James K A Smith

Abridging Schools of Thought, Tony Jones the Conservative, and The New Materialism

Jack Caputo criticizes those who abridge postmodern philosophy. It seems especially so when talking about theological proposals. I have listened to many of his lectures posted online and on more than once occasion he makes this sort of statement. (More on this later.) I understand.

Caputo’s challenge is not unlike what is faced when my tribe, Southern Baptists, tussle over Reformed Theology. Baptists, even Southern Baptists, who self-describe as Reformed, abridge Reformed Theology. For instance, to my knowledge you will not find a Southern Baptist Church that practices infant baptism.

When the subject of baptism comes up Reformed Baptists defer to the Baptist distinctive, Believer’s Baptism. One could argue this practice stems from the Radical Reformers, most notably Anabaptists. However, Southern Baptists do not practice community discernment or pacifism characteristic of most Anabaptists. As such one could argue Baptist Theology inherently abridges multiple schools of thought or, as I think of it, is derivative theology. We who inherit our Tradition from the Free Church find this liberating and at the same time inherently contentious.

We Southern Baptists are notorious for our internecine, insider, conflicts when groups divide over just how much or little another group abridges the theological strains present in our heritage. The matter worsens when you introduce a new stream, one that is always reduced by opponents to an old stream, and often deemed a heresy by those same opponents.

More than ten years ago an upstart group of Evangelicals gathered around their analysis of the Church in North America. Early on their sensibilities were embraced without question as it initially tended toward the pragmatics of ecclesial matters. Once a group within the group asked theological questions of the perceived Tradition, camps formed and the splintering began along with the accusations of traversing the proverbial bridge too far. Denouncements, pronouncements, and anathemas were stock and trade.

Imagine that more than ten years later Tony Jones, participating in a theological gathering, would find himself the conservative. My Southern Baptist friends, the ones who are still reading, just dropped their coffee cups on their keyboards. Now that they have wiped their screens to be sure they read correctly, I want them to know yes, Tony Jones the Conservative.

Tony Jones attended Subverting the Norm 2 where the conference planners wanted to address the question, “Can Postmodern Theology live in the Church?” My Southern Baptist friends and peers still reading may feel the visceral need to shout at their screens, “No!” But, I am interested. Many carry on with little recognition of the way other philosophies have impacted their/our systems of belief during the course of Church History. A course in intellectual history in college helped frame the analysis. Movements are not the serendipitous consequence of human experience. There are intellectual moves that fund these events.

Some might be interested to learn that the very conservative James K.A. Smith was a student of John D. Caputo’s who decided to follow another school of thought that harnesses both postmodern philosophy and the postmodern critique to fuel Radical Orthodoxy. Of course the student would disagree with the teacher in this scenario, but if you have read Smith’s, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church, you may get a different way to hear helpful critiques and find ways to abridge a school of thought for the good of the Kingdom.

Many who attended both STN events were eager to hear Jack Caputo. He spoke at the evening Main Session on the first day. Tony responded to Jack Caputo’s main session talk. He stirred things up to say the least. But, if you know Tony, it is his gift.

How is it that I assert, Tony the Conservative? Believe it or not, Tony actually believes in a real Jesus, a real atonement, and a real resurrection. He is a realist. Depending on the angle, I am not sure Caputo is a realist. Non-realists, of varying stripes, explore the power of belief without the encumbrance of truth as correspondence, my perception. Put more simply, what makes something true is the material impact on a person’s way of life. Again, my interpretation, and certainly would suffer criticism as an oversimplification and too reductionist.

What does this have to do with me? Why would I be interested in STN2? I will respond by referring to a friend who recently wrote about messy reading. She writes,

I have been reading a book of essays titled In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe. I haven’t read a book I so strongly disagree with in a long time. Someone asked me, “If you disagree with this book so much, why do you keep reading it?” Fair question.

