Review: Wisdom From Babylon

Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Considers what it means to live in a secular age, different ways of responding as churches, what may learned from sources ancient and modern, and the competencies of church leadership we need.

I grew up thinking that secular was the opposite of Christian and therefore must be bad. Gordon T. Smith, in this work offers a much more nuanced view. He begins by looking at the secular through historic, sociological and philosophical lenses. What he traces is a transition from Christianity as a “public square” faith to a public square that does not privilege any faith, where religious expression is privately allowed but must publicly tolerate all other ideas, and where in fact, we are all have become secular to some greater or lesser extent. How then is a vibrant Christianity which constructively engages its culture to survive? And what kind of leadership is needed within our churches in such a context. It is to this that Smith addresses himself in this work.

He begins with four responses that might be observed:

  1. The “go along to get along” response.
  2. The monastic response.
  3. The culture wars response.
  4. The response of “faithful presence.”

There are things to be said and critiques to be made for each and Smith will argue that each, for its problems, also has elements which might be drawn upon in living in a secular age as a disestablished churched. But first, he considers several sources from which the church may draw wisdom.

The first is the scriptures of exile, from which the book draws its title. Babylon teaches us to remember God’s glory, our identity as his people, and to hope amid lament. He invites us to learn from Ambrose and Augustine, two church fathers writing amid Rome’s decline. These teach us how to engage in the public square, how to form distinctive communities of Christians, and to embrace a trinitarian spirituality. Smith then turns to historic minority churches: how they related to other religions, affirming the uniqueness of Christianity in ways that speak to cultural aspirations. We learn about political witness without privilege, and the ever present reality of suffering for that witness. Then Smith turns to three recent European Christians who engaged European secularity: Bonhoeffer with religionless Christianity, Ellul, who was keenly aware of the discontinuities between the secular order and the kingdom, and Newbigin, who affirmed the church as a powerful sign of the kingdom. We may bemoan the loss of Christendom, but Smith sees fresh opportunity for the gospel in its true and powerful nature to be revealed through the church.

He contends that for this to take place, the church needs to be a liturgical, a catechetical, and missional body and considers what kind of leadership this requires. Liturgical leadership is marked by theological integrity; real encounter with the risen Christ through word, song, and sacrament; hope amid lament; and valuing liturgical art and space. Catechetical leadership embraces the importance of careful instruction of believers in the faith. Missional leadership calls for preaching that speaks to Monday mornings, to political and civic engagement, and peacemaking and conflict resolution. Smith addresses three further tasks of such leadership in the concluding chapters. They must be ecumenical in character, affirming the unity of the whole church rather than fostering divisions. They must be people who cultivate spiritual practices of interiority, leading from within, able to be present to others without distraction. And they must wrap all this in hospitality.

In a time where many seem to be trying to hang on to what they once securely held that seems to be slipping from their grasp, Smith invites us to accept our status as exiles in a secular age. He reminds us of the rich heritage from biblical forebears to recent contemporaries who have recognized the opportunities of exiles. His summaries of their teaching invite us to delve more deeply and listen at their feet and he offers an essential reading list. His prescriptions for leadership have an ancient-future character, mixing liturgy and catechesis with preaching for Monday and for civic engagement–very different from the strategist-celebrity model that has dominated church leadership discussions. What I most appreciated here was the combination of urgency and hope calling upon us both to glimpse the dangers, and to see the possibilities of our secular age.

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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.

One thought on “Review: Wisdom From Babylon

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: December 2020 | Bob on Books

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