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Awaiting the King

Reforming Public Theology

series: Cultural Liturgies

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In this culmination of his widely read and highly acclaimed Cultural Liturgies project, James K. A. Smith examines politics through the lens of liturgy. What if, he asks, citizens are not only thinkers or believers but also lovers? Smith explores how our analysis of political institutions would look different if we viewed them as incubators of love-shaping practices--not merely governing us but forming what we love. How would our political engagement change if we weren't simply looking for permission to express our "views" in the political sphere but actually hoped to shape the ethos of a nation, a state, or a municipality to foster a way of life that bends toward shalom?

This book offers a well-rounded public theology as an alternative to contemporary debates about politics. Smith explores the religious nature of politics and the political nature of Christian worship, sketching how the worship of the church propels us to be invested in forging the common good. This book creatively merges theological and philosophical reflection with illustrations from film, novels, and music and includes helpful exposition and contemporary commentary on key figures in political theology.

Introduction: Liturgical Politics: Reforming Public Theology
1. Rites Talk: The Worship of Democracy
2. Revisiting the Church as Polis: Cultivating an Ecclesial Center of Gravity
3. The Craters of the Gospel: Liberalism's Borrowed Capital
4. The Limits and Possibility of Pluralism: Reforming Reformed Public Theology
5. Redeeming Christendom: Or, What's Wrong with Natural Law?
6. Contested Formations: Our "Godfather" Problem
Conclusion: The City of God and the City We're In: Augustinian Principles for Public Participation


"Smith has written an essential guide to social life aimed at his fellow Christians but essential reading for all of his fellow citizens. His core insight, that the human being is created to pursue solidarity but must then be ceaselessly formed and re-formed to achieve and sustain it, is at least as bracing a critique of modern politics as it is a critique of the deficiencies of political theology."

Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and author of The Fractured Republic

"With characteristic verve and clarity--as well as honesty and nuance--this climactic volume of Smith's trilogy offers a broadly Augustinian perspective on public life that takes us beyond genealogy and modernity criticism. It is a much-needed intervention in evangelical political thought, especially to the extent it is actually theological and does not bracket political concerns from gospel proclamation and Christian formation. Appreciative yet critical of contemporary alternatives, Smith offers a liturgical and missional focus that represents a distinctive contribution from a leading public theologian. Awaiting the King will make you rethink not only Kuyperianism and its critics but also the task of theology itself for our present age."

Eric Gregory, professor of religion, Princeton University

"Negotiating his way through the mass of confusions known as political theology, Smith has written a superb book that develops a constructive and nuanced position in the Reformed tradition. He has done so, moreover, by engaging in conversations with Oliver O'Donovan and Jeff Stout. This is a book that should be read widely by anyone interested in addressing the fundamental questions of church and politics."

Stanley Hauerwas, Gilbert T. Rowe Professor Emeritus of Divinity and Law, Duke Divinity School

"Over a decade in the making, Awaiting the King was absolutely worth the wait. In this masterful work, Smith engages an impressive array of conversation partners as he explores the implications of the liturgical theology of culture he's developed throughout his Cultural Liturgies project for the public realm. The result is a constructive work of political theology that helps us imagine how to firmly root our political engagement in Christ while giving careful attention to the complex realities of our time. This is a book that all who have been journeying with him, and a whole host of new readers concerned with Christianity's public witness, will consider essential reading for decades to come."

Kristen Deede Johnson, Western Theological Seminary; coauthor of The Justice Calling

"In Awaiting the King, Smith sets out to reform Reformed political theology. With his usual clarity, creativity, and verve, he accomplishes just that, hitting the right notes of both affirmation and critique by refocusing political theology on the polis of the church and its formative liturgical practices. Awaiting the King is a satisfying final movement in Smith's Cultural Liturgies symphony and a crucial contribution to the wider conversation in political theology."

