Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Reads: 2011 Edition

Looking back, 2011 was a difficult year for our family. But any year in which one can still read can't be all bad. So as per my tradition (see, for example, 2009 and 2010), and as a way to cultivate gratitude, I'll spend the next few posts reflecting on a year of reading.

I'll highlight reads from several categories: Theology for Christian Scholars (a new category this year), Nonfiction, Poetry, Short Stories, and Novels. Stay tuned.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Fall of Interpretation, 2nd edition

I've put to bed the proofs and index for a second, revised edition of my first book, The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic, forthcoming from Baker Academic. (My son, Coleson, helped with the index this time around--breeding a family of child laborers is finally paying off! ;-)

The book is slated for release in April 2012, but that sometimes means you'll see copies in March. I'm eager to see it in print.

The endorsements have also started to come in. Here are a few:

"With the absence of an 'interpretive police,' in the first edition ofThe Fall of Interpretation, James K. A. Smith worried how to keep at bay the charge of relativism. This revised edition unambiguously affirms the particularity of the Nicene tradition as the locale for genuine interpretation of Scripture. Smith cogently argues that we need the church's authoritative theological interpretation of Scripture to live with the varying degrees of the author's 'real presence' in the text."--Hans Boersma, J. I. Packer Professor of Theology, Regent College

"The first edition of James K. A. Smith's Fall of Interpretation cast a clear, sharp light on the important topic of difference in interpretation, and the contribution he made to the theological understanding of hermeneutics has still not been fully appreciated. This second edition, with a new introduction and an added chapter that draws on Smith's further years of philosophical, theological exploration, makes an even more powerful claim for the attention of anyone concerned about the prospects for hermeneutics."--A. K. M. Adam, lecturer in New Testament, University of Glasgow

"In the hands of the unskilled or unwise, hermeneutics can be dangerous, fueling a blaze of apocalyptic fire where interpretation dissolves creaturely goodness into a relativistic morass. Nonetheless, as Smith persuasively argues, interpretation is inevitable. To reject it for 'immediacy' is to close one's eyes to the obvious. Smith shows how hermeneutics emerges not from our sinfulness but from our creaturely goodness. This second edition guides the reader along Smith's own path, resisting the 'emergent' temptation in favor of 'catholic' substance."--D. Stephen Long, professor of systematic theology, Marquette University

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

More Lessons from Bellow: Our Schilder?

Today I conclude my little series on Saul Bellow at The Twelve blog: "The Temptations of Assimilation: Schilder our Bellow?" Here's where I end up:

"Being Reformed" is too regularly the banner under which we enthusiastically assimilate to the age. "Being Reformed" is the warrant and rationale for our cultural engagement to the point that it becomes a license to have our cake and eat it, too. "Being Reformed" is the badge of our refusal to be fundamentalists or evangelicals or conservatives or "concordists" or what have you, which only gives us permission to happily assimilate to the spirit of the age (there are both "left" and "right" versions of this available).

If we learn anything from Saul Bellow, we might look for continuing education from Klaas Schilder.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kahneman :: Brooks :: McGilchrist

As I'm working through Daniel Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow, I can't help but compare it to two other important books I've read in the last year or so: David Brooks' much-discussed The Social Animal and Iain McGilchrist's underappreciated The Master and his Emmisary. Of course they are quite different projects, working with different lexicons, and with different goals in mind. But I think one could line up a simple analogy that brings their overlap into focus.

I'm thinking of the parallels between dualities that they each offer: McGilchrist's right/left brain, Brooks' first/second education, and Kahneman's System 1/System 2. Of course each of these calls for a million qualifications, but I think you can line them up as follows:

McGilchrist :: Brooks :: Kahneman

Left brain :: Formal ('first') education :: System 2 = reflexive, "rational"
Right brain :: "Second" (sentimental) education :: System 1 = primary, most influential

Nothing earth-shattering in noticing these parallels, but noting them might open up some new synergies.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Q Gathering 2012: Washington, DC

One of the highlights of 2011 for me was making the acquaintance of Gabe Lyons and all the good folks associated with Q: Ideas for the Common Good. The conversation has connected me with a wide network of leaders and innovators from various arenas of cultural production (politics, media, the arts, finance and commerce, education, science & technology, etc.). You can get a glimpse of what this is all about in Gabe's latest book, The Next Christians: The Good News About the End of Christian America. In some ways, I read it as kind of an accessible, concrete rendition of James Davison Hunter's landmark book, To Change the World. (I'm not sure how either James or Gabe would feel about that comparison, but that's how the two books reverberate in the echo chamber of my mind.)

So I'm honored and excited to be one of the speakers for the 2012 Q Gathering that will take place in Washington, DC on April 10-12. Indeed, I'm downright geeked to be part of this--in part because I'll be glad to reconnect with some new friends, but also because I know Deanna and I will come away energized and refreshed by lively conversation with innovative people of faith and hope. You might consider joining the conversation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

In Memory of Christopher Hitchens

Right here above my desk at home is a section of books by Christopher Hitchens, close at hand since they often repay revisiting. The titles will seem eclectic, but in fact there is a tight logic that threads them together: books on Thomas Paine and Mother Theresa, Henry Kissinger and Thomas Jefferson, the Clintons and George Orwell, alongside collections on literature and politics. Perhaps these are all tied together in Letters to a Young Contrarian.

Let us not do Hitchens the injustice of wishing him eternal peace. Let's be honest and honor his memory by recognizing he didn't want it. Granted, I would certainly be grateful if the witness of Francis Collins and the prayers of many were effective; it would certainly make for interesting conversation in the new heavens and earth. (In which case, let's hope sardonic wit is not a sin--and that there are still certain latitudes of grace in the kingdom. It's hard for me to imagine a sober Hitchens being much fun.) But I don't want to impose my fantasies on Hitchens.

