, and the problem with good novels is that it is hard to function in real life when in the throes of story grip. But, it is through stories more than essays that we see what the world or life might be like. We gain perspective through it, and empathy and vision. Movies and tv shows certainly count, too, as stories that grip us and show us a vision of the world.

Having a correct worldview does not act as a shield against bad visions proclaimed by secular stories or advertising campaigns. In fact, relying too much on mere intellectual assent can even weaken our shield against the false worldviews proclaimed by the much more insidious and compelling marketed to us at all sides, because we need true myths and stories filling our imaginations and claiming our hearts, not only true doctrine in our heads.

It is just like in Jane Austen, where the heroine is protected from a poor suitor (or a good one) because her affections are given to another, not because she has calmly assessed the suitor’s merits. The heart is best protected from false loves by being enamored of a true love. This is true of visions of the good life as well as for romance.

what human flourishing looks like

Thus we become certain kinds of people; we begin to emulate, mimic, and mirror the particular vision that we desire.

Again, just like in novels (and real life), where the woman’s choices and preferences become influenced by her love, so our everyday choices are influenced by our heart, whether we are aware of it or not.

This is just to say that to be human is to desire “the kingdom,” someversion of the kingdom, which is the aim of our quest. Every one of us is on a kind of Arthurian quest for “the Holy Grail,” that hoped-for, longed-for, dreamed-of picture of the good life – the realm of human flourishing – that we pursue without ceasing.

What is the vision of flourishing which we intellectually affirm? How can we reach our hearts and imaginations with that vision? How can we inspire our children’s imaginations and hearts with the vision of flourishing that might currently be more cognitive than affective in our lives?
Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

In this section we’re discussing the last of chapter 1, pages 63-73, about Smith’s alternative to worldview-talk: social imaginaries talk. It feels like we’ve wended a long, circuitous, wordy way ‘round the introduction, and should now be set up to get to the meat of it. But, I haven’t managed to get more than a few pages ahead of the book club assignments, so I am not sure if this impression is correct.

A concept by any other name

Worldview, narratives, social imaginaries, oh my! What’s the dif, really?

In Smith’s opinion, worldview talk often ignores practices, focusing primarily on beliefs, assumptions, and concepts. Worldview talk ignores the real working of culture, deconstructing it rather than building it up. Often, it teaches as if the world’s culture can be combatted with a lecture or with a critique, rather than bestowing a culture of its own.

Smith, instead, wants a term that encompasses practices (which is where culture is born), narratives, and the communal and traditional nature of culture and perspective.

I do think the critique of the first wave of worldview emphasis is worth rethinking. I’m not eager to pick up such cumbersome terms as social imaginaries, but I do think worldviewishness needs to include virtue, practices, tradition, and story more robustly. It is a fair stereotype to say (as Jenny Rallens did in her lecture on liturgy) that worldview-focused education tends to produce critical, analytical, haughty students who are too good and too smart for awe and wonder, and maybe even for virtue-with-legs.

I loved his comment that culture is more of a verb than a noun. I admit, however, that it brought up a quite uncultured memory of D.C. Talk’s rap-like song “Love is a Verb” that I thought was so good in middle school. Culture, culture is a verb. And is, perhaps, culture a form of love? Yes, that is what he is saying.

The Home Shapes Bodies and Souls

Although the primary point of this final section of chapter 1 was a critique and expanding of the concept of worldview, replacing it with the term social imaginaries, it was these few lines further developing how what we do, what we know, and what we love are all tied up together and interdependent.

An ancient wisdom in the Christian tradition […] might be formulated as an axiom: “desire forms knowledge.” What we do (practices) is intimately linked to what we desire (love), so what we do determines whether, how, and what we can know. […] Desire shapes how one sees and understands the world, and so the key question for the Christian in pursuit of knowledge is first to consider the shape and “aim” of one’s desire, and to specifically seek to increase one’s desire for God. How does that happen? […] the key to direction and increasing one’s desire for God is the acquisition of the virtues […] acquired through practices. So how does one acquire such virtues, such dispositions of desire? Through participation in concrete Christian practices like confession.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

So, we have something sort of like a love triangle here. None of these goes one way, but each of them builds and forms and shapes the others: desire (love), knowledge, and practices.

I have experienced this sort of thing myself.

I am not a naturally tidy and clean person. I am, by nature and inclination, a Messie. I have tried over the years and still do try to reform myself in this, because I have been convinced that Messiness is not next to godliness.

When I finally stopped fighting the clear truth that order and cleanliness were Good and True and Beautiful, and started actually applying myself to pursue them, however haphazard, incomplete, and pathetic my attempts, something strange happened: my feelings toward cleanliness softened, and whereas I had at first been merely intellectually convinced against my inclinations, it was acting on that, changing, practicing cleaning habits that changed my disposition.

I cleaned my room today and I felt better and more like myself with a clean room, whereas a mere three or four years ago, if my room was clean I felt alien and uncomfortable in the space. It was the doing that spurred the desire, not the intellectual assent (though in this case I did begin there).

