Thursday, January 21, 2010

Book Review: The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith

In the The Good and Beautiful God, James Bryan Smith addresses many of the "false narratives" that Christians believe about themselves and God. These narratives (such as "I change by my own willpower", "God is angry with me" or "God blesses me when I'm good and punishes me when I'm bad") shape the way believers live their Christian life and can quickly lead to failure and disillusionment. Speaking of Jesus' teachings and parables, Smith suggests "If we adopt Jesus' narratives about God, we will know God properly and right actions will follow". In other words, orthodoxy in the believer will lead to orthopraxy.

I liked the premise of the book and more than a few of his corrective narratives (I hope you can tolerate that word, by the way, he uses it a lot). I think he pinpointed many of the imbalanced views that many Christians have of God and made some good arguments from a counter-narrative.

However, I was disappointed at a couple of points with the seeming lack of balance in his counter arguments. While the false narratives he addresses are caricatures of God (exaggerations that are popular because they are at least somewhat true) it seems his corrective narratives could also be caricatures on the opposite end of the spectrum. If you are turning the magnifying glass on the bad theology (and thus bad orthopraxy) of some Christians, you better be ready to have the magnifying glass turned on your theology as well.

I noticed this particularly in the area of mankind's sin. As I hear more about the idea of "therapeutic moralistic deism", I see more of it's influence in the way people talk about their sin. For instance: "God does not want us to sin, and God does want us to do well. But that is only because sin harms us, and acts of goodness are healing both to us and to the recipients of our goodness" or "God hates sin because it hurts his children". I would suggest that God hates sin and doesn't want his children to sin primarily because of who He is (holy, righteous, and the One whose image we bear) and not because of what it does to us.

I also had a couple red flags go up in the chapter entitled "God Is Holy". While he had some very interesting things to say about God's wrath as being pathos and not passion, he also said that God's wrath is a temporary and just verdict on sin and evil. Smith also says, "Hell is simply isolation from God. A person—even a person others think of as decent and upright—who rejects God is experiencing hell on earth". Neither of those sound like the narrative I read from Jesus.

While I do have a couple concerns about the ideas of sin and hell that Smith suggests as a correction to "false narratives", he overall has given us a worthwhile read on spiritual formation. In the end, he does have a lot of good (and beautiful) things to say about our God. I know . . . that was terrible.

This book was a free review copy provided by InterVarsity Press.

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