The author is articulate, intelligent, and well-read. It is of value to me to be able to read and read carefully the opinions and thoughts of someone I disagree with, especially if I find something in it offensive. Why am I having this reaction? Why am I offended or defensive? Be calm. Form a thoughtful, careful, polite response, but not before considering all angles- and everything I can outside the angles. Where is this person coming from? What is behind what they are saying? This kind of reading helps me think a little more deeply and is only good practice for conversations that I may have with others now and in the future. In the end, it’s not about changing anyone’s mind, but about understanding others and shaping myself over time. If I read and listen only to people who I agree with now or back up what I already believe or think, how will I grow? How will I change? How will I get better at loving and listening to people who are different than myself?

So, I will finish the book as long as it remains interesting. And it definitely has that going for it.

For more than twenty years I read from the approved list. I recall being taught how to gauge the conservatism, or lack thereof, of a book by noting the publisher. We were offered a spectrum to consider so that if a title intrigued us but we did not know the author we could surmise the theological commitments by assessing the publisher on the given scale. Things have changed over the last fifteen years. The existential experiences, the life happens moments, would require another post or put the rest of you who are still with me to sleep were it appended to this post.

It is enough to say I am asking different questions these days. Much of it is derived from life as a pastor living with and in the midst of a group of people over a long haul. Short-term pastoral ministry is different. I have done both – 17 months and four years. No, the 17-month stint did not result in my firing. I moved to be closer to seminary for my terminal degree. And boy, am I terminal. I prefer the longer versions of pastoral ministry but believe they are riskier to the certainties of faith than shorter ones.

The one thing that keeps me awake at night is the way we still seem to be attempting to overcome a faith that is chiefly ethereal, in the head. Statistics continue to support distinctions between stated beliefs and lived reality. We may want to re-hash Luther’s argument with James at this point but what really gets me thinking is what happens in material reality, the stuff God created. How is it we may traverse God’s good planet and not consider the materiality of our faith in favor of something more distant and esoteric when the Incarnation is so central to the Christian faith?

Tomorrow I will offer a review of Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism by Clayton Crockett & Jeffrey W. Robbins. My main focus will be their chapter on religion. Too often, in my experience, we have taken a dismissive approach to the materialist critique of religion. It may be a mistake. Crockett and Robbins pick up something of a new materialist critique of religion, one that seems to scratch my itch for how we think about our faith in material reality. More tomorrow.

I close with a reminder from my young friend,

If I read and listen only to people who I agree with now or back up what I already believe or think, how will I grow? How will I change? How will I get better at loving and listening to people who are different than myself?

What About Those Scary Others Not in the Hallway? Or, There Still More to Learn

“What is a Southern Baptist doing reading Walter Brueggemann?” The email questioner was a fellow Southern Baptist pastor. From his perspective Brueggemann was not on the approved reading list for those in our tribe. I politely replied and kept reading. In my last post I was hopeful to disabuse us of the idea that those within the Christian Tradition outside our particular stream are indeed not scary whether they are identified by another denominational affiliation or at a different place than us on the idealogical spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal. Something I recently learned about C.S. Lewis may provide another illustration.

My favorite C.S. Lewis book is The Abolition of Man. Over the years I have read excerpts from Mere Christianity. Steve suggested it be our next book to read for our Theology Cafe at Snow Hill on Thursday mornings.

This past Thursday we watched The Magic Never Ends: The Life & Faith of C.S. Lewis. Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Wade Center at Wheaton College, shared with the audience, via DVD, Lewis’ reference to the variety of Christian Traditions and their interplay as living in a building with a common hallway lined with doors to various rooms. Read More

Clippings – No. 2

Clippings from around the Interwebs.


Perriman responds to James K.A. Smith who contends,

I also think this state of the field is a by-product of the fact that many up-and-coming theologians right now are not what we used to call “churchmen” in any strong sense (“churchwomen” included): they are not tied to denominational identities, they are not participants in the specifics of ecclesiastical governance/teaching, they are not subject to ecclesial magisteria of any sort, they are not aspiring to chairs in their denominational seminaries, etc. From where I sit, freelancing does not seem very conducive to healthy theologizing.

