Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Favorite Reads 2013: The Year of Biography

I won't even attempt to rank the books I've read over the past year, or pretend to any kind of comprehensive, retrospective evaluation. (You can get a glimpse of my year in reading over at GoodReads).

Instead, a few impressionistic notes about some favorites and standouts.

First, though I wouldn't have anticipated it, 2013 turned out the year of the BIOGRAPHY for me.  This began with what I have to say was a pivotal book for me, Eric Miller's outstanding biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time.  Lasch--and Miller--are models for our time.

In the spring, during my sabbatical, I was absorbed with Benoît Peeters' sprawling bio, Derrida.  (My review will finally [sorry, John!] appear in the next issue of Books & Culture.)

In the summer, I very much enjoyed James Bratt's comprehensive and compelling biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (watch for my review in next month's issue of Perspectives). 

In quick succession I read Michael Ignatieff's memoir of failure, Ashes and Fire, which I highly recommend, and then André Pratte's short biography of a successful Liberal Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, from which I learned a ton (a tonne?).

Finally, in the same ballpark, I was captivated by Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids, which languished on my "to-read" stack for too long.  As I put it in my GoodReads note, I was in tears at the end of the book, "mourning all that is broken and fallen and tragic in this world, yet grateful for all that is beautiful and cherished and charitable nonetheless."

Some other NONFICTION standouts include The Institutional Revolution by Douglas Allen, which all of the Cardus Senior Fellows read for our retreat.  This is one of those books that reframes how you look at just about everything, rooted in scholarship that is unbelievably comprehensive but also accessible.  I still think about this book.

In the "still-thinking-about" category, I would also include Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's very important book, The World is Not Ours to Save.  (I enjoyed the opportunity to interview Tyler and tease out some of his argument in new directions.)  And Andy Crouch's latest, Playing God, deserves all of the attention it has gotten.  (You can read my review for Comment.)

All of this nonfiction reading (on top of my "professional" reading which I don't generally track) didn't leave much time for FICTION AND POETRY this year (alas).  I'm almost embarrassed to report that I finally read The Great Gatsby for the first time and understand all the fuss.  I also enjoyed the comfort food of Nicholson Baker's Traveling Sprinkler, a follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, The Anthologist.  And I was delighted to discover a Spokane poet while visiting Spokane this summer: in Christopher Howell's captivating collection, Dreamless and Possible.  (I chose one of his as the "page one poem" in the "We Believe in Institutions" issue of Comment.)

Finally, it would be ridiculous to start tracking all of the essays and articles I read, but thinking back, one essay stands out for me as brilliant on many levels: Benjamin Snyder's scintillating article, "Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification" in the Fall 2012 issue of The Hedgehog Review.

In the spirit of Josef Pieper's Leisure is the Basis of Culture, I close the year grateful for the incredibly blessed luxury of being able to read.

[If any of these titles interest you, consider buying from a fellow lover of books like Byron Borger at http://www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/.]

Monday, December 09, 2013

A Flourishing Detroit Requires More Than an Influx of Cash

Over at the Cardus Daily, I've posted some thoughts-from-the-hip on the status of the Detroit Institute of Art's collection in light of the city's bankruptcy proceedings.  Here's a teaser:
“Detroit” is more than its finances (or lack thereof) because cities are more than economic entities. Cities are multifaceted organizations of human social life. There is an economic aspect to any city, to be sure; but a city is not only economic. There are many sorts of “capital” that make a city flourish. 
Read the rest.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Patronage: Being Intentional About our Cultural Investments

We've sent the Winter 2013 issue of Comment to press.  It will hit iPads in a couple of weeks and mailboxes soon thereafter.  It's another rich conversation with contributions by Mako Fujimura, Roberta Ahmanson, Lukas Naugle, and many more.  Check out the Table of Contents here.

Our theme for this issue is Patronage, inviting you to think more intentionally about all of the ways you invest in culture and the common good.  It's not a question of whether you patronize; only what--which is precisely we need to think and talk about this.