So I won't retroactively baptize Christopher Hitchens as I mourn his passing today. Better to honor his brash defiance. And no better way to do that than to listen again to his closing envoi to young contrarians:

I have no peroration or clarion note on which to close. Beware the irrational, however seductive. Shun the "transcendent" and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself. Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others. Dont' be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish. Picture all experts as if they were mammals. Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence. Suspect your own motives, and all excuses. Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.

I shall leave you with a few words from George Konrad, the Hungarian dissident who retained his integrity through some crepuscular times, and who survived his persecutors by writing Antipolitics and The Loser, and many other lapidary essays and fictions. (When, after the emancipation of his country and society, they came to him and offered him the presidency, he said, "No, thanks.") He wrote this in 1987, when the dawn seemed a good way off:

Have a lived life instead of a career. Put yourself in the safekeeping of good taste. Lived freedom will compensate you for a few losses. ... If you don't like the style of others, cultivate your own. Get to know the tricks of reproduction, be a self-publisher even in conversation, and then the joy of working can fill your days.

May it be so with you, and may you keep your powder dry for the battles ahead, and know when and how to recognise them.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Condensing Taylor's "A Secular Age"

Ruth Abbey's review of a new little book by Charles Taylor and Jocelyn Maclure (Secularism and Freedom of Conscience) opens with an interesting observation:
Readers hoping for a condensed version of Taylor's 2007 tome, A Secular Age, will not find it here.
I find that intriguing precisely because I think I'm writing that hoped-for book! I've contracted with Eerdmans to write a crisp little book (of about 50,000 words) that will function as a "guide for the perplexed" as they approach Taylor's daunting tome. The goal is to write a book that at once condenses Taylor's argument while also giving it some room to breathe, with more cultural hooks and analysis that will make his account come alive. Ideally my little book will function as a portal and invitation to A Secular Age--a book that I feel contains an argument with real existential import; but one that has, to date, been underappreciated because of the density of Taylor's prose and the sprawling nature of the book's analysis.

My goal is to finish the book by the end of January 2012, hoping for a quick turnaround from my good friends at Eerdmans. Abbey's lead gives me hope that there might be an audience waiting for it.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Learning to be Reformed from a Jewish Novelist

Today I continue my "Lessons from Saul Bellow" over at The Twelve blog. Here's the opening couple of paragraphs:

As you'll note from my recent Perspectives article, "A Peculiar People," I've been thinking a lot about the dynamics of immigration and how that intersects with my own experience of being an immigrant--and being Reformed. That's not just because my Reformed community finds its heritage in an immigrant population; rather, there is something inherent to this expression of the Reformed faith that is poised to appreciate the precarious place of the immigrant and the exile. This is because the people of God inhabit that equally precarious place between common grace andantithesis--between the persistent affirmation that the whole earth is the Lord's (Psalm 24:1) and the heartbreaking recognition that the whole world lies under the sway of the evil one (1 John 5:19). We serve the risen, coming King of creation but are constantly aware of the governorship of the enemy in this meanwhile. And so we are like citizens who return to our homeland only to find it under foreign rule. We are not so different from Israel, who returned from exile only to find themselves exiles in their homeland now run by the Roman empire.

At the heart of what I've imbibed from Kuyper and Dooyeweerd and Runner and Seerveld is the sense that the covenant people of God will (and should) never quite be "at home" anywhere; the people of God hold citizenship in a far country which should make us uncomfortable but constructive inhabitants of any culture. We are called to seek the welfare of the city in which we are exiled (Jeremiah 29:4-7) while also learning to sing the Lord's song in a strange land (Psalm 137:4). We shouldn't lock ourselves up in ex-pat enclaves, as it were--forming holy huddles and circling the wagons to protect ourselves from "the world." But neither should we gleefully assimmilate to majority cultures characterized by disordered love. Reformed Christians, for example, should never easily be described as "good Americans," it seems to me. We should instead by characterized by a kind of immigrant distance, which can also manifest itself as cautious gratitude.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

A Conversation about Church Planting

Earlier this year I mentioned my rejuvenating time with the Society of Vineyard Scholars. One of the movers and shakers behind SVS is Caleb Maskell, a bright, passionate, all-around-great guy studying the history of American religion at Princeton University and deeply involved in Vineyard urban missions and church planting.

A few months ago, Caleb and I sat down for a Skype conversation about church planting in light of themes I address in Desiring the Kingdom and Thinking in Tongues. It was a ranging conversation which has now been published in Cutting Edge, the Vineyard magazine for church planters. You can download the interview, "Desiring the Kingdom in a Postmodern World" [pdf] or click on the Scribd link below.

Cutting Edge Interview: A Conversation with Caleb Maskell on Church Planting

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

More Light, Less Heat in the Faith & Science Conversation

A couple of weeks ago I noted the launch of The Colossian Forum website. On the front page is a short film introducing TCF; we've also created a longer (8 1/2 minute) film that delves into some of the themes in more depth. You might find this a helpful conversation starter in different contexts.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Taking Leave of Religion? On Secular Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published an excerpt from Phil Zuckerman's new book, Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion. In "Taking Leave of Religion," Zuckerman notes the increase in "apostasy" in the United States, citing the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion. This is not just a factor of secularists reproducing, he suggests (nonreligious people have fewer children than believers), but rather an outcome of people leaving faith. He's also happy to repeat the tired canard that, basically, smart people "get over" religious belief.

I won't contest Zuckerman's argument (yet). While he claims to have generated new qualitative data, I think the bar of explanation has been raised by Taylor's A Secular Age. Rehashing the secularization thesis is just uninteresting. Even if Zuckerman correctly predicts a growing departure from institutional religion in the United States, all that means is that the USA is less of an exception. The conclusions one draws from this are what's at issue.

