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