We are fundamentally creatures of desire who crave particular visions of the kingdom – the good life – and our desire is shaped and directed by practices that point the heart.

The daily things we do in our family – our family culture, our family practices – are what are forming the desires, cravings, visions of ourselves as well as our children. This sort of formation knows no bounds such as school hours or planned activities.

It encompasses everything from how breakfast goes down, to how chores are parceled out, to the expressions on people’s faces during math or Circle Time or whatever. It includes how we say good morning, hello, goodbye, and good night. It includes what we prioritize not in our written plan, but in our acted practice.

These are the things, repeated over and over and over again during the course of a life, that form and shape how we all (not only our children, but ourselves as well) see the world and our place in it.

A homeschool life offers a wealth of such identity-giving opportunities and also a wealth of temptations to “skip it” and to sigh and just plow, head down, through the day. Let us see how we are living and giving life in our homes, with every meal served, with every smile shared, with every book read, with every math page completed.

In this section we’re discussing chapter 2, pages 75-88, where Smith moves us from a discussion of anthropology to one of practices.

The Power of Habit

I particularly appreciate Smith’s continual emphasis that nothing in our lives or in culture is neutral or, properly speaking, “secular.” We are religious creatures, and it shows up in everything. You are either for Christ or against Him; there is no neutral stance. In this chapter, I copied his summary:

We can’t not be desiring some kingdom. The question is not whether we love, but what we love.

Smith then goes on to define what he calls thick practices and thin practices: thick being those infused with religious, identity-forming, aim-inspired weight and thin being those like brushing our teeth which are not fraught with the same level of significance.

Still, Smith cautions us to be careful about assuming seeming-insignificant practices are thin – even when there isn’t always a conscious reason behind what we do, or the reason seems basic, the practice itself may hold meaning that shapes the direction of our heart.

For example, we might assume we are only going to the mall to find a pair of boots. But even if going to the mall isn’t a habit of ours that we do for social connection, still the practice pulls at our gut, our affections, even without us being aware.

I think anything that is heavily influenced by a marketing campaign necessarily has this sort of pull, because that is precisely what marketers are intentionally trying to accomplish: to get you to align yourself with the brand, the product. Cognitive disagreement with a marketing ploy or a marketer’s plug is not enough protection against the gut-level pitch offered.

In this chapter Smith also tells us how he intends to distinguish his terms in the rest of the book. In his argument, a ritual is something you do repeatedly, and is the broadest term. A practice is a subset of ritual and it is akin to a habit. A liturgy is a subset of ritual and is Smith’s shorthand for a thick practice, a practice that will grab our gut and direct our affections in a specific way, whether we are aware of it or not.

Schedules and Routines Are Deep Waters

Smith has a call-out box in chapter 2 titled “A Practices Audit.” Here, we get practical; we get personal. Even without that direct invitation to examine our habits, this chapter certainly had me thinking that direction. Do I have practices, habits, that I am assuming are thin, insignificant, when they are actually thick, charged with shaping power?

If we mistakenly think that certain habits or practices are neutral, or even thin, when they are actually quite thick and loaded, then we will be unwittingly subjecting ourselves to a formation of our desire that is pointed away from the kingdom of God.

Smith says he wants to raise the stakes in this discussion, and that he does. Am I unwittingly being formed in a direction contrary to the kingdom of God? If so, I must change!

Many kinds of automaticity – dispositions toward goals that become habituated in us to the point that they become automatic – are acquired […] without our knowing it.

I thought of two seemingly insignificant practices I have acquired, one bad and one good, that have ended up aiming me more powerfully than I would have thought they could. They are making my bed and being on the computer while the kids are starting their day.

If we treat some practices as thin when they are thick, then we will be inattentive to all the ways that such practices unwittingly and unintentionally become automated. We will fail to recognize that they are forming in us habits and desires, oriented to particular ends, that function to draw us toward those ends at an affective, unconscious level such that we become certain kinds of people without even being aware of it.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

In books and in real life, I had people suggest that making one’s bed is a transformative habit, loaded with more significance than one would imagine. As a child, I mocked. As a young adult, I stubbornly doubted. As a young parent, I felt like even making my bed was simply too much to ask. I’m not sure exactly what a 30-year-old is considered now, especially one married for 12 years with 5 children, but I turned 30 and I was finally open and wise enough to listen and give it an honest go.

Last year I worked hard to acquire the habit of making my bed. Within 3 months, I would say it was a habit. A year later and I almost never don’tmake my bed. It’s rather staggering to me, actually, which is probably why I keep blogging about it even though most of you learned to make your bed when you were 5. Those things people said about it were true after all. In a real way, making my bed is an act of hospitality to myself and to my creatureliness.

Making my bed is a small act of restoring order that can domino across the room and house. Making my bed can create a small island of hope in a sea of chaos. And, most significantly for me, it is a sign that I can learn new habits and become renewed and transformed; bad habits to not have to define me forever. I am even toying with the idea that if I’m the kind of person who makes my bed every morning, maybe I could be the sort of person who doesn’t leave her clothes on the floor of her closet. Talk about revolutionary. It might all start with the small act of fluffing out a comforter every morning.

