Review: The Liturgy of Politics

The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess (Foreword by Michael Wear). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing on the thought of James K. A. Smith, explores how the liturgies of our lives shape our political engagement and the gospel-shaped formative practices our Christian communities may embrace.

You don’t have to go any further than the recent elections to illustrate the messiness of our politics. Some of us are tempted to have nothing to do with it. Yet much of life is political–from the allocation of local school buildings to Supreme Court picks. Alternatively, we look for candidates who embrace “biblical” positions on what we consider vital issues and support them regardless of the character of the candidate, or stances on other issues that also have biblical implications. Furthermore, among certain Christian communities, one’s political affiliation is treated as an article of faith. I’ve seen Christians say “if you don’t support ______, you are not a Christian.”

Kaitlyn Schiess grew up in one such community and attended one of the colleges notable for its alignment with conservative politics, witnessing and experiencing everything I’ve described. She began groping for a different way to imagine political involvement as a Christian. As she read the work of James K. A. Smith she applied his thinking about how the “liturgies,” the thick formative practices of our lives, shape how we engage in our politics.

She begins by looking at the shaping liturgies of our political life, the liturgies of loyalty (“us” versus “them”), of fear (whether it is climate change or immigrants), and idolatry (political influence). These liturgies are informed by counterfeit forms of the gospel: prosperity, patriotism (American exceptionalism), security, and sadly, white supremacy. Schiess contends these are framed as compelling narratives, sometimes in our churches, more often in online media, talk radio and television.

As an alternative, Schiess begins by asking for what are we saved? Her answer is we are saved for the life of the world. The political realm is not the place where we realize the kingdom of God on earth but rather where we steward our calling to care for the creation and pursue the flourishing of other creatures created in God’s image. We our “border stalkers,” involved in our communities and formed in the polis of the church, shaped by the story of scripture heard in a community that transcends our cultural, racial, and national divisions. The church is the community that practices hospitality to the stranger, and in baptism and the Lord’s table transforms the stranger to “one of us.” We learn to shape the rhythms of our lives by the church calendar of feasting and fasting, of waiting and celebrating, of working and resting, and living out our faith in “ordinary time.” The disciplines of prayer and hospitality further shape us.

All this looks forward to the coming kingdom. Drawing on Augustine, Schiess explore life lived between the city of man and the city of God. We live in a space between lament and longing that she refers to as “confession.” We are aware of the limitations of sin as well as our longings for redemption. We live toward the vision of the new Jerusalem, bringing an anticipation and a witness of the future into the present. Yet how do we do so? Some is to listen to how communities on the margins read the story of kingdom come. As we live toward the kingdom, our resistance to earthly powers may put us there.

This is an important first work in political formation by Schiess. It addresses how we might form a Christian political imagination and engagement, something desperately needed in a Christian landscape dominated more by online and media pundits than formative Christian communities. I hope Schiess will keep writing on this subject, perhaps going deeper in describing how real communities are implementing redemptive political liturgies in their formative practices. We need narratives of Christian communities who are doing this and how this transforms their political engagements.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Awaiting the King

awaiting the king

Awaiting the King (Cultural Liturgies, Volume 3), James K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Summary: A theology of public (and not just political) life exploring both how public life is “liturgical” and the church “political” and the possibilities and limits on engagement in the life of the “city of Man” for those who identify their hope and citizenship with the “city of God.”

The 2016 election season in the U. S. underscored how vitally needed is a “public theology” among Christians in the U.S., both to shed light both on the outcome, and the path forward. But this is not new. People have been lodging unrealistic hopes in political figures, and churches have permitted themselves to be held captive by glittering images since the time of Augustine.

In this work, the third volume in his “Cultural Liturgies” series James K. A. Smith articulates a public theology that is both corrective and visionary. Drawing on Augustine, he develops an understanding of the two cities that both requires us to determine which city will hold our love and loyalty, and how we might live in the “city of man.”  He articulates a vision that leads neither to withdrawal into religious enclaves nor to becoming captive to a particular party, ideology, or leader.

Building on his earlier works, he observes that it is not only the liturgies of our church communities, but also those of our public life that shape our loves and our actions, sometimes far more than those of our churches. He also observes that we cannot retreat from political life, because our churches, and wider Christian movements are also a polis of people who are part of the already/not yet “city of God” which is our ultimate hope and primary allegiance.

In Augustine’s day, this led him to counsel rulers to exercise Christian virtues in ruling justly as servants of the people while recognizing the disordered love of the city of man. Augustine recognized that rulers could herald the kingdom while realizing that their just and diligent rule only accomplished penultimate aims.

He makes the interesting proposal that our liberal tradition that has allowed freedoms of speech and even pluralism is both rooted in and may best be sustained by Christian principles rather than a Rawlsian secularism. He also criticizes the applications of Kuyperian “sphere sovereignty” that exclude explicitly Christian referents from the spheres of public life. What he calls for is not a new Constantinianism (which he would contend is actually the propensity of secular ideologies), so much as John Inazu’s “confident pluralism” that protects all religious expressions in the public square through the virtues of tolerance, humility, and patience. He thinks a “return to natural law” is not what is called for but a full recovery of the Christian story of the death, resurrection and coming kingdom of Jesus lived out in the church’s formative practices. These ought to primarily shape our lives and concerns in the public arena while we recognize that our ultimate concern is not to “transform culture” but to point, in our public life, to the coming kingdom.

Chapter Six on contested formations, with its example from the Godfather of a Corleone mob hit occurring simultaneous with one of the family’s children being baptized, was sobering. It explains how pious religion can walk hand in hand with invidious forms of nationalism, racism, violence, and tyrannies of the left and right. Our public formation trumps our Christian formation, and our Christian formation ends up baptizing the public one. Smith admits there is no “silver bullet” (an interesting metaphor in the context of The Godfather!) but this underscores the role of pastor as public theologian, connecting the church’s formative practices to life outside the church walls. He then concludes with four rules for ad hoc collaborations that delineate the possibilities and boundaries for Christians in public life.

Smith gives us a public theology rooted in Augustine yet conversant with Rawls, Hauerwas, Kuyper, and Charles Taylor. This is a book that needs to be read by any thoughtful Christian who cares about our public life. It is a book for pastors who want to better help their people understand the present time. It is a book for church leaders wrestling with how their church’s liturgical life, and formative practices might shape a counter-cultural people. Give this book your full attention and I believe it will open your eyes to new possibilities beyond our political divides and politically captive imagination. It did for me.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.