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.

Review: Practices of Love

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Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett (foreword by James K. A. Smith). Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2017.

Summary:  An approach to spiritual disciplines that explores how various spiritual practices not only nurture our relationship with God but shape our habits of being in the world including how we love our neighbors, and the rest of God’s creation.

This book is probably different than any book on spiritual disciplines I’ve read. What Kyle David Bennett does is turn the spiritual disciplines “on their side” and consider how these spiritual practices, often focused on deepening our love for God, are also meant to shape our life, and love, in the world.

Bennett builds on the insights of James K. A. Smith, who wrote the foreword to this book. Smith contends that the way we live is shaped be what we desire, or love (see my review of his You Are What You Love for more on this). Bennett extends Smith’s work in a couple ways. Smith particularly focuses on “cultural liturgies,” whether Christian, in the context of worship, or secular, shaped by our life in the world. Bennett focuses attention, rather, on spiritual disciplines, habits of faithfulness we often think of bringing us closer to God. Bennett shows how these, turned on their side reshape ways in which we live and love wrongly–selfishly, idolatrously and so forth. He believes much of our lives are spent eating, thinking, sharing, giving, owning, socializing, resting, and working. These occur with others, in the physical world. Disciplines like feasting and fasting, meditation, simplicity, solitude, silence, service, and sabbath are meant to shape the desires we pursue in these everyday endeavors along kingdom lines.

The other way Bennett extends Smith’s work, and a key insight for the wider conversation about spiritual formation is that these are meant to be ongoing disciplines and that they all are integral to our life in the world. They aren’t meant as simply retreat fare, or a spiritual “fix” when we need a spiritual pick-me-up. These “practices of love” only have a chance to re-order our loves and life in the world if woven into everyday life.

This is where Bennett gets very practical. Each chapter considers ways our lives may be malformed and how a particular discipline may transform our practice. For example, practices of simplicity move us from lavish living or squandering to loving neighbors with pockets and possessions. Each chapter concludes with a prayer and “side steps” that are practical and doable to incorporate the particular discipline in your life.

What I most appreciate about Bennett’s work is that he addresses what often seems like a disconnect between spiritual disciplines and everyday life. Also, he gets very practical. A small group, a discipleship group, or even church leadership team could work through this together. There is no grandiose vision here, but in Mother Theresa’s word, “small things done with great love.” I’ll conclude with Bennett’s words:

What I am trying to say is that we cannot underestimate the power of simply being loving people who live lives of love, We cannot overlook the value of being people who sacrifice in the littlest of things so that our neighbor can have a more comfortable and peaceful livelihood. We cannot diminish the value and necessity of simply being sensitive to what those around us expect and need. These are goods from which everyone can benefit” (p.177).

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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.

The Month in Reviews: October 2016

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I didn’t do as much reading as some months, partly due to travel, and then to a five day stint in my local hospital related to foot-surgery. Thankfully, I’m healing up well, and the time off my feet has afforded some extra reading time, although I’m digging into some longer books. Nevertheless, this month’s collection of books is a pretty diverse haul, ranging from controversies among librarians (!) to surviving the apocalypse. Mixed in there is a Dorothy Sayers mystery, a review of Shusaku Endo’s Silence (soon to come out as a motion picture), a biography of G. F. Handel, reflections from Luci Shaw, and Jamie Smith’s new You Are What You Love and Kenneth Bailey’s last book, The Good Shepherd, both tremendous books! So, here is the month in review:

clouds-of-witness

Clouds of Witness, Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Open Road Media, 2012 (originally published 1926). Lord Peter is summoned to find out the truth concerning the death of Denis Cathcart, for which his brother Gerald is facing a murder trial before the peers of the realm. (Review)

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The Good ShepherdKenneth E. Bailey. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014. A study of the theme of the good shepherd beginning with Psalm 23 and considering consecutively eight other passages in which this theme is found. (Review)

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How to Survive the ApocalypseRobert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016. Explores the fascination of the apocalyptic in contemporary film, television, and gaming through the lens of Charles Taylor’s work on secularism and the self. (Review)

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Handel: The Man & His MusicJonathan Keates. New York: Random House, 2009.  A biography of George Frideric Handel, tracing his life through his music, from his training in Halle, his time in Italy, and his long career in England, following George I’s ascent to the English throne, through the formation of three opera companies, and the composition of the oratorios for which he is most famous. (Review)

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In Search of Moral KnowledgeR. Scott Smith. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.  Surveying the history of ethical thought, it argues for the possibility of universal moral knowledge contrary to contemporary theories consigning moral propositions to the realm of subjective, relative values. (Review)

