|A Review of
By James Bryan Smith
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Reviewed by Kevin Book-Satterlee.
Nails, wooden crossbeams, and a crown of thorns converge to symbolize the death of Jesus. Lent is a time of reflection upon accumulation of these symbols. Quite possibly best represented in a wall-mount crucifix or gleaming icon, the Protestant tradition often forgets this season and its purpose in reorienting towards the kingdom of God.
James Bryan Smith, cofounder of the Renovaré movement, has published a new booklet, The Kingdom and the Cross (InterVarsity Press), which serves as a timely Lenten reflection of Jesus’s death. Smith’s major recent publishing contributions have been the books of the Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press); The Kingdom and the Cross continues in the vein of reflective writing, characteristic of Smith’s works.
Smith likes to write for the experiential reader. He ends his chapters with “Soul Training” sections. In these sections he gives helpful exercises to experience the spiritual growth beyond just reading. They are important contributions to his overall work, but at the end of the introduction of The Kingdom and the Cross he counsels the reader, “if these [exercises] are hard for you to engage in, by all means do not do something that is uncomfortable.” (9) This disclaimer especially regards his use of icons and the discomfort that icons can produce for Protestants. His sentiment is good, but discipleship is difficult and the reader ought not let the discomfort of icons deter from pondering the kingdom.
The first two chapters provide brief reflections about the self-sacrificing nature of the Trinitarian God. The “Soul Training” section of Chapter 1 asks the reader to gaze upon Rublev’s Trinity icon. The printed image is muddled in the book, but the point is to capture the Trinitarian persons leaning in towards one another, representing mutual self-sacrifice within the Trinity. Chapter 2 builds upon the theme of the self-sacrificing God and calls the reader in the subsequent “Soul Training” section to mirror this self-sacrifice. Smith writes, “So, if our God is self-sacrificing and seeks to bless others who have done nothing to merit it, then we should be people who are self-sacrificing and who bless others who have not earned it.” (21)
For Smith, the first step of God’s self-sacrifice was from the lofty place in the Trinitarian community, to becoming Immanuel. Smith recounts the basic message of God with us, reminding the reader that God chose to experience and “sympathize with our weaknesses,” (25) sacrificing the celestial position for an “utterly ordinary life.” (26) Smith then calls the reader to ponder a second icon, Christ the Pantocrater, which he affectionately calls the “cheek-to-cheek” icon. (27) In this icon, Mary cuddles her child Jesus, embracing him cheek to cheek. God incarnate ushers the kingdom and “chose to become one of the most helpless creatures in the world.” (28)
Chapter 4 reflects on the meaning of Philippians 2:6-11, where Christ “emptied himself.” To visualize Jesus’s self-emptying Smith suggests watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ movie. In Chapter 5 Smith continues the self-emptying theme and pushes his focus to the cross. This chapter’s “Soul Training” experience looks at Michelangelo’s Pietá where Mary, who had previously nuzzled her baby’s cheek, now holds her lifeless adult son in her arms.
Smith takes a more theological position in his final chapter. He remains reflective, but engages atonement theory. He reflects upon the fishhook theory, where Christ is the bait on a line and Satan bites, thinking that the death of Christ means victory for evil, where, in fact, victory is Christ’s. Smith recounts Aslan’s death in The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, to illustrate this point. He does not espouse the fishhook theory as the best or only atonement theory, but discusses it because “most of the Christians I know have never heard of it.” (44) He wants the reader to see that the source of Christ’s sacrifice is love, likened to the “deeper magic” in C.S. Lewis’s novel.
Smith’s book reminds the reader of the self-sacrifice of God on the cross and the ushering of God’s kingdom. For Protestants who do not daily look upon a crucifix or an icon this book provides a solid reflection of the sacrifice God made through Jesus in the incarnation, the death and the resurrection. An appendix also makes this booklet great for a study group during Lent.
Reading this booklet is like popping into James Bryan Smith’s office after class for a weekly chat. He asks the questions, “What is the kingdom?” and “Why the cross?” and proceeds to mentor the reader through the answer. Simple, concise, reflective, this booklet takes the basic message of self-sacrifice as the principal spiritual attitude in reorienting towards the kingdom of God.