Monday, April 12, 2010

Good and Beautiful Spiritual Formation

This is a review I wrote that originally appeared on the Englewood Review of Books made possible by a complimentary copy from Intervarsity Press.

The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith is the second book in his Apprentice Series. The focus of the series is “to draw people into the divine conspiracy of love and transformation” (p. 10). The first book focused on God and the nature of God. This book explores the work of God in our individual lives. The final book, available later this year, emphasizes how to bring all of these lessons and transformations into the larger community.

I personally was excited by this particular entry into the series as my much of my personal and professional passion is in the area of spiritual formation, particularly on the individual level. Smith is also a founding board member of Renovaré, one of my favorite spiritual formation organizations. He also got excellent endorsements from respected people, including one from Dallas Willard, stating this series is “The best practice I have seen in Christian spiritual formation.” I’m not sure I would agree with that statement. I say that primarily because I’m not convinced spiritual formation practice can be fully conveyed in a book. It is a lived-out, incarnational and relational experience.

However, Smith does an excellent job tapping into these elements. He wrote the series with the intention that they would be read in community. He concludes each chapter with strong reflective questions and ways to encourage communities to be able to engage one another in sharing their reflections. This is critically important in the process of spiritual formation, and very few other texts I have seen do such a nice job at encouraging both individual and communal spiritual formation simultaneously.

Additionally, I appreciated how Smith included reflection questions throughout the text itself so the reader could engage as he or she is reading, not just after Smith is done “talking.” Engagement, again, is a very important part of spiritual formation.

The content was solid and useful, being well-grounded biblically, theologically, academically and psychologically. I appreciated that Smith appropriately explained, unpacked, and backed up his challenges to a lot of problematic conventional cultural beliefs. This made his arguments and encouragement toward spiritual formation much more effective. Also, rather than simply condemning problematic beliefs, he labeled them “false narratives.” In the realm of spiritual formation, it is rarely helpful to label things “heretical” because that shuts off conversation. Identifying them as narratives helps to recognize that beliefs and theology are developed through an on-going process.

He also presented them in a way where the reader could engage and reflect, again, critical elements of spiritual formation. The problem in this method is that it focuses primarily on the Contemplative tradition (see Renovaré’s website or Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water for more information on that). There needs to be more balance of the other traditions in this book.

Despite the strengths of the process of the book and the content, this book really is more of an entry-level tome on spiritual formation. I don’t think I read anything particularly new. I often marked pages of things Smith said quite well or with which I agreed. However, I did not feel the content touched me at a deep level or really challenged me. This may be due to reading a lot of spiritual formation materials and frequently engaging in the topics Smith presented.

If you are a looking for an advanced spiritual formation text, go to a book that goes into more depth on specific topics. You’ll be disappointed if you’re well-read in spiritual formation literature and are looking for something new and profound (unless repetition is helpful to you). If you want to introduce people to spiritual formation or explore spiritual formation with a small group, I highly recommend this book. It is very well-written and accessible. Despite my critiques, I very much enjoyed reading it.

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