James Bryan Smith. The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009. 251 pages. $23.00 Hardcover.
Okay, now what? Imagine this: you’ve recently confessed Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. Or maybe you’ve been a life-long Christian. Or maybe you’re just curious what it is these Christian people “do”. Okay, now what? It is commonly held that after a person has committed their life to Christ and His Kingdom, they engage in a life-long practice (and at times struggle) of discipleship. Discipleship is James Bryan Smith in The Good and Beautiful Life’s answer to the question of okay, now what?
This book is the second volume in a three-part series of books with similar titles. The first being The Good and Beautiful God, and the forthcoming third volume entitled The Good and Beautiful Community. Smith is self-confessedly a very fortunate individual. He comes from the spiritual formation string of thinkers such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. These, his mentors, have obviously shaped Smith into the kind of Christian he is; and more importantly all three of these men have been shaped into greater images of Christ. If you are a fan of these two authors then you will appreciate Smith’s references to them, not in a haughty way, but rather a genuine view of love and respect for these men.
But that’s really where this book departs from the thinking of Willard and Foster. While there are glimpses and echoes of their thinking in these pages, Smith is writing his own book and writing of his own convictions and experiences. The book is set up in such a way that it could be used (and should be used) in a church small group setting or other type of intentional discipleship group. To be sure, this is not the run of the mill touchy-feely, high on heart/low on substance kind of spiritual formation book that tends to dominate the genre. Smith is serious about becoming more like Christ and he expects the same of his readership.
For Smith, how this is done is by getting at the root word of “discipleship”. That is: discipline. Smith’s big emphasis and encouragement in spiritual formation stems from his mentors Willard and Foster with a key on discipline as the key to growing in Christ. Smith highlights several obstacles to becoming like Christ that he sees are prevalent in our culture. They are: anger, lust, lying, cursing others, vainglory, avarice, worry, and judging others. While these are all sins, Smith is not here to bash guilt over people and tell them to simply “snap out of it” or “shape up”. He has a deep understanding of these sins and obstacles to true life, and an insight into them that you might not have thought about before. He is not saying: stop lying, don’t lust, and quit worrying. At least, not explicitly so. Rather, Smith is more concerned about helping people to understand WHY these are harmful to spiritual growth, and then giving effective and realistic exercises (hence: disciplines) to thwart them from our lives.
For example, one way to thwart anger in your life is to keep the Sabbath. One way to admonish lust is to take a media fast. These and other avenues of praxis can assist individual Christians, especially in accountable groups of like-minded people, to resist temptations to sin and thus adopt a more holy Kingdom ethic in the process. At the end of the day, Smith encourages Christians to think more “Kingdomly” in their daily orientation as opposed to that of “the world”. Echoes of the Anabaptist “Christ against the world” are heard here for the informed reader, although this is never explicitly argued for. If the world is causing you to sin, disengage from what causes you to sin. Perhaps it’s easier said than done (it is), and perhaps this is not the right approach to take (it’s debatable). Regardless, we know that this world and culture in which we find ourselves is saturated by things not of the Kingdom.
I would highly recommend this book for anyone wanting to steer away from the “fluff” of most of the spiritual formation literature available today who yearn to grow closer to God, become more like Christ, and enter in to the true meaning of discipleship, to discipline. The second book in this three-book series is a good wedge between discussions about a good and beautiful God and us as individuals connecting therein to a good and beautiful corporate community. James Bryan Smith brings to Christians a thoughtful, challenging, and encouraging book that will hopefully be used by individuals and groups for years to come.