Peter Leithart, president, Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama

"With great clarity and cultural insight, Smith sets out an Augustinian-Reformed antidote to the highly polarized forms of politics we see around us today, in which churches--whether on the left or the right--are too often raucous and rancorous participants. In doing so, he joins a growing chorus of those arguing for a constructive theological account of the politics of a common life."

Luke Bretherton, professor of theological ethics and senior fellow, Kenan Institute for Ethics, Duke Divinity School

"Awaiting the King presents Smith's mature public theology--a carefully nuanced plea for 'calculated ambivalence' and 'cultivated circumspection' toward culture. It is a vision of resident aliens invested in the world around them. Lucid and persuasive as always, Smith challenges the ways in which contemporary Christians--including his own Neocalvinist tradition--run the risk of naturalizing shalom. Smith's account unabashedly advocates making life's final, heavenly end the starting point for the way we structure our social life together. This final, crowning volume of the Cultural Liturgies project has the potential to profoundly redirect contemporary public theology and practice."

Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College

"James K. A. Smith's Awaiting the King is a thoughtful, wise, and provocative book. In it, we are challenged to recognize certain truths that run counter to the Western tradition: that the state is deeply religious, being as it is an incubator of love-shaping practices; that the church is profoundly political, being as it is a place of public ritual centered on and led by a King; and that the church's public theology must therefore resituate the political in light of creation and reframe it in light of eternity. Awaiting the King is not only smart but also well written and relevant to a broad range of interests, including public theology, political science, philosophy, and social ethics."

Bruce Riley Ashford, provost and professor of theology and culture, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

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


Best Theology Book of 2017, Englewood Review of Books

"[Smith] makes a nuanced critique of the contemporary church's involvement in the political sphere. . . . Buttressing his analyses with plentiful references to popular culture, Smith makes complex theological arguments accessible to lay readers. Though he writes from an unapologetically evangelical perspective, Smith's cultural sensitivity and in-depth exploration of multiple political and philosophical perspectives offer Christians across the political spectrum a welcome, constructive contribution to contemporary debates about church and politics."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"While Awaiting the King was prompted by Yoder and Hauerwas, the bulk of it consists of a surprising and helpful reexamination of two other writers and their works: Augustine's City of God and Oliver O'Donovan's The Desire of the Nations. . . . If the political differences we bring with us to church are formed in large measure by rival goods and gods, then the church can become a missionary community by being the place where those differences are subsumed under the claim that we've been made one, despite what we may like, in our common baptism in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit--the Trinity, who is a community of peace amid difference. To be a community where our unity amid difference is a more compelling good than the all the other goods over which we disagree may seem like a meager and provisional project for the church. But it's precisely what's recommended by the wise title of Smith's book."

Jason Micheli,

Christian Century

"[A] delightful book. . . . Smith's particular approach is unique not only because it comes at a time when American Christians are particularly sensitive about their politics, and for good reason, but also because it admirably embodies those sensitivities. . . . Awaiting the King brings to completion Smith's already successful multivolume series. . . . The earlier titles beautifully synthesize a number of theologies into an account of Christian faithfulness that places moral formation at the fore of religious concern. In this third installment, Smith turns to politics. Evident throughout, Smith has drunk deeply at the wells of two seemingly opposing streams of thought on the question of Christianity and politics: the Anabaptist 'sectarian fideism' of Stanley Hauerwas, 'America's best theologian,' according to TIME magazine, and the deliberate theocracy of the venerable Oxford don Oliver O'Donovan--two hugely influential theologians whose projects are often read against each another. . . . Rather than political withdrawal, Smith espouses engagement, advocating that one make use of the discontent that might otherwise lead to quietude in order to chasten the manner in which one engages."

Jonathan Tran,

Marginalia (Los Angeles Review of Books)

"This book is a way to think about politics liturgically. How do practices of our public life and politics form and de-form our loves and desires? What if politics was not merely a sphere to express our views, but an opportunity to have a hand in shaping the world toward God's shalom and kingdom purposes?"

