Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Featured: The Good and Beautiful Community – James Bryan Smith [Vol. 3, #37]

“Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love”

A Review of

The Good and Beautiful Community:
Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love
By James Bryan Smith.

Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.

The Good and Beautiful Community:
Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love
By James Bryan Smith.

Hardback: IVP Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ ChristianBook.com ]

THE GOOD AND BEAUTIFUL COMMUNITY - JB SmithLess and less does the term spiritual formation conjure up a mental image of an aged monk or nun, and the Quaker, quiet and contemplative in a still room.  Less and less does spiritual formation seem to be an individualistic me-and-God pursuit over and above one’s place in a community.  James Bryan Smith, in his Apprentice Series, follows the Renovaré movement (of which his biography describes him as a founding member) creating three work books about the “good and beautiful.”  His most recent book, which rounds out the series, is The Good and Beautiful Community, touching directly on one of Renovaré’s crucial values – spiritual formation in the midst of community.

Smith is a professor and the director of the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute at Friends University.  He writes like he’s speaking to his college students – an audience emerging from the faith of others and embracing their own spiritual formation for themselves.  The Apprentice Series is a three-part set of workbooks for those interested in growing spiritually, and serves those who have some knowledge of the Christian life, but are just beginning to delve deeper.  The Good and Beautiful Community moves from an individual focus on spirituality to the individual’s spiritual development in the midst of community and the larger Kingdom of God.

Smith does not claim to be a master in spiritual formation.  Time and time again he gives credit to his many interactions with both Richard Foster and Dallas Willard for the aspects he’s gained, especially in regard to spiritual formation amidst community.  It is from this lack of mastering that Smith’s voice is instructive.  Smith avoids being pedantic, but speaks as one engaged and practiced within spiritual formation, inviting his readers, as he likely does his students, to join him and help him grow spiritually within community.

Smith is very practical, regaling only a few stories of spiritual heroes to prove his points.  Instead he gives simple instructions and examples in how to practice spiritual formation.  After each chapter, he has a “Soul Training” section, designed to put into practice the reframed narratives discussed in the preceding chapter.  As a practical spiritual book and not one of spiritual history, it is not to be breezed through.  His writing is easy to swallow, and even easy to digest, but each morsel is worth savoring.

Sometimes Smith’s advice for practicing spiritual growth amidst community does seem soft.  He writes with a passion for depth, but his instructions do not seem to push as hard as his passion drives him.  Smith earnestly desires his readers to go deeper with God, but tends to hold back.  Perhaps this is because he deals primarily with spiritual novices, those just responding to God’s call for spiritual formation.  Too much, too fast, might actually push the importance of a particular activity rather than the Spirit in which the act is being cultivated.  He writes in the preface, “…it is easy to lose the main focus (the heart) and put all of the emphasis on the wrong thing (the activity itself).” (11)

The Good and Beautiful Community is a simple book about the apprenticeship of Jesus in spiritual formation.  It is a good book, well written and highly practical.  Smith has a curriculum that can be applied by youth groups, intentional communities or biblical scholars.  He addresses a crucial pursuit within spiritual formation – the community.  Despite all this, however, I question the need for this book.  Smith’s mentors, Foster and Willard have both written substantially on these topics.  Their books are not dated.  That stated, The Apprentice Series books are best suited for a narrowly defined audience, Christian university students.  Smith knows this population well and writes to them well, and his books are applicable to this audience.

All in all, The Good and Beautiful Community along with the other two books in The Apprentice Series are fine books and truly emphasize the Renovaré ethos.  They present a standard and practical curriculum on timeless themes within spiritual formation.  Most importantly this third and anchor book, in its subtitle alone, adds a positive voice for following the spirit, extending grace and demonstrating love.

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior

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