Our small group in our church recently completed a multi-week study on James Bryan Smith’s The Good and Beautiful God. To put it in a nutshell, we made the best of it. While having some excellent teaching points scattered here and there, along with some helpful practical examples regarding spiritual discipline, at best the book was rather “so-so” in its presentation, and at worst, for some, spiritually dangerous.
James Bryan Smith belongs to that class of writers focusing on the dynamics of spiritual formation, standing within the tradition of reviving lost spiritual practices that writers such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have sought to recover for the contemporary church. I remember reading Richard Foster’s classic A Celebration of Discipline in the 1980s, and I was encouraged by Foster’s desire to remind the church of the great wealth of spiritual disciplines throughout the history of the church that has helped believers down through the ages to draw nearer to God. Christians can learn much from the positive examples set by evangelical, charismatic, liturgical, contemplative, and socially-concerned expressions of faith within the Body of Christ. It was from this sense of taking the best of various approaches to Christian spirituality, instead of just having a narrow focus on one tradition alone, that has provided the impetus for the various Renováre conferences that have been held across the United States for years.
On the positive side, James Bryan Smith seeks to take some of the teachings laid down by Willard and Foster and make them available to readers in an even more accessible manner. The real treasure of The Good and Beautiful God are the various “soul training” exercises at the end of each chapter. Best done in a small group like ours, it really helped to go through different spiritual practices, such as silence, solitude, having an awareness of God’s creation, counting our blessings, praying through a passage of Scripture like Psalm 23, developing an approach to meditating on Scripture like the ancient practice of lectio divina, reading a book of the Bible straight without depending on commentaries and the notes of a study Bible, and creating space or “margin” in our lives and slowing down so that we can be receptive to the activity of God’s Holy Spirit working within believers.
Quite a lot of has been written on the Internet associating the “spiritual formation movement” with what are perceived to be the “dangerous” tendencies associated with the “Emerging Church” trend of the first decade of the 21st century. Just google for “spiritual formation movement,” and you will see what I am talking about. The critics cite, that in “spiritual formation” lingo, you will find suggestions towards mysticism, tinged with the worst of medieval Roman Catholic asceticism, or even more towards New Age spirituality, along with a “works-righteousness” approach to faith. Granted, you can find extremes like this, just like you can find extremes in just about any teaching within the church.
Folks, you simply can not trust everything you read on the Internet as being accurate. I have tried before to set the record straight here on Veracity (#1, #2, #3), showing that much of the negative attitude towards “spiritual formation” is based on well-intentioned, yet seriously misinformed theological analysis of various approaches to the biblical doctrine of sanctification. I need not go into that here. But if James Bryan Smith was hoping to “put things down on the bottom shelf” for people to easily grasp the great depths of Christian spirituality, while disarming the critics of “spiritual formation,” he did not succeed.
Reviewing James Bryan Smith’s Introductory Book to His “Apprenticeship” Series
Here is what I mean. In each chapter, the author seeks to draw a distinction between the false and true narratives associated with much of contemporary Christianity. For example, Smith contrasts the popular false narrative of God as being arbitrarily angry with his creatures with the true narrative of a God who is good and worthy of our confidence and trust. He contrasts the false narrative of a God who only loves us when we behave properly versus the true narrative of a God who is “recklessly extravagant” in His love for us.
These are all great truths, and in each chapter, I could wholeheartedly supporting where the author finally lands. The author brought out some excellent quotes and insights from other authors, as well as more personal anecdotes to reinforce his teachings. However, the process that he uses to explain these truths is filled with needless distractions that either confuses the reader or over-simplifies the issues. Frankly, I could never figure out if James Bryan Smith was being deliberately provocative in some of his statements in order just to stimulate discussion, or if there was something else going on.
For example, towards the end of the book in a chapter entitled “God Transforms,” Smith contrasts the false narrative of “I am a sinner” with “I am a saint.” Should Christians view themselves as primarily sinners that still need to get their act together or primarily as saints made righteous by the work of Jesus Christ? Smith is all about getting us to grasp the latter.
Now, that is a great point to make. But how does Smith build his case? On page 152, he talks about how Martin Luther famously argued that the Christian is simultaneously a sinner and righteous. “We are saved, justified and reconciled to God — and at the same time we are sinners.” But then in the following paragraph, Smith makes the following most astonishing statement:
“Though the idea that Christians are sinners seems true and has been articulated by theologians past and present, I came to the conclusion that this teaching is false. It is false because it is not the narrative in the New Testament. It is also false because it is utterly illogical, contradictory, and conflicting.”
Uh. Excuse me?
Christians are not sinners? What Bible is he reading from?
