Book Review – “The Good and Beautiful Life” by James Bryan Smith

beautiful-life

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.

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Book (and DVD) Review – “Living in Christ’s Presence” by Dallas Willard

Living in Christ's

I have long been a fan of Dallas Willard.  He has a way of presenting things that opens our eyes to ideas we have missed or misunderstood to a greater or lesser degree in Scripture, especially as it comes to discipleship and the kingdom of God.

Living in Christ’s Presence is a book based off of a conference Willard spoke at before he passed on to glory.  I have had the privilege of reviewing both the book and the DVD based off of this conference.

It truly serves as a summary or overview of many of Willard’s ideas that have been presented in other books, articles, and speeches.

The topics covered (taken from the Table of Contents of the book) are as follows: How to live well (eternal life begins now); Who are the experts on life transformation?; How to step into the kingdom and live there; Experiential knowledge of the trinity; Understanding the person (including the invisible parts); The importance of Christian disciplines; and Blessing.  Anyone who has read much of Willard will quickly notice that these are major themes covered throughout his other books.

Interestingly, while Willard’s name is the only one on the cover of the book, John Ortberg has contributed over half of the material in the conference and book.  The chapters alternate between Willard and Ortberg presenting, and after each presentation there is a discussion between Willard and Ortberg (and in one case a Question and Answer session with Ortberg).  Ortberg has been jokingly referred to as “Dallas Willard for Dummies,” so I am not surprised at his inclusion in the conference.  I wonder why he was not listed as author anywhere on the book, however.  He is listed as co-contributor on the front of the DVD case.

As mentioned above, the conference came first, and the DVD is a recording of it.  The book has been edited lightly (very lightly) from the conference to make it easier to read.  For the most part, however, one can follow word-for-word with the DVD by reading along.

In this case, I actually think I prefer the DVD to the book.  The tone of Willard’s and Ortberg’s presentations and discussions is lost somewhat in the book.  In some instances, this tone of voice and way of presenting the material is very beneficial to understanding what is said and intended.  That is not to say the book is not good, and for somewhat who wants to be able to quickly reference something that either speaker said the book would be invaluable.  But if I could only have one, I think I would opt for the DVD.

While I generally like Willard’s and Ortberg’s material, there is one major concern I have had with Willard’s writing, and this concern was brought out here very strongly.

Now, before I discuss this concern, I want to point out that Willard himself does not claim to be perfect in everything he says.  Willard states clearly, “Now, while saying as much as I am, I am probably going to say one or two things that are wrong.” (p. 13)  Based on my understanding of Scripture, I think he certainly did at one point, and the error is possibly a big one.  So I wanted to take time here to make others aware of it before they purchase the book or DVD.

In part of an extended discussion between Ortberg and Willard, we find this exchange:

John: When people say, “I believe in God, and I want to believe in God, but I have doubts sometimes; I want to follow Christ, but I fail sometimes; I am not as certain as I want to be,” can they say with confidence or integrity that they know Christ? What needs to be true in their life, in their mind and their life, for them to be able to say they know Christ?

Dallas: Put his words into practice and find them to be true.

John: Is it possible that somebody might know Christ but not realize that they know Christ?

Dallas: Oh, yes. Many people know things, but they don’t know that they know. That’s the nature of knowledge. Like children, for example, or unsophisticates of various kinds–they don’t even know what knowledge is. But our lives are filled with knowledge. You know something when you are able to deal with it as it is on an appropriate basis of thought and experience. (p. 31)

I wanted to quote it at length to catch as much of the context as possible.  It sounds as if Willard is leaning toward some form of inclusivism, that is that people can be Christians and not realize that they are.  While I think most of us would like that to be true, I find it very difficult to reconcile that with Scripture.  I realize God is loving, and that God does not want anyone to perish, but the Scriptures about Christ’s being the only way and needing to confess Him seem too strong for me to be able to easily dismiss them (see John 14:6, Acts 4:12, and Romans 10:9-10).  In addition, I don’t think we ever see anyone in the New Testament who is considered saved without their willful acceptance of the life and death of Christ on their behalf and their willful submission to Him as Lord and Savior.

I realize Willard is not the only one to hold an inclusivistic view, and I understand the idea is that God’s grace is so large that He will accept people by His grace and mercy based on their response to the light they have, but that He does so in such a way that it is only through the sacrifice of Christ on their behalf, with God applying that to them without their conscious, willful acceptance of it. I also understand that with Willard’s view of salvation being more about entering a kingdom life now than about “God seeing to it that individuals [don’t] go to the bad place” (p. 10), it leans away from salvation as a one-time decision to avoid punishment for sins and begin a life of submission to Christ.  As a result, the issue I am bringing up is based on a certain perspective of salvation that Willard doesn’t seem to hold to.  I may be misunderstanding Willard here, but it seems that is how Willard’s argument works.

Following along with this, Willard confronts the idea that “God is mad all the time” (p. 33). This helps understand his view above, regarding following Christ without knowing it, as he doesn’t seem to look much at the idea of the wrath of God.

Admittedly, God’s wrath and God’s love are hard to reconcile.  But we cannot ignore them.  Scripture says that those who don’t believe in Christ are “condemned already” (John 3:18, ESV) and that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18, ESV), among other passages.  Perhaps I am misunderstanding “wrath” here, but I don’t think we can just dismiss it by pointing to God’s love.  God is love, that is true, but God is also holy and just.

In reality, these are the only two things that really stood out to me in the entire book.  The rest of the book is great!  But to some people, those will be two major issues to overcome, and that is why I have spent so much time on them.  As long as people read Willard discerningly, there should be no issue.  Willard also thinks, talks, and writes so deeply that it is possible I am completely misunderstanding him here.  I have not read everything Willard has written, so I am open to correction.  That is why I would not let this part of the presentation scare people off from reading the book.  It is, however, something important enough to take some time on.

Overall, the book is a great reminder, however, about living in the presence of Christ and His kingdom.  In a day when discipleship is still marginalized, and attendance at church or subscribing to a certain set of beliefs is lauded as being the determining factor in being considered a Christian, Willard and Ortberg sound a much needed call to awaken us to the reality that living the kingdom life is so much more.

Willard points out, “One of the problems that many Christians today have is that, since they are Christians, they have found it and they stop seeking.  But seeking is the way we live.  We never get beyond seeking” (p. 71).  Amen!  What does this mean? “To seek the kingdom of God is to look for it to be present and for it to be an action, and then to identify yourself with that action” (p. 74).

Later in the book, Ortberg brings in the ideas of spiritual disciplines to help us understand how to seek the kingdom and live in it.  He reminds us that disciplines are about training, not trying (see p. 139), and he goes on to lay out a very succinct explanation of how to practice disciplines in our lives, both in areas of ommision and commision.  For someone looking for a very brief overview of the disciplines in the overall context of living in the kingdom of God as a follower of Jesus, this chapter is wonderful.

The section about blessings, what they are and how we give and receive them, was also very enlightening.

One final reason to consider getting the book as well as the DVD is the inclusion of a study guide in the back, written by Gary Moon.  The study guide is a great way to walk through the material either individually or with a group.  With Willard’s work, you really do need to slow down and find ways to process it all, as it is both broad and deep at the same time.  A simple skim of the material will not be nearly as beneficial as a thoughtful pondering of the ideas he presents.

If you are looking for an overview of Willard’s thoughts in one place, either as a summary or an introduction, Living in Christ’s Presence is a good purchase.  If you can only choose one, I would encourage you to get the DVD, but both together make a nice set, and they complement each other very well.

Note: I was provided with a complimentary copy of the book and DVD from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.