My editorial, "Let's Talk About Your Investment Strategy," invites you into these questions.  Here's a snippet:

We are patrons, not just in our "charitable" giving, but in our day-to-day lives. When we spend our money, we are not just consuming commercial goods, we are also fostering and perpetuating ways of being human. To be a patron is to be a selector, an evaluator, and a progenitor of certain forms of cultural life. You didn't realize you exercised such power, did you? 
When you start to think in these terms, you realize that all of us are patrons. And you start to realize that maybe we should think a little more carefully about how to do this well. By decisions we perhaps don't think about, we are effectively saying "yes" to some version of the good life. In this issue of the magazine we have gathered wisdom from a range of practitioners with a view to equipping you to be a better patron—in philanthropy and charitable giving, but also in our nitty-gritty, workaday lives. We're interested in patrons as culturemakers and helping culture-makers to see their responsibility as patrons.

Read of the rest of the editorial.  Then, if you're not yet a subscriber, I hope you'll sign up today for just $30/year.  Or consider our reduced iPad subscription at just $19.99/year (and get a bonus issue).

Already a longtime Comment subscriber?  Then I have another suggestion for you:

1. Think of three people whose lives you want to invest in: they might be students who are going to graduate this year, staff members you are cultivating, leaders in your congregation, grandchildren who are beginning to make their way in the world.  

2.  Buy them gift subscriptions to Comment. It's a great way to invite them into a wider conversation.  

3. We'll send you a signed copy of my new book, Discipleship in the Present Tense.  (Hurry! Offer ends December 9.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Whither Oliver O'Donovan?

I'm just wrapping up a doctoral seminar at Calvin Theological Seminary on Oliver O'Donovan's moral and political theology.  We focused on close readings of Resurrection and Moral Order, 2nd ed. (1994) and Desire of the Nations (Cambridge, 1999), along with some critical readings by Jonathan Chaplin and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

We didn't have time to give proper attention to The Ways of Judgment (2005) or his most recent volume, Self, World, and Time (2013), so I promised students I would spend a day trying to summarize the trajectory of O'Donovan's work post-DN.  I thought the resulting notes (notes!, please note) might be of some service to others so I share them here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Comment Magazine iPad App

When I was enlisted as editor of Comment magazine, one of my first hopes was to launch a tablet version of the magazine within the year.  Given the incredible work of our team, that dream is now a reality: the Comment iPad app is now available.

In addition to its functionality, we see the iPad version as a way for students and young people (and others, of course) to subscribe to the magazine at a reduced rate.  (We all know about those students loans!)  So an iPad subscription is only $19.99.  This is a great way to invest in a conversation that can grow with as you pursue your calling.

We're absolutely committed to print--as our new print design demonstrates.  But we also hope the tablet platform can expand the circle of folks who are part of the conversation.  If you're not yet a subscriber, subscribe today and you'll get access to our most recent issue, "We Believe in Institutions."  If you're already a subscriber, please pass along this news to your friends.

If you have questions, check out our FAQ for the iPad version.

And watch for our next issue, on Patronage, which will be in your mailboxes and on the iOS Newsstand in December. 

Saturday, November 09, 2013

"The Enlightened Conservative"

As you'll note, this blog has been languishing (how many first lines of blog posts are some version of that?).  What time I have for blogging is now generally spent at the Cardus Daily.  More significantly, I spend most of my off-the-cuff energy on Twitter (@james_ka_smith).  [If you're not on Twitter, do consider it.  I've found it to be a blast.]  My longer online reflections appear as essays for Comment magazine.

In the meantime, not wanting to abandon the Ruskinian legacy of Fors Clavigera, I thought I might use this space as a kind of tumblr, a place to collect and curate some choice quotes that double as "notes to self."

In that spirit, I was interested to see that the good folks at The Imaginative Conservative are republishing Russell Kirk's Prospects for Conservatives: A Compass for Rediscovering the Permanent Things.  Here's a representative quote:

The enlightened conservative does not believe that the end or aim of life is competition; or success; or enjoyment; or longevity; or power; or possessions. He believes, instead, that the object of life is Love. He knows that the just and ordered society is that in which Love governs us, so far as Love can reign in this world of sorrows; and he knows that the anarchical or the tyrannical society is that in which Love lies corrupt. He has learned that Love is the source of all being, and that Hell itself is ordained by love. He understands that Death, when we have finished the part was assigned to us, is the reward of Love. He apprehends the truth that the greatest happiness ever granted to a man is the privilege of being happy in the hour of his death. He has no intention of converting this human society of ours into an efficient machine for efficient machine-operators, dominated by master mechanics. Men are put into this world, he realizes, to struggle, to suffer, to contend against the evil that is in their neighbors and in themselves, and to aspire toward triumph of Love. They are put into this world to live like men, and to die like men. He seeks to preserve a society which allows men to attain manhood, rather than keeping them with him bonds of perpetual childhood. With Dante, he looks upward from this place of slime, this world of gorgons and chimeras, toward the light which gives Love to this poor earth and all the stars.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

"We Believe in Institutions": The Fall Issue of Comment

I'm very excited for people to read the Fall issue of Comment magazine, devoted to the decidedly un-hip theme, "We Believe in Institutions."  If you subscribe by Monday, September 9, you'll be assured that your subscription will begin with this issue.