Making my bed is a habit that seems trivial and quite thin, but it is infused with meaning. It is worth the effort of acquiring and cultivating.

Now for the uncomfortable conversation about a current, gripping bad habit. This one, too, seems insignificant and not worth troubling over. However, the fact that I have tried to change my pattern at least 3 times in the last 2 years or so and keep getting drawn back to it shows that it has roots and is probably much thicker than it appears.

I have a little laptop, and it holds my hobbies, my chats with friends, my calendar and lists, and my zone-out zones. I can pretty much always find an excuse to open up my little laptop, my precious. Sure, I open it to check a recipe, to check the calendar, to write down what math lessons were done today, to note an idea here or to cross off a to-do item there. And I can also open it to check myself out of where I am supposed to be: engaged with my children. It is my sand, and I am an ostrich, sticking my head in the pixels and pretending it is the chaos around me that is virtual.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

This has the worst effect at breakfast time. It is a legitimate good to be on, plan my day, check the calendar, check the school lists, and update the day’s chart just before the kids are up: that makes me more prepared.

However, that burst of activity and noise and questions and fussings and neediness first thing in the morning is more than enough to make me want to retreat and pretend I am not the one responsible for all this. I open the blinds, direct breakfast-acquisition, start the laundry load of wet sheets, change and dress a baby, try to smile and greet people cheerfully, but then, when I have my breakfast and cup of coffee in hand, I sit down with my digital false-peace.

I hate being interrupted and pulled out from that land of false peace. Because peace must be sought and fought for within this real-life world, and the only time that is truer than it is at breakfast with 5 hungry and groggy children is at 5 with 5 hungry and worn out children who are supposed to be tidying up.

But peace is what we all need, and I am the one who must keep my head in the fight for it to happen. It is more important for me to be all there, undistracted, for my children as they wake up and take in the world around them. What I do and where I am during that first hour of us all together in our day is thick and formative not only for myself, but also for those children who are learning who they are from my cues and who they should seek to be by my behavior.

Escape at that critical juncture of time is perilous. It’s not simply a quick check of the email or a getting lost on Pinterest. It is setting the tone for the day to come and for our interactions to come. Are the children an interruption or the point? How do I treat them when they come rushing in and swirling round?

Calling a simple bad habit a thick, significant, identity- and affection-forming practice, though that is a cognitive response, might be the key to disarming it, however.

It is precisely the lie, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” that allows me to keep getting sucked back into it despite my doubts. Just as with making my bed, it was when I finally allowed philosophically that perhaps there might be something to these people who keep harping that I should make my bed, so now it might begin with a philosophical conviction that how we begin our interactions in the morning is deeply formative for the rest of the day and for the relationships as a whole.

It is not that such cognitive convictions have to place and no power, but simply that the habits themselves have more power, especially when allowed to run amok unexamined.

Let us live an examined life, instead, that we may not “become certain kinds of people without even being aware of it.”

In this section we’re discussing chapter 3, pages 89-103, of Desiring the Kingdom, where Smith begins trying his hand at cultural exegesis. He states his purpose thus:

I want to give you a heightened awareness of the religious nature of many of the cultural institutions we inhabit that you might not otherwise think of as having anything to do with Christian discipleship. By religious, I mean that they are institutions that command our allegiance, that vie for our passion, and that aim to capture our heart with a particular vision of the good life.

It’s More Than the Mall

Smith begins his examination of liturgies (identity-attaching, affecting-forming practices) with the easy gimme: consumerism.

Yes, there is the mall, but there is also television (which is all about and serving the purpose of consumerism), and all other forms of marketing – they all revolve around creating felt needs so that they can come to your rescue with their product.

Smith breaks down how consumerism intentionally and subtly cultivates in us affections, allegiances, and identities.

  1. Something is wrong with me. As in all evangelism, there must be bad news before there can be good news. We are not as thin, beautiful, and well-off as we feel we should be. This, the mall and all advertising tells us, can be fixed, by them, for a cost.
  2. I need people. We all need and desire community. Shopping is a fun group activity, but it goes beyond that. Being identified with a certain brand or a certain look makes you a part of a tribe, of a set-apart people: the hip, the cool (or the family-first mom or the nerd or whatever group it is you want to be in). Consumerism encourages us to look at the outsides of people to judge them (and ourselves).
  3. I am seeking happiness. “To shop is to seek and find.” Happiness is what marketing in all its forms is offering, it is what we want, it is what we’re seeking, and buying something is so much easier than finding happiness in trusting and obeying God. But, it’s a false promise and a false happiness, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced and know intellectually, even if we still get sucked into it again and again.

The mall offers a sanctuary and a respite, where we can count on sales clerks greeting us with friendly smiles, where we can lose ourselves in the labyrinth of the racks and find new delights and surprises that – at least for a time – cover over the doldrums of our workaday existence.

