James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Community. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 237 pages. $22.00. 978-0-8308-3533-1
In his third and final installment of the Apprentice Series of books, Christian spiritual formation guru James Bryan Smith tackles an important and sometimes neglected aspect of the Christian life – how do we do this Christian thing…together? There is much that has been written on the concept of Christian community. Along the spectrum of literature you will find those who encourage limited community and interaction with other Christians. This would be the “me and my God in my way” sort of camp. Then there is the other end of the spectrum where Christians feel as though a “radical” approach to Christian living is completely necessary and universal for the life of the Christian. Literally by living in community with one another, sharing all that life has to offer…the good, the bad, the human.
For Smith (and I would concur) both ends of this spectrum miss the point of what Christian community and “doing” discipleship is all about. Both ends of those spectrums miss the mark substantially by (ironically) focusing on the same undertones in their argument. That is, WE got it all figured. How I/we do it is how Christ would have us do it. Whether you’re the type of person that is content taking a hike by yourself or whether you are part of an “intentional” community of believers all living in the same house and using the same refrigerator, you are espousing that how you do it is how Jesus intended. But what both these ideologies neglect, and the point of Smith’s entire Apprentice Series of books, is that how we envision Christian discipleship is probably different than how Jesus envisioned discipleship. That is not to say that there are not kernels of truth in those before-mentioned ideologies or any other spin off. What is to be said is that striving for Christlikeness is both done as an individual as well as part of the group. Too much of either, and you are missing the point.
I thought one of the best parts of Smith’s book was an open letter written to his teenage son about the church and all that entails. He had a discussion with his son at one point about what he likes about church, and what he does not like. Surprisingly, but not disappointingly for Smith his son is attracted to some more of the contemplative and liturgical themes about their church (a Methodist church). Reading between the lines it seemed to me as though his son is attracted to a healthy amount of emphasis on individual piety (receiving Eucharist, repentance, forgiveness, etc.) but is also attracted to the corporate aspects of the worship (some of the music [like hymns!], and being a part of something bigger than oneself). This is a telling section, because as Smith wonders aloud, is this merely an individual like/dislike for his own son, or is it a more telling societal fluctuation among today’s youth? I would posit that within the answer you will find the deeper answer.
His son’s likes/dislikes of the church, while personal for him, are in fact telling of a broader movement of young people being attracted to historical expressions of the church and less attracted to the evangelical/ahistorical expressions of the church. That is the beauty of historical expressions of church, they encourage both individual piety as well as corporate worship and community. So instead of moving toward the outlier expressions of the evangelical/ahistorical expressions of church couched in either individualistic piety ONLY or community involvement ONLY, the “trend” per se is that of bridging the gap between the two extremes and opting for the best of individual and corporate, the historical church. It is no wonder that what is popular today among young and old people alike has been popular for the last two thousand years.
The nice thing about any of Smith’s books is that they can be read individually or in a small group setting. Of course, given the particular nature of this book on community, Smith highly encourages it to be read, and practiced, in some kind of community setting like a small group. Something that is big for Smith is this idea of “narrative”. That is, we all live in some kind of narrative. A narrative can be “true”, like living a Christian worldview and ethos, or this narrative can be “false”, like not living in such a worldview. The interesting thing about narratives in the story of people’s lives is that there are hints of truth in all of them, but in all of them are hints of falsity. In other words, given that we are fallen creatures our narratives will never be 100% like that which we are striving for (which is good because then we would have no need for heaven). But also, our narratives tell a broad story about our lives and the world/s in which we find ourselves. Smith’s encouragement, and I would highly echo this, is that we ought to form our narratives into that of the Son of God as much as we can. And for Smith, this is most appropriately done through encouragement, accountability, and worship in a God-honoring community while ALSO adding the individual striving for piety through spiritual disciplines. This Apprentice Series is truly unique among other spiritual formation writings and I would highly encourage it to anyone.