James KA Smith is a philosophy professor at Calvin College and editor of Comment Magazine. He keeps coming across my radar screen but I have not read enough of his books. I picked up Discipleship in the Present Tense last year when it was released. It has taken me a nearly a year to get around to reading it, but it is worth the read.
I have had a long standing opposition to parts of Reformed Theology. But Smith makes me want to investigate wings of the Reformed world that are less focused on the newer ‘Restless and Reformed’ wing and more focused on the older full systems of the Reformed Tradition. (He is more interested in liturgy, the full life of the Christian and less focused on 5 points and cage fighting.)
In the series of 24 essays, Smith mostly is talking about the church’s relationship to culture. Some of the essays I have read before, such as the very good review of James Davidson Hunter’s book To Change the World which appeared in Books and Culture Magazine and I linked to in my review of Hunter’s book. But most were new to me.
Smith occasionally comes across as a curmudgeon on twitter. Which may be more about the format of twitter than anything else. But here Smith is much more humble and approachable than many within the ‘Restless and Reformed’ wing. The first section of the book is mostly written to Dutch Reformed readers. Smith grew up in a non-Christian family and became a Christian through a Pentecostal church but then embraced the Dutch Reformed as his theological home. Writing as someone that has embraced his denomination of choice not through ethnicity or history, but conscious choice, these early essays could be speaking to many denominations. They encourage the church to adapt but not lose their heritage. Embrace others without losing their history. It is a challenge that many denominations have.
Smith is not afraid to speak clearly and strongly. One of the strongest essays and one that is pretty negative is a review of Brett McCracken’s Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cook Collide. Smith’s main critique was that McCracken can only see Hipsters as cynical and an attempt to be cool. Smith as a college professor is well acquainted with attempts to be cool by the young. But he is also well aware of the young’s genuine desire for change. And while many of us make fun of hipsters lately (and certainly some are simply screaming to be made fun of), many of those that are labeled as hipsters are really trying to take seriously God’s instructions to live simply, take culture seriously, invest in those around them more than themselves and live a counter cultural existence.
It is essays like that one that really draw me to Smith. In spite of my general disagreements with Smith on parts of his theology, I am attracted to his comprehensive view of worship and liturgy as illustrated by his trilogy of books on liturgy. (I have only read Imagining the Kingdom so far.)
Smith can be pretty dense at times. But Discipleship in the Present Tense is readable and seems to give a good overview of his thought. It really does remind me that I need to read more by him. It is hard to keep up with his writing since he has published 8 books in the last four years.
Related Bookwi.se Book Reviews
- Discover the Mystery of Faith: How Worship Shapes Believing by Glenn Packiam
- Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James KA Smith
- Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch
- To Change the World by James Davidson Hunter