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Thumbprint in the Clay, Luci Shaw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.  A series of reflections, including some of the author’s poetry, on the “marks of the Maker” evident both in creation and in our lives. (Review)

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Which Side Are You On?Elaine Harger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016. An account of seven debates in the American Library Association Council over matters of social responsibility and how this body exerts its influence in broader social debates. (Review)

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You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016. Smith contends that our hearts and the ways we live our lives are shaped by what we love and worship, and that “liturgies” historically have shaped the loves of our hearts and the ways of our lives. (Review)

silence

SilenceShusaku Endo. New York: Taplinger, 1999 (Link is to an in-print edition from a different publisher). Endo’s classic novel set in seventeenth century Japan during the persecution of Christian missionaries and converts. (Review)

Best of the Month: I’ve been thinking all month about The Good Shepherd by Kenneth Bailey and the great need for such shepherds in both our churches and civic life. It also made me profoundly grateful for the Great Shepherd and for the life and scholarship of Kenneth Bailey.

Best Quote of the Month:  James K. A. Smith’s You Are What You Love is a profoundly insightful book concerning how transformation takes place in our lives and could equally have been my “best of the month.” So I will share a passage that captures some of this book’s important ideas:

“If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you are not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as good in all kinds of other sectors of life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth” (p. 80).

Coming Soon: Right now I am reading two very different books written by two brothers, Cameron and Garwood Anderson, both good friends. Cam’s book sets out a vision for Christian engagement in the arts. Garwood seeks to move the debate about Pauline biblical theology beyond the conflict between traditionalists and what is known as “the New Perspective on Paul” by proposing that they are both right, but at different times in Paul’s life as his perspective developed. An intriguing thesis! I’ve just started Marilynne Robinson’s Lila as well as a book on Roger Williams and the ideas of church and state and religious freedom that have shaped our country. And I have a review coming tomorrow of a collection of essays by Cornelius Van Til on the idea of “common grace.”

Until next month, unless you follow me more regularly!

Review: You Are What You Love

you-are-what-you-love

You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Smith contends that our hearts and the ways we live our lives are shaped by what we love and worship, and that “liturgies” historically have shaped the loves of our hearts and the ways of our lives.

So often, in Christian circles, it is thought that if we can instruct Christians in right doctrine and help them apply this rightly in their lives, they will live Christianly. James K. A. Smith would not deny the importance of right doctrine but would argue that it is the shaping of our hearts, our loves, desires, and what we worship, that is crucial in translating right belief into our practices. Several years ago, Smith framed out in great depth this argument in Desiring the Kingdom (reviewed here). Many have asked for a more distilled version of this material, which he provides in this new work.

Smith begins by observing that we are not simply thinking things but rather people shaped by the habits of our hearts. Re-shaping our lives means recognizing the existing habits of the heart, often more culturally than convictionally-shaped, and re-orienting our hearts by re-orienting the focus of our worship. He believes this fundamentally happens through “liturgies” that re-shape the loves of our heart along the lines of loving the Triune God and loving our neighbors.

The problem he sees in much of contemporary church practice is its thin, expressive form. In an effort to turn away from liturgical formalism, it has rejected the proper uses of liturgy. Instead, he would contend as follows:

     “If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you are not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as good in all kinds of other sectors of life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth” (p. 80).

Smith then explores how Christian worship is meant to “re-story” our lives in a narrative arc of gathering, listening, communing, and sending. In the final three chapters he writes about liturgies at home and at work, and most tellingly, of the shaping of the hearts of our young. He decries the “next big thing” of much of youth ministry and contends for communal practices of eating, praying, singing, thinking and reading together across generations in both families and educational settings.

Even this distillation of Smith’s work is worth savoring and reading slowly. It is an important work for any charged with leading the formational and liturgical life of churches, as it is for those engaged in the formational work of education, and those who care about the translation of Christian believe into Christian practice in the workplace. It recognizes that we are far more shaped by our heart-habits, whether it is praying the hours, or regularly checking our phones, than simply by what we formally believe. Far too often we are those, who, like the author, read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan’s challenges to healthier agriculture and eating while sitting in a fast-food restaurant. Just as weight loss programs help us develop better liturgies toward food, Smith contends that the work of the church is to lead us in liturgies that shape our hearts around our beliefs in ways that God works to transform our lives.

I’ll leave you with three questions this provokes for me:

  1. If an outsider were to observe the lives of our congregation or group for a week, what would they conclude we love?
  2. What “liturgies” inside or outside our community seem most formative in shaping these “habits of heart?”
  3. What “liturgies” might we embrace to begin to be formed along the lines of what we believe?

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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.

