Desiring and Imagining the Kingdom by James Smith (Two [no, Three!] Book Reviews)

Whether when I was in seminary or now in campus ministry, there is a lot of talk among Christians in such circles about worldview. The way it goes is that the university, for example, has a view of the world which is being taught to students in the classroom. Our responsibility as Christians is to teach Christian students a Christian worldview. Usually the emphasis is on the intellect and on belief. Your university professor will teach you to believe one thing but you need to critique that belief and have the correct Christian belief.

One of the main points of James Smith’s fantastic book, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview and Cultural Formation, is that this way of engaging with the world buys into a false anthropology.  This wrong idea says that humans are merely thinking creatures whose bodies don’t matter. For this view, the battle happens in the mind and if we change what goes on in the mind then everything else in life will also change. Against this Smith argues (and note he argues, so this is not any sort of anti-intellectual book) that this is not how humans change our behavior. Most of what we do happens precognitively, before we even think rationally about it. We move through life as habitual people, doing things because we have been trained to do them.

We are still responsible for these things as it is our choices and previous actions that create these habits. But changing how we live and act is not as simple as just beginning to believe differently. Smith argues that the world around knows that we are shaped not just by thinking differently, and if the church only focuses on changing minds and beliefs we are doomed to frustration. In the end, Smith offers the Christian liturgy as the format for spiritual formation, it is within such regular rituals and repetitions that new habits are formed. Further, engaging in Christian worship involves our whole bodies, us as we really are, which moves us to change in actions.

Overall this book, and its sequel Imagining the Kingdom:How Worship Works (I am not going to write a different review for that one; note it goes into some of the same ideas more deeply and also opens up new ideas) are a must read for pastors and campus ministers and all who work in ministry. Smith writes from a Reformed perspective (though, not young and restless) but his ideas and conclusions apply to Christians of all stripes. This is one of the most helpful and challenging books I’ve read in a long time in regards to how I do ministry on a regular basis. I know I will be thinking about it and returning to it for a long time.

Postscript: After writing this review I noticed that Smith’s book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, was on sale for only $2.99 for the kindle.  I couldn’t resist.  The “new” Calvinism, which I referenced above as “young and restless” continues to be a big thing in many circles, but it seems that Smith gives a different perspective on the tradition.  My big wish after reading this book is that more Calvinists would pick it up and read it.  I don’t consider myself a Calvinist, but I agreed with over 90% of what he wrote in this book  Much of it centers on topics like the redemption of culture, the place of creeds and the importance of worship and spiritual formation.  I suppose there will always be disagreements between Christians on unconditional election, prevenient grace and other such topics.  And I still have trouble seeing how the way some Calvinists portray God could give us a God who is “loving” in any sense of the word.  That aside, if you’re a Calvinist read this book and if you’re not a Calvinist you might want to give it a go too.

Post-postscript: The first and only book by Smith I had read was Who’se Afraid of Postmodernism: Taking Derrida, Lyotard and Foucault to Church.  I recall it being a rewarding read, moving through the shallow stereotypes of “postmodernism”.   He has a new book coming out pretty soon called Who’s Afraid of Relativism: Community, Contingency and Creaturehood, which looks intriguing.  But I am most excited for his book on the great philosopher Charles Taylor.  Taylor’s A Secular Age was one of the best books I’ve ever read, and also one of the most difficult.  It is also incredibly important as it seems half the books I read now are quoting it.  Not everyone wants to take a few months to chew on a book like Taylor’s, so hopefully Smith’s book How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor will be read by many.

CS Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath (Review) And Top Ten Lewis Books

I’ve read a lot of CS Lewis books in my life, perhaps more than any other author.  But I had never read a biography, so all I knew of his life was the bits and pieces I picked up elsewhere.  I decided to remedy this recently by reading the new biography on Lewis by British scholar Alister McGrath.  Through reading it, I learned a good bit about Lewis’ life, from his lifelong relationship with Mrs. Moore, the mother of a friend who died in WWI, to his sad falling out with JRR Tolkien.  That latter is one of the benefits of reading such a biography; we always hear the stories of how Tolkien and Lewis were great friends and Tolkien’s role in Lewis’ conversion.  Yet I was unfamiliar with the sad story of their drifting apart.  It was also helpful to move through Lewis’ life and writings chronologically, seeing how he moved from writing apologetic works to other sorts of works later in life.  Overall, a fantastic book that ought to be read by any fan of Lewis.

My Top Ten Lewis Books:

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – I first read this during church when I was about ten and it has been a favorite of mine since.  This story introduces us to the magical world of Narnia and is a plain fantastic story.  On another level, it gave me a new perspective on Jesus with the parallels between Jesus and Aslan.

2. Till We Have Faces – I wanted to put this number one as it blew my mind when I read it as an adult.  It is number two simply because of the lifelong impact The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe has had on me.  But this is really Lewis’ best work of fiction, and his most mature as the simpler allegories of Narnia are traded in for more difficult to discover themes.

