Monday, June 06, 2011

Correcting Bad Ideas, Clearing the Path for Formation

The Good and Beautiful God: Falling In Love With The God Jesus Knows

James Bryan Smith

C.S. Lewis once wrote to a friend that people like him, who are interested in spiritual matters, typically all make the same mistake of talking a lot about it and almost never doing anything about it. Smith’s book – and the trilogy – sets out to change things. And he does a wonderful job.

In fact, you might say there are two things accomplished in these books at the same time. First of all, Smith addresses a lot of core issues in our understanding of Christian spirituality, and secondly, he associates these chapters with practical instruction in the spiritual disciplines. The form of these chapter pairings are roughly: a misunderstanding and how to rightly understand it, and then how to engage in a practice that will actually bring your life in line with the right understanding.

The first target of Smith’s book is captured in his subtitle, Falling In Love with the God Jesus Knows. To that end, Smith raises several common misunderstandings about God. The first chapter, “God is Good,” sets the stage for the template of the rest of the book. Smith discusses what he considers to be the false narrative of the “Angry God” and follows up with the correction of that notion. God is good, and the better we grasp this truth, the deeper our spiritual formation will run.

One of the unifying concepts in his book is that our spiritual formation is stunted by our misconceptions about God. If we misunderstand who God is and what he is like, we will relate to him and to his kingdom improperly, and thus we will fall short of what God intends for us. I think there is a lot to be said for this idea, and it leads the reader through a very helpful set of discussions about God and who he is.

The second target of Smith’s book is something that sets it apart from many books on spiritual formation. For each misunderstanding/corrected understanding, there is a corresponding activity for the reader to engage in. They are what Smith calls “Soul Training” exercises, and are crafted to be done in the support structure of a small community of people doing the same things. It is good to read a book that combines the “why” of the principles with the “what” of habit so well.

I have not yet completed the trilogy, but it is off to a great start. The book will be especially helpful in small-group and one-on-one discipleship settings where people will be able to engage in some of the disciplines in a supportive and intelligent fashion.

[Review on Amazon]


Ritchie said...

Just a quick question - if understanding God is important, exactly how are we to discover what God is like?

Phil Steiger said...

If someone does not believe God exists, then clearly we begin at a very different place. Then we need to establish that God does exist and that genuine knowledge of him is possible. But “Christian spiritual formation” assumes not only theism, but Christian theism. From that point we are able to have a productive conversation about God’s revelation to people about himself.

How would you answer your question?

Ritchie said...

I'm putting my atheism aside for the moment. Forget that I don't believe in God. Let's just say I do, and that the starting premise 'God exists' is taken as true.

What then? Where do we go from here to discover things about God? What do we do to find out what God is like, exactly?

Julie P. said...

I'm curious about how Phil would answer Ritchie's question, too. But, I would offer that we know a lot about who God is through the other elements of the Trinity: Christ and the Holy Spirit. One example-- focusing on Christ for now--is that if you 1) believe in God and you 2) believe what Jesus claimed then this indicates a God of the Universe who is personal in nature. Immanuel is "God with us". A God of unimaginable power taking the form of man and all that human life entails would indicate that He thinks it's important. He cares. Christ suffered 30+ years of human existance, and suffering in all stupid stuff like getting sand in your eye, stubbing your toe, scrapping your knee, indigestion; to existential dread (begging God in the Garden of Gethsemane whether there was ANY other way, knowing full well that his demise was the only way to fulfill the Plan, the prophesy); to unimaginable physical torture and suffering in the hours leading to and on the cross. Christ means we can know God does care about human existence and that it's not all meaningless. We're not simply electrified lumps of meat seeking pleasure where we can and waiting to die. Anyway, that He is personal is only one aspect of an infinite God.

Phil Steiger said...

Ritchie is most likely interested in me saying something like, "the Bible," so he can then argue that the God of the Bible is a moral monster. And I'm growing a little disinterested in answering disingenuous questions.

But here is another way of going at the question. Maybe there are three basic ways of understanding God: my own authority, a mixture of my authority and outside authorities, or a single outside authority.

It is possible to build a theology (or an atheology) purely on personal experience. But I'm not convinced there is any good reason to believe in such a theology. Or, what is more prevalent is the buffet version of belief in God - take what I want from where I want and leave the rest. Or, one can take a spirituality seriously and understand it as a whole worldview.