Author: James K. A. Smith

Reformed, Catholic, Evangelical: On J. Todd Billings

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of participating in the installation of my friend, J. Todd Billings, as the first Gordon H. Girod Research Professor of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, MI.  It was a marvelous celebration of Todd’s work and future promise (and comes in the midst of Todd’s battle with cancer).

The folks at Western Seminary have shared video from the event that might be of interest to a wider audience.

You can learn more about Todd’s story, and the story behind this endowed chair, in this clip:

The Gordon H. Girod Chair of Reformed Theology at Western Theological Seminary from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Todd’s (fantastic, manifesto-like) inaugural address, entitled “Rediscovering the Catholic-Reformed Tradition for Today”:

Girod Event Inauguration Address from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Matthew Levering, a brilliant young scholar from the University of Dayton, was the Roman Catholic Respondent:

Girod Event Response: Matthew Levering from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

And I brought up the rear with a response titled, “Five Books I Want Todd Billings to Write”:

Girod Event Response: James K. A. Smith from Western Theological Seminary on Vimeo.

Natural Law and a “Christian Pragmatism”: A Note on David Bentley Hart

A long footnote appended to chapter 3 of my latest book manuscript, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, forthcoming in the Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Baker Academic, 2014), in which I obliquely engage David Bentley Hart’s recent sorties on natural law:

This is also why a pragmatist account of knowledge and meaning—which I am arguing is the only account that really does justice to our contingency, dependence, and sociality—undercuts most accounts of “natural law” insofar as they treat natural law representationally—as something that can’t be known atomistically, without dependence on a particular community of practice.  Quite apart from a pragmatist critique on this point (but resonating with it), David Bentley Hart has recently pointed out the problems with such notions of natural law.  As Hart puts it, like natural law theorists, “I certainly believe in a harmony between cosmic and moral order, sustained by the divine goodness in which both participate. I simply do not believe that the terms of that harmony are as precisely discernible as natural law thinkers imagine.”  The problem, then, is not the assertion that there are norms for human flourishing that are bound up with the “ends” of nature; the problem is that “the natural law theorist insists that the moral meaning of nature should be perfectly evident to any properly reasoning mind, regardless of religious belief or cultural formation” (David Bentley Hart, “Is, Ought, and Nature’s Laws,” First Things (March 2013), 72, emphasis added). What Hart calls “cultural formation” is what pragmatists like Wittgenstein and Rorty are getting at when they talk about social inculcation and “training”—learning with and from a community of practice how to “take” the world, how to “use” the world.  “To put the matter very simply,” Hart concludes, “belief in natural law is inseparable from the idea of nature as a realm shaped by final causes, oriented in their totality toward a single transcendent moral Good: one whose dictates cannot simply be deduced from our experience of the natural order, but must be received as an apocalyptic interruption of our ordinary explanations that nevertheless, miraculously, makes the natural order intelligible to us as a reality that opens up to what is more than natural.”  But such a “concept of nature…is entirely dependent upon supernatural (or at least metaphysical) convictions” (ibid., 71, emphasis added).  And, the pragmatist account would add, one only comes by such convictions thanks to a community of practice that passes them on, in which one is trained to see the world in such a way.  So the “recognition” of the moral telosof nature is dependent upon supernatural convictions that are relative to a particular community of revelation.  Hence the pragmatist, qua pragmatist, does not deny the ontological reality of natural law; s/he only denies the possibility of knowing that law apart from membership in a contingent community of practice that teaches us to see the world as such.  As Hart notes in his sequel to this piece, “Nature Loves to Hide,” First Things (May 2013), at stake here is actually an account of the relationship between nature and grace.  The Christian pragmatism I’m advocating would simply emphasize (per Romans 1:21-23, but also per Calvin’s account of the “book of nature” in the Institutes) that one needs to be inculcated in the community of grace that is the body of Christ in order to be able to “see” nature as the natural law theorist claims any rational being can.  In chapter 4, in dialogue with Robert Brandom, we’ll see that what’s really at issue here is how to understand “rationality.”

