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Offsite Review: Imagining the Kingdom by James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith

I am about 1/3 of the way through Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works by James KA Smith.  It is not an easy book to read, (fortunately for me according to this review it is about to get easier).  However, I think this is a book that is worth struggling through.  There was a blog post a while back that I read about how Pastors need to read above their ability occasionally   And this is one that I think that a lot of pastors should struggle through.

Worship is important, but we often do not think through worship.  Smith is trying to get, especially those of use in the Evangelical world, to think clearly about how the non-intellectual parts of worship work.  He opens the book with a story about how his wife had introduced him to several book on the importance of thinking through our habits of eating and food more deeply.  At one point he was looking around for a pen to highlight a passage of one of Michael Pollan’s books while sitting in the food court of a Costco.  He realized that intellectual awareness of the right things to do are not enough to actually do the right things.  So it is with worship.  Thinking the right things about God is not enough to actually live the right things.

My own review of Imagining the Kingdom will probably go up toward the end of next week.  But until then you might be interested in reading the new review by Jasmine Smart at Englewood Review of Books.

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin by Lauren Winner

The Dangers of Christian Practice: On Wayward Gifts, Characteristic Damage, and Sin by Lauren WinnerTakeaway: Spiritual practices are not magic bullets. 

Over the past few years I have become a disciple of spiritual practices. I have a spiritual director. I regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. I really do think that the eucharist and baptism should be central to worship. This makes me the target audience of Lauren Winner’s new book, the Dangers of Christian Practice.

The rough thesis is that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses that need to be paid attention to. Just like the church is made up of human beings that are sinful and make every church community less than perfect, good practices that are commanded by God and advocated throughout history also have some weaknesses.

The easiest illustration and the best chapters is about prayer. Keziah Goodwin Hopkins Brevard is the main illustration. She is a 57 year old widowed owner of two plantations and over 200 slaves. She left extensive journals both of her thoughts and of her prayers as fodder for Winner’s discussion.

As Winner recounts, Brevard prays for pliant slaves, she prays for the death of slaves that lie to her, she prays that Heaven will have a separate location for abolitionists and slaves away from her. (Note the political and rhetorical implications of a separate heaven.) She prays to be a good master and for a heart open to God.

Winner notes that the subjects of our prayers have long been a concern for Christians. Aquinas and others cited have thought and written about praying for things that are sinful or out of distorted desires. But the very nature of prayer is part of the problem. It is not just intercessory prayer, but teaching prayer to others and how public prayer is often not solely directed at God. Prayer can easily become gossip, self justifying or deluded. But even out of bad prayer, there can be  good aspects.

All That’s Good: Recovering the Lost of Art of Discernment by Hannah Anderson

All That's Good: Recovering the Lost of Art of Discernment by Hannah AndersonTakeaway: Discernment is about practice, wisdom and intention. 

For regular readers of my reviews, it will be repetitive to say that Christianity is not just about being saved from our sins and going to heaven. It is also about abundant life on earth now. When Jesus gave his commission after the resurrection, he said, ‘make disciples’ in Matthew. Evangelism is important, but it is the start, not the end of great commission.

Hannah Anderson is continuing this exploration of discipleship that she started in her earlier two books with a focus on discernment in All That’s Good. The blurb on the back of All That’s Good says in part, “Discernment is more than simply avoiding bad things; discernment actually frees you to navigate the world with confidence and joy by teaching you how to recognize and choose good things.”

I so much appreciate that Hannah Anderson starts All That’s Good with an exploration of a vision for goodness, “…in trying to keep myself safe, in obsessing over making the “right” choices, I found myself making a whole lot of wrong ones. Because I lacked a vision for goodness, I also lacked discernment.” (Page 12)

The main section of All That’s Good (pages 63 to 154) is an extended meditation on Philippians 4:8, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (NIV). In many ways (all good) this feels like the type of meditation on scripture that Eugene Peterson writes. It isn’t a word for word bible study, it is a practical exploration, not just the biblical concepts of the passage, but also of what that means to how we live our lives.