For now, I'm interested in homing in on Zuckerman's claims about "religion" (and the lack thereof). Consider a first conclusion he draws:
Religion is not universal or necessary. Many people live without religion—in fact, prefer it that way. That bald fact strongly counters the notion that people—as people—are intrinsically religious or that religion is inextricable from the human condition. That might seem obvious, yet some scholars continue to write about religion as an inevitable force. Paul Froese, an associate professor of sociology at Baylor University, calls religion an "essential aspect of the human condition." Beliefs about God, he continues, "lie at the core of human understanding," and religion is universal and essentially unalterable. Reginald W. Bibby, a sociologist at the University of Lethbridge, describes religion as one of the "essential needs" of humanity, like food. The existence and recent increase in apostasy renders such notions highly suspect.
This gets at something I've contested in various places over the last several years: the identification of "religion" with particular sets of beliefs, and specifically beliefs about God. (I've crystallized this argument in a chapter I've written, "Secular Liturgies and the Prospect for a 'Post-Secular' Sociology of Religion," which will appear in The Post-Secular in Question: Religion in Contemporary Society, forthcoming from NYU Press. I'll try to get permission to excerpt here in the future.)

Interestingly, I don't think a Christian account of "religion" requires that we identify religion with belief in God. Whether one considers Paul or Augustine or Calvin, it seems to me that "religion" is associated more fundamentally with an impulse to worship. To say that human beings are ineradicably "religious" is not to say that they just can't shake belief in God.

(As an aside, I think this is exactly the mistake of so much of the current work on "cognitive science of religion" done by Christians in an apologetic mode--per the "Templeton" project, so to speak.)

To say that humans are essentially "religious" is to claim that they are primed to worship, wired devote themselves to something as ultimate, to ascribe "worthship" to some ultimate end. So while people might be "taking leave" of belief in God or gods, or "apostasizing" from specific communities of religious practice, I don't think that is sufficient to conclude that "religion is not universal or necessary." On my account, secular devotion is not just "analogously" religious: it is religious. It is an expression and product of "secular liturgies."

Reconfiguring our definition of religion--away from a belief-centric model to a "liturgical" definition--gives us new radar for cultural analysis and reframes the sorts of data Zuckerman cites. It also gives us a new take on the everyday. To take just one example ready to hand: Here on my desk is the latest issue of the New York Review of Books in which Michael Greenberg offers further reflections on "Occupy Wall Street." Talking with some of the activists in Zuccotti Park, Greenberg comments:

Talking with him, as with Katie, I was reminded of the so-called Tercer Mundista priests I met in Mexico in the early 1970s, who broke with the Vatican and actively supported revolutionary movements in Central America. Both Alec and Katie possessed that calm sense of devotion to a higher calling—not a certainty of belief so much as a certainty of purpose. They both spoke of the movement in unabashedly spiritual terms. And while neither talked explicitly of religion, they seemed to have faith that they were progressing toward the kind of social system that would provide participants a measure of peace and “mental fulfillment.”
Zuckerman's tired categories will not enable him to see the religious nature of secular devotion.

Monday, November 21, 2011

My Rock Star Colleagues

I am blessed to work with pretty incredible people. Calvin College is the place I've planted myself, in no small part because the intellectual energy of this institution keeps me on my toes: I am constantly learning from my colleagues across the disciplines. We're big enough to have an amazing array of scholars at work in a number of fields, but also just small enough to actually get to know each other and collaborate on different projects.

Indeed, some of my colleagues are just downright "rock stars" who allow the rest of us to bask in reflected glory. As a sample, let me highlight just two who've gotten attention over the past couple of weeks, both members of our legendary English department:

First, Gary Schmidt, who teaches creative writing here at Calvin, is a much-lauded author of fiction for young people--and a regular hit in the Smith house. His earlier books Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy and The Wednesday Wars were both Newberry Honor books. And then this year, his new novel, Okay for Now, was nominated for a National Book Award! Yeah, he's kind of a big deal. And he gladly and masterfully teaches eager undergraduates at Calvin College.

Second, Lew Klatt is a colleague of Gary's in our English Department where Lew specializes in poetry. His first collection, Interloper, won the Juniper Prize and his most recent collection, Cloud of Ink, was awarded the prestigious Iowa Poetry Prize. And the accolades just keep coming. Most recently his poem, "Andrew Wyeth, Painter, Dies at 91," which first appeared in The Believer, has been selected for inclusion in The Best American Poetry of 2011 AND was made into a fantastic short film.

To see that film, hear the poem, and hear Klatt's reflections on "The Artifice of Eternity: Notes Toward a Christian Poetics," enjoy this video of a recent lecture:

The Artifice of Eternity from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Colossian Forum: Reframing the Faith & Science Conversation

For the past year I've been quietly involved with a start-up organization called The Colossian Forum. Rooted in the conviction that "all things hold together in Christ," The Colossian Forum aims to help the church grapple with issues that often cause tension and dissension within the body of Christ. In particular, we're focused on helping the church to be equipped to work through debates and disagreements at the intersection of faith and science.

However, our approach is different than other organizations in this ballpark. We are not a conduit of scientific information, nor do we have a stake in any particular "position" (say, on issues of creation and evolution). Rather, The Colossian Forum is focused on the spade work needed to help the church be able to have such conversations. Our task is not to provide information to settle a debate; instead, we want to foster formation in the requisite virtues of compassion, patience, humility, and charity so that the church can be a people who have such debates well--so that we can grapple with potentially divisive issues in a way that does not compromise the unity of the body of Christ, precisely because out witness is tied to our unity.

In addition, The Colossian Forum aims to reframe the Christian theological heritage as a resource rather than a liability in such conversations. We see the tradition as a gift, not a millstone, when it comes to grappling with such issues--and we believe the theological wisdom of the tradition is uniquely "carried" in the worship and practices of the ecclesia.

I'll say more about The Colossian Forum over the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I invite you to explore our new website and watch this short film that introduces the mission and vision of TCF:

Colossian Trailer - Nov 2011 from The Colossian Forum on Vimeo.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Peculiar People: Sifting "Dutch" and "Reformed"

There are a number of denominations in the United States and Canada that are bound up with a distinct ethnic heritage and specific immigrant communities. These would include Lutheran denominations which were initially founded by German immigrants, the Swedes who founded the Evangelical Covenant Church, the Presbyterian Church in Canada's Scottish heritage, or more recently, the growth of Latino Pentecostal congregations and Nigerian denominations in the United States. My own denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, has a similar history that intertwines a distinct theological accent with a significant ethnic heritage--in this case, waves of Dutch immigration to the United States and Canada.

