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    Entries in James Bryan Smith (6)


    Book Review: James Bryan Smith's The Magnificent Story

    James Bryan Smith is one of my favorite contemporary writers on Christian spiritual formation. His latest book, The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth is another fine contribution to the field. Professor Smith’s writing is pastoral, warm, and intelligent, and this book presents a helpful approach to thinking about God, getting to know Jesus, and living as a disciple in the world. Smith helps us think theologically through the lens of the transcendentals: beauty, goodness, and truth.

    Professor Smith’s book addresses the human longing for a great and magnificent story, one that matches up with our deep desire to be part of a narrative that is rich with beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith believes that the good news of and about Jesus is that story, revealed to us in the life, person, and work of Christ. But Smith argues that the fullness of the Jesus story has been shrunken or reduced in ways that get things all out of balance, emphasizing God's wrath over God's grace, judgement over love, being right over being compassionate, and eternal life in the future over eternal life now. Smith addresses those imbalances throughout the book, offering a different way of seeing and understanding God that aligns more closely with a vision of the beautiful, good, and true.

    Smith focuses on practices in addition to offering counternarratives and alternative ways of thinking about the Christian story. Each chapter ends with a prescribed exercise that helps the reader begin to notice ways God is at work in the world. This approach is similar to what Smith offered in The Apprentice Series: Common Narrative, Counter Narrative, and Practice. In this book, narratives about God are examined in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and Smith tests these narratives in light of beauty, goodness, and truth. Smith also encourages his readers to join with others in community as they explore the ideas presented, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide group conversation and to work by grace through the practices he suggests.

    Professor Smith engages theologically with several ideas that are open to debate, and some readers may find themselves in disagreement. Smith challenges penal substitutionary atonement, for instance, as an example of a problematic doctrine. He argues that this representation of the Father pitted against the Son for our benefit does not accord with the idea of a merciful and loving God, nor does it take into account the full story given in Scripture. According to Smith, penal substitution is a shrunken story. Smith argues that we need forgiveness, our sins are real, and that the cross does defeat our sin. However, Smith argues that there is a different way of understanding atonement that better represents God. Smith’s approach is known as the Christus Victor model.

    On this point of doctrine, and perhaps on other points as well, some readers will have quibbles and even deep disagreements. The Christian community is no stranger to disagreement. Our perpetual challenge is to disagree in love while maintaining a firm commitment to unity under Christ, the head of the church. Smith’s critiques are charitable, I believe, and worthy of discussion among Christians. As Smith notes, some beliefs are harmful. Therefore, Christians must always be as clear as possible concerning what we believe, and undertake the challenging work of theology in a manner that is truthful, attractive, and good.

    Smith’s invitation to intimacy with God, knowing the loving kindness of Jesus as Savior, experiencing the availability of grace, and growth in sanctification is clearly explained, compelling, and attractive. This book rings with beauty, goodness, and truth. There may be points of disagreement among Christians that can be discussed in good faith. But the allegiance to Jesus is foremost. In him the church is united.

    I’m always on the lookout for resources that will help people draw near to God, experience the grace of Jesus, and engage seriously with discipleship. This book fits the bill. I recommend it. I appreciate the witness of James Bryan Smith. And I am glad to share with him in the magnificent story of Jesus Christ.


    Not My Circus, Not My Monkeys

    Those are some wise words, James Bryan Smith.


    Formation in Christlikeness Conference at Friends University


    This post is a little late in coming, considering this conference was three weeks ago.  But what follows are my reflections from the Aprentis event, written at various intervals since returning home.

    Molly and I recently travelled to Wichita, Kansas to be present at the Formation in Christlikeness: The Process of Change Conference, hosted by the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University.  Keynote speakers were Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith, Scot McKnight, Mindy Caliguire, James Catford, and Eduardo Pedreira.