And, lo and behold, we're also having a summer subscription sale! So seriously, what are you waiting for?

The issue is rich and diverse: a feature interview with James Davison Hunter, articles on the institutional imagination, the role of the institutional church in cultural renewal, reviews of two important books (Thinking Institutionally and The Institutional Revolution), and more.  We're also debuting our new format that includes brand new features like "World View," an annotated take on the contemporary scene.

You can check out the Table of Contents and read some samples from this issue, including my editorial.    Here's a snippet from that:

For a boy growing up in Ontario, it was never a question: you're going to play hockey. Though Embro was a village of only 600 people at the time, we had a new arena, a robust minor hockey system, and a long legacy of the sport encoded in our civic DNA. So at four years old, we all moved from the pond to the ice pad, donning the purple hockey sweaters that many of us wore until we were twenty. 
This was also part of something bigger. You could count on neighbouring villages like Drumbo and Plattesville and St. George having minor hockey systems, all webbed together by the OMHA. 
When you're ten years old, you think this is just part of the furniture of the cosmos; something given, natural, and taken for granted—that Saturday morning clinics and Tuesday night practices are just part of the rhythm of the universe, as if when God said, "Let there be light," the big klieg lights in the rafters of the arena also came on. You never really think about what sustains all this, and if you do, you just imagine some anonymous "them" holds it all together, a vague, distant "they" who are responsible for all of this. 
But when you're an adult you realize: this doesn't just happen. That something as mundane and yet enduring as Embro minor hockey is not a given; it is an institution. It is only because it is sustained by communities. It is bigger than the people who inhabit it, but it also depends on the people who embody it. The "they" you never saw in your youth turn out to just be people like you who have taken the reins and taken ownership. We could only take minor hockey for granted because, in fact, each generation received it anew, owning it, tending it, reforming it, and passing it on to the next generation. 
In this issue of Comment we proudly profess that we believe in institutions. It is part of our creed. The lilt of this profession carries echoes of The Creed in which we profess, "I believe in the holy, catholic church." But that's not theonly institution we believe in. We also believe in institutions like Embro minor hockey, the Hamilton Public Library, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Surrey Christian School, the Calgary Planning Commission, the United States Congress, and that quiet but powerful culture-making institution that is the family.

Read the rest, then subscribe to the magazine.  This is the conversation you've been looking for.

Monday, September 02, 2013

New Book: "Discipleship in the Present Tense"

Cover image by Madison Smith
I'm happy to share the news that my new book, Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture is now available from Calvin College Press, Amazon, and hopefully your local bookseller. (A Kindle version is also available for just $7.99, and an Apple iBook version will be available soon.)

Think of this book as "James K.A. Smith, without all the footnotes."  Well, there are a few footnotes.  But this book is really a collection of my more popular articles, essays, reviews, interviews, and op-eds from the last few years (sort of a sequel to The Devil Reads Derrida, without the daunting, off-putting title).  My hope is that the book is an accessible read for those who might find Desiring the Kingdom or Imagining the Kingdom still a tad intimidating.  

The book includes reflections on theology, church, worship, and Christian education but also poetry, parenting, politics, and the prosperity gospel.  It also includes some of my reviews of authors like James Davison Hunter, D.A. Carson, and my saucy review of Brent McCracken's Hipster Christianity (the chapter is called "Poser Christianity").  Check out the Table of Contents [pdf].