Almost a year ago, I published an article in our denominational magazine, The Banner, that obliquely addressed some unique tensions (and confusion) at this intersection of Reformed identity and ethnic heritage. In "Buried Treasures?" I noted it this way:

[S]ome have been rightly concerned that what was often valued as “Reformed” was really just “Dutch.” And they rightly understand that the proclamation of God’s kingdom, and the invitation into the people of God, is not a matter of taking on the particularities of some ethnic heritage. So we have spent a generation sifting the tradition, as it were, in order to separate the dross from the treasures of the Spirit.

That’s a crucial concern. Yet I worry that something else has happened along the way: that we have inadvertently fallen into the trap of thinking that Reformed Christian faith is a kind of “content” or “message” that can be distilled and then dropped into other so-called “relevant” or “contemporary” containers.

I've just published a new article in Perspectives that now follows up on this issue, emphasizing the importance of "de-ethnicizing" the Reformed tradition without thereby losing the distinctive theological gifts and accents that we inherit from this specific incarnation of the Reformed tradition which we have inherited from thinkers like Kuyper and Bavinck and Dooyeweerd--who were, providentially, gathered as a community in the Netherlands. We should neither identify Reformed distinctives as if they are merely "Dutch" nor should we throw out such Reformed accents just because they have been inherited from a particular community. As I put it at one point in this new article, "A Peculiar People":

Because a lot of CRC folk—including, it seems to me, denominational leaders— have unwittingly bought the historians' ethnic reductionism, they have also implicitly accepted the Reformed = Dutch equation. As a result, the dynamics of immigrant embarrassment wash onto our denomination's theological heritage. Rightly wanting to unhook the CRC from mere "Dutchness," but having confused Reformed practice with Dutch ethnicity, eager "reformers" in the CRC advocate throwing overboard all sorts of Reformed theological distinctives in the name of relevance, reform, and even anti-racism.

We need a different paradigm. We need to refuse the tendency to reduce Reformed identity to mere Dutch heritage. We need to resist accounts that confuse theological distinctives with ethnic habits. I have elsewhere argued that those of us in historically "ethnic" Reformed denominations need to do some work "sifting" our ethnic habits from our theological inheritance. This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, we can't let merely ethnic preferences masquerade as theological distinctives; that is, we can't allow Dutch traditionalism to parade under a "Reformed" banner. But I don't think this is our biggest problem today. No, we need to appreciate the second edge of this point: while we cannot allow mere Dutchness to mask itself as "Reformed," neither can we jettison the riches of a Reformed theological heritage under the pretense that it is merely an ethnic inheritance. We can't confuse Reformed babies with Dutch bathwater.

Read the rest of the essay.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On Saul Bellow @ The Twelve Blog

As further evidence of my continued inability to say "No!" to good things, I have agreed to be part of a team of bloggers at The Twelve, a collaborative blog hosted by the good folks at Perspectives: A Journal of Reformed Thought. It's a diverse team of--you guessed it!--12 bloggers with different styles and interests coming from various vocations (pastors, artists, scholars) but all identifying with Reformed traditions. (Which of us is Judas remains to be seen! ;-) I hope you'll consider adding it to your RSS feeds and such.

My first post begins a little series that will look at Saul Bellow's recently published essay, "The Jewish Writer in America"--which raises some interesting parallels for Reformed folk in a North American context (with obvious differences as well).

On a related note: watch for the release of The Best of the Reformed Journal, a compilation of some of the landmark essays that appeared in the predecessor to Perspectives.

Monday, November 07, 2011

The Hidden Meaning of Hand-Raising

A fun little sidebar in the Education section of Sunday's New York Times was a bang-on semiotic analysis of "The Hidden Meaning of Hand-Raising." Check out the slide show online. Here's a sample:


Uh, I’m going to have to disagree actually. I know you haven’t finished talking, but I can already tell that I disagree. I’m pretty sure the professor disagrees, too. I mean, psh, I can see that she’s nodding and smiling at you, but she and I have a more subtle understanding. Right, professor? Professor?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Hughes + Shakespeare

Essential ShakespeareEssential Shakespeare by Ted Hughes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Shakespeare + Hughes = Jackpot.

This book is brilliant in its conception and stunning in its content. Part of the Ecco "Essential Poets" series, Hughes made a brilliant editorial decision: rather than simply anthologizing Shakespeare's poetry (i.e., the sonnets), Hughes decided to de- and recontextualize passages from the plays as poetry. As he notes, speaking of Macbeth's soliloquy, "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow...":
[I]f one specifies that "To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow" is spoken by MacBeth as he faces the leafy army that will put an end to his spellbound, murderous career (having just heard that his wife, who prompted the course of action that converted him from the king's loyal champion to a regicidal tyrant, has died), it actually limits the use of the passage for the readers. Its relevance is then confined to Macbeth's unique predicament in a sacrosanct, old-fashioned play rather than applied directly to our immediate plight as ephemeral creatures facing the abyss on a spinning ball of self-delusion. Obviously by reading the passage out of context, one is missing the great imaginative experience of the drama--but one is missing that anyway. The speech on its own is something else, read in less than a minute, learned in less than five, still wonderful, and a pure bonus.

This decontextualization works brilliantly. It makes Shakespeare's language and psychology come alive in a new immediacy. All of a sudden one sees how Shakespeare is part of a lineage of English poetry, part of the stream that will give us Yeats and Eliot and Larkin and Hughes.

One has to wonder whether this work--the work of an "anthologist" now immortalized in Nicholson Baker's The Anthologist--isn't part of Hughes lasting testament. Indeed, I found myself hearing Shakespeare anew, almost as if the language had the same broad earthiness of Hughes' Yorkshire dialect. The very context seemed to help me hear Shakespeare anew, as a voice of England, and not just the sort of Oxford snobbery that usually accompanies his aficionados.