3. The Four Loves – Also a recent read, this book brought together and made sense of a lot of what I had been thinking in regards to love and affection.  In other words, it put into clear words what I had been trying to grasp.

4. The Great Divorce – Lewis’ vision of heaven and hell is fascinating.

5. Mere Christianity – Perhaps Lewis’ most popular non-fiction work, this book has stood the test of time and continues to challenge many people today.  It is amazing the number of Christians who say this book helped them move into faith.  At times a little dated and some arguments are not satisfying, but as a whole, a must-read for any thinking Christian.

6. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – My favorite Narnia book growing up.

7. The Last Battle – The finale to the Narnia series and still one of the best descriptions of heaven I’ve ever read.

8. A Grief Observed – In the Problem of Pain Lewis gave a rational answer to the problem of evil, twenty years later we see him struggling in the dark after the death of his wife.  This book is raw and reveals what any of us ought to admit – even the best of rational answers in good times do not always satisfy in the dark times.

9. The Abolition of Man – One of Lewis’ shortest books and, in my opinion, one of the most difficult.  Reading it now, it is almost prophetic in its analysis of the modern world.

10. Letters to Children – With the success of Narnia, Lewis received and responded to many letters from kids all over the world.  This little book of some of these letters is a fun window into Lewis’ daily life.

Eucatastrophe and Game of Thrones

I read Game of Thrones back before it was cool.  Back then when people saw you reading a 1000 page tome with pictures of dragons and swords on the front, they probably thought you were just a nerd.  Now its hip and mainstream.  I’ve watched the first three seasons of the TV show and am looking forward to the next season.  More than that, I am hoping George Martin manages to finish the series before he dies of old age!

In a previous post I wrote about JRR Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe.  If a catastrophe is when everything goes wrong, a eucatastrophe is when everything goes right.  More precisely, a eucatastrophe occurs in a story when the main character is facing death and defeat, when it looks like there is no hope, and then everything turns out okay.  My wife and I watched Shakespeare in Love  recently and Geoffrey Rush’s character says that in a play everything turns out okay in the end.  When asked how he responds, “I don’t know. Its a mystery.”  This line is certain to bring a laugh to the viewer.  Tolkien might smile and respond though that the word for this mystery is eucatastrophe.

We see this concept all over Lord of the Rings.  Just one example.   After writing The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Tolkien began working on a rewrite of The Hobbit to bring it more in line with the later story.  The Hobbit is a simple story of a hobbit who joins some dwarfs to go fight a dragon.  This story took on a much greater importance in light of  the events that happen in LOTR. Near the end of the entire story, in the appendix actually,  Gandalf speculates how much more awful the battles outside of Minas Tirith would have been had Sauron been able to summon Smaug the dragon.  If Bilbo and the dwarves had not triumphed in the earlier story, the victories told in LOTR would be empty.  And the only way the dwarves triumphed, even set out on their quest, was because of a chance meeting that Gandalf had with Thorin, the rightful dwarf king.  In the book Unfinished Tales we get a quote from Gandalf, imagining what might have been:

“It might all have gone very differently indeed. The main attack was diverted southwards, it is true; and yet even so with his farstretched right hand Sauron could have done terrible harm in the North, while he defended Gondor, if King Brand and Kain Dain had not stood in his path. When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the Battle of Dale.  Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador!  There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now only hope to return from the victory here to ruin and ash.  But that has been averted – because I met Thorin Oakenshield one evening on the edge of spring not far from Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say, in Middle Earth” – Unfinished Tales, p. 340.

Now we come to Game of Thrones.  I won’t try to offer a deep analysis of Game of Thrones, though I have seen both good and bad ones.  Christianity Today wrote an article on Game of Thrones and the author failed in attempting to compare Tyrion (from GOT) to Gollum (from LOTR).  It seemed the author noted Tyrion’s small size and Gollum’s hunched figure…and ended the analysis with that.  Other than their small size in common, they have few similarities.  An argument could be made that Tyrion is the closest thing to a moral character in an often amoral story, especially when compared to the rest of his family.

One thing that hooked me on Game of Thrones as a book, and what I suspect many like about the show, is how any character can die at any time.  I was shocked in book one when the main character died.  Reading it, I expected Ned Stark to be the protagonist for the whole series.  Then his head got cut off.  Since then, anytime a character begins to look like he or she may be stretching above the crowd, his or her head is chopped off too, or death comes in some other gruesome way!

This makes the story more tense as no one is ever safe.  And any analysis of Game of Thrones must be tentative, for the series is not yet over.  There have been moments in the series that could perhaps count as eucatastrophe.  When the wildlings are attacking the wall in book three, all seems lost, then Stannis’ forces arrive just in time to save the day.  Or in book one, when Tyrion is faced with trial by combat and facing certain execution only to have Bronn, perhaps the best fighter in the room, step up and fight for him.