Here are a few of the endorsements, for which I'm grateful:

Few people are as qualified as James K. A. Smith to write a book on the intersection of faith and culture. Whenever he speaks, I listen. In this book, you’ll find winsome but profound essays on following Jesus in the 21st century. Read it and be challenged.
— Jonathan Merritt
faith and culture writer; author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars

Delivering profound insight in stunningly lucid prose, Smith focuses on the importance of both imagination and embodiment, not only in worship and education, but also through the arts. Drawing attention to beauty in architecture, poetry, and music, as well as through sacramental practices, Smith celebrates "creational abundance," which he beautifully presents as our "culture-making mandate."
— Crystal Downing
Distinguished Professor of English and
Film Studies, Messiah College

Anything by James K.A. Smith is required reading for Christians wanting to winsomely engage culture.  He brings philosophy to the street--putting it to work on the great questions of our time.
— Gabe Lyons
Founder, Q Ideas; author of The Next Christians

Discipleship in the Present Tense reflects on the intersections of faith and culture in our contemporary world. "Intersections" may bring to mind two roads meeting at right angles, with stop signs. The intersections in this book are more like freeway cloverleafs: the traffic keeps moving. Suggestion: start at the end, with two interviews that are real conversations, not perfunctory Q&As. Then pick and choose, tapas-style, from the tasty selection of essays.
— John Wilson
editor, Books & Culture

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

On the American Dream: Families, Flourishing, and Upward Mobility

Over at the Cardus Daily, our think-tank's daily blog, I have just posted a column that engages the findings of the Equality of Opportunity Project out of Harvard and Berkeley: "Families, Flourishing, and Upward Mobility."  Here's a snippet:

If the “American dream” is anything it is a dream of upward mobility: the dream of getting ahead, climbing the ladder, leapfrogging from one class to another in a “land of opportunity”—all if you’re willing to work for it. Too often, fantastic “rags to riches” tales push aside the more mundane stories of generational accomplishments over time, where parents who finish high school make it possible for their children to go to college, achieving some security within the middle class. We shouldn’t discount the unique joy that comes from simply seeing your grandchildren not have to live hand-to-mouth as you once did. 
It is certainly true that this dream easily slides towards idolatry. It can become a nightmare of crass materialism and selfish ambition. But we shouldn’t confuse idolatrous perversions with more humble aspirations of families to simply enjoy a mode of economic security that is conducive with flourishing. Those who are passionate advocates of the poor are often, oddly, knee-jerk critics of the American dream and aspirations to be middle class. How odd. It reminds me of the lyrics of an Everclear song: “I hate those people who love to tell you / money is the root of all that kills. / They have never been poor, / they have never had the joy of a welfare Christmas.” The God who cares about the poor must also be a God who celebrates economic flourishing and stability as features of shalom.

Read the rest of the article.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Naturalizing "Shalom": Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist

Comment magazine has just published my new article, "Naturalizing 'Shalom': Confessions of a Kuyperian Secularist."  This is part autobiography, part cautionary tale.  Here's a snippet:
I've come to realize that if we don't attend to the whole Kuyper, so to speak—if we pick and choose just parts of the Kuyperian project—we can end up with an odd sort of monstrosity: what we might call, paradoxically, a "Kuyperian secularism" that naturalizes shalom.
Read the whole article.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: "Part bombshell, part pastoral epistle"

I sat down to craft a post about my friend David Crump's fantastic new book, Encountering Jesus, Encountering Scripture: Reading the Bible Critically in Faith (Eerdmans, 2013) because it's a book you should read.  But then I realized that all the things I want to say about it are already said in my Foreword to the book.  So I've embedded that below.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Reformed Gifts for the Church Catholic: My Response to Todd Billings

Since folks had inquired about the text of my response to Todd Billings' inaugural address as Girod Professor of Reformed Theology (noted yesterday), I have uploaded a pdf of my remarks for those who might be interested.  I believe that Todd hopes to publish his lecture in some format.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Reformed, Catholic, Evangelical: On J. Todd Billings

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of participating in the installation of my friend, J. Todd Billings, as the first Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI.  It was a marvelous celebration of Todd's work and future promise (and comes in the midst of Todd's battle with cancer).

The folks at Western Seminary have shared video from the event that might be of interest to a wider audience.