    Our time couldn't have been more delightful.  I ran into some of the friends I met last spring at Barclay College.  I saw others that I have come to know over the past few years, and finally introduced my wife to some of these extraordinary folks.  The content was profound, with an especially interesting dialogue begun by Dallas Willard on the nature of the atonement and it's meaning for our conception of God.  The music was moving as well.  Christian conferences are often remarkable because of the music.  I have found this to be so not because of the performance of the musicians or the talent of those leading.  Rather, I have found this to be so because of the fervor with which those in attendance sing.

    The conference centered on the theme of formation.  How do we become spiritually formed?  What are the practices, the ideas, the narratives, the postures that shape us?  And how does our formation influence and determine the witness of the church?  An oft made point, by Willard and others, is that we are always undergoing a process of formation.  The challenge comes concerning our responsibility to conceive of a vision for our lives, a decision to live in accordance with that vision, and our engagement with the means necessary for our us to embody and embrace that vision.  For Christian people, this includes developing our conception of God in accordance with what we find in the person of Jesus and the testimony of the Bible, making a determination not only to be converts to Christ, but disciples, and utilizing exercises such as prayer, service, study, worship, and other such disciplines to create a space wherein we might be shaped us as followers of Jesus.

    Three conversation capture the essence of our weekend.

    Conversation One: The Kingdom is Safe

    While speaking with a gentleman after arriving at Friends University, I asked a question about this person's history with Renovare, with Jim Smith, with Dallas Willard, and their particular church background.  I asked about his familiarity with The Apprentice Series, and with what Friends currently was seeking to develop on campus through the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute.  He was enthusiastic to be present at the event, knowing much about these materials and these developments at Friends, and was encouraged by the tone of the presenters and of the conference attendees.

    Having a very diverse church and theological background, this gentleman remarked that what had impressed him most in his experiences with Renovare, and what excited him about this event, was the fact that there was a feeling of safety at these events, a sense that a variety of traditions and perspectives could be presented and heard with grace.  This does not negate the fact that there is some Truth all are seeking; only that the quest for Truth is conducted in a gentle manner, allowing for diversity, listening to the other, while at the same time thinking critical about the accounts of formation, of Jesus, of the Bible, or other doctrinal concerns that are offered.

    And this is right.  Christian people who have been formed in the image of Christ will embody the ideals of seriousness and safety.  Within the Kingdom, our longing for union with God is affirmed, and the seriousness of life within that Kingdom is palatable.  The Kingdom is safe, never in trouble, and open and available to all whom God calls.

    Conversation Two: Spiritual Growth Requires Attentiveness and Self-Awareness

    Molly and I were blessed to discuss growth in the Christian life.  This conference gave us an opportunity and a language to assess our own spiritual well-being, our own health as disciples of Jesus.  Molly found that she is spread very thin, and does not often take the required time for rest and reflection and prayer and study.  She realized how critical this calling is for her congregation.

    I spend a great deal of time in study; reading and reflecting on that which I read.  But I also spend too much time looking at screens, or being distracted by social networks, or failing to slow down long enough to pay careful attention to what God might be saying.

    Together, me and my spouse were fortunate enough to explore the type of environment we are fostering in our home for our spiritual development, as well as the development of our daughter.

    Conversation Three: Christian Spiritual Formation is a Growing Edge in Publishing

    Lastly, for those that are writers, there is a need for resources in the area of Christian spiritual formation.  Many of the existing resources are autobiographical, or along the lines of memoir.  Spiritual formation books are criticized for being too individualistic.  There is a hunger for sophisticated, theologically complex accounts of the spiritual life, and, according to one voice in the room, there is a need for more reflection on the role of the body in spiritual formation.

    Christian Spiritual Formation is a growing edge in publishing.  If you've got a book proposal, you should submit it to a well respected publishing house.


    Pastor's Training Event :: APRENTIS @ Friends

    Thursday of last week I had the privilege to team up with James Bryan Smith and the Apprentice Group for a Pastor's Conference at Friends University.  The event was sponsored by the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute (Aprentis) at Friends.  We had somewhere around 95 people registered, and an attendance around 80.  Dr. Smith presented most of the day, introducing the group to some of the foundational ideas that drive the Apprentice Series.  We had two designated periods for break out sessions, and I presented twice on two practices: Counting Your Blessings and Praying the 23rd Psalm.