In sum, a marvelous little book--one of those delights to which one returns again and again, to-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow.

View all my reviews

Sunday, October 23, 2011

New Books

I'm pretty excited about a new book I co-edited with my friend and colleague, David Smith: Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, now available from Eerdmans. The book is a collection of case studies in which professors from a range of disciplines (including economics, physics, kinesiology, psychology, history, literature, and philosophy) extend and incorporate the pedagogical genius of Christian practices into the Christian college classroom. This grew out of a multi-year research group that was funded by the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith; but the book also includes chapters by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung and Paul Griffiths, plenary speakers at our culminating conference.

David & I were thrilled that Dorothy Bass and Craig Dykstra were willing to write a Foreword for the book. The back cover includes a snippet from that Foreword:
"If you want to see great teaching in action, read this book. If you believe that college classes can be communities of learning where knowledge of self, others, and the world is sought in response to God’s call and the world’s need, read this book. If you yearn for pedagogical wisdom capable of sustaining resistance to consumerist and instrumentalist pressures on teaching and learning, read this book. . . . This excellent book is one of the best we have ever read on the subject of pedagogy. It is also one of the best we know on the subject of Christian practices."
— Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass
I hope Christian educators across a range of disciplines and institutional contexts will find this book to be a helpful catalyst for new conversations about Christian teaching and learning.

Last week I also received copies of the new Korean translation of Letters to a Young Calvinist, which is now (I think) my 3rd book that has been translated into Korean, with 2 more in progress. I'm grateful that some of my work can serve conversations in South Korea where the Reformed tradition is alive and well. A couple of Korean friends have told me that my "faint praise" for the Westminster confession has generated some vigorous discussion over there.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Beware Bad Metrics: College Graduate Salary Statistics

One could easily imagine a college recruiting and marketing department latching onto the quantifiable data compiled PayScale's College Salary Report. The data paints a picture of starting and median salaries for graduates of over 1000 institutions across the United States. You can view the data by region as well (e.g., the Midwest). PayScale also offers an analysis of "return on investment," calculating the 30-year return on tuition in terms of salary income over a lifetime. (This latter metric yields some interesting data: for example, while some public universities might be cheaper 'up front,' they also don't offer the same return on their tuition investment as some private colleges with higher tuition.)

However, I would hope that Christian colleges and universities would at least be cautious in employing this data, since it is clearly a way of playing into the hands of economic pragmatism about higher education--one more way to simply treat a degree as a credential for employment rather than as a means for holistic formation of "prime citizens of the kingdom."

More importantly, this analysis of the data (let's just assume all the numbers are trustworthy) is simply reductionistic. It doesn't have room to recognize or absorb the fact that different kinds of institutions envision "success" very differently. To take just an easy example, many Christian and Catholic universities inculcate in their students a deep devotion to service, to the pursuit of justice and shalom. This often translates into social entrepreneurs who devote themselves to NGOs and non-profit agencies concerned with the marginalized and downtrodden. These colleges send into the world graduates who imagine the world otherwise, and who imaginatively launch new organizations, programs, and initiatives that counter hunger, poverty, disease, and illiteracy. These, too, are "successful" graduates, but their work and vocation isn't going to bump up the median salaries of our alumni any time soon. So be it. We're working with a different metric.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Mall-ification of America

A friend pointed me to this article on the "Mall-ification of America"--which dovetails with my analysis of the mall's liturgies in Desiring the Kingdom, particularly highlighting the assimilation that happens when we naively adopt what we (wrongly) think are "neutral" forms. Consider these concluding paragraphs:

There is some data to go on, though: According to the 2008 Hartford Institute survey,47% of megachurch income typically goes to employee salariesand benefits, compared to 13% for missions and benevolence. According to Leadership Network, a Christian nonprofit, pastor salaries in megachurches can reachas high as $400,000 a year. The IRS monitors salaries and specifically prohibits shareholder-like pay for ministers and church employees. Still, popular personalities regularly command higher salaries.

Churches maintain that monetary growth is just a means to the end of gaining new converts, not the other way around. On its website, Southland writes: "Some say, 'We don't need more churches. We're only draining the rolls of other churches.' Our hope is that we're draining the rolls of hell. More locations provide more opportunity for evangelism." For churches like Southland, paintball courts and letters to Britney are ultimately good because they help bring more people to God. Malls, similarly, are tools that bring in more members. But at what point does embracing commercial culture change one's religious message? While holding services in a renovated Dillards might not affect how worshipers see Jesus, giving away flat screen TVs and cars to new attendees as prizes on an Easter Sunday "egg hunt" probably does. (The hunt, hosted by Bay Area Fellowship of Corpus Cristi, TX, also served as a casting call for a new season of MTV's reality show "Made.") Even when they become shells of their former selves, malls' pasts never completely disappear, as Summer Grove's recycled mall Christmas decorations suggest.

Whether you fasten on a steeple or add a glass facade, Americans remember malls as childhood fantasy lands, where they could meet Santa Claus and play with any toy. Perhaps it's not a bad bet, then, that as adults, they might come back to meet Jesus.
Imagine the "Jesus" they'll be meeting.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Jobs, Dubya, and Leadership

From the completely random file: within just a couple of days I read a long essay on George W. Bush and then several obituaries for Steve Jobs and was struck by similarities in their leadership style--and how differently those similarities were evaluated.

The first essay, "Dubya and Me," by Walt Harrington, appeared in the Autumn issue of The American Scholar. I think only the most ideologically blinkered would fail to appreciate this intimate portrait of George W. Bush as someone with deep historical curiosity, particularly eager to find exemplars of leadership. One also sees Bush's swagger, brashness, and aggressiveness, to be sure. But these are recontextualized in this behind-the-curtain portrait. Harrington's account won't win any converts amongst the usual suspects of my "progressive" friends--but for those who are less ideologically constrained by partisan devotion, I commend the article for your edification.