You can learn more about Todd's story, and the story behind this endowed chair, in this clip:

The Gordon H. Girod Chair of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Todd's (fantastic, manifesto-like) inaugural address, entitled "Rediscovering the Catholic-Reformed Tradition for Today":

Girod Event Inauguration Address from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Matthew Levering, a brilliant young scholar from the University of Dayton, was the Roman Catholic Respondent:

Girod Event Response: Matthew Levering from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

And I brought up the rear with a response titled, "Five Books I Want Todd Billings to Write":

Girod Event Response: James K. A. Smith from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Natural Law and a "Christian Pragmatism": A Note on David Bentley Hart

A long footnote appended to chapter 3 of my latest book manuscript, Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, forthcoming in the Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Baker Academic, 2014), in which I obliquely engage David Bentley Hart's recent sorties on natural law:
This is also why a pragmatist account of knowledge and meaning—which I am arguing is the only account that really does justice to our contingency, dependence, and sociality—undercuts most accounts of “natural law” insofar as they treat natural law representationally—as something that can’t be known atomistically, without dependence on a particular community of practice.  Quite apart from a pragmatist critique on this point (but resonating with it), David Bentley Hart has recently pointed out the problems with such notions of natural law.  As Hart puts it, like natural law theorists, “I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.”  The problem, then, is not the assertion that there are norms for human flourishing that are bound up with the “ends” of nature; the problem is that “the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation” (David Bentley Hart, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws,” First Things (March 2013), 72, emphasis added). What Hart calls “cultural formation” is what pragmatists like Wittgenstein and Rorty are getting at when they talk about social inculcation and “training”—learning with and from a community of practice how to “take” the world, how to “use” the world.  “To put the matter very simply,” Hart concludes, “belief in natural law is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good: one whose dictates cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural.”  But such a “concept of nature…is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions” (ibid., 71, emphasis added).  And, the pragmatist account would add, one only comes by such convictions thanks to a community of practice that passes them on, in which one is trained to see the world in such a way.  So the “recognition” of the moral telos of nature is dependent upon supernatural convictions that are relative to a particular community of revelation.  Hence the pragmatist, qua pragmatist, does not deny the ontological reality of natural law; s/he only denies the possibility of knowing that law apart from membership in a contingent community of practice that teaches us to see the world as such.  As Hart notes in his sequel to this piece, “Nature Loves to Hide,” First Things (May 2013), at stake here is actually an account of the relationship between nature and grace.  The Christian pragmatism I’m advocating would simply emphasize (per Romans 1:21-23, but also per Calvin’s account of the “book of nature” in the Institutes) that one needs to be inculcated in the community of grace that is the body of Christ in order to be able to “see” nature as the natural law theorist claims any rational being can.  In chapter 4, in dialogue with Robert Brandom, we’ll see that what’s really at issue here is how to understand “rationality.”

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Meet Comment (magazine) Again for the First Time

Over at Comment this week you'll find my rather manifesto-like announcement of our editorial vision for the magazine.  I'm excited about a new focus, a new format, and new energy for the future.  Here's a snippet:

In the past, drawing on our heritage in the Reformational tradition of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyewerd (so many Hermans!), Comment magazine has encouraged evangelicals to embrace a more expansive Gospel, a sense of vocation as wide as creation—what the Protestant Reformers would describe as "the sanctification of ordinary life." You might think of this aspect of our work as post-fundamentalist therapy—helping evangelicals to work through narrow notions of salvation as mere soul-rescue and instead embrace a holistic vision of God's renewal as encompassing "all things" (Colossians 1:15-20). We have celebrated a creation-wide vision of redemption rooted in a holistic theology of creation and culture. (I tried to encapsulate this a few years ago in my Commentessay on "Redemption.") In that sense, Comment magazine has been something of an evangelist for the unique wisdom and treasures of the Reformed (and especially Kuyperian) stream of catholic Christianity. We've been cheerleaders (some might say "pushers!") of our own teachers: Albert Wolters, Calvin Seerveld, Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. 
As we look around today, we're grateful to see others who now share this vision. Chuck Colson's later work, How Now Shall We Live? was a kind of evangelical translation of Kuyper. Andy Crouch's important book, Culture Making, extended and deepened this invitation (and we can see the fruit of this in Christianity Today's "This Is Our City" project). In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons invites a new generation to abandon the "truncated" gospel of mere soul-rescue and serve God as cultural "restorers." The Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York equips entrepreneurs and artists to see their cultural labour as kingdom work. The choir has expanded, and we're grateful to count all of these as partners in the task. 
This also frees us up to do something different. We're not here just to celebrate and affirm that it's good for Christians to engage culture. We want to now ask the hard questions—to resource those who are on board with the project and are now looking for wisdom about how to actually do this. Yes, Christians should be engaged in cultural creation and stewardship; yes, God values and affirms our cultural labours; now what does that look like? And what does it look like to do that Christianly? We're all for common grace affirmations; but we're equally concerned about what Abraham Kuyper called "the antithesis." Think of Comment as the magazine where we not only encourage you to see your work as pursuing God's shalom; we also dig deep to consider just what shalom looks like in economics and education, for cities and civil society. 
It is good work that God calls us (in)to—work that is really an invitation for us to participate in Christ's renewal of all things. But the biblical affirmation of culture-making and cultural stewardship is not just a vague admonition to "engage culture." There are plans for creation and part of our task as "restorers" is to discern what it is that God desires for commerce and construction, colleges and food co-ops.Comment magazine is devoted to helping you read the blueprints.