One example I often think of when I realize I have fallen into these false liturgical practices is Meg in Little Women, both her trip to “Vanity Fair” and also the story of her splurge and then shame over her household budget with her husband. In both, she was seeking happiness in material stuff, and it came back to bite her and cause her regret and sorrow. So it often does, and so it probably should more often than it does.

Our capitalist economy and production capacity would not have grown and flourished as it has without advertising creating felt need (i.e. lust and envy) for what it is now capable of producing. That is when and why marketing became a booming business. It is so soaked into the fabric of our society, though, that I can’t even envision what a culture without marketing would even look like or how its economy would function. We’re a little too far gone to return to feudalism. :)

I do think it is problematic that our economy runs on the fuel of the sin of lust and envy, of desire. If, say, the entire nation converted, submitted to Christ, repented, and became quickly sanctified such that envy held no power over us, what would happen to our economy as it currently stands?

If a society repenting would cause its economy to collapse (or be completely overhauled), is it a model we should be extolling and trying to spread (evangelize) throughout the world? All that, and we haven’t even touched on the related tangent consumerism promoting debt!

I know the more common (trendy?) moral question to ask right now is about social justice and how our cheap products are sourced, but what if we bring the issue closer to home and simply ask about our own personal sin in the matter? If envy, desire, and pride had no grip in our hearts, would we not be immune to most marketing? Wouldn’t we live in this society differently?

Perhaps, even, if we addressed our own problems rather than diverting attention across the globe, the very demand for cheap goods would diminish and the exploitation issue (which certainly is an issue) might be correspondingly diminished as a side effect.

Can you even imagine being counseled or counseling another that we should not shop as a form of entertainment, going without a list, without a need, waiting for a need to be created by all the marketing ploys set in our path? I do think there is a lot of wisdom in that advice, were it to be offered.

Yet, I still do sometimes shop for entertainment, shop without a need or an aim (or with a slim excuse for an aim), because, well, it is entertaining (5 children in tow makes it less entertaining, so I do it much less now than I used to out of mere inconvenience, not increased holiness). And being entertained isn’t all bad. But, I think we should exercise caution in our shopping practices in the same way we exercise caution with movie-watching. We need to set a guard on our hearts, that our practices are not pulling our affections out of joint.

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

In this section of Desiring the Kingdom, Chapter 3 p.103-118, James K.A. Smith gets offensive. I must admit that I’m grinning with anticipation to read and interact with people’s responses to this section.

Is Patriotism Idolatry?

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

I do not go so far as Smith’s belief that we should not have patriotism at all, always feeling and acting like exiles and strangers in a land, but it is a biblical enough concept that I don’t begrudge him bringing it up and trying to make the case. I myself prefer the Kuyper and Bonhoeffer approach, but there is a place for Smith’s perspective in the discussion, I believe.

On the one hand, perhaps he can see the Americana identity and narrative problems with more clarity because he grew up outside them (he is Canadian). On the other hand, part of me feels attacked by a foreigner by this section. The consumerism section was a “we” problem, this one is a “you, not me” problem, and that makes him sound more caustic and offensive, whether or not that was his intent.

There is a reason, I think, I find this section less controversial than others seem to: I did not grow up in the secular liturgies of our culture. I have lived outside of most of the liturgical practices he brings up in this section. Is that perhaps why I see his point, though I think he takes it too far?

I was homeschooled, we did not say the pledge, we did not go to sports events or watch them on tv, and my television and movie watching was quite restricted. On top of that, I have most of my national history from Bob Jones (southern conservative) and Canon Press, so I am more familiar with alternate tellings of the American story than the standard, one that loves the Puritans who settled this nation, the founders who established it, and the states rights both loved, one that tells the American story such that it is obvious we now more closely resemble the government the founders rebelled from than the government they desired to create.

Yet, I love my country; I love it enough to pray it repents so it can be reformed and restored, because pride will fall. Unfortunately, I tend toward pessimism in this and so sympathize with Doomsday Preppers (disclaimer: I’ve never actually watched the show). :)

The only movie that he mentioned that I’ve seen is King Arthur, which I wanted to like but turned out to be terrible. As a rule, I avoid sentimental stories, and not only were several of the movies mentioned sentimental (at least, that’s been my impression when I’ve seen them promoted or mentioned), much of the time “American Spirit” is played now as a sentimental card not based on any actual, concrete, current reality, belief, or unity.

I have always eye-rolled the post-9/11 flag waving, but perhaps that is because I am on the other side of the country, and all that I saw seemed merely feel-good sentimentality, more about stirring up emotions (as if giving people “thoughts” did them any good) than actually doing anything good and self-sacrificing for others. The type of 9/11 “patriotic” displays seem to me to be more of a symptom that with no God to turn to, people instead turn to manipulating and trusting to their own feelings for comfort, and the effect is pathetic, in the rich old sense of the word – worthy of pity.