Meet Comment (magazine) Again for the First Time

Over at Comment this week you’ll find my rather manifesto-like announcement of our editorial vision for the magazine.  I’m excited about a new focus, a new format, and new energy for the future.  Here’s a snippet:

In the past, drawing on our heritage in the Reformational tradition of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Herman Dooyewerd (so many Hermans!), Comment magazine has encouraged evangelicals to embrace a more expansive Gospel, a sense of vocation as wide as creation—what the Protestant Reformers would describe as “the sanctification of ordinary life.” You might think of this aspect of our work as post-fundamentalist therapy—helping evangelicals to work through narrow notions of salvation as mere soul-rescue and instead embrace a holistic vision of God’s renewal as encompassing “all things” (Colossians 1:15-20). We have celebrated a creation-wide vision of redemption rooted in a holistic theology of creation and culture. (I tried to encapsulate this a few years ago in my Commentessay on “Redemption.”) In that sense, Comment magazine has been something of an evangelist for the unique wisdom and treasures of the Reformed (and especially Kuyperian) stream of catholic Christianity. We’ve been cheerleaders (some might say “pushers!”) of our own teachers: Albert Wolters, Calvin Seerveld, Richard Mouw, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and others. 

As we look around today, we’re grateful to see others who now share this vision. Chuck Colson’s later work, How Now Shall We Live? was a kind of evangelical translation of Kuyper. Andy Crouch’s important book, Culture Making, extended and deepened this invitation (and we can see the fruit of this in Christianity Today‘s “This Is Our City” project). In The Next Christians, Gabe Lyons invites a new generation to abandon the “truncated” gospel of mere soul-rescue and serve God as cultural “restorers.” The Center for Faith & Work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York equips entrepreneurs and artists to see their cultural labour as kingdom work. The choir has expanded, and we’re grateful to count all of these as partners in the task. 

This also frees us up to do something different. We’re not here just to celebrate and affirm that it’s good for Christians to engage culture. We want to now ask the hard questions—to resource those who are on board with the project and are now looking for wisdom about how to actually do this. Yes, Christians should be engaged in cultural creation and stewardship; yes, God values and affirms our cultural labours; now what does that look like? And what does it look like to do that Christianly? We’re all for common grace affirmations; but we’re equally concerned about what Abraham Kuyper called “the antithesis.” Think of Comment as the magazine where we not only encourage you to see your work as pursuing God’s shalom; we also dig deep to consider just what shalom looks like in economics and education, for cities and civil society. 

It is good work that God calls us (in)to—work that is really an invitation for us to participate in Christ’s renewal of all things. But the biblical affirmation of culture-making and cultural stewardship is not just a vague admonition to “engage culture.” There are plans for creation and part of our task as “restorers” is to discern what it is that God desires for commerce and construction, colleges and food co-ops.Comment magazine is devoted to helping you read the blueprints.

Read more of “Meet Comment Again for the First Time.”

Building and Stewarding “Common Grace Ministries”

I’m looking forward to speaking at the annual meeting of the Council of Reformed Charities in Canandaigua, NY on April 28-May 1.

The Council of Reformed Charities is an organization that deserves the attention of a rising generation of Christians who are newly excited about what my friend Rich Mouw calls “common grace ministries”–organizations and agencies that pursue shalom for every aspect of creation, rooted in the conviction that Christ has redeemed “all things.”  CORC brings together organizations that are convinced, for example, that God is just as concerned about mental health as spiritual health; that Christ’s resurrection gives new life to marriages as well as souls; and that the Lord of the heavenly City also desires the renewal of our inner cities.  As we would say at Cardus, these are organization that tend the “social architecture” of North American society, while also tending to the marginalized and vulnerable.

CORC has been around a long time, but you probably don’t know about it because it has been a humble organization, rooted in the Reformed tradition that spawned now-internationally-recognized agencies like Bethany Christian Services, Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, Inner City Christian Federation, and many more.  It’s no accident that these sorts of organizations grew out of the soil of Reformed theology and institutions: we were “holistic” before holistic was cool.  As evangelicals discover the “wide-angle Gospel” of creation-wide redemption, they would do well to look to those who have been cultivating this vision for a century.

