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. Continue reading