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James Bryan Smith: The Good & Beautiful God

The Good & Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows

By James Bryan Smith,
IVP Press, 2009, Hardcover
229 pages, $27.99 (Canada)

Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay


PARENTING has been rough lately, pushing me once again to shoulder my way through a maze of pain and discouragement. Does God love a failure at parenting? Is God really trustworthy? Does He want good for me? I have wrestled with these questions for many years, despite studies in theology and
long years in a lovely church. My head grasps the theology clearly enough most days, though it’s crucial I keep my nose in Scripture, especially the Psalms, John and Colossians. My heart is harder to keep convinced. Surely if I seem this unlovable to my family (those I love most), so I must be to God.

 In that mindset, I was drawn to James Bryan Smith’s newest book, The Good and Beautiful God. Having appreciated Smith’s earlier volume, Embracing the Love of God, I wondered if this one might shed new light, be more adept at convincing my stubborn soul. Written originally as a “curriculum for Christlikeness,” The Good and Beautiful God is a mixture of simplified theology, personal narrative, devotional literature, Christian therapy and lesson plans. This is a fairly simple how-to devotional
– a genre I normally dislike - but this is a good one. It’s an elaborate workbook, without the spaces to write in. Although intended for churches, particularly small groups and classes, Smith has adapted it to be easily used by individuals.

 The Good and Beautiful God is based on the premise that transformation of our understanding comes via four components: changing our personal narratives (those tapes we play in our heads); practicing soul-training exercises; participating intentionally in community; and inviting the work of the Holy Spirit. Smith is sure that if we genuinely grasp the God Jesus knows, not the imagined one, we will know in
new and deeper ways, how loved we truly are.

 Smith’s book takes us through eight chapters, each concentrating on a different attribute of God, and concluded by a corresponding soul-training exercise. The chapters articulate the narratives about Jesus, both true (i.e. carefully based in Scripture) and false (i.e. challenges in our lives that correlate to our sin).

 A few of the attributes Smith covers are God’s generosity, God’s trustworthiness and God’s goodness. With generosity, Smith tackles false messages such as, “God is good, you are bad, try harder.” On God’s trustworthiness he presses us to ask ourselves: “What is your ‘cup’?” And on God’s goodness, Smith confronts “punishments of God” misconceptions.

 Smith’s intention is that readers, through delving into the credibility of these attributes, will come to understand how God truly feels about them, and to internalize this truth so that transformation might take place.

 Structured to “help imbed the narratives of Jesus more deeply,” the exercises use things such as praying through a psalm for a week and including short periods of intentional solitude into a daily schedule. While it may sound simplistic, they can be remarkably life changing, especially when done in a small group context. Smith’s first exercise is getting enough sleep – something that endeared him to me

 James Bryan Smith is a professor of theology at Friends University in Kansas and a Methodist pastor. He was closely involved in founding Renovare, a Christian spiritual renewal ministry led by Richard Foster. Smith was privileged to have the mentorship not only of Foster but also of Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen and Brendan Manning. Their influences are easily seen.

 While the book has strong theological Methodist underpinnings, it is not a simplified textbook, and the Wesleyan tenets of grace are assumed but not excessive. The teaching on sin may be a little light, especially as it short-cuts the way to understanding both God’s love and our transformation, but is not
illogical or in opposition to Scripture.

 This volume fits nicely within a tradition of written works about God’s love for His people, a tradition that
includes Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis de Sales and Charles Wesley. While their work may be more complex and intentionally theological than Smith’s, his may be more appetizing to a post-modern world that prefers to chew their theology in bite-size chunks of practical and personal narrative. For pastors aware of people’s craving to be transformed into the likeness of Christ but lost as to how that happens, this book could be a useful tool.

 Truth be told, I think my own soul is ultimately more persuaded of God’s love for me through art – stories, music, poetry, paintings – than theology. Listening to the Messiah, following Aslan through Narnia, reading Herbert’s poems (which Smith employs in his book), run like water into my deep
cracks. But accompanied by Smith’s book, I think my soul could begin to establish