However, Smith took it too far to eye-roll honoring soldiers who die in battle. Of course they have given the ultimate sacrifice; isn’t that one’s life? and don’t they? Even if we disagree about the justice or even legality of the war, the individual soldiers fight for the country, and the country owes them gratitude and honor.

A Multisensory Orientation to Life

Desiring the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith will change how we teach – and also parent, for parenting is teaching. Join me as I share what I learned from reading it.

Today is my fourth child’s fourth birthday, and so preparations and celebrations are eclipsing some of my reading and blogging time. I would have to say that if there’s an area in my mothering journey so far that has brought home how bad I am at liturgy, practices, habitus, it is birthdays. Occasions like birthdays bring out the Dr. Spock in me, the Marilla Cuthbert, who has no time for such stuff and nonsense as streamers and fancy cakes.

And so it’s really rather funny that it is the intellectual side of me that is convinced such bodily practices and tangible traditions are actually not a bunch of worthless bother, and I now stay up late on birthday eves putting up a few random, tacky birthday decorations and setting the table with presents and treats so the birthday child wakes up to a transformed house, set with surprises. My husband kisses me and says “Good job,” and I shrug and say, “Well, I guess this is The Right Thing to Do.”

So, helping a three-year-old make his own birthday cake (my tradition, since I am no cake decorator) and his birthday foods all afternoon and then decorating and wrapping presents after he is in bed – making actual liturgies and habitus – is what I have been doing instead of thinking of a coherent post about the university and how lifestyle trumps the classroom.

I think as homeschoolers we know that’s true, and we see it more and more every year as living it bears fruit. So let’s live a lifestyle that will trump any other classroom our children might enter. Let’s build identities that love the things that are lovely – even if we are a little suspicious that streamers on the chandelier and some sprinkles on a sheet cake frosted by a four-year-old don’t really count as lovely. The aesthetics of that life lived together, shared together, is what is lovely, even if our feeble attempts at celebration fall so short of Pinterest, HGTV, or even our own tastes.

In this section we’re discussing chapter 4, pages 131-144, about the nature of material and our priorities in worship and worldview. I’ll admit, this section made me nervous and uncomfortable, more so than the previous chapter. In this chapter, Smith would say one thing that I knew I agreed with, and then pair it with something I did not agree with.

Practices matter, but where are our priorities?

As a staunch reformed believer, I believe that all our practices should be determined by Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). They must be determined by something, and Smith goes too close to saying that practices should be chosen by the emotion they evoke rather than by whether or not they are indicated by Scripture itself.

Yes, the early church was worshiping before the Bible was solidified and early humanity (some, anyway) was worshiping before Moses. However, we live after Moses and the Canon, we do not have direct prophets or apostles, because we have something better – the Word.

If God speaks to us in His Word, then we cannot start with an anthropology that says feeling or body or practice is to be preferred over Word. Jesus is the Word made flesh, so flesh and Word are not inseparable, but one in Christ Himself. However, creation (materiality) was created by the Word, and so the Word precedes stuff. Christ was in the beginning as the Word and only later in history as Man, with body.

So I do believe that historically, even, we must prefer God’s Word over materiality, over emotion, over practices. The Word is first and foremost, even if it appears to be too cognitive for our tastes (it is, indeed, of faith, which is not really material or cognitive or emotional, but simply spiritual). But faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God – not by feeling or doing, but by words.

In this section, the fact that Smith is dividing mind and body and soul and elevating one over the other is all too clear and messes up his argument. It appeared in the beginning that he was going to argue that the rational mind shouldn’t be considered the only part of us that matters, to the exclusion of our body, but now he seems to be saying that the rational mind should be demoted and valued less than our bodies and materiality.

We should not be gnostics (the body is to be rejected and abhorred) nor materialists (there is no spiritual element in the world), but the middle ground between those two extremes needn’t be emotionalism (which his example of the Good Friday service seemed to indicate – if it evokes the emotions we [think we] should feel, then it’s right and proper).

God gives us material sacraments in water, bread, and wine, and God Himself took on human flesh, so we cannot ignore or hate materiality. However, we only know about water, bread, wine, and incarnation through Scripture and through the faith implanted by the Holy Spirit. So, it appears that a biblical ordering of these would be Word by the Spirit, and matter as a sign and seal, not Matter plus Spirit, and then Word, as Smith seems to be indicating.

One thing Smith has correct: Your anthropology determines your pedagogy, and your worship shapes your worldview. So, let us keep our worship biblical and our anthropology biblical, above all else.

Not all liturgies are equally weighty

Smith backpedals a bit – and rightly so – on the sacramental view of nature. Yes, we can experience God’s presence and blessing when we pay attention to the moment in our everyday lives (Holy is the Day is a beautifully written example of this, and it is a large point of Ann Voskamp’s 1000 Gifts). But life is only sacramental, not a sacrament, just as life is worship, but not in the same way that the weekly corporate worship service is worship.

The point I appreciated most about this section was that although worship is formative, we do not do it because it is formative. We worship to glorify and serve our Creator, and worship is all about Him and not about us. Formation is a side benefit, not the primary point.

formation is an overflow effect of our encounter with the Redeemer in praise and prayer, adoration and communion.