Again, Perriman offers a different way to think about the relationship of an historical hermeneutic and a theological hermeneutic when approaching Scripture. Must they be prioritized or pitted against one another? Read More

Theological Education Has (Not) Left the Building – TAG10

For sometime I have followed the mantra, “Leaders Are Always Learners.” One corollary that I follow is that we should be willing to learn from everyone. James K.A. Smith in his essay “The Church, Christian Scholars and Little Miss Sunshine,” in The Devil Reads Derrida: And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts, contends,

It [following a hermeneutic of charity] will also require us to spend more time with our (dysfunctional) faith families, and to own up to the fact that we’re one of “them” – that, in fact, there’s no “us” and “them,” there’s just “us.” (p.xvii.)

In a recent podcast Trevin Wax suggested evangelicalism is likely to continue to fragment. Funny, Bill J. Leonard wrote that about Southern Baptists in 1991. Nary a religious denomination escapes the impulse to divide. Just take some time to read of the various inter-Nicene conflicts. Read More

Pastoral Writing as “Public” – Part 1

31fL+EHI-rL._SL160_“I don’t blog and I don’t read blogs.” A friend of mine retorted a couple of years ago. It was a badge of superiority he wore. He still believed only those who wrote their thoughts in public were either narcissistic or hidden away in their parents basement donned in their pajamas with nothing better to do. As if being on television is not a bit narcissistic.

Three years ago that was the sentiment by leadership in our denomination. Now many “Tweet” as though there is no tomorrow and offer their thoughts on websites, or personal blogs. I guess they decided it was true, “If you can’t beat them, you might as well join them.”

We who process some of our thoughts in writing, when we do not have the occasion verbally, often wonder to ourselves if this is just a personal exercise. And, maybe it is. Often we wonder if we should shut things down. Turn the computer off. Even worse, “Is anyone reading?” we wonder in desperation.

Recently I picked up James K.A. Smith’s, The Devil Reads Derrida. In my own denomination the title would provoke a, “Why on earth would you read something like that?” Anathemas have been pronounced on anything postmodern and anything “emerging.” We somehow believe the genealogy of our own beliefs derived from some pristine place. No external influences here. Nope, we just read the Bible. Listen to the Spirit. Those who taught us presented truth from Scripture without so much as a hint of cultural embeddedness. No, the cultural “South” did not leave any imprint on our hermeneutics. Much less certain reigning philosophies from the West.

When I read the following quote I could not help but think of the countless times I  longed to have a conversation partner who would talk about something other than Maxwell’s greatest hits. Who would not point me to someone’s sermon series. Who would not wax eloquent on their latest programmatic coup. Who preferred not to take the word of someone else who read but worked to apprehend the issues personally.  Smith writes,

“In particular I have been deeply disturbed by a serious vacuum of thoughtful reflection in evangelicalism, and even the constituency of my own denomination.” James K.A. Smith, “The Church, Christian Scholars, and Little Miss Sunshine,” in The Devil Reads Derrida, p.xii.

Smith argues in his “Introduction” for diaconal scholarship in service to the Church. In a guild (philosophy) where the term “popularizer” is the death knell, he urges scholars to break out of their elitist confines. He goes on to suggest his peers should be prepared to learn from others outside their guild,

Even if I think they’ve bought into all sorts of questionable assumptions and causes; even if I think they’ve ben so co-opted by cynical political machines; even though I might think they’ve assimilated the worst sorts of cultural prejudices; even if I think God wants to invite them to “higher” cultural passions – there is a sense in which I think they’re trying to make their way in the world the best they can. And if they’ve bought the paradigms sold to them by voices on Christian radio that I think are problematic, then the burden is on me to show them otherwise. My responsibility is not to condescendingly look down upon them from my cushy ivory tower, but to take time to get out of the tower and speak to them, and, please note, learn from them. Christian scholars would do well to be slow to speak and quick to listen. (p.xvi)

Smith’s challenge has implications for pastors/ministers. More in Pastoral Writing as “Public” – Part 2.