    C.J. Fox, who needs a title at Friends with the word "executive" in it, asked me at the conclusion of the day if I thought the event was worth it, if we could measure an impact from that day.  I told him that the true measure of our success will come down the road, in the event that the pastors and church leaders who attended will take the ideas we discussed and put them in to practice.  But in the moment, I thought the day went smoothly, it was good to connect with church leaders, and I think we communicated that spiritual formation can bear fruit within the context of local church ministries, and that those of us present in leadership are available to local churches to serve and equip leaders in the work of leading people toward Christ.

    It is good to partner with Jim Smith and others at Friends.  I'm so grateful for the opportunity.  And it was good to connect with church leaders, to pray for those serving in ministry, and be present with others seeking Christ.  I'm looking forward to more events like these, and I anticipate seeing what God will do as leaders within the church become more attentive to God, and allow space in their life for the Holy Spirit to bring transformation.


    Reflections on the Weekend :: Apprentice Conference with James Bryan Smith

    This past weekend I got to do something that I have never done.  I got to travel to conference, not as a participant, but as a leader.  The circumstances that led me to be part of the team leading this conference in a way couldn't be more odd, or, stated differently, couldn't be more peculiarly Kingdom-like.

    The Book

    I've mentioned James Bryan Smith's book The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love With the God Jesus Knows (The Apprentice Series) here before.  I think it is a fantastic book, and it is the first of three in a series.  In the book Jim carefully analyzes a number of prevalent "God narratives" that we all have (i.e., God loves me when I'm good, and punishes me when I'm bad), examines those narratives and the ways they show up in our lives (works righteousness, excessive guilt), and presents challenges to those bad narratives in light of "Jesus narratives" that radically reshape our view of God (i.e., we worship a generous God of grace who, for example, sends rain on both the wicked and the good (Matt. 5:45)).  Jim concludes each chapter with a spiritual practice that is meant to help establish new God narratives in the life of the reader.  The practices are simple and quite easy to undertake (sleep, holy leisure, praying the 23rd Psalm, etc.), and are effective because they create space for people to spend time with God.

    The Conference

    The Apprentice Conference was held at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  The team for the weekend consisted of Deidre Franklin, Matt Johnson, Jimmy Taylor, C.J. Fox, myself, and Jim.  Jim, of course, was the one presenting most of the content.  He wrote the books, he has the most experience in ministry, and he is the man the people want to hear from.  But Jim is very clear in saying that much of what he has discovered has emerged through community, and thus invited members of the team to share various aspects of their thought, as well as join him for question and answer and discussion times at the conference.  On Saturday, C.J., Matt, and myself were responsible for small breakout sessions, and we each taught a discipline (or two) that people could take up in their walk.  On Sunday, Jim taught a Sunday School class, as did C.J. and I.  Based on the feedback we all thought things went very well.

    Over the weekend I think we all learned a lot.  I discovered a great deal about everyone on the team, as we spent time together outside of the conference sessions, evaluated how things went, and listened to one another's stories.  I rediscovered that I really enjoy teaching, and I enjoy ministry.  I found myself encouraged to be in community with people who truly want to put on the character of Christ, not simply gain more information about him so that they can answer questions correctly on a test.  I was surprised to meet a pastor named Jeff from Washington state, who just happened to Google Jim's name after reading the book, and flew to OKC to learn more about the material firsthand.  I also spent time talking with a number of pastors during the breaks, who also delighted me with their questions, enlightened me with their ministry stories, and encouraged me as they listened to all I have been through over the past year.

    All in all, I consider this weekend a beginning, with hopes that there will be many more weekends like it to come.  At the very least, I learned more about those on the Apprentice team, and am glad to have strengthened those friendships.  Also, I learned more about discipling people, which will continue to serve me in my ministry here.

    Good stuff!  If you want to learn more about Apprentice, ask away!