Bringing Discipleship and Scholarship Together-Part One

If there is one thing about the graduate school context that I wish more people would understand, it is that graduate school is a powerfully formative experience. Going to grad school isn’t just about information–it is about formation–shaping you into a person who is part of the “academic guild” or a member of a particular profession, like law.

Graduate school is a powerfully immersive experience. You are embedded in a disciplinary community. You are not only engaged in a process of intellectual formation but you are being inducted into the practices, values, and worldview that undergirds your discipline. Furthermore, the social norms and social acceptance of peers and especially advisers who can further or block your career progress have a powerful formative effect.

And much of this is good. Whether it is training in rigorous research protocols or best practices in surgical technique or legal reasoning–all of this prepares one to perform in their calling with a level of excellence, integrity, and skill that serves a much wider good.

What I think is critical for Christ-followers (and equally for other religious adherents from multi-faith conversations I’ve been a part of) is understanding the power of this formative community and where its beliefs and worldview may clash with one’s most deeply held beliefs. It could be the metaphysical (as opposed to methodological) naturalism embraced by many in science and engineering. It could be the results-oriented pragmatism that may inform fields as disparate as public policy and business. Or it may just be an indifference that considers faith nice but irrelevant.

Sadly, I’ve witnessed the corrosive effect this has even on those who have been leaders of undergrad Christian communities (reflecting those with whom I’m most familiar). Some may say that if their faith could not stand up to the rigor of grad school and the intellectual challenges, then it is fitting that they should abandon their faith as youthful delusion.

In theory I would agree except that I know scholars in every area of the university who have not turned from their faith–Christian or otherwise–but rather have gone deeper into it as they’ve pursued their scholarship. All all of them deluded? Perhaps, but it seems to me that this is too facile and dismissive.

Desiring the Kingdom

So what makes the difference between those who I would say “assimilate” into the prevailing assumptions of their discipline and those who “constructively engage” their disciplines while going deeper in their faith? James K.A. Smith, in Desiring the Kingdom speaks of the importance of “thick” formative practices to counter socially pervasive practices in the broader culture. These are communally supported and personally embraced “habits of faithfulness” that reflect and sustain one’s beliefs. These cannot be a retreat into a kind of personal pietism that divorces the sacred from the secular but rather a constellation of practices that sustain both spiritual and intellectual vitality as well as a posture of hospitable participation in one’s disciplinary or professional community.

In tomorrow’s post, I will explore what “thick formative practices” I believe can sustain the constructive engagement of Christ-followers in their disciplinary or professional contexts.

 

Best Reads of 2013

Here it is at last! My “best reads” of 2013. These are not necessarily, or even in most cases, books published in 2013 but rather the books I read in 2013 that I gave a 5 star rating to on GoodReads. These only reflect my own reading tastes of course, which might seem eclectic or eccentric to some. But what can I say? Each title is linked to my review of the book. Enjoy, and I hope you find something good here.

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1. A Good Man: Rediscovering My Father, Sargent Shriver, by Mark Shriver . This is a moving memoir of the life, character, and faith of Sargent Shriver, adviser to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and first director of the Peace Corps, written by his son.

2. Summer of ’49 by David Halberstam. Always love a good baseball book, and this chronicles the pennant race between the ’49 Yankees and Red Sox that came down to the last game of the season between these two teams.

3. Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith. Smith explores the important role liturgical practices have in shaping our desires toward kingdom ends. A clarifying book for me.

4. The Pursuit of God by A. W. Tozer. Tozer writes in plain language about our relationship with God in this little gem.

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5. 4:50 From Paddington by Agatha Christie. Christie at her best, complete with Mrs. McGillicuddy!

6. The Bible Study Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide to an Essential Practice by Lindsay Olesberg. The title says it all and this is a very helpful resource for anyone who wants to learn how to study the Bible on their own or with others.

7. The World is Not Ours to Save by Tyler Wigg-Stevenson. A “save the world” complex is why most activists burn out. This author writes well about the change in his own perspective that sustains his activism.

8. Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves. This is a clearly, and if I may say, delightfully written book about the doctrine of the Trinity, a stumbling block to belief for some, a conundrum for many believers, but indeed a source of delight for Christians.

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9. The Weight of Glory by C. S. Lewis. Nine messages by Lewis that are absolute gems, including “Learning in War-time”.

10. The First Thanksgiving by Robert Tracy McKenzie. A wonderful new book about what we can know historically about the first Thanksgiving and how this challenges us in our contemporary setting.

11. John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger. This one just made this list. Unger brings John Quincy out from under the shadow of his father as statesman, president, and an early abolition leader.

I’d love to hear about your “best reads” for the year.