The practice of discernment as it is explored is not primarily thought of as a spiritual gift given to some (although that is one aspect of discernment for some people), but a skill that is develop over time. That skill, along with necessary components of humility, wisdom, virtue, the right understanding of goodness, not just the avoidance of evil but the knowledge of good, and a touch of shrewdness, allows us to rightly see the world around us.

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O'ConnorTakeaway: I have no idea.

One of my reading projects this year has been to read all of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction this year. I have previously read A Good Man is Hard to Find, but I will probably re-read it again. But I have no idea what to think about O’Connor now that I have finished all of her fiction.

She is a skilled writer. It is easy to see that she is writing not just for a surface meaning, but for the re-readings as well. There is depth there that many writers cannot pull off.

But there is also a twistedness that is hard to take. It is not just that many of these stories end in ironic tragedy, but that there is an intentional turning everything upside down. There is much to appreciate about the upside-down nature of the stories. A woman farmer that complains about a stray bull is, of course, gored by the bull. I saw that coming a mile away. But the path to the inevitable end seems to matter. And the upside-down nature of the stories I believe is representative of her understanding of Christianity.

Part of what I do not know how to process is what much of this means. As I was reading around after finishing, one blogger called the title story one of the most anti-racist short story ever written (which does seem to be more than a little hyperbolic), while many others concentrate on her refusal to meet James Baldwin when he was in Millegeville or her antipathy to the civil rights movements or her racist jokes that were not uncommon in her letters.

It just feels much more complicated than the either/or. Alice Walker, probably best known for her novel Color Purple has a chapter on O’Connor in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. For about a year, Alice Walker, when she was 8 and O’Connor would have been 28, lived just a few miles from O’Connor’s farm and remembers passing it, although she did not know anything about O’Connor at the time. In 1974, Walker and her mother went to visit their old home, a falling down shack in the middle of a pasture, and then the O’Connor farm.

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist

The Eternal Current: How a Practice: Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequis

Summary: A realignment from attendance based worship to participatory Christianity.

I was both interested in reading the Eternal Current and hesitant to read it. In some ways I feel like I have been on a similar journey as Aaron Niequist. I have been following him for years on social media and through his wife’s (Shauna Niequist) writing. We have different places in the Church (he is a worship leader and musician and church leaders, I am a stay at home Dad). As I have watched his work with The Practice and read an occasional article or interview or heard about him from some mutual acquaintances, it has felt like we have been moving in similar directions.

As I read The Eternal Current, it is clear we have also been reading similar books. NT Wright, James KA Smith, Scot McKnight, Eugene Peterson, along with lots on Catholic, Orthodox and historic Christian authors. We both started spiritual direction about 5 years ago. We both attend megachurches that we are reluctant to leave, but also do not find completely fulfilling.

Aaron Niequist led a project of Willow Creek Community Church, The Practice, for several years. It was a project that was attempting to put into place a more liturgically informed and historically aware practice of Christianity. Willow has been oriented toward reaching non-Christians for the past 30-40 years. But it has also been aware for at least the last 10-15 years how it has been weak at developing people as Christians. Aaron, based on his passion, and probably at least a bit on his relationship as the son in law of Bill Hybels, started a worship setting that was focused on spiritual development in a historical and liturgical mode.

I cannot really review this book without commenting on Bill Hybel’s status as the former pastor of Willow Creek. Yet another article came out about Hybel’s sexual harassment of a staff member at Willow on Sunday. That makes at least 10 women that have publicly accused Hybel’s of sexual harassment. In addition to the article on Sunday, the head teaching pastor at Willow, which moved into place early because of Hybel’s resignation, himself resigned abruptly Sunday. He had asked to resign earlier because of differences of opinion on how to deal with the allegations against Hybel between himself and other leaders, but after the NYT article on Sunday, he did not show up at church, it was announced that he was sick and then Carter released a statement later in the day.

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan Noble

Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age by Alan NobleSummary: In order to be a Christian within culture, we need to understand what the culture is. Which means we need to be rooted in historic Christianity as a means of disrupting the effects of culture.