I have a burden to see the Council of Reformed Charities thrive.  In particular, I would love to see the rising generation of young Christians who are passionately committed to justice, renewal, and care for the vulnerable become part of CORC.  While they would bring new passion and energy to CORC, they would also find something there: wisdom, endurance, and what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.”  If the new energy for pursuing shalom is going to endure, it needs to be rooted in healthy institutions and tended by networks of accountability and encouragement.  I think CORC provides a multi-generational space for just such growth.

Monday Morning Musing: God Doesn’t Need our Help

In our age of post-Christian anxiety, where so many worry about young people leaving the faith and the implausibility of Christianity in a secular age, we get a new apologetics.  The goal of the new apologetics is not to prove or defend the puzzling and scandalous aspects of orthodox Christianity.  Instead, the goal is to show that “authentic” Christianity, or the “true” Gospel, is not offensive–that the “God of love” worshiped by Christians is pretty much the God you would want.

That presents a challenge, of course, but the challenge is not located where you might think.  Instead of spending its energy on articulating, explaining, and defending the coherence of biblical, historic Christianity (including all the “hard truths” that attend it), the new apologetics expends its energy convincing the skeptic that all sorts of aspects of “Christianity” are, in fact, non-essential accretions or downright deformative perversions of “true” or “authentic” Christianity.  This is undertaken in the name of removing “intellectual hurdles” to the Christian faith.  If you look again at how many new apologists frame their “reconsiderations” of hell, or the doctrine of the atonement, or the doctrine of original sin in light of evolutionary evidence, or traditional Christian sexual ethics, I suggest you’ll often find they “frame” their project something like this:

“These are aspects of Christianity that are just not believable today.  But that’s OK, because it turns out that they’re also aspects that are not really biblical and not really Christian.  So don’t let those things stop you from believing.” [Then cue your favorite tale about “Hellenization” or “Constantinianism” or “fundamentalism” here.]

But it seems to me that this sort of project is predicated on a particular account of faith that is often left implicit.  In particular, it seems to assume that if someone is going to come to believe the Gospel they must be convinced since their belief is a matter of their choice.  Or at the very least, the intellectual hurdles that stand in the way of their believing must be removed.  If we do that, then the way is clear for them to choose to believe.

The new apologetic, in other words, is fundamentally Arminian, perhaps even Pelagian (and yes, I know the difference*).  The drive to eliminate intellectual and “moral” hurdles to belief is a fundamentally Arminian project insofar as it seems to assume that “believability” is a condition for the skeptic or nonbeliever to then be able to “make that step” toward belief.

While this might confirm a lot of prejudices, it should be said that this is an odd strategy if one is an Augustinian or a Calvinist–since in an Augustinian account, any belief is a gift, a grace that is given by God himself.  So if God is going to grant the gift of belief, it seems that God would able to grant and empower a faith that can also believe the scandalous.  In other words, God doesn’t need our help.

*Readers might consider Charles Taylor’s description of the sort of intellectual Pelagianism that he sees as characteristic of the “providential deism” in modernity (A Secular Age, p. 222).

What’s the Story with “Story?”

“Story” seems to be the new black.  Or the new magic.  Or maybe the new black magic.

This is Alan Jacobs’ concern in his recent Books & Culture essay, “Just-So Stories.”  His primary target is the “just-so” stories about “story” that are now the darling of “evocriticism”–those (allegedly scientific) accounts that “explain” the power of “story” by explaining them away in terms of reproductive fitness and evolutionary adaptation.  According to these sorts of just-so stories,”story” is important because it teaches us empathy, or trains us to have a theory of other minds, or equips us to be able to make predictions–all of which enable members of the species to avoid getting killed and thus find the time to reproduce.  Jacobs’ rightly targets and questions such accounts.  (I would also recommend Jonathan Kramnick’s essay, “Against Literary Darwinism,” as well as the follow-up symposium in Critical Inquiry (Winter 2012).