And, just as there is no such thing as secular education, Smith makes it clear there is no such thing as a non-liturgical worship service. A liturgy is made of practices, and worship is made of practices, even if they aren’t written down in an order of service.

That is two positive points for Smith in this section, and I could have even pulled out a couple others, such as the reformer’s important emphasis on the call-and-response (with God initiating and people responding) order of worship and the fact that what practices are found or not found in your church matter deeply.

 Being called to worship

Embedded in our gathering in response to this call is an implicit understanding of what is required for human flourishing. To be human is to be called.

The church is God’s called-out people. God calls, and we respond by gathering as a body to worship. This is the defining part of our week and also of our identities – or, it should be.

It is a call to be(come) human, to take up the vocation of being fully and authentically human, and to be a community and people who image God to the world.

I don’t agree that the image of God is a task and calling, but I agree with his point about man’s vocation nonetheless. I think the imago Dei is distinct from the cultural mandate, but now is not the time to quibble about terms. We are created in God’s image and we have been entrusted with a task which we failed in Adam to complete, but which Christ has fulfilled and will fulfill through us, His body.

In order for such cultural unfolding to be done well, it must find its animus and direction in a covenantal relationship with the Creator.

Worship, corporately, needs to be the focal point. I loved this particular way of expressing it, that worship is the animus of our cultural tasks (which encompass all our work in the world).

Because of our sin […] our ability to undertake this vocation is lost; we lack the wisdom, discernment, and will to carry out the task. Thus God calls us to himself to find renewal, restoration, and reordering.

Oh how we mothers educating our children know keenly that we lack the wisdom, discernment, and will we require. Worship – corporately, on the Lord’s Day set aside for rest – is where he promises to grant us the renewal, restoration, and reordering we so desperately need. It is in the service of worship that we experience God’s provided means of grace.

The vocation of being human requires utter dependence on God

and so

human flourishing requires a dynamic relationship with the Creator of humanity; in short, worship is at the heart of being human.

Let us not neglect the gathering together of the saints, but let us respond with joy to the call to worship.

In this section of Desiring the Kingdom, p.166-173, we enter the worship service proper with the call to worship and the response of singing. Worship is beautiful, is it not? I look forward to thinking more and more how these aspects of weekly worship affect and can shape the rest of our days and our whole lives.

Call and Response

Worship is antiphonal. God is the One summoning us, the One acting first. Worship of the triune God is relational and personal, not merely an obeisance to a remote and indifferent god. We are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, called to come and respond to our God, who saved us with a mighty hand.

Insofar as God calls us and welcomes us back into this relationship in Christian worship, what’s going on in worship has relevance not just for my religious or spiritual life but also for my human life. God’s greeting and welcome speaks to our fundamental dependence.

In life, God speaks and things happen, including us. This is the foundational reality.

So, I wish Smith had tied his statement about things “getting done” in worship: the reason things get done in worship apart from our cognitive understanding is because God Himself is the primary mover and actor.

The way worship is structured orients us to the rest of life, whether we are aware of it or not – though, I think, to the degree that we are aware of it, we can self-consciously match our workaday lives to fit the pattern of heaven-minded living given to us in worship.

So, we can bring this pattern into our lives and remember that it is not us acting of our own autonomy, bringing our day and our works before the Lord in offering, obeying and earning his good pleasure thereby. No, it is Him calling us and us living out of that fact – the already accomplished obedience of Christ, in Whom we are – that we then obey in harmony with and out of thankfulness for the truth that already is.

God acts first, then we respond. We are not trying to garner his attention or favor. He freely bestows it and then and therefore we respond in joy.

That is where true rest and true trust is found.

The elements of worship teach us of the elements of life.

The Law

Smith covered this in more of a round-about way, but in reformed circles we speak of the three-fold uses of the law:

  1. The law is a mirror. It exposes our sinfulness and our need for a Savior.
  2. The law is a curb. It helps restrain evil by drawing boundaries and making definitions.
  3. The law is a guide. It demonstrates to us the “grain of the world” as Smith put it; it shows us the way God would have us live.

Although it might be natural to think of the law as a downer, in all three instances the law is actually a true blessing and one to be grateful for.

Confession & Assurance of Pardon

I loved how Smith emphasized in this section the fact that true freedom comes from confession and forgiveness, which does mean dependance rather than autonomy.

The good news speaks to our dependence, for our forgiveness comes as a gift, the overflowing of Christ’s work on the cross.

Freedom comes from aligning with truth, and that means acknowledging our failures and responding in faith to the grace offered us in the gospel.

Our assurance does not stem from our own accomplishment, nor does God’s forgiveness stem from simply dismissing the demands of justice or ignoring the brokenness of creation; rather, God himself takes on our sin and its effect in the Son, on the cross, who also triumphs over them in the resurrection.


