Forgive my tardiness in blogging about the final chapters of James’ Smith book “The Good and Beautiful God”
I would like to say it is because I have built more “margins” into my life – the buffer zones that mean life does not get too crowded and so we can enjoy the life that God has given to us to the full. I would like to say that I have been making myself “present” in the moment that I am in so that I would avoid the hurry sickness of modern living. But sadly it is due to be being busy. I was busy engaging in theological dialogue about the nature of women’s roles in the church. I was busy travelling to Haiti. I was busy hanging out with my children and wife. I was busy reading a book for my book group.
I wolfed down the last few chapters of James Smith’s book rather than reading them closely and attentively. There was lots to enjoy but some frustrations too:
- Smith comes across as a really nice guy. The kind of person you would like to hang out and have a beer with ( or other non-alcoholic beverage). He comes across as honest and kind and good natured.
- His passion to help broken people struggling with legalism and graceless Christianity is infectious.
- His desire for not just a changed narrative but changed practice is also exciting.
- His emphasis on grace does not lead to license – he is keen to talk about the transforming power of grace through our new identity in Christ.
- He offers many practical tips on how the spiritual disciplines should be applied today.
- Smith can come across as a pastoral miracle maker. He talks about many of the success stories he has had through people understanding his principles that lead to their lives being transformed: for example in chapter 7 “the Holy God” – Smith talks about a man who has been carrying around one of his sermons for 5 years because it changed his life so much or a young girl sleeping with her boyfriend who after Smith’s insights is totally transformed. As a pastor I wish life could be that good all the time- it reads a little too mechanistic and triumphalistic. Perhaps this is just a cultural difference between the USA and the UK. Perhaps over here we are suspicious of things that work “too well”.
- There are as many Christians that are struggling with a deformed picture of the grace of God as there are people who have been bruised by legalism, judgementalism etc. The book felt too weighted towards those that needed to hear that God loved them.
- I know Smith has a twinset of follow up of books, but if we segregate out the communal aspects of the faith to another book then we run the risk of underlining the individualism so prevalent in our society. Smith has very little to say in a book about developing character on the role of other people in our spiritual formation. He has very little to say about justice, the poor, church, friendship, marriage, education, work. The disciplines read like ways to retreat from business, from other people, from noise. I am not sure that he has applied his transformational triangle closely enough to his own writing. I wonder whether the triangle should be tweaked to include our interaction with the world as a means by which God forms our relationship with him. Perhaps the transformation triangle only works if it is dipped into the liquid of the world around us. Contact with the culture does not contaminate us it is a dialogical relationship that helps us to be more godly. Jesus prayed not that we would be taken out of the world but that we would be in the world (John 17)
- This is a shame because books about spirituality so often falls into this retreat mentality and the transformation triangle had promised so much more.
There’s lots to enjoy in this book as a primer in spirituality.
The transformation triangle is the most helpful thing i have read in a while and was worth reading the book for.
I read the book as part of some mentoring I am doing with a very bright and highly motivated Oxford undergraduate who has just started his first year at university. He really enjoyed the book and for someone caught in the whirlwind of Oxford student life the emphasis on making space and time for God have been really appreciated.
Thank you James Smith for your ministry.