But Jacobs’ argument gets a little fuzzier when he turns his critical attention to those Christians who have turned “story” into a bit of a cottage industry.  (And I suppose I felt myself a bit of a target here, given the centrality of story for my argument about “how worship works” in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.)  So I’d like to extend the conversation a bit, on just this point, precisely because I think Jacobs raises important questions and advances the conversation.

A little set-up: Jacobs’ criticizes Gottschall’s Storytelling Animal for treating “Story” as an identifiable abstraction; that is, Gottschall “too readily assumes that there is some general thing called Story, rather than considering the implications of the fact that there are many different kinds of stories.”  So Gottschall seems to claim that “Story” makes us empathetic.  In reply, Jacobs effectively asks: “Really?  Does the story embedded in Grand Theft Auto do that?”  His frustration is encapsulated in this passage:

I must confess to considerable irritation on this score. When people tell me that “Story” does this or that for us, I always want to throw up my hands and cry, Which story? Haven’t you noticed the astonishing variety of literary productions? Haven’t you noticed that some are brilliant and many are stupid and most are somewhere in between? That some are mean-spirited while others are generous-hearted? And that people don’t agree about which are which? How can anyone who has thought about such matters for five seconds think that you can say anything meaningful about an abstraction as vast and wooly as “Story”?

It is at this point that his exasperation turns to a specifically Christian version of this problem

Christians have been guiltier than most of this tendency, arguing that people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history. Thus Brian Wicker’s 1975 book The Story-Shaped World; which sounds good until you ask which story the world is shaped like. The One Hundred Days of Sodom? The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin? Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen? It matters, you know. Now of course, a reasonable person is likely to reply that the gospel is the story Wicker is referring to, which is true. Why not, then, refer to “The Gospel-Shaped World”? Because, I submit, Story is a word to conjure with, as Wicker and Gottschall alike, in their very different ways, know. But it is time to stop conjuring.

You can feel some folks cheering along as Jacobs’ boldly deflates the “story” industry in Christian circles.  But I wonder if that might be a bit premature.  Let’s consider this a little more closely.

1. We need to sort out the different sorts of claims that are made about and for “story” in these discussions:

(a) There is an important difference between improvement claims vs. formation claims.  If some (perhaps Gottschall?) fall into the habit of regularly claiming that stories “improve” us, then Jacobs critique is right on the money.  However, I don’t usually run into specific claims about improvement; rather, I see people talking about the unique formative power of story/narrative–and that formation could be for good or ill.

(b) But even mere formation claims would still be guilty of another of Jacobs’ peeves about story conjuring: the very notion that “Story” is a category.  This is a bit of an odd critique.  There’s no such thing as “Story,” he seems to claim, only stories.  But all sorts of our concepts and categories encompass a vast range of instantiations–but we don’t thereby rule them out of court. (Wittgenstein makes the case for “fuzzy” concepts early on in his Philosophical Investigations.)  Categories and concepts like “poetry” or “nonfiction” or “fiction” seem to successfully name an array of phenomena that is at least as “vast and wooly” as Story.  The very fact that I can assemble a collection of stories already means that “story” is a functional concept.

But let’s grant that there’s a fair concern in the neighborhood here.  Then I wonder if we might introduce another distinction, between those who talk about “story in general” vs. those who are really interested in narrative meaning.  For example, like Jacobs, Kramnick is very critical of those “literary Darwinists” who just keep making vague, general claims about “Story” without any attention to the specifics of particular stories.  (He also notes that the overarching Story that they seem to find turns out to be a version of Darwin’s story.)  Again: fair critique.  But that seems different from those of us who are not appealing to “Story” as if there was an abstract plot in the sky, but are rather attentive to the dynamics of storied meaning-making–the unique, irreducible way that narrative “means.”  This was the quarry of Paul Ricoeur’s ongoing research. It is also this kind of claim that Christian Smith is making when he argues that humans are “narrative” animals (in Moral, Believing Animals).  The point is that story means in unique, identifiable, and irreducible ways. So “story” does something that other modes of prose or expression do not.  (I argue this in more detail in Imagining the Kingdom.)  Jacobs might still want to contest such a claim, but I don’t think it falls prey to the critique he offers in “Just-So Stories.”

