I am always looking for fresh ways to explore who God is and how to live the Christian life. When I originally read The Good and Beautiful God, I found some fresh ways of understanding who God is. That book is the first in a three-book set by James Bryan Smith. After finishing the first book, I wanted to continue to expand my views by reading the next book in the series, and InterVarsity Press graciously agreed to send me a copy of The Good and Beautiful Life.
Where the first book attempted to help us reexamine our views of who God is, The Good and Beautiful Life sets out to help us get a better sense of how to put on the character of Christ, to borrow from the subtitle.
Smith draws a lot of his inspiration from Dallas Willard, and, as I understand it, Smith’s three books are a sort of “curriculum of Christlikeness” that Willard encouraged him to write. If you are familiar with Willard, you will certainly sense a lot of the same ideas coming through Smith’s writing.
The book takes the Sermon on the Mount and breaks it down by representing it as Christ’s blueprint for what a disciple’s (or to borrow Smith’s term, “apprentice’s”) life should look like as he or she increasingly follows Jesus.
The chapters follow the Sermon on the Mount in order, tackling ideas such as learning how to live without anger, without lust, and without vainglory, as well as learning how to bless those who curse you and living in the kingdom day by day.
After each chapter is a brief “Soul Training” exercise to try to apply the material to one’s life and help the process of inner transformation.
At the end of the book is a 32-page appendix that is a small group discussion guide to help walk small groups through that material as a way of supporting and encouraging one another to grow.
Smith points out throughout the book that the idea is not one of changing one’s outward life only (or even primarily). The real focus is on allowing Christ to change one’s inner self so that the outward actions follow as a natural result. It brings back the idea of Christ’s talking to the Pharisees and explaining that rather than cleaning the outside of the cup and dish while leaving the inside dirty, they should have cleaned the inside first, and the outside would have been clean also.
There are a few areas where I am not sure I agree with Smith, but I am still considering what he has to say. For example, he tackles the idea of casting one’s pearls before pigs and argues that Jesus is not saying to withhold something precious from those who don’t deserve it (pages 192-195). Rather, he interprets it as saying that pigs cannot digest pearls, so they will get hungry and turn on the owner, whom they can digest. The idea being that the pearls represent condemnation and judging and that people cannot “digest” that, or handle it, so it won’t help them but will leave them starving for help. Based on most interpretations I have read, Smith is definitely in a minority view here, and he acknowledges as much in the book. I have to say that I am not totally convinced by his view yet, although it would make the passage flow better. But to me, pearls always represent something expensive and precious (pearl of great price, the gates of pearl in Revelation, etc.); this would be one of the only places, if not the only, where that would not apply, especially if Smith’s view is correct, as judging and condemnation could not be interpreted as precious.
Overall, however, I found this book very refreshing, and there are many great ideas to take away from it. Where Willard provides a lot of the theoretical side of kingdom living, Smith works more on the practical side, so combining Smith’s work with Willard’s will give a more well-rounded idea of the type of kingdom living they advocate.
If you are looking for a “curriculum” for Christlikeness, this book (and this series) is a good one to consider.
*Note: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.