Read more of "Meet Comment Again for the First Time."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Building and Stewarding "Common Grace Ministries"

I'm looking forward to speaking at the annual meeting of the Council of Reformed Charities in Canandaigua, NY on April 28-May 1.

The Council of Reformed Charities is an organization that deserves the attention of a rising generation of Christians who are newly excited about what my friend Rich Mouw calls "common grace ministries"--organizations and agencies that pursue shalom for every aspect of creation, rooted in the conviction that Christ has redeemed "all things."  CORC brings together organizations that are convinced, for example, that God is just as concerned about mental health as spiritual health; that Christ's resurrection gives new life to marriages as well as souls; and that the Lord of the heavenly City also desires the renewal of our inner cities.  As we would say at Cardus, these are organization that tend the "social architecture" of North American society, while also tending to the marginalized and vulnerable.

CORC has been around a long time, but you probably don't know about it because it has been a humble organization, rooted in the Reformed tradition that spawned now-internationally-recognized agencies like Bethany Christian Services, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, Inner City Christian Federation, and many more.  It's no accident that these sorts of organizations grew out of the soil of Reformed theology and institutions: we were "holistic" before holistic was cool.  As evangelicals discover the "wide-angle Gospel" of creation-wide redemption, they would do well to look to those who have been cultivating this vision for a century.

I have a burden to see the Council of Reformed Charities thrive.  In particular, I would love to see the rising generation of young Christians who are passionately committed to justice, renewal, and care for the vulnerable become part of CORC.  While they would bring new passion and energy to CORC, they would also find something there: wisdom, endurance, and what Eugene Peterson calls "a long obedience in the same direction."  If the new energy for pursuing shalom is going to endure, it needs to be rooted in healthy institutions and tended by networks of accountability and encouragement.  I think CORC provides a multi-generational space for just such growth.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Imagining the Kingdom: Some Video Introductions

The folks at Baker Academic have put together a short series of video interviews that introduce the Cultural Liturgies project in general and Imagining the Kingdom in particular.  Here's a sample:

There are links to the whole series at the end of each video.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Monday, February 18, 2013

Monday Morning Musing: God Doesn't Need our Help

In our age of post-Christian anxiety, where so many worry about young people leaving the faith and the implausibility of Christianity in a secular age, we get a new apologetics.  The goal of the new apologetics is not to prove or defend the puzzling and scandalous aspects of orthodox Christianity.  Instead, the goal is to show that "authentic" Christianity, or the "true" Gospel, is not offensive--that the "God of love" worshiped by Christians is pretty much the God you would want.

That presents a challenge, of course, but the challenge is not located where you might think.  Instead of spending its energy on articulating, explaining, and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the "hard truths" that attend it), the new apologetics expends its energy convincing the skeptic that all sorts of aspects of "Christianity" are, in fact, non-essential accretions or downright deformative perversions of "true" or "authentic" Christianity.  This is undertaken in the name of removing "intellectual hurdles" to the Christian faith.  If you look again at how many new apologists frame their "reconsiderations" of hell, or the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of original sin in light of evolutionary evidence, or traditional Christian sexual ethics, I suggest you'll often find they "frame" their project something like this:

"These are aspects of Christianity that are just not believable today.  But that's OK, because it turns out that they're also aspects that are not really biblical and not really Christian.  So don't let those things stop you from believing." [Then cue your favorite tale about "Hellenization" or "Constantinianism" or "fundamentalism" here.]

But it seems to me that this sort of project is predicated on a particular account of faith that is often left implicit.  In particular, it seems to assume that if someone is going to come to believe the Gospel they must be convinced since their belief is a matter of their choice.  Or at the very least, the intellectual hurdles that stand in the way of their believing must be removed.  If we do that, then the way is clear for them to choose to believe.

