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Discipleship in the Present Tense: Reflections on Faith and Culture Paperback – August 1, 2013
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"Discipleship in the Present Tense reflects on the intersections of faith and culture in our contemporary world. 'Intersections' may bring to mind two roads meeting at right angles, with stop signs. The intersections in this book are more like freeway cloverleafs: the traffic keeps moving. Suggestion: start at the end, with two interviews that are real conversations, not perfunctory Q&As. Then pick and choose, tapas-style, from the tasty selection of essays."
—John Wilson, editor, Books & Culture
"Few people are as qualified as James K. A. Smith to write a book on the intersection of faith and culture. Whenever he speaks, I listen. In this book, you’ll find winsome but profound essays on following Jesus in the 21st century. Read it and be challenged."
—Jonathan Merritt, faith and culture writer; author of A Faith of Our Own: Following Jesus Beyond the Culture Wars
"As a busy practitioner leading the church and Christian ministry in this hinge period in history, I often dream of being able to sit down with a discerner of the times—one who both loves the church and understands the intellectual and spiritual subterranean forces that are shaping the way we live and forging the way we live the Christian life. Reading Discipleship in the Present Tense is the next best thing to this kind of friendly chat. James K. A. Smith in this delightful assortment of essays, critiques, and interviews is a Christian ethnographer helping the church move through the 'hazy space' between faith and culture, the church and the academy, the historical and the traditional. He does this as a committed scholar in the Reformed tradition, but all of us will find what he says extremely helpful."
—Berten A. Waggoner , Former National Director, Vineyard USA
About the Author
James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he holds the Gary and Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. Trained as a philosopher with a focus on contemporary French thought, Smith has expanded on that scholarly platform to become an engaged public intellectual and cultural critic. An award-winning author and widely-traveled speaker, he has emerged as a thought leader with a unique gift of translation, building bridges between the academy, society, and the church.
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I have had a long standing opposition to parts of Reformed Theology. But Smith makes me want to investigate wings of the Reformed world that are less focused on the newer 'Restless and Reformed' wing and more focused on the older Kuyper wing of the Reformed Tradition.
In the series of 24 essays, Smith mostly is talking about the church's relationship to culture. Some of the essays I have read before, such as the very good review of James Davidson Hunter's book To Change the World which appeared in Books and Culture Magazine and I linked to in my review of Hunter's book. But most were new to me.
Smith occasionally comes across as a curmudgeon on twitter. Which may be more about the format of twitter than anything else. But here Smith is much more humble and approachable than many within the 'Restless and Reformed' wing. The first section of the book is mostly written to Dutch Reformed readers. Smith grew up in a non-Christian family and became a Christian through a Pentecostal church but then embraced the Dutch Reformed as his theological home. Writing as someone that has embraced his denomination of choice not through ethnicity or history, but conscious choice these early essays could be speaking to many denominations. They encourage the church to adapt but not lose their heritage; embrace others without losing their grounding. It is a challenge that many have.
Smith is not afraid to speak clearly and strongly. One of the strongest essays and one that is pretty negative, is a review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cook Collide. Smith's main critique was that McCracken could only see Hipsters as cynical and an attempt to be cool. Smith as a college professor is well acquainted with attempts to be cool by the young. But he is also well aware of the young's genuine desire for change. And while many of us make fun of hipsters lately (and certainly some are attempting to be cool), many of those that are labeled as hipsters are really trying to take seriously God's instructions to live simply, take culture seriously, invest in those around them more than themselves and live a counter cultural existence.
It is essays like that one that really draw me to Smith. In spite of my general disagreements with Smith on parts of his theology, I am attracted to his comprehensive view of worship and liturgy as illustrated by his trilogy of books on liturgy. (I have only read Imagining the Kingdom so far.)
Smith can be pretty dense at times. But Discipleship in the Present Tense is readable and seems to give a good overview of his thought. It really does remind me that I need to read more by him. It is hard to keep up with his writing since he has published 8 books in the last four years (and contributed to more.)
Great short and sweet chapters which make for great daily thought provoking meditations.
The only problem is that given the interesting topics of each chapter, it can be hard to put the book down. I found myself finishing a chapter and then telling myself, "just one more" and before I knew it I had pretty much read the whole book in one sitting, which is something I hardly ever do.
As usual Smith is both Biblically grounded and rooted, philosophically informed, and culturally relevant (but not in a "pandering way").
Another great book from a stimulating author.
The book is a collection of 24 lively articles which demonstrate Smith's agenda for a robust cultural engagement.
He engages a wide array of topics, ranging from poetry and novels to political theology and pedagogy. His philosophical work on anthropology is especially brilliant. I will never look at worship, ritual, or liturgy the same. He is well-versed in continental philosophy and and as such his discussion of postmodernism proved stimulating and nuanced.
His article on the irreducibly storied nature of human experience was likewise provocative and fruitful. Oddly enough, I think what was most impressive to me was Smith's book reviews. As someone who writes several book reviews a week - often times finding them a painful endeavor - I was jarred and shamed to read such brilliant reviews in light of my own. For example, his review of Brett McCracken's Hipster Christianity was, I'm sure, ten times more enjoyable then the actual book.
I should mention too the great appreciation that Smith inculcates for the Arts. He argues vigorously against instrumentalist approaches that only see "the arts as a conduit for a gospel message or theistic propositions" (99). Rather - this is where Smith hits his stride:
We should expect art to be more oblique. And instread of asking artists to show us God, we should want them to reveal the world - to expand the world, to make worlds that expand creation with their gifts of co- and subcreative power. The calling of painters and poets, sculptors and songwriters, is not always and only to hymn the Creator but also and often to be at play in the fields of the Lord, mired and mucking about in the gifted immanence that is creation. (100)
And all of this appreciation for aesthetics is rooted in a rich and meditative appropriation of Genesis' "creational mandate".
I can't recommend this book highly enough - especially for the price! It'll only take you a couple hours to read, but the thoughts will sit with you for days. And in the end you just may find that you are more equipped to follow Jesus into the real world of art and beauty and family and politics and all that makes up Creation.
NOTE: This book was received free of charge in exchange for an honest review.