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The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan Smith

The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth by James Bryan SmithSummary: Story can help us envision God as beautiful, good and true in ways that proposition cannot fully show.

I have read five previous books by James Bryan Smith so I was initially not going to pick this up assuming that there was not much here that I had not absorbed previously. But I found it on sale for audiobook when I was out of audiobooks and I realized that one of my reading goals for the year is to read more about beauty and three months into the year I have not read anything about beauty.

James Bryan Smith is a professor focusing on spiritual formation and is in the line of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. Immediately after finishing this I picked up a review copy of a new biography of Dallas Willard (Becoming Dallas Willard which I am loving.)

Smith’s focus in his earlier Good and Beautiful trilogy was to help refocus our attention on God, the God who loves us, wants good for us, and forgives us. He does that in part by identifying ‘false narratives’ about God that we absorb, God as magician or angry God or judgmental God.

The slightly different focus of The Magnificent Story is to think about story as more important than analysis. Much, but not all, of the book is focused on scripture as story about God. This isn’t a book on hermeneutics, but a book on how to understand the power of story to impact the way we understand God.

The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith

Summary: We are saved by grace but by grow by discipline. 

I am very supportive of the Spiritual Formation work of James Bryan Smith and his mentors Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. Theologically I really do agree that a theology or spiritual practice that focuses on conversion but stops there without leading into the grace that is spiritual formation is a crippled faith.

The difficult work of spiritual work is not a straight line or the easily transferable from one person to another through ‘five simple steps to…’ types of writing.

The most important thing that I got out of the book is that Smith talked about becoming wise, not creating rules. Rules bind people, but wisdom frees people to act with the other in mind.

As I was thinking about this book I kept thinking about those that I think of as both wise and holy. I realized that all of them are old. One of the problems of a youth obsessed culture is discounting the wisdom of our elders. And one of the most important parts of that wisdom is that there are no short cuts.

Room of Marvels by James Bryan Smith

I am reposting this 2011 review because the Kindle Edition is currently on sale for $1.99 as part of the Big Deal Sale
Room of MarvelsTakeaway: Heaven is not just a promised place (fire insurance), but really is a place we should look forward to.

This is a short semi-fictional novel by a primarily non-fiction author and professor, James Bryan Smith.  In his book, The Good and Beautiful God (my review), Smith shares that in a short period of time his good friend (and renter of his attic apartment) Rich Mullins, his 2-year-old severely disabled daughter and his mother all die in pretty quick succession.  Smith was devastated and mad at God.

In the novel, an author is in the same situation and goes on a five-day spiritual retreat.  During the retreat, the main character has a dream and is taken to heaven to visit with the three that were the cause of the spiritual quandary but also others that help him understand more of the purpose of God.  The epilogue says that while the setting is fictional and that Smith did not have a dream like character in the book, he did have a ‘waking dream’ writing exercise with many of the same features.

The Good and Beautiful Community by James Bryan Smith

The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith

Summary: Spiritual growth is not accidental, it is intentional and it needs to be intentional as part of a community.

The Good and Beautiful Community is the last book in a trilogy of books that started with The Good and Beautiful God and The Good and Beautiful Life.  These books together are intended to be a full year group study on discipleship.  Starting with God, then moving to individual character and concluding with community.  I read Good and Beautiful God nearly 2 years ago and have always intended to read the rest of the series.  Christianaudio.com offered me a copy of Good and Beautiful Community for review and I snatched it up.

The basic structure of each of these book is to talk about the false narratives that we as Christians tend to have around various issues.  This third book seemed a bit more disjointed than the first, but I think it is partially the nature of community.  Community is a broad topic and Smith covers the ways that community needs to come together to serve, reconcile, worship, disciple.  These topics are not always joined together in people’s minds, but for the purposes of this book, they are all primarily about the church, not the individual.

This is the fourth book of Smith’s I have read and each of them really draw me back to focusing on discipleship and spiritual growth.  I tend to enjoy discussion (and arguing in my head) issues of theology and church practice, but Smith rightly brings the focus back to growth.  If by our discussions and reading and coming together we are not moving toward greater love for God and his people, then our discussions or reading or gatherings may not be beneficial.

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love With the God Jesus Knows by James Bryan Smith

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series)Takeaway: There are many false narratives that detract us from the real God.  

Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook

The Good and Beautiful God is the first in a three book series that is intended to be read as a group, particularly in a group context.  I am reading them by myself, but I have all three books and I am planning on reading them all over the course of the next couple months. Good and Beautiful God is particularly about understanding God the father as Jesus understands him, as father and as God.

Much of the first 10 to 15 percent of the books is concerned with background and an introduction to series.  There are some good things here (like the fact that one of the big things that we need to do to know God is get enough sleep).

However, the real start of the book is when he describes how he and his wife were first told that their soon to be born daughter would be likely still born, or die soon after birth because of a genetic defect.  Their daughter was born, and did have a variety of genetic defects, and lived for about two years. The struggle with why this happened, along with the stunningly bad theological advice and counsel that they received (a pastor friend took Smith out to eat and asked him whether it was he or his wife or both of them that had sinned to cause the death of his daughter), drove them to seek a new understanding of God.

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. Smith

You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit by James K.A. SmithSummary: Discipleship and spiritual formation are not primarily about gaining new information but being formed over time through habit and worship.

I have been influenced by James KA Smith over the past several years more than almost any other author. In the last three years I have read five books and a number of shorter articles, not to mention watching at least a dozen lectures. And I do not think I am alone. I was in a private Facebook theology discussion yesterday when in 110 comments, Smith was referenced at least 8 times with no less than four of his books directly mentioned or hinted at.

There is a reason Smith is becoming influential. He is speaking to several issues that are important and prominent. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit is the latest attempt both to deal with the issues and the first book to really attempt to speak to a lay audience about them.

There are three real points being made in the book. First, we are not solely intellectual beings. God created us with intellects and brains, but also emotions and unconscious bias. We are not, to use his common phrase, “Brains on a stick.” We are fully human, and we are intended to be that way by God. That may not seem like a big deal, but much of Christian culture has understood us to be Brains on a Stick. Our evangelism, discipleship and spiritual growth are often primarily oriented toward the intellect. There is also the anti-intellectual parts of Christianity. But they are in many ways just as oriented toward the Brain on a Stick idea, just using the insight in a different method.

The second point is that because we are not brains on a stick, we need to take into account the various ways that we are influenced and shaped. Jamie Smith uses the term ‘liturgies’ to describe the shaping activities that are all around us. Going to the mall is a consumerist liturgy. The bright airy buildings give us comfort and place. Our five senses are being engaged by Cinnabon and the skylights and the comfortable seating areas. We are being shaped by the feeding of our desires and absorbing our place in the world as consumer. Sports have a different liturgy. We feel a participant in something greater than ourself, we have the us vs them mentality encouraged.

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary Moon

Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower by Gary MoonSummary: Spiritual maturity requires growth and formation.

I have been intentionally reading a number of Christian biographies over the past year or two. Christian biographies for me are about spiritual formation. I do want to know about the people I am reading about. The story is important. But I read good Christian biography/memoir to learn about spiritual formation.

Becoming Dallas Willard is exactly that type of biography. Dallas Willard helped to spark the modern Christian formation movement so it is not surprising that Gary Moon wrote a biography that was oriented toward tracing his spiritual formation. We are never finished with spiritual formation. Spiritual formation in some ways becomes more important as we age and mature spiritually because ending well and passing on the faith requires a level of humility and graciousness that invites those that are younger to the path of spiritual formation.

I have previously read three books by Dallas Willard. So I was roughly familiar with Willard’s writing but I did not know anything about his life other than his relationship to Richard Foster early in Foster’s pastoral career. Investing in others was a theme of Becoming Dallas Willard. I know Willard more through his intentional investment Richard Foster, John Ortberg, Jan Johnson, James Bryan Smith and others than I knew of him. Having read Becoming Dallas Willard I can see the influence that he had in the writings of these others that I have been more directly influenced by.

Willard had a fascinating life. The lives of earlier generations are often fascinating because they are so different from our own. Willard was a child of the late depression and early World War II days, roughly the age of my younger set of grandparents. He went to Tennessee Temple for his undergrad degree, where my grandmother’s brother was a long time professor. And I know many that went to either  Baylor (his masters) or University of Wisconsin (his PhD in Philosophy), but no one that went to both. Despite the differences in generations and life experience, Willard’s life was not so different that I can’t relate to him.

Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of ChristSummary: An extended reflection on what it means to truly change through Christ’s power.

Dallas Willard is one of the originators of the modern spiritual formation movement.  Willard, and his protege, Richard Foster, have done much to refocus the Evangelical world on spiritual disciplines and intentional focus on spiritual growth.

Renovation of the Heart is the most comprehensive book I have read by Willard on the why and how of truly changing (and he means heart, mind and actions).  As I read the book, I kept thinking of Paul’s thoughts in Romans 7:15 about doing what he does not want to do and not doing what he wants to do.

Willard responds to this common frustration not by creating a five step program or some other silver bullet, but a fairly detailed discussion of what it means to really change.  This is a fairly dense book.  I spent more than three weeks working on it and really I am not sure how to review it.

On the positive side, there is real spiritual wisdom here.  On the negative side, there is a lot of rabbit trails and it could have been organized better.  I also listened to the book as an audiobook read by Willard himself.  He is not the best reader and I think even if he had been a good reader, this is content that should be read in print, not listened to on audio.

The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus by Dallas Willard

Summary: The method of apologetics is intrinsically linked to the work of apologetics.

I like Dallas Willard. He has been very helpful if not always directly, certainly through the mentoring of a variety of other authors and teachers that I have been directly impacted by.

Dallas Willard passed away just over two years ago. This book was underway prior to his passing as a joint project between Willard and his daughter. She organized it based on a series of lectures that he gave in 1990 and supplemented in areas that he thought needed further development using other lectures and writings. In spite of that, this feels like a cohesive book.

Willard is trying to remind the apologist that the method (and life of the apologist) is important to the work of apologetics. In 1990, I think that was probably a much more needed message than today. We always need to be reminded of that, but I do not think that many apologists today would not agree with that basic summary.

Even so, the parts that I most resonated with was that basic reminder. (Although I kept thinking that Unapologetic did a better job communicating the point and at least parts of Vanishing Grace did a better job reminding the reader of the importance of grace toward the non-Christian. )

Bookwi.se Favorite Books 2014 (Non-Fiction)

It always feels much harder to pick my favorite non-fiction books. I feel like I read a lot more non-fiction than fiction, but this year it was 73 fiction and 80 non-fiction, so very close. The difference is that non-fiction is primarily about ideas. So when I review non-fiction and talk about non-fiction I tend to have something to hang onto, a hook that either sticks with me, or it doesn’t. I initially put together a list, then wiped my computer and rebuilt it again and forgot to back up the list first (the only thing I think I lost in the computer transition.)

So when I put the list together again, there were several different books on it than what I had initially. (And this list is longer than initially.)  With the extra books in every category, I am mentioning 17 books that are really in five different categories of how I have been moved by my reading this year. (All links are to my reviews, which if you are interested, have purchase links for the books.)

The Fall of Interpretation, Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic by James KA SmithThe last couple years I have really been grappling with the idea of what the normal Christian life is supposed to look like. For some authors it seems that every Christian is supposed to become a leader, or a great prayer warrior, or an activist, or evangelist, or something else that is great. Toward the end of this year it seems there have been a number of books that have come out that are more about what it means to be ordinary. (The God of the Mundane was the first of this movement and I think well worth reading.) James KA Smith’s Fall of Interpretation really gave theological meat to my thoughts on living as limited creatures, not because we are limited by sin (although we are) but because we are limited because we are created creatures. This book is dense, but as with pretty much everything I read by Smith, I am thinking about it long, long after I finish.

I also read How (Not) to be Secular, which I think it an excellent book about Charles Taylor’s reimagining of the story of secularization. And I read Letters to a Young Calvinist, which almost (but not quite) makes me want to become a Calvinist (at least Smith’s version of Calvinism), but really it is primarily about discipleship and belongs in a category below.
Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford – This was on a number of Best of 2013 book lists and it was one of the later books I read this year. I think it was overhyped a bit and I think there are places it got off track, but I think it is a good example of the change in books about the reasonableness of Christianity away from the ‘Evidence that Demands a Verdict’ type of book and more toward a post-modern style of apologetics that is about story and emotion rather than rationalism. Maybe the rationalism works for others, but it doesn’t work for me. While I think I am still to rationally focused on how I process my faith, faith is not primarily about knowing but about a relationship with God (and the church). Unapologetic is primarily focused on telling a story of how Spufford’s faith ‘works’ for him emotionally. It is not really written to a North American Evangelical audience, so not everyone will really latch on to the whole thing, but in spite of some weaknesses, I think it is a book is reminds us that Grace is the center of Christian faith not because it is a doctrine that is important (although it is) but because it is the center point of how we must relate to God. We are forgiven, so we forgive, we are given grace, so we give grace, we are changed people, so we seek to help others be changed as well.

I think that there were also some problems with Philip Yancey’s Vanishing Grace, but the central idea in the first section of that book really hit a lot of the same points for me. Grace, not only as a doctrine, but as a method of interacting with the world, has to be the center point of our Christian Faith.

The Anglican Way: A Guidebook by Thomas McKenzie – Several books could have easily been the leader in this category of my changing theology. But this is the most clear. Theologically, I am becoming more Anglican all the time. McKenzie’s early chapters about what Anglicans believe and how they hold a number of doctrines in tension felt like I could have written it (although he did better than I would have.) I am increasingly focused on the theological importance of sacraments, of the holding of diverse theology in tension within a single denomination (although this is really being tested among worldwide Anglicans today), a de-emphasis on pastor as preacher (instead a focus of pastor as head celebrant) and a increased emphasis on the church as a place of long term spiritual formation.

Justin Holcomb’s Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds both fit into this because I think modern statements of faith are too individualistic and too focused on minor exclusionary points and that we need to go back to a focus on the ancient creeds as our main statements of faith. One final point in this area is that I flirted with the house church movement for a while theologically (never really attended a house church) and while I think there is much to commend about it, and I certainly don’t want to to broadly paint the movement as a whole, for me, submitting to a big C church that is more than just a local body is theologically important.

Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by James Martin – I think it is because he is not writing from an Evangelical background that moves this to the top of my spiritual formation category, but James Martin’s short book I think is a good illustration of why Evangelical work on spiritual formation often needs a tweak of emphasis. God created us as individuals with gifts and weaknesses. The gifts are often weaknesses when taken too far and vice versa. But spiritual formation, while paying attention to habits and sin and making sure we are in a faith community, etc., has to be more about becoming who God created us to be than becoming a perfect person or a Christian ideal.

I think Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ by Dallas Willard verged on being just as good if not better, but was more dense. And Jonathan Martin’s Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You’re More Like Jesus Than You Think? is not directly about spiritual formation, like Willard’s but equally as good as James Martin’s and does a great job at communicating theological depth without much of the traditional theological language that can be intimidating for many.

James Bryan Smith’s Good and Beautiful Life and Good and Beautiful Community and John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping are all worth reading and I really encourage more Evangelicals to pay attention to spiritual formation, but they feel a bit more cliché to me, although the content of them is still important and worth reading.

While the World Watched: A Birmingham Bombing Survivor Comes of Age during the Civil Rights Movement by Carolyn Maull McKinstryThis did not make my first list (nor did this whole category) but as I thought about it the second time, stories like these are important. Not only for the importance of the Civil Rights movement and the fact that this is living history, but because much of the power of the movement was a result of average people’s work. Without the average people that came to marches, suffered retribution, lived in fear during times of crisis, and as this book illustrates so well, lived with the negative repercussions of the movement long after.

Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henreatta Lacks is somewhat similar. Not because of her own story as much as how much little people that really get no credit are important. And the story of the poverty of her family and how much medicine has changed is also well worth reading.

Karen Swallow Prior’s Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More–Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist is also well worth reading. And it is really the addition of this book that made this a category of Women’s biography. Women have always been a part of great movements. But often it was the men that got the main credit. Hannah More was in many ways just as important as William Wilberforce in the abolition movement, but where many have heard of Wilberforce, almost no one prior to this biography had heard of More. It is fashionable to not be a fan of ‘great man history’. I am not opposed to understanding and reading about great men. But I am glad that there are at least some that are writing about some of the lesser known people, often women, that played important but less public roles in many of the great movements of history.

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If you missed it I posted my best of 2014 fiction list yesterday and Bookwi.se Contributor Emily Flury’s 2014 list the day before.