Review: James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom

James K. A. Smith offers a vision for discipleship that’s divergent from the prevailing vision in American evangelicalism. The American church tradition has valued right doctrine and aimed at the head. We have Sunday Schools to teach our children the facts, catechisms, one-on-one discipleship programs where material is read and rehearsed. All of this is good. Right doctrine is a matter of life or death.

Smith says, “[The] gospel[’s . . . ] power is beauty, which speaks to our deepest desires and compels us to come not with dire moralisms but rather with a winsome invitation to share in this envisioned good life” (21). Discipleship as Smith envisions it targets the heart first, our affections; it is “the education of desire” (23). While this approach seems fresh in our current context, it is not novel in the history of the Church.

Consider God’s first act of redemption. Israel is enslaved in Egypt. They are broken and defeated. God enters their life and decisively acts for them. Only after he acts, after he has arrested their affection does he give the law. And even when the law is given, he starts with love (Deut. 6:1-12). God first makes disciples by educating Israel’s affections.

Smith says, “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 loves rightly—who loves God” (32).

When Jesus arrives, he does the same thing. He tends to the affections of his sheep. He heals, feeds, raises—and ultimately dies and rise again. Nothing grabs for the heart like a sacrificial death. “God so loved the world he sent his son” (Jn. 3:16).

The next large point Smith makes has to do with the liturgies all around us. “If many configurations of cultural practices function as quasi-liturgies, as formative pedagogies of desire that are trying to make us a certain kind of person, we need to ask ourselves: Is there a place that could form us otherwise—a space of counter-formation?” (24). The rest of the book is spent developing these ideas. Smith points out the liturgies all around us and how they create certain types of people. He also points out that the church has often combated the affection grabbing liturgies of our culture with rational arguments—whereas we should combat them the kind of affection grabbing discipleship demonstrated in Scripture.

Desiring the Kingdom is the rare book that engages the reader and provides a fresh take on a crucial topic. We are at a cultural four way stop. The church will continue down its current path, especially with how it engages culture, or it will turn. Smith shows conclusively we must turn and in doing so we will find we have returned to the ancient practices of the Church and to the God who discipled us by sending his Son, by loving us.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes for CBMW Manual, Gospel-Centered Discipleship, Borrowed Light, and other publications. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and is a council member at The Bacon Coalition. He also offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is covenant member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.