The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*).  The drive to eliminate intellectual and "moral" hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that "believability" is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to "make that step" toward belief.

While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist--since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself.  So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous.  In other words, God doesn't need our help.

*Readers might consider Charles Taylor's description of the sort of intellectual Pelagianism that he sees as characteristic of the "providential deism" in modernity (A Secular Age, p. 222).

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Two Cheers for Javert

I have articulated a few thoughts on law and cultural-caretaking in Les Misérables over at the Cardus Daily blog: http://www.cardus.ca/blog/2013/02/two-cheers-for-javert

Thursday, January 10, 2013

What's the Story with "Story?"

"Story" seems to be the new black.  Or the new magic.  Or maybe the new black magic.

This is Alan Jacobs' concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, "Just-So Stories."  His primary target is the "just-so" stories about "story" that are now the darling of "evocriticism"--those (allegedly scientific) accounts that "explain" the power of "story" by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation.  According to these sorts of just-so stories,"story" is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions--all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce.  Jacobs' rightly targets and questions such accounts.  (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick's essay, "Against Literary Darwinism," as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012).

But Jacobs' argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned "story" into a bit of a cottage industry.  (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about "how worship works" in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.)  So I'd like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

A little set-up: Jacobs' criticizes Gottschall's Storytelling Animal for treating "Story" as an identifiable abstraction; that is, Gottschall "too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that there are many different kinds of stories."  So Gottschall seems to claim that "Story" makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: "Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?"  His frustration is encapsulated in this passage:

I must confess to considerable irritation on this score. When people tell me that “Story” does this or that for us, I always want to throw up my hands and cry, Which story? Haven’t you noticed the astonishing variety of literary productions? Haven’t you noticed that some are brilliant and many are stupid and most are somewhere in between? That some are mean-spirited while others are generous-hearted? And that people don’t agree about which are which? How can anyone who has thought about such matters for five seconds think that you can say anything meaningful about an abstraction as vast and wooly as “Story”?
It is at this point that his exasperation turns to a specifically Christian version of this problem
Christians have been guiltier than most of this tendency, arguing that people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history. Thus Brian Wicker’s 1975 book The Story-Shaped World; which sounds good until you ask which story the world is shaped like. The One Hundred Days of Sodom? The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? It matters, you know. Now of course, a reasonable person is likely to reply that the gospel is the story Wicker is referring to, which is true. Why not, then, refer to “The Gospel-Shaped World”? Because, I submit, Story is a word to conjure with, as Wicker and Gottschall alike, in their very different ways, know. But it is time to stop conjuring.
You can feel some folks cheering along as Jacobs' boldly deflates the "story" industry in Christian circles.  But I wonder if that might be a bit premature.  Let's consider this a little more closely.

1. We need to sort out the different sorts of claims that are made about and for "story" in these discussions:

(a) There is an important difference between improvement claims vs. formation claims.  If some (perhaps Gottschall?) fall into the habit of regularly claiming that stories "improve" us, then Jacobs critique is right on the money.  However, I don't usually run into specific claims about improvement; rather, I see people talking about the unique formative power of story/narrative--and that formation could be for good or ill.

(b) But even mere formation claims would still be guilty of another of Jacobs' peeves about story conjuring: the very notion that "Story" is a category.  This is a bit of an odd critique.  There's no such thing as "Story," he seems to claim, only stories.  But all sorts of our concepts and categories encompass a vast range of instantiations--but we don't thereby rule them out of court. (Wittgenstein makes the case for "fuzzy" concepts early on in his Philosophical Investigations.)  Categories and concepts like "poetry" or "nonfiction" or "fiction" seem to successfully name an array of phenomena that is at least as "vast and wooly" as Story.  The very fact that I can assemble a collection of stories already means that "story" is a functional concept.

But let's grant that there's a fair concern in the neighborhood here.  Then I wonder if we might introduce another distinction, between those who talk about "story in general" vs. those who are really interested in narrative meaning.  For example, like Jacobs, Kramnick is very critical of those "literary Darwinists" who just keep making vague, general claims about "Story" without any attention to the specifics of particular stories.  (He also notes that the overarching Story that they seem to find turns out to be a version of Darwin's story.)  Again: fair critique.  But that seems different from those of us who are not appealing to "Story" as if there was an abstract plot in the sky, but are rather attentive to the dynamics of storied meaning-making--the unique, irreducible way that narrative "means."  This was the quarry of Paul Ricoeur's ongoing research. It is also this kind of claim that Christian Smith is making when he argues that humans are "narrative" animals (in Moral, Believing Animals).  The point is that story means in unique, identifiable, and irreducible ways. So "story" does something that other modes of prose or expression do not.  (I argue this in more detail in Imagining the Kingdom.)  Jacobs might still want to contest such a claim, but I don't think it falls prey to the critique he offers in "Just-So Stories."