The old illustration about two fish being asked how is the water, and then one asking the other, ‘what is water?’ is my best description of Disruptive Witness. We are part of a culture, but we need tools, and language, to help us understand, and describe, the culture around us.

Part One of Disruptive Witness uses Charles Taylor and others to describe and understand our culture from the perspective of Christianity that is always within a particular culture. I have read a number of books about Taylor’s ideas, and I think that Disruptive Witness is one of the most understandable presentations of Taylor’s ideas.

Part Two of Disruptive Witness is focused on what we should do now that we understand some of the benefits and problems of culture. These are largely spiritual practices of the historic church that can help disrupt the effects of culture. 

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John Fea

Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump by John FeaSummary: An evangelical historian approaches why so many Evangelicals voted for Trump.

I am a fan of the John Fea’s history podcast, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I do not remember how I ran across it, but I have listened to it almost from the very beginning. Some of the ideas of Believe Me (title is from Trump’s often used phrase) trickled out over the past months. And the most recent podcast episode was directly about the book Believe Me. On Saturday, when I had a six hour drive by myself, I listened to the audiobook of Believe Me basically in one sitting.

After demonstrating that he is in fact an Evangelical, Fea starts with the common ’81% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump’ and his wondering if 81% of his Evangelical megachurch voted for Trump the next Sunday after the election. This is not unlike many Evangelicals that I know that have been against Trump all along. They felt the election personally.

The main explanation of the Believe Me is that Evangelicals voted for Trump out of fear, a desire for a Christian nation and the power to construct it that way, and nostalgia. I think that Fea is best when he is attempting to be generous in understanding the reluctant Trump voter and his historical explanations. Fea’s other books include books about whether the United States was founded as a Christian nation, why we should study history and a history of the American Bible Society, all of which make their ways into the book at one point or another.

Fea places all three factors, fear, nostalgia, and power (Christian nationalism) in historical context, asserting that it is not just in this one instance that these three factors have come into play, but that there is a history of Evangelicals choosing these over their Christian ideals. There are places where I think that Believe Me may have been rush to print just a bit too quickly. He explains the DACA program incorrectly. He could be clearer about what the 81% number really was. The definition of what an Evangelical is I think should have been developed more clearly from a historical perspective. In many ways Evangelical, which means something pretty specific in the second half of the 20th century, is mixed up with conservative Protestantism or Fundamentalism or any Protestantism of earlier generations. I think that weakens his historical argument in a few places because some of the historical parallels he is drawing may not be quit as clear for some that want to haggle about what Evangelicalism has meant historically or today.

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne Robinson

What Are We Doing Here? Essays by Marilynne RobinsonSummary: More essays to explore history, science and politics from a serious Christian.

I am a fan of Marilynne Robinson. I have read all but one of her novels, and to be honest the reason I haven’t read the last is that I don’t want to have read all of her novels. But I have read Gilead twice and the most recent, and my favorite, Lila, three times. I have also read two of her previous collections of essays. I am more mixed on her essays. I had decided not to read Robinson’s most recent until I read James KA Smith’s review in Comment. His review is such a good example of what a review is supposed to be, and such an interesting comparison between Ta’Nehisi Coates and Robinson that I picked up the audiobook the same day.

But regardless of the praise from Smith, the problems I have with Robinson’s What We Are Doing Here is still the same basic problems I have with Robinson’s other essays. She is an incredible writer. Although the essays here, which were mostly talks given over the past two years edited together into a book, have an odd sort of repetition. She literally quotes the same quotes and cites the same ideas multiple times. Individually, I think most of them are great. But put together, they are somehow less than the individual parts.

Robinson is known as a writer. But her interests mean that she is writing about things that are outside of her academic background. She is fascinated by Puritans and Jonathan Edwards and how we talk and think about science and politics. She is clearly much smarter than I am and so I love being able to listen to her musings about things that I would not have ever considered apart from her. I really do love how wide ranging of a thinker she is. At one point she is talking about another author writing outside of their main field and quips that she isn’t going to complain about that since she frequently does the same thing.