But what's the link to Jobs, who is being virtually canonized in today's press? (I write as a devoted Mac user--penning this from my Macbook Pro, with my iPhone playing in the docking station and an iPad sitting on the coffee table.) What could the forward-thinking guru from the Silicon Valley possibly have in common with the 'g-dropping hunter from west Texas?

Well, I was struck by the way that leadership characteristics seen as faults in Dubya are praised as the necessary genius that Jobs brought to Apple. Consider, for example, Joe Nocera's (reprinted) homage to Jobs in the New York Times, "What Makes Steve Jobs Great," alongside the Times' obituary. Both note that Jobs' management style could border on the draconian: uncollaborative, single-minded, aggressive, and very top-down. He could unleash excoriating criticisms of his employees and was almost maniacally ("insanely"!) concerned with secrecy, flaunting that great liberal ideal of "transparency." And yet Jobs will be (rightly) praised as one of America's greatest innovators and entrepreneurs.

What I find curious is that the same traits that are praised in Jobs are held up as vices and character flaws in Bush (not by Harrington, but by oft-trotted-out caricatures that circulate so widely). I note this not to defend Bush or his policies, but only to observe that our evaluation of leadership styles is not some neutral affair: we bring our biases and presuppositions and ideological agendas to our identification of "best practices" and our evaluation of leaders and leadership style. If we canonize St. Steve, we might have to re-evaluate knee-jerk caricatures of POTUS 43.

Monday, October 03, 2011

Church and Pomo Reboot

The Church and Postmodern Culture conversation is moving to the hospitable environs of The Other Journal--a move that we hope brings new energy to the conversation. Update your bookmarks, visit the new site, and watch for info about a book giveaway. Most importantly, join the conversation!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Theology, Human Origins, and the Church: A Conversation

My home institution has been in the news of late: as many probably know, Calvin College is wrestling with issues at the intersection of faith and science--specifically issues at the intersection of Reformed theological commitments and the implications of an evolutionary account of human origins. Indeed, I think it is precisely because we are a Reformed institution that we are pressed to engage such issues: I see this as "coming with the territory," so to speak.

This internal debate has been externally aired in places that include Christianity Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and NPR. For the most part, I think the journalism around this issue has been sloppy (not to mention the blogging)--though the CT coverage was much more nuanced than most. From some of these outlets, you'd think the question was whether or not scholars at Calvin College could affirm evolution. That's simply not the issue. That was settled for the college (and for the denomination) years ago. The question is what sorts of theological implications that entails--and how such entailments and inferences can (and should) be drawn. In this particular instance, the question is whether the affirmation of common descent requires jettisoning the orthodox Christian doctrines of the Fall and original sin.

But before one can address that sort of specific question, it is necessary to attend to fundamental methodological issues (e.g., about the nature and interpretation of Scripture, the role of the confessions [since we are a confessional tradition], the notion of "natural revelation," etc., etc., etc.). While I've been cagily silent about these matters in public, I am currently co-chairing the college's ad hoc committee addressing this issue. I'll continue my silence on the specifics until that report has been made public.

But more recently John Kloosterman, one of the op-ed editors for our student newspaper, the Chimes, sat down with me for an interview about some of these surrounding issues in this conversation. That conversation is now available on the Chimes website (pdf): "Human Origins and the Church: A Discussion with James K.A. Smith."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Google asks: "What do you love?"

When I give talks based on Desiring the Kingdom, I sometimes try to crystallize the philosophical anthropology at the heart of the book in this way: "If I really want to know who you are, I'm not going to ask what you know. I'm not even going to ask what you believe. If I really want to know what you're about, the question I will ask is: What do you want? What do you love?"

Well it appears that Google is now asking just that question.

[Thanks to Dieter Bouma for the pointer.]

Monday, September 19, 2011

From Coffee Shop to Book Shop

EerdWord, the Eerdmans blog, has just posted a little piece in which I recount the back story to my newest book, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, co-edited with my good friend, David Smith.

"From Book Shop to Coffee Shop" gives a glimpse of how this book on pedagogy began its life on napkins in the local coffee shop, turned into a grant proposal, then morphed into a multi-year research team, and finally became the book that is due to hit the shelves in the next couple of weeks--just in time for David's conference on "Education as Formation: Christian Approaches," October 6-8, 2011 here at Calvin College.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Prospects for a Christian Philosophical Anthropology: An Exchange with Christian Smith

As promised, here is my follow-up exchange with Christian Smith in light of my review of his book, What is a Person? Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up--in which I clarify how much I resonate with, and appreciate, Smith's project, but also note points of continued disagreement.

CSR Exchange With Christian Smith

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Other Journal: Print Edition

I've long been a friend and fan of the good folks at The Other Journal. For several years now they have been publishing theologically informed cultural commentary, along with art, fiction, and poetry, all with a solid aesthetic sense for design.

However, The Other Journal has always been virtual--until now. In this age of Kindles and iPad apps, The Other Journal gang has taken the ridiculous risk of producing a print edition. And it's fantastic. I heartily commend it to you: holding The Other Journal in your hands is a whole new experience that seems exactly right. They've done a great job with design: sharp, minimalist, with just a hint of a Paris Review feel I think. A Warhol photograph adorns the first cover.

And the content is great, too--though I don't want to harp on that too much lest it look like self-promotion (not that I'm above that! ;-). This first issue includes my interview with James Davison Hunter, as well as my review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity (it was fun, I'll admit, to go back to that). You'll find essays, interviews, criticism, reviews, fiction, and poetry on themes ranging from artist Jeff Koons to pundit Glenn Beck, the Twilight phenomenon and the meaning of freedom. Great stuff throughout.

