Reviews: The Fall of Interpretation and Imagining the Kingdom

9780801039720James K.A. Smith, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, xviii + 229pp., £14.99/$24.99 paper.

In this 2nd edition of his first book, James K.A. Smith, Professor of Philosophy at Calvin College, offers “a creative repetition and faithful extension of [his] original argument.”[p. 10] Smith begins:

Interpretation has long been a sin. Understood as a postlapsarian phenomenon (occurring after the Fall) from which humanity must be redeemed, hermeneutics has traditionally been linked with the curse and banishment from the Garden. Interpretation, in short, is a result of the Fall, is itself a fall–from the intelligible to the sensible, from immediacy to mediation, from reading to hermeneutics…. Hermeneutics is something to be overcome by redemption, whereby the curse of interpretation will be removed in a hermeneutical paradise where interpretation is absent.[pp. 13-14]

He continues: “The task of this book is to explore various understandings of interpretation in light of these common categories of ‘creation’ and ‘Fall.'”[p. 14]

In Part 1, Smith considers theologians who locate interpretation in the Fall. In Chapter 1, Smith summarizes and critiques the “present immediacy model.” He explains: “Interpretation, from this perspective, is a mediation that is to be overcome, restoring prelapsarian (pre-Fall) immediacy.”[p. 17] In Chapter 2, Smith summarizes and critiques the “eschatological immediacy model.” The latter model is similar to the former except that interpretation is overcome, not in the here and now, but in the eschaton. In both models, interpretation is fallen, and creation (i.e., immediacy) must be regained.

In Part 2, Smith turns to philosophers who, like the theologians in Part 1, locate interpretation in the Fall, but, unlike these theologians, argue that interpretation is not to be overcome. For these philosophers, “human being-in-the-world is ‘essentially’ fallen,” and “interpretation is always already a violent act.”[p. 18] For proponents of this “violent mediation model,” then, interpretation is fallen, and there is no creation, redemption or consummation.

In Part 3, Smith proposes a “creational model” that “stands in contrast to both [of the previous] models and yet is indebted to both.”[p. 138] Locating interpretation in the goodness of creation, as opposed to the Fall, he defines interpretation as “a subjective construal of an objective reality.”[p. 187] Acknowledging that this might lead to criticisms of relativism, Smith goes on to argue for “a phenomenological constraint on interpretation (’empirical transcendentals’) and an ethical criterion (love)”[p. 199] before addressing the “special hermeneutic” required by the incarnation and the Scriptures in the new to this edition Chapter 7.

Positively, “Figure 1. Models of Interpretations of Interpretation” on p. 20 provides a helpful overview of the models and the book. Readers short on time might skim the “Introduction,” consult this chart, and then read “Part 3: Toward a Creational Hermeneutic.” That said, Smith’s fluid prose will tempt the busiest of readers to slow down and make time for the details of his argument. The book evinces a careful and creative reading of primary texts, presents a well-argued and provocative thesis, and speaks to difficult questions with clarity and grace.

Recommended for readers of Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, as well as those with more general interest in the field of philosophical hermeneutics. The Fall of Interpretation should be read alongside David Brown’s “hermeneutics of Pentecost and crib,”[1] particularly with regard to Smith’s “special hermeneutic.”

9780801035784James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2013, xx + 198pp., £14.99/$22.99 paper.

In this, the second of three volumes in the “Cultural Liturgies” series, Smith is keen “to articulate a liturgical anthropology that accounts for the importance of the kinesthetic and the poetic – that recognizes and explains the intertwinement of the body and story as the nexus of formation that ultimately generates action.”[pp. 15-16]

Drawing upon the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (Chapter 1) and Pierre Bourdieu (Chapter 2), Smith argues:

Much of our action is not the fruit of conscious deliberation; instead much of what we do grows out of our passional orientation to the world – affected by all the ways we’ve been primed to perceive the world. In short, our action emerges from how we imagine the world.[pp. 31-32]

And what does Smith mean by “imagination”? He means “a kind of faculty by which we navigate and make sense of our world, but in ways and on a register that flies below the radar of conscious reflection, and specifically in ways that are fundamentally aesthetic in nature.”[p. 19] For Smith, then, what we need is more, though certainly not less, than a worldview.

After building the theoretical toolbox of Part 1 Smith goes on to use the toolbox in Part 2; that is to say, he goes on to “explore the specific implications of a liturgical anthropology for an understanding of Christian worship and formation.”[xviii, cf. p. 101] Put simply, Smith is concerned with how worship works, and here he means to emphasize worship as not merely expressive, but formative.

Generally speaking, Smith has delivered yet another well-argued and provocative thesis. Even if one does not agree with each and every one of his answers – I certainly do not – the questions, and the answers, merit serious consideration.

More specifically, and of particular interest to me, Smith makes reference to “the importance of the arts for the witness of the church” as a “significant implication of [his] argument,”[p. 21] but does little to develop this notion with any specificity. Not surprisingly, he distances himself from the language of “natural theology,” characterizing his project as a “theology of nature.”[p. 33 fn. 5; cf. pp. 126-127 fn. 44] That this will “allay Barthian worries”[p. 33 fn. 5] is doubtful given Smith’s anthropology which is chiefly informed by philosophy, sociology and psychology.[2] I don’t mean to champion Barth, but we need not abuse him.

Recommended for practitioners comfortable with philosophical language, as well as scholars interested in conversations of embodiment and worship.

Christopher R. Brewer is pursuing a PhD with David Brown and he is exploring the possibility of an imaginative natural theology.  Along these lines, he is the founder and director of  gospel through shared experience as well as the editor and publisher of Art that Tells the Story

[1] David Brown, Tradition and Imagination, pp. 60-105, 365-376.
[2] See Kenneth Oakes, Karl Barth on Theology & Philosophyor my review of the same here.

Image Credit: Baker Publishing Group


  • Christopher R. Brewer (PhD, St Andrews) is a Program Officer of the Templeton Religion Trust, Nassau, The Bahamas. He has edited or co-edited six volumes, including Art that Tells the Story which was named one of Hearts & Minds Best Books of 2011. He is now working on a book for Zondervan Academic provisionally titled Understanding Natural Theology, and an additional edited volume (for Routledge). His current research has mostly to do with questions at the intersection of theology, philosophy, and contemporary visual art, but also includes Anglican ecumenism.

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