The sacrament of baptism orients us to the world from our very birth or conversion, whichever is the stage at which we enter. The covenant promise Smith cites here is the exact one our church uses when a baby is baptized. Having not only made this promise dozens of times in a dozen years, but having heard it wash over me, standing up postpartum with a newborn, it is very meaningful to me, very thick. We are not alone. We are not an isolated island family. We are a family within a large family. We have commitments and responsibilities with one another and our identities are forged together – this is community.

Perhaps because he didn’t want to delve too far into a paedobaptist assumption, Smith missed one formative aspect of the baptism sacrament: when a baby is baptized, we are visually reminded that we receive God’s grace and salvation as helplessly and dependently as that tiny newborn. We have contributed to our salvation just as much as that newborn has to his baptism. It is all of God and none of ourselves. It is a beautiful picture.

This week in Desiring the Kingdom, we’re discussing the sections of chapter 5 titled “The Creed,” “Prayer,” “Scripture & Sermon,” and “Eucharist” p.190-203.

I’ve been wanting an opportunity to wax eloquent on reciting the historic creeds, so I’m jumping on that section in my post today. The creeds have been part of our daily circle time for many years now, and I love them more and more every year.

Pledging to become a particular people

Even if you have no problem with the Pledge of Allegiance, I would argue that it should not have a place in the Christian school or homeschool setting. A baseball game, whatever. A political rally, that makes sense. But why recite it in our homes?

Remember, the practices we perform repeatedly shape us, even without our being aware of it. Is the Pledge of Allegiance the best statement of our identity?

My guess is that most homeschooling families who include the Pledge of Allegiance do so because they grew up saying it and so it is, in their minds, tied up with what a school day looks like. Either that or they think saying our nation is “under God” is an adequate statement of faith.

However, the fact that unbelievers can say it without protest in our day and age should be a clue that it doesn’t actually mean anything. Try saying, “under our Lord, Jesus Christ, very God of very God, begotten, not made, by whom all things were made” in a public square and see how that goes over.

I would argue, instead, for a daily recitation of either the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed. We alternate these, and I open with the customary: “Christian, what do you believe?”

Not only does this then give them a ready response should they ever be put on the spot as to what they believe, but it addresses them – charges them – as a Christian. They are baptized. They are part of the church. This is what they must believe by faith.

Their foundational identity is as Christian, as covenant member, and their responsibility and obligation (and ours) is to grow into that identity more and more. It is what we say daily that gives us our sense of identity. So we say the Creed.

After all, our homes are much more like a domestic church than like a domestic America, or they should be. And, which is more true, more good, and more beautiful? The Pledge of Allegiance or The Nicene Creed?

I agree with Smith’s statement:

Christian worship [demonstrated in reciting the Creed] constitutes us as a people of memory. […] It forms in us salutary habits of deference and dependence (anathema in liberal democracy) in what we think and believe, recognizing and celebrating our debts and dependencies.

Reciting the creed together in community is making propositional, rational statements, yet doing so in the context of community, embodiment, history, ritual. The practice is an effective and beautiful blend of all elements of our being.

What we believe is not a matter of intellectualizing salvation but rather a matter of knowing what to love, knowing to whom we pledge allegiance, and knowing what is at stake for us as people of the “baptismal city.”

And I loved this:

In reciting it each week, we rehearse the skeletal structure of the story in which we find our identity. Its cadences become part of who we are, and they function as rival cadences, sometimes doing battle in our imagination with the cadences of other pledges that would ask for our allegiance of other pledges that would ask for our allegiance and loyalty.

Building our identity with the ancient creeds of the church roots us in history, in beautiful language, in life-giving truths, in the story God is working in the world, in a people of traditions and connections.

Our daily recitation of the Apostle’s or Nicene Creed is an element of Circle Time that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

In this section we’re discussing the rest of chapter 5, p.203-214, where, yes, Smith did say, “The minister raises her hands.” eye roll

Influential Monastic Communities

Yes, worship is meant to shape us. So why does it often seem to have so little influence? Partly because the secular liturgies exegeted in chapter 3 surround much more of our time and lives, but also because the time and space they do get is unconscious, brain-switched-off time: so their message goes straight to our gut, bypassing our conscious, rational mind.

One way to counter that is to simply be aware that even our entertainment does shape us. That awareness goes a long way to diffusing the impact. However, another way is to embrace monasticism. I really liked how Smith hedged this. This isn’t totally withdrawing from culture, but refraining from participating in the bulk of the practices that tend to unwittingly shape us.

Sometimes we can only see the formative power of a practice by being outside of it, and if it is a negative shaping power, then wouldn’t that be the best strategy? I think most homeschoolers would smile and nod. I can testify that if you don’t go to movies and don’t follow sports and don’t watch tv, you soon find in small-talk situations that many people don’t have any topic of conversation beyond those three.

So, the point isn’t that you then abstain from contact with people outside your clique, but you’re willing to be the sore thumb that brings some awkwardness, but then also be willing to be interested in people’s work, people’s hobbies – once the easy common topics are out, it becomes natural to instead talk about more earthy and personal topics like work, kids, people’s histories, and yes, the weather.