Part of the challenge with interpreting events in GOT is that the story is so morally grey.  Tolkien’s work presents us with a clear picture of good and evil.  There is no question who is on which side.  But characters in Martin’s work are both good and bad.  So in book two we have the huge battle of Blackwater, just outside the capital.  The reader is sympathetic to characters on both sides.  When an army shows up and saves the day, is this good or bad?  If you were cheering for Tyrion, a sympathetic character, it might qualify as eucatastrophe.  But if you look at it from another angle, it is just a catastrophe.

We have to wait and see what the grand arc of the story shows.  Will there be a final eucatastrophe, when some semblance of good and justice and order triumphs, or will everyone end up dead in a hopeless finale?  I hope Martin finishes the series so we can get the whole scope in order to better think through these questions.  For now, it seems that Martin’s is the world we may feel we live in most of the time, though it is Tolkien’s world, and vision for the world, that we hope is true.

Some Thoughts On Lent Inspired by the Rule of St. Benedict

From the Rule of St. Benedict:

We advise that during these days of Lent he guard his life with all purity and at the same time wash away during these holy days all the shortcomings of other times” St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 732-733). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God “with the joy of the Holy Ghost,” of his own accord, something above his prescribed measure; namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter” St. Benedict (2011-04-30). The Rule of St. Benedict (Kindle Locations 735-737). PlanetMonk Books. Kindle Edition.

Lent clearly has a long tradition in the Christian church.  All I recall of Lent growing up in the evangelical church was: (1) Fasnacht Day, the day we eat a donut-type sugary object, and (2) Lent was mentioned as existing.  There was no explanation of what Lent was, or if there was an explanation I missed it!  There was little talk of giving things up.  Now it seems like many churches and individuals who did not traditionally do Lent are rediscovering this season of church life.  It is a time that still tugs at the hearts of many.

Lent is a time of soul-searching as we move toward Holy Week.  It is a time when many give things up, in a word many fast, in order to move into a deeper spirituality, closer to Jesus who gave up all for us.

I have been thinking about whether to give something up.  I want to make it worthwhile, not just giving up something for the sake of giving up something.  After much thought and prayer, I have decided to:

1. Give up snacking after 8 PM.  This was also my new year’s resolution and is probably a good thing to continue doing after Lent.  There is no need to eat that late at night (though working with college students will make it harder on nights I am on campus!).

2. Give up social media (Facebook, Twitter, reading blogs, Goodreads) between the hours of 7 AM and 8 PM with the exception of when I am using them for work (i.e. posting a CSF newsletter on Facebook, tweeting updates during CSF’s upcoming mission trip).  I don’t feel the need to give these things up totally, especially because I often use them all for work.  But I do find myself checking them too often during the day.

3. Don’t just give something up, replace it with something else.  Benedict mentioned this when he spoke of adding to the usual amount of our service.  So just giving up Facebook or coffee or chocolate is not enough, the point is to replace it with something better.  This could be as simple and easy as the old reliables, reading the Bible and prayer.  Or it could be something along the lines of this great list offered by pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber from 2012:

Day 1: Pray for your enemies

Day 2: Walk, carpool, bike or bus it.

Day 3: Don’t turn on the car radio

Day 4: Give $20 to a non-profit of your choosing

(Sunday)

Day 5: Take 5 minutes of silence at noon

Day 6: Look out the window until you find something of beauty you had not noticed before

Day 7: Give 5 items of clothing to Goodwill

Day 8: No bitching day

Day 9: Do someone else’s chore

Day 10: Buy a few $5 fast food gift cards to give to homeless people you encounter

(Sunday)

Day 11: Call an old friend

Day 12: Pray the Paper (pray for people and situations in today’s news)

Day 13: Read Psalm 139 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 14: Pay a few sincere compliments

Day 15: Bring your own mug

Day 16: Educate yourself about human trafficking www.praxus.org

(Sunday)

Day 17: Forgive someone

Day 18: Internet diet

Day 19: Change one light in your house to a compact florescent

Day 20: Check out morning and evening prayer at http://dailyoffice.wordpress.com

Day 21: Ask for help

Day 22: Tell someone what you are grateful for

(Sunday)

Day 23: Introduce yourself to a neighbor

Day 24: Read Psalm 121 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 25: Bake a cake

Day 26: No shopping day

Day 27: Light a virtual candle http://rejesus.co.uk/spirituality/post_prayer/

Day 28: Light an actual candle

(Sunday)

Day 29: Write a thank you note to your favorite teacher

Day 30: Invest in canvas shopping bags

Day 31: Use Freecycle www.freecycle.org

Day 32: Donate art supplies to your local elementary school

Day 33: Read John 8:1-11 http://bible.oremus.org

Day 34: Worship at a friend’s mosque, synogogue or church and look for the beauty

(Sunday)

Day 35: Confess a secret

Day 36: No sugar day – where else is there sweetness in your life?

Day 37: Give $20 to a local non-profit

Day 38: Educate yourself about a saint www.catholic.org/saints

Day 39: Pray for peace

Day 40: Pray for your enemies (you probably have new ones by now) then decide which of these exercises you’ll keep for good

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/02/house-for-all-sinners-and-saints-40-ideas-for-keeping-a-holy-lent/