2. Now look again at Jacobs’ specific claim about Christian conjurings of the magic of “Story.”  First, Jacobs tells us “Christians have been guiltier than most” in this regard.  Really?  I find that hard to believe, especially if you’ve had any opportunity to spend extended time in the growing literature of evocriticism.

But second, and more importantly, look closely at the specific claim he attributes to this Christian version of story-conjuring.  Apparently their claim is that “people love stories because they are responding to the story God is telling through salvation history.”  Again: really?  I’m surprised to hear this, since I’ve spent quite a bit of time in this literature, and I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that argument.  And the only evidence Jacobs gives us is an appeal to a 1975 book by Brian Wicker.  If Christians have been “guiltier than most” on this score, you’d think there’d be loads of examples to cite–and maybe a few more recent.  But no.

So I’m worried that Jacobs has erected (conjured?) something of a straw man (a wicker man?).  If Christians were making the argument that Jacobs attributes to them here, then yes: this is a valid concern and critique.  But I’m not at all convinced that the recent spate of works emphasizing “story” are making anything like this argument.  That doesn’t mean they should therefore get a free pass; only that they can’t be dispatched on the basis of Jacobs’ complaint here.  That would have to be a tale for another time.

Imagining the Kingdom: Endorsements

As announced on Twitter, I’ve received the first copy of Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.  A long time coming, I’m grateful to see it in print and now wait with trepidation to see how my little creation fares in the cold, hard world.

But I’m grateful that it’s been warmly welcomed by others already.  In addition to receiving a “starred review” from Publisher’s Weekly, the back cover boasts the following endorsements.

Imagining the Kingdom is a fit successor to Jamie Smith’s remarkable Desiring the Kingdom. The new book is, like its predecessor, learned but lively, provocative but warmhearted, a manifesto and a guide. Smith takes Christians deeper into the artistic, imaginative, and practical resources on which we must draw if we wish to renew not only our minds but also our whole beings in Christ.”

Alan Jacobs, Clyde S. Kilby Chair Professor of English, Wheaton College

“In this wonderfully rich and engagingly readable book of ‘liturgical anthropology,’ Smith makes a persuasive case for the thesis that human beings are best understood as worshiping animals. It has important implications at once for practical theology’s reflection on religious formation, liturgy, and pedagogy and for philosophical theorizing about just what religion is. And it develops as an engaging and lively conversation among an astonishing mix of people: imagine Calvin, Proust, Merleau-Ponty, Augustine, Wendell Berry, Bourdieu, and David Foster Wallace all in the same room really talking to each other about being human and how to think about it!”
David Kelsey, Luther A. Weigle Professor of Theology Emeritus, Yale Divinity School
“Jamie Smith shows us that the gospel does not primarily happen between our ears but in all the movements of the body by which we are formed and in turn form the world. I know of no more thorough and sophisticated account of how secular liturgies form and deform us and how Christian liturgies can help. Though sophisticated, Smith’s book is also a delight. Its pages are filled with great poetry and insights from films, novels, and everyday life. Smith shows how we encounter God with our whole selves and how God carries us even when we don’t know what is going on.”
William T. Cavanaugh, senior research professor, DePaul University
“It is heartening to set one’s eyes on Jamie Smith’s bold and creative endeavor to awaken Christians, Protestants in particular, to the centrality of worship in even, nay especially, our moral lives. Smith’s acute insight into the false and lying stories and liturgies generated by the dominant powers of our economy makes his case for a reclamation of worship within the churches compelling; for this thoughtful book is rightly concerned with a restoration of the Christian imagination rooted in habits of virtue.”
Vigen Guroian, professor of religious studies, University of Virginia; author of The Melody of Faith

“This book is a thought-provoking, generative reflection on the imagination-shaping power of Christian worship practices. Smith describes and demonstrates how practices, perceptions, emotions, and thought interact and how together they can be shaped in cruciform ways. What an ideal book for crossing boundaries among academic disciplines and between the academy and the church.”

John D. Witvliet, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Calvin College, and Calvin Theological Seminary