Is Smith suggesting that theologians like the great Martin Luther, who championed the Reformation idea that we are sinners saved by grace, are wrong? Is Smith trying to irritate those who champion the theology of the Protestant Reformation? Without getting into too much of the details of Luther’s theology of paradox, any student of Lutheran theology would recognize that such a description is but a caricature of Luther’s thought. Just because someone becomes a Christian does not mean that sin is utterly eradicated right there on the spot. Instead, the process of sanctification biblically speaking calls us to put to death the misdeeds of the body that conflict with our true identity in Christ as being saints, declared holy and righteous through the meritorious work of Jesus Christ accomplished on the cross for our sakes (see Romans 8:1-13).
Smith goes on to argue that my primary identity as a believer is to know that I am not defined by my sin but rather by God’s work of reconciliation. Good point, but then Smith makes this profound yet head-scratching statement on page 153:
“Jesus not only forgives the sin of all people for all time, he broke the power of sin itself. This does not mean everyone is saved. Only those who call upon his name experience that forgiveness.”
What does Smith mean by this? If Jesus “forgives the sin of all people for all time,” does that not mean that all people are saved? Since he qualifies that by saying that not “everyone is saved,” it would make sense for Smith to clarify what it means to “call upon his name,” to “experience that forgiveness.”
Unfortunately, Smith just leaves you with this mouthful of words with no clear explanation. I have read many of the theologians that Smith has read, so while I agree with the basic thrust of his statements, Smith comes off as being needlessly provocative to the average, theologically untrained reader. You simply can not put forth statements like these without carefully unpacking them for the reader. Perhaps it is only Smith’s writing style, but the presentation of his arguments, at times, stirs up tangential thoughts that distracts the reader from getting what is otherwise a valuable and essential point of solid Christian teaching.
Replacing One Bad Form of “Soul Training” with Another?
One other brief example nails it for me. In the final “soul training” exercise on “slowing down” starting on page 189, Smith makes this statement:
“In ages past, Christians engaged in ascetic practices (lengthy fasts and self-flagellation) to discipline themselves in order to grow closer to God. We need something altogether different in our modern culture.”
Once again: Smith seeks to drive home a great point. In our world today, we face challenges of “super-busy-ness” that previous generations of Christians rarely faced. In our hurried culture, we need to learn to slow down and make space and time in our lives for an encounter with God, soaked in prayer and study of God’s Word. Awesome. I am with Smith here.
So then, what’s the deal with the reference to “self-flagellation?” I mean, what type of audience does he have in mind? In our small group, reading this sentence was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Is Smith suggesting that self-flagellation, though a practice of the past, was truly a good and God-honoring practice? Why does Smith not clearly teach that a whip of cords and slamming it down on the bare skin of your back is not something which God approves? If we are supposed to replace self-flagellation with something else in our modern age that is just as non-Scriptural, what is the point of that?
It did not help that my small group all laughed out loud when Smith gave one practical suggestion for slowing down to “take up to five minutes just to walk from the living room to the kitchen” (p. 191). We got the idea, but…. really?? For some Catholic audiences, this reference to self-flagellation might be understandable, but for an evangelical Protestant small group like ours, reading this sentence only obscured an otherwise helpful perspective about the necessity of developing biblically and healthy spiritual disciplines in our lives that lead us onward along the path towards Christian maturity.
A Small Group “Hit “or “Miss?”
After we finished the book, I asked our small group to evaluate their impressions of The Good and Beautiful God. Here is the feedback I received:
“The focus of the book was too much on methodology and not enough focus on the Word.”
The Good and Beautiful God was “boring.”
Reading this was like “coffee table talk” we could have covered in one evening. We got some valuable insights along the way, but “to spend nine weeks on it? Pfffftttt!”
It was all about “religion” with things to do and relatively little about having a deeper understanding of Scripture and a closer relationship with God. More than one person described the book as “dangerous.”
Well, these type of comments above are not necessarily flattery favoring the book, would you say?
This is really too bad for James Bryan Smith for what he was trying to accomplish. Our churches today need to recover the type of biblical approach to spiritual formation that I sense is at the heart of what Smith is going after. So while I can empathize with those who have concerns about the supposed “dangers” of the book, my own take is less alarmed. While others see “red flags,” I just start reading Smith and respond with, “Meh.”
So, is there any particular audience that might find The Good and Beautiful God as a really helpful book? The only group that I think can benefit from James Bryan Smith are those who grew up in fundamentalist, “fire and brimstone” preaching churches, who already know the lingo, but who are looking for a breath of fresh air. If someone’s impression of God is one of an angry, capricious deity, I can see where such folks could get past the shortcomings of Smith’s book and gain something positive out of it.
But the folks in our group had none of that baggage hanging around in their spiritual closets. As a result, our group was disappointed with the light spiritual milk that James Bryan Smith was serving.
I know that James Bryan Smith means well, and that in the final analysis that he does land in the right places, but The Good and Beautiful God would have been a much, much better book if he had simply stuck to a sound exposition of the biblical texts that he referenced to drive home his teaching points. If evangelical churches are to benefit from the efforts by writers such as James Bryan Smith to foster spiritual renewal and transformation, we would do better with books that were less needlessly provocative and more clearly and consistently written.