2. Now look again at Jacobs' specific claim about Christian conjurings of the magic of "Story."  First, Jacobs tells us "Christians have been guiltier than most" in this regard.  Really?  I find that hard to believe, especially if you've had any opportunity to spend extended time in the growing literature of evocriticism.

But second, and more importantly, look closely at the specific claim he attributes to this Christian version of story-conjuring.  Apparently their claim is that "people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history."  Again: really?  I'm surprised to hear this, since I've spent quite a bit of time in this literature, and I don't know that I've ever heard that argument.  And the only evidence Jacobs gives us is an appeal to a 1975 book by Brian Wicker.  If Christians have been "guiltier than most" on this score, you'd think there'd be loads of examples to cite--and maybe a few more recent.  But no.

So I'm worried that Jacobs has erected (conjured?) something of a straw man (a wicker man?).  If Christians were making the argument that Jacobs attributes to them here, then yes: this is a valid concern and critique.  But I'm not at all convinced that the recent spate of works emphasizing "story" are making anything like this argument.  That doesn't mean they should therefore get a free pass; only that they can't be dispatched on the basis of Jacobs' complaint here.  That would have to be a tale for another time.

Friday, January 04, 2013

Imagining the Kingdom: Endorsements

As announced on Twitter, I've received the first copy of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  A long time coming, I'm grateful to see it in print and now wait with trepidation to see how my little creation fares in the cold, hard world.

But I'm grateful that it's been warmly welcomed by others already.  In addition to receiving a "starred review" from Publisher's Weekly, the back cover boasts the following endorsements.

"Imagining the Kingdom is a fit successor to Jamie Smith's remarkable Desiring the Kingdom. The new book is, like its predecessor, learned but lively, provocative but warmhearted, a manifesto and a guide. Smith takes Christians deeper into the artistic, imaginative, and practical resources on which we must draw if we wish to renew not only our minds but also our whole beings in Christ."

Alan Jacobs, Clyde S. Kilby Chair Professor of English, Wheaton College
"In this wonderfully rich and engagingly readable book of 'liturgical anthropology,' Smith makes a persuasive case for the thesis that human beings are best understood as worshiping animals. It has important implications at once for practical theology's reflection on religious formation, liturgy, and pedagogy and for philosophical theorizing about just what religion is. And it develops as an engaging and lively conversation among an astonishing mix of people: imagine Calvin, Proust, Merleau-Ponty, Augustine, Wendell Berry, Bourdieu, and David Foster Wallace all in the same room really talking to each other about being human and how to think about it!"
David Kelsey, Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology Emeritus, Yale Divinity School
"Jamie Smith shows us that the gospel does not primarily happen between our ears but in all the movements of the body by which we are formed and in turn form the world. I know of no more thorough and sophisticated account of how secular liturgies form and deform us and how Christian liturgies can help. Though sophisticated, Smith's book is also a delight. Its pages are filled with great poetry and insights from films, novels, and everyday life. Smith shows how we encounter God with our whole selves and how God carries us even when we don't know what is going on."
William T. Cavanaugh, senior research professor, DePaul University
"It is heartening to set one's eyes on Jamie Smith's bold and creative endeavor to awaken Christians, Protestants in particular, to the centrality of worship in even, nay especially, our moral lives. Smith's acute insight into the false and lying stories and liturgies generated by the dominant powers of our economy makes his case for a reclamation of worship within the churches compelling; for this thoughtful book is rightly concerned with a restoration of the Christian imagination rooted in habits of virtue."
Vigen Guroian, professor of religious studies, University of Virginia; author of The Melody of Faith
"This book is a thought-provoking, generative reflection on the imagination-shaping power of Christian worship practices. Smith describes and demonstrates how practices, perceptions, emotions, and thought interact and how together they can be shaped in cruciform ways. What an ideal book for crossing boundaries among academic disciplines and between the academy and the church."

John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary