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.
When I think of people that are younger that highlight the importance of holiness (and there are a number) most of them have taken a position of rule based holiness. Rule based holiness gives us, ‘I Kissed Dating Goodbye’, no bikinis and Welch’s grapejuice. It is not that a person cannot choose for themselves rules to live by that help them focus on spiritual formation and growth. But the rules themselves, especially when placed upon others, create legalism and push people away from the actual relationship with Christ that is the root of real holiness. Rules tend to also focus on the external and not the internal. There may be good reasons to not drink alcohol or wear bikinis. But focusing on the external and not on the internal means that the internal issues are often ignored, and we learn to hide both the internal and external sins.
Continually throughout the book Smith keeps refocusing the discussion, not just on living like Jesus, but the purpose of living like Jesus. If we live like Jesus, but do not love Jesus or others, then we have missed the point. The point of holy living is to love God and others.
Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a meditation on the Sermon on the Mount and how we can take it seriously in our modern world and learn to live as Jesus instructed. In cooperation with the Good and Beautiful God (learning how to properly think about God and his love for us) and Good and Beautiful Community (learning to live and serve together to follow the purpose of God) this study really does a good job at focusing us on the meaning of our faith.
These books are intended as group studies that work on one chapter a week with homework and spiritual practices. I listened to almost the whole book in a single day, while I was doing errands and yard work. The advantage of listening to it straight through (against the recommendation of the book) is that the basic ideas are emphasized over and over.
Spiritual growth takes work, discipline, returning to the basics over and over again and does not occur on a straight line or does it easily compare with others. And to say it once again, spiritual growth is about gaining wisdom, not creating rules.
That being said, early in the book I was pretty frustrated with way too many cliche’s. A good editor should have thrown out most of the introduction and first chapter. (I actually had started the book once before and gave up because of my frustration about 1/4 of the way through.)
One of the cliche’s stories is about a General asking a soldier where they are on a map. The soldier says that according to the map there should be a mountain near them that did not seem to be there. And the general says when a map and reality disagree the map is wrong. Except that what is more likely is not that the map is wrong (although that may in fact the problem), but that you are reading it wrong and not actually where you think you are.
The problem with cliche’s is not just that they are overused. But the fact that they are overused leads people like me to start over thinking the cliche’s and missing the point of what the author was trying to say. So in the soldier/map example, the point was supposed to be, that when living the Christian life, if our reality is not matching up to what the Christian life is supposed to be, then it is not the Christian life that is wrong, but our living of the Christian life.
But the example could easily be turned on its head. If our reality is not living up to the billing of what pastors and authors say the Christian life should be, then it must be the Christian life that is coming up short. But I think the problem is actually not that the Christian life is wrong, but our reading of what the Christian life is supposed to be that is wrong. And I think that is what James Bryan Smith is actually trying (but often failing) to communicate through those clichés.
Another example of what seems to be an example of being 10 years or so behind contemporary Evangelicalism, Smith spends a lot of time talking about the kingdom of God and repeatedly quotes people that claim to never have heard a sermon on the kingdom of God. That seems impossible to me. We are in a post NT Wright, Scot McKnight, Jesus is King, Caesar is Not world. I know that not everyone has read as much contemporary Evangelical Theology and Christian Living books as I have, but this feels dated (but was only written 5 years ago.)
I would like to do these studies with a group some day. They would require a good bit of honesty with yourself and the group you do them with, but I think would be worth it.