Cate Michelle Desjardins,

Englewood Review of Books

"[Smith] exposes our tendency to political idolatry. He rightly diagnoses the tendency of the penultimate to mask itself as ultimate. He offers sound counsel on how we must always pay attention to our moment in order to discern what's best politically. . . . He nails the call to a posture of political ambivalence. Other than the tendency toward an establishment Christianity, he strikes a good balance between utopian triumphalism and cynical withdrawal. Perhaps best of all, Smith lands the plane exactly where a Christian should land any discussion of faith and politics: on the idea of waiting for our coming King. . . . The call to waiting isn't a call to disengagement, but to the posture that must inform all our engagement. . . . I find Smith's book balanced and wise. You'll no doubt benefit from it, maybe even swap one paradigm for another. His reputation as one of the keener Christian philosophers and cultural observers of our time is deserved."

Jonathan Leeman,

The Gospel Coalition

"A significant contribution to an Augustinian liturgical-political theology, one that avoids the twin dangers of sectarianism and cultural capitulation. . . . Awaiting the King should be profitably read by all those interested in the relationship between Church and world, all those seeking to develop a culture of encounter where divine love influences every dimension of the polis. All those interested in the formative nature of liturgical prayer will find few places better to begin their project than through reading Smith's trilogy. I suspect Catholics will find an important interlocutor in Smith's work for generations to come."

Timothy P. O'Malley,

Church Life Journal

"The broader message of the book, and the series as a whole, is a deeply illuminating and challenging one, both for Christian formation in general, and political theology in particular. . . . Smith's work enables a helpful analysis of the ways in which Christians are imbued, even unwittingly, with the habits and patterns of non-Christian thinking, all the while being able to flawlessly articulate theological doctrine. Finally, Smith challenges the church to develop attractive and satisfying liturgies: the cultivation of a rich Christian imagination and communities of loving disciples, and the presentation of Christianity as a winsome way of life most conducive to human flourishing, rather than only a set of doctrinal beliefs."

Benjamin Saunders,

Reading Religion

"An intellectually rigorous book, bringing us a sustained conversation on Smith's own political thinking--a remarkable blend of influences. . . . Awaiting allows Smith to help us enter the conversation about any number of themes and controversies among those who think about social ethics and public theology and Christians speaking out in public. . . . I am convinced this is the Book of the Year. . . . I seriously believe that this book is so important that I implore you to consider it. I am confident that this trilogy of books are among the most important books written in the 35 years we've been at this bookselling business. . . . No matter your own political inclinations, Smith will surprise, challenge, and hopefully delight you with commendable, fresh insights. . . . The footnotes (and the helpful comments within them) are extraordinary; Smith is an amazingly widely read scholar and an excellent teacher. . . . Awaiting is admittedly serious writing about serious thinking, but these are, after all, serious times. And yet, Dr. Smith is ever the good teacher. As in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom, he offers in each chapter fun stories, great examples, even sidebars full of case studies."

Byron Borger,

Hearts & Minds Books blog

"Awaiting the King, Jamie Smith's third and final volume in his Cultural Liturgies series, is a provocative and hopeful call for Christians to participate boldly in the messy meantime of the saeculum, confident that our King is on the way. As someone who nods my head regularly when reading MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and Cavanaugh, I appreciate the way Smith recognizes the merits of this school of thought and yet sheds light on its blind spots. He rightly insists that we see liberalism not only as idolatrous and de-formative (which he agrees it is), but also as full of opportunities for collaboration and mission. . . . Can the church that liberalism needs survive liberalism? Of course. With God, anything is possible, and he is the source of our hope. But it may be that his ecclesia, his called-out ones, will be a blessing to our neighbors to the extent that our loves are formed by participation in his liturgies."

Jeffrey Bilbro,

Mere Orthodoxy blog

"Smith articulates a public theology that is both corrective and visionary. . . . 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 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."

Robert Trube,

Bob on Books blog