The other element of modern monasticism I hadn’t really thought about was making time in the day not only for personal devotions, but for communal devotions as well. Circle Time is certainly a form of communal devotion, as are family devotions and family or couple and even meal time prayers.

Do you see monastic practices in your own life and family? What are they?

What are we really about?

Now, how can we start to take these ideas we’ve discussed so far and apply it to our lives and our homeschools?

Thinking, Believing, Doing

Rather, we sought to show that what Christians think and believe (and they do think and believe, and that’s a good thing!) grows out of what Christians do.

Well, this is true as Smith has shown, but Smith has neglected to mention that the best practices are carefully thought out before they are done. It’s more like a cycle than a chicken-and-egg problem. The thinking and the doing are mutually reinforcing. They both influence each other. I’ve always liked the way Doug Wilson put this one:

What you believe comes out your fingertips.


What comes out your fingertips is what you believe.

The first sentence makes it clear that head knowledge isn’t belief. If you believe it, you act on it. And the second formulation is the scary one. Sin is an act of unbelief. We act in alignment with what we think in the moment we’re acting – it’s not coolheaded and deliberated thought, but it is our gut belief in that moment. Which belief in us the strong enough to shape our choices?

Lord, I believe. Please help my unbelief.

And, then, of course, choices made once become easier to make again, and we always rationalize and justify ourselves; in that way, our actions do shape our thinking and our beliefs.

For me, this makes me seriously consider a few key poor choices I make frequently. What do they say about what I believe? What belief are they reinforcing? What truth counters it and transforms the story (and my heart) to make the right choice attractive?

Radical Reconfiguring

We end up thinking that being a Christian doesn’t radically reconfigure our desires and our wants, our practices and our habits.

But it does. Or it should.

Does it change how we measure and evaluate success? Even at our gut level? At our first-reaction level?

Does it change how we spend our free time, our family time, our weekend time? Or do we look, act, and feel like every other American trained to believe that shopping is therapeutic?

Does it change how we relate to people: to our husbands, to our children, to our church family, to the watching world? How?

Formation of Disciples or Consumers?

If the goal of Christian worship and discipleship is the formation of a peculiar people, then the goal of Christian education should be the same.

Here is a good place to make a correction to a previous post I made. It turns out that indeed, being made in the image of God is historically developed as meaning we, too, like Christ, are made to be prophets (communicate with God and of God), priests (worship), and kings (ruling and creating). We are little prophets, little priests, little kings – representing and working out His rule in this world. I thought the two weren’t connected, but they are.

So what are we working to produce in our children when our time with them is up? College graduates? Paycheck earners? Husbands and wives? I’m not saying and Smith isn’t saying these things are bad, but that they are inadequate goals. Seek first the kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you.

It’s not an either/or proposition. But college graduate makes a SMART goal that can be checked off a box, whereas “disciple of Christ” can be assessed but never marked complete or even satisfactory.

Now, I don’t think this distinction is something that will necessarily affect our choice of math curriculum or whether or not we study Latin or grammar or anything else. What it does affect is our orientation to our task and our children.

What path are we hurrying them along? What’s the carrot we dangle in front of them? (Do you want to be able to afford a family when you’re grown up?) What’s the stick we use to prod? (If you don’t do your math you’ll wind up a homeless bum) These practices reveal our heart and shape theirs.

The radical reorientation is of the question that drives you: What does God want me to do right here, right now? This isn’t some ambiguous seeking out of where God wants you to be in ten years, but rather, what has He already revealed about this choice I’m about to make right now? And then, will I honor it or not?

God’s will is that we pray. God’s will is that we rejoice. God’s will is that we give thanks for everything at all times. I think the more we can bring ourselves ’round to that place, where we first stop to submit ourselves to giving thanks in prayer, then a lot of what we see as “complicating factors” in our decisions would melt away.

The more we take the time to help our children to pause, to pray, to give thanks, the more we help form them into followers rather than self-justifiers. Even in things as small as tears over a math problem.

We would make sure our days have time and space for Bible reading and talking of God’s Word (prophets), for worship and prayer (priests), and for creating and tending (kings).

Would you risk it?

I think Smith is right on in this commentary:

It’s likely that [this model of education] would not lead to “success.” As Hauerwas wryly observes, ‘to educate our children in such an alternative culture will mean that our children cannot presuppose that the education they receive will make it possible for them to be successful actors in a world shaped by a quite different culture.’ Indeed, that is precisely the risk of an authentic Christian education. Is that a risk we are willing to take? I wonder.

I think homeschoolers are familiar with variations of this concern and many of us have decided that yes, it is worth the risk that our children be odd in a society that prizes popularity and trendiness. I know I usually, however, take the approach that ours will be the most likely to succeed because our children will be able to think and communicate in a world that increasingly can do neither.

But what if that’s not the case? Are we going to cave on our convictions based on fears about job prospects? Are we going to shape our school days in the end based not on our convictions but on our fears about high school transcripts and getting into college?

What you do shows what you actually believe.

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