Do yourself a favor: skip three days at Starbucks and sign up for a subscription today.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Review Essay on Christian Smith and David Kelsey

Last year, in the Christian Scholar's Review, I published a review essay looking at Christian Smith's What is a Person? alongside David Kelsey's Eccentric Existence. This was commissioned as an opportunity to compare and contrast discussions in the social sciences regarding the nature of the human person with a robust theological anthropology. I've uploaded a pdf of the essay on Scribd and am happy to share it here.

CSR Review Essay on Smith and Kelsey

This generated a response from Christian Smith, to which I replied, in a later issue of Christian Scholar's Review. I'll post that exchange in a couple of days.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Contradictions of David Brooks

One doesn't need to read Fors Clavigera very long to notice my (increasingly less grudging) appreciation of David Brooks. And his column today, "If It Feels Right...," pretty much covers my reading list over the last three years: Christian Smith, Charles Taylor, James Davison Hunter, and others.

Today Brooks focuses on the disheartening picture that emerges from Christian Smith's National Study of Youth and Religion, a remarkable longitudinal study of youth spirituality from adolescence, through "adultolescence" and eventually into adulthood. What both Smith and Brooks take to be disheartening is the sophomoric relativism of people in their twenties ("That might be true for you, but..."), their functional individualism about morality ("I personally don't think you should..."), and a general loss of virtue.

But Brooks picks up on a theme in Smith that he shouldn't. Brooks summarizes:
It’s not so much that these young Americans are living lives of sin and debauchery, at least no more than you’d expect from 18- to 23-year-olds. What’s disheartening is how bad they are at thinking and talking about moral issues.
This gets to a methodological problem with Smith's work that I pressed when he visited Calvin College a couple of years ago. The entire methodology of the NSYR is a measure of articulation: the instruments and methods can only, at best, measure the ability of young people to, well, think and talk about faith and morality.

But shouldn't Brooks be a bit suspicious of what we could conclude from such measures? Indeed, isn't the argument of The Social Animal precisely that much of our action is not the outcome of rational, deliberative "thinking?" How do we square his tip of the hat to Smith's worry about what young people think about morality with Brooks' own critique of "the rationalist folk theory of morality" (pp. 280ff.)? Brooks' appreciation for the unconscious "drivers" of our action--and the action and behavior of young people--should recognize (as Charles Taylor does) that there can be a gap between how we act and how we think about how we act. That doesn't mean we might not be disappointed on both counts, but it should alert us that measuring what young people say is, at best (at best), only a measure of what they think. And the entire upshot of Brook's Social Animal--the reason why he argues that policy has been misguided and unsuccessful--is that we have overestimated thinking.

More importantly, appreciating this point--that behavior and action (which are surely the most relevant measures if one is talking about "morality") are often driven by unconscious habits and desires--generates a very different response to the problem. Smith, ever-the-evangelical (despite his recent conversion to Roman Catholicism), still tends to think that what these young people need is more teaching--more religious "instruction" in doctrines, beliefs, and moral standards. But Brooks' own argument in The Social Animal should lead us to suspect that this would be an insufficient response. What is really needed is the education of their loves, and that, as Brooks himself knows, takes practice: it takes the ethos of a community with embodied rituals and practices that inscribe virtue--not just the intellectual capacity to parse some moral dilemma, but the wants that pull us toward ends that are good (see The Social Animal, pp. 111-112).

Thus Brooks' column ends right where it should: a communtarian emphasis on virtue formation. This is not going to be pulled off at some "national" level. It will be embedded and embodied in concrete communities of practices that are pursuing a "thick" vision of the good. And such virtue is caught more than it is taught; it is absorbed more than it is deduced; it is less about what we think and more about what we love. That's a lesson I learned from David Brooks.

Monday, September 12, 2011

In Praise of Elites

Friedman and Mandelbaum's That Used to be Us seems to be a cautionary tale about America's diminished future (sort of like Super Sad True Love Story without the laughs?). But I found the closing of David Frum's New York Times review to be intriguing.

Having already noted a tone of ambivalence in the book--talking about their optimism so much you get the impression they're trying to talk themselves into it--Frum suggests that they might not be putting all their cards on the table.
Friedman and Mandelbaum at one point praise the beauty of solutions that rise from the bottom up as opposed to the top down. This praise is not consciously insincere, but pretty plainly it does not accurately represent their operational plan. Friedman and Mandelbaum are men of the American elite, and they write to salute those members of the American elite who behave public-spiritedly and to scourge those who do not. They are winners, writing to urge other winners to have more of a care for their fellow citizens who are not winners.

And then this final reflection:

And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that! Societies inescapably generate elites. Those elites can be ­public-spirited and responsible or they can be selfish and shortsighted. An elite can have concern and care for the less advantaged or it can callously disregard them. Maybe not surprisingly, the language of anti-­elitism has often been a useful tool of the most rapacious and merciless among the elite.

American society has had a big serving of that ugly anti-elitist spirit in the recent past. It could use more of the generous responsible spirit Friedman and Mandelbaum recommend. They say less than might be wished about what a more ­public-spirited American elite might do. But they have eloquently described what such an elite should want to do.

I find this intriguing, perhaps especially because American evangelicals are so prone to this grassroots-ism (which is probably why they can also be so easily lured by Tea Party activism). In this respect, Frum's unabashed affirmation of elites reminds me a bit of James Davison Hunter's critique of Christian grassroots-ism in To Change the World.

But it also got me thinking of Ruskin's "Tory socialism." Might we ever be allowed to dream of kings? Ruskin's kings are a strange lot: not slovenly aristocrats destined by mere blood, but men "capable" of "kinghood." So Ruskin's monarchical dream is actually sort of democratic, too:
my only hope of prosperity for England, or any other country, in whatever life they lead, is in their discovering and obeying men capable of Kinghood.

Friday, September 09, 2011

Yeats on Blake on the Imagination

The project outlined in Desiring the Kingdom has a tenuous relationship to romanticism. On the one hand, while I accord a central role to the imagination, I spend time trying to emphasize that this is not the "inventive" imagination of the romantics; instead it is a receptive, constituting imagination--a mode of intentionality on a different register. (William Desmond is quite helpful on this point.)

