James KA Smith teaches at Calvin College in the philosophy department. (Why he has 2 middle initials, as do many Calvinists, is unknown to me) He is regularly on NPR and other radio shows, and is a genuine public intellectual. He is engaging, smart, and relevant. I just read through one of his more recent books, “Devil Reads Derrida” (which is the title of one of the 25+ short essays in this fun little book) and I like it. I like it a lot. In it he covers topics such as the ‘wild at heart’ movement, Obama, sex, open theism, discipleship, theology, politics, movies, and even poetry.
Smith is an evangelical in the best sense of the word. In distinction to fundamentalists, who want to circle the wagons and protect what they’ve got against outsiders (liberals, relativists, the world at large) evangelicals want to bring the gospel to bear on their culture– and not necessarily through radical political stances (see his Chapter 18 on Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation). As an evangelical– i.e., a Christian who want to engage culture and apply the gospel to it reflectively– Smith has a great collection of short essays which he wrote in the last few years for various magazines, etc.
One of the most powerful essays for me personally in the book was his introductory essay, challenging Christian academics to be more involved in popular Christianity. It is quite common for Christian academics to feel somewhat disconnected from popular Christianity as you find it in the pews and on the radio airwaves. He says,
“For too many Christian scholars, their basic stance toward popular Christianity is derision and condescension. But such a stance will change nothing. I’ll be the first to admit that I am often exasperated, frustrated, and embarrassed by my own faith community– that there are days when I can’t stomach being described as an “evangelical” because of the guilt by association. But at the end of the day, these are my people. I still pick up Christianity Today before I pick up the Christian Century or First Things. … I know and revere Noncoformist saints like Jim Elliot and Corrie ten Boom. I still understand the inner workings and issues of evangelicalism better than the labyrinthine machinations of American liberalism or Catholicism….In short, I still feel at home in evcangelical circles– if you understand being “at home” like coming back to a small town Thankgiving dinner, with all its charm and awkwardness, all its arguments and hugs. So these are my people, and I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt”
I can identify with this, feeling a disconnect from Pat Robertson’s saying that perhaps Chavez should be assassinated, evangelicals blaming 911 on homosexuality or abortion, or generally feeling like there was a pressure as an evangelical to only listen to Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and to believe that Obama is a muslim. That disconnect can lead to a sense of alienation and homelessness. But Smith lays the responsibility for this disconnect, and the causes of this frustration, right at the feet of the Christian scholars themselves. He describes what has happened to Christian culture:
“In the case that hits closest to home for me, as scholars at the denominations college devoted their intellectual energy to their various guilds, Christians within the denomination found themselves looking for wisdom and guidance where they could get it. The result is that they picked up what was available–in Christian bookstores, magazines, and, perhaps most significantly, on Christian radio. And since Christian intellectuals had pretty much vacated these spaces, the result is that the Christian public began to nourish themselves with what I have to say is a largely unhealthy diet…Celebrity pastors, radio evangelists, and Christian talk radio hosts filled the vacuum that was left by the evacuation of Christian intellectuals from the popular spaces of the Christian community….and if “we” (Christian scholars) won’t provide this life-long learning, then the hunger for guidance and wisdom and insight will be satisfied from other sources. Who are “we” to complain, then, about the popular diet of evangelicalism?”
Evangelical scholars have gone out of their way to avoid popular Christian culture, and then we complain that it isn’t very scholarly– no wonder– since we have abandoned it. And this critique can just as well apply to Christian hipsters and those who are more intellectually minded Christian lay people who sit at the sidelines and don’t participate in church, finding popular evangelical culture beneath them. If all the hipsters don’t go to the common man’s church, they will find that its not very hip. No kidding…
But Smith’s book is not aimed at Scholars in particular. He has essays on the importance of learning to rest, going through dry spells in our spiritual walk, on being reformed (calvinist) and pentecostal, and the importance of reaching out to our neighborhoods, as well as his take on the emergent church, open theism, wild at heart, and postmodernism.
Smiths work is engaging and challenging, to layperson and scholar alike. You may not agree with everything he says, but engaging the thought of a fellow evangelical who is sincerely and thoughtfully wrestling with contemporary issues which face us is likely to lead to a more thoughtful and interesting Christian life and walk.
May God have mercy on us all. (And thank you God for books like these)
PS I was really encouraged to hear that a group of Christian guys in Aurora had recently been reading another book by Smith– Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism– in their bookclub. Its a nice intro to a few of the key postmodern thinkers, and in it he definitely challenges Christians to be actively engaged in their local congregations.
Here is Jamie’s website:http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/