The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians by Frederica Mathewes-Green

The Illumined Heart: Capture the Vibrant Faith of the Ancient Christians by Frederica Mathewes-GreenSummary: Short explanation of historic Orthodoxy’s understanding of Christianity.

Real life often gets in the road of, or impacts my reading. I am a stay at home Dad, so I often have my reading interrupted by toddlers. I listened to a lot of audiobook with somewhat partial attention while I supervise my children at the park. Last Thursday, I listened to all of this short book while having a crown put in. I thought I had an old filling come out. And wasn’t really prepared to hear that it was the tooth that was cracked (right next to a filling). So on and off over a 3.5 hour period, I listened to this 2 hour audiobook. It isn’t really possible to listen to an audiobook (at least with the headphones I had) while they were drilling my tooth.

But I immediately thought of James KA Smith’s thoughts on the importance of bodily practice as I listened to the opening chapter. Mathewes-Green described part of the historic importance of Orthodoxy as taking seriously the body.

I have read or listened to several books by Mathewes-Green about Orthodoxy. Her background as a Protestant before converting to Orthodoxy makes her an important link to helping Protestants like myself understand an important, but culturally different, stream of Christianity.

Like Thomas Oden, Mathewes-Green, makes the argument that the historic practices of the church should be the root of our modern practices of faith. While Oden mostly attempted to bring modern Protestantism an awareness of historic theology and practice, Mathewes-Green actually moved into a stream that still practices a liturgy that is largely unchanged from early centuries.

I really do appreciate hearing about this bias toward ancient Christianity. I think it is important. But I also have not been convinced that our Christianity should be still be practicing a largely ancient liturgy as Orthodoxy is. I think the ancient theology and practice should be biased, but that we need the ability to culturally reinterpret that liturgical imagery when necessary. The bias should be ancient, but not fixed.

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

Wise Blood by Flannery O'ConnorSummary: A 22 year old veteran,comes to the city since his only remaining relative (his mother) died and the country home is falling apart.

One of my reading projects for the year is to read all of O’Connor’s fiction. I have read A Good Man is Hard to Find several years ago. But I knew I wasn’t really getting all of the meaning of the short stories. One of the reasons I want to read O’Connor is because I am looking for books that require a bit of struggle. Not because difficult books are ‘better’ because they are difficult. But because books that require something of the reader use different intellectual muscles than those that are laid out more clearly. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction. Books that while they may be academically difficult, are not intended to have layered shades of meaning. Fiction and poetry does often have layers and I am trying to work on some of those intellectual muscles.

Last year I picked up the short biography, The Terrible Speed of Mercy and I am currently reading A Subversive Gospel: Flannery O’Connor and the Reimagining of Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Previously I also read O’Connor’s graduate school Prayer Journal.

A Subversive Gospel is one of those books that I want to read more of, an interpretive guide. It is not a biography, although it has biographical details, it is about O’Connor’s writing, theology and philosophy. (It is also a reworked dissertation.) A Subversive Gospel has been very helpful at understanding O’Connor and their vision of writing so that I can understand the books later. But I was nearly 75% of the way through A Subversive Gospel and I have not read one of the novels, so I quickly listened to Wise Blood, not so much for the story, but to get a sense of what her novels felt like before I finished A Subversive Gospel.

One of O’Connor’s most quoted phrases about her writing is, “…to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” This is very similar to what James KA Smith says he is doing in his attempts at being an alien anthropologist that is exploring the mall and the ball park to understand what cultural liturgies are driving those spaces.

“…my goal is to try to make strange what is so familiar to us precisely in order to help us see what is at stake in formative practices that are part of the mall experience.(p23 of Desiring the Kingdom)

Wise Blood is not a standard country boy comes to the big city story with standard middle of the 20th century characters. First of all, I listened to the audiobook, but it was one I did not leave running when litter ears were around like I often do. This is full of crude ugly language, swearing and derogatory comments. But lots of books that are not classics have bad language. (And there is a real beauty to the language even when it is crude.)