On the other hand, it is romanticism that articulates a counter-modernity, displacing the rationalism of the Enlightenment strain of modernity and, in some sense, anticipating the hermeneutic phenomenology of the 20th century. This is why Charles Taylor's genealogy of our "secular age" accords a central place for romanticism. One might also consider John Milbank's recent diagnosis of trends in contemporary theology that affirms a "romantic" theology.

So, as you might imagine, I'm a bit of a sucker for Blake, even though part of me knows I shouldn't be. But then this past week I scored a copy of The Yeats Reader and discovered Yeats' remarkable essay, "William Blake and the Imagination"--a marvelous example of the Wildean ideal of the critic as artist. Consider these opening paragraphs an invitation to go read it for yourself:

There have been men who loved the future like a mistress, and the future mixed her breath into their breath and shook her hair about them, and hid them from the understanding of their times. William Blake was one of these men, and if he spoke confusedly and obscurely it was because he spoke things for whose speaking he could find no models in the world about him. He announced the religion of art, of which no man dreamed in the world about him; and he understood it more perfectly than the thousands of subtle spirits who have received its baptism in the world about us, because, in the beginning of important things--in the beginning of love, in the beginning of the day, in the beginning of any work, there is a moment when are understand more perfectly than we understand again until all is finished. In his time educated people believed that they amused themselves with books of imagination but that they 'made their souls' by listening to sermons and by doing or by not doing certain things. When they had to explain why serious people like themselves honoured the great poets greatly they were hard put to it for lack of good reasons. In our time we are agreed that we 'make our souls' out of some one of the great poets of ancient times, or out of Shelley or Wordsworth, or Goethe or Balzac, or Flaubert, or Count Tolstoy, in the books he wrote before he became a prophet and fell into a lesser order, or out of Mr. Whistler's pictures, while we amuse ourselves, or, at best, make a poorer sort of soul, by listening to sermons or by doing or by not doing certain things. We write of great writers, even of writers whose beauty would once have seemed an unholy beauty, with rapt sentences like those our fathers kept for the beatitudes and mysteries of the Church; and no matter what we believe with our lips, we believe with our hearts that beautiful things, as Browning said in his one prose essay that was not in verse, have 'lain burningly on the Divine hand,' and that when time has begun to wither, the Divine hand will fall heavily on bad taste and vulgarity. When no man believed these things William Blake believed them, and began that preaching against the Philistine, which is as the preaching of the Middle Ages against the Saracen.

He had learned from Jacob Boehme and from old alchemist writers that imagination was the first emanation of divinity, 'the body of God,' 'the Divine members,' and he drew the deduction, which they did not draw, that the imaginative arts were therefore the greatest of Divine revelations, and that the sympathy with all living things, sinful and righteous alike, which the imaginative arts awaken, is that forgiveness of sins commanded by Christ. The reason, and by the reason he meant deductions from the observations of the senses, binds us to mortality because it binds us to the senses, and divides us from each other by showing us our clashing interests; but imagination divides us from mortality by the immortality of beauty, and binds us to each other by opening the secret doors of all hearts. He cried again and again that every thing that lives is holy, and that nothing is unholy except things that do not live--lethargies, and cruelties, and timidities, and that denial of imagination which is the root they grew from in old times. Passions, because most living, are most holy--and this was a scandalous paradox in his time--and man shall enter eternity borne upon their wings.

Jane Kenyon, "Notes from the Other Side"

Last night I was dabbling in The Graywolf Silver Anthology and hit upon a selection of poems from Jane Kenyon. I was immeasurably moved by "Notes from the Other Side," in no small part because our congregation has been grieving and mourning alongside a family who are, unbelievably, unspeakably, journeying with their 21-year-old daughter through the valley of the shadow of death. And all of my theological 'answers' to evil (the free will defense, the importance of lament, etc., etc.) have been absolutely humbled by their unaccountable faith and grace and hope in the midst of profound sadness.

Notes from the Other Side

I divested myself of despair
and fear when I came here.

Now there is no more catching
one's own eye in the mirror,

there are no bad books, no plastic,
no insurance premiums, and of course,

no illness. Contrition
does not exist, nor gnashing

of teeth. No one howls as the first
clod of earth hits the casket.

The poor we no longer have with us.
Our calm hearts strike only the hour,

and God, as promised, proves
to be mercy clothed in light.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

On Being Careful about the Charge of "Pietism"

Chris Gehrz, associate professor of history at Bethel University, articulates a fair and helpful critique of my use of the word "pietism" in Desiring the Kingdom and related discussions. As I've noted elsewhere (and Gehrz recognizes), "pietism" is a particularly loaded, shorthand term in Reformed conversations. But that narrow use of the term does an injustice to the pietism of Spener, Hamann, the Blumhardts, and others whose project would deeply resonate with what I'm trying to articulate in my "Cultural Liturgies" work.

So I'll try to be more careful in my use of "pietism" as an epithet in the future. But it's going to take practice.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Orwell for Labor Day

Thank heavens the NFL doesn't play on Labor Day, otherwise we'd have one more holiday marshaled for militarism, with soldiers no doubt extolled as the real laborers, the hero "workers."

Not that we're particularly well poised to celebrate labor in this country: while everyone trumpets on behalf of "the middle class," you'll hear next to nothing today about labor, and certainly not a good word about labor unions (those dastardly interferers with the wisdom and benevolent hand of "the market!"). Even "workers," for the most part, have been hoodwinked into opposing organized labor.

Any day is a good day to read Orwell, but perhaps today is especially appropriate. Consider this little snippet from Road to Wigan Pier:
In a way it is even humiliating to watch coal-miners working. It raises in you a momentary doubt about your own status as an ‘intellectual’ and a superior person generally. For it is brought home to you, at least while you are watching, that it is only because miners sweat their guts out that superior persons can remain superior. You and I and the editor of the Times Literary Sup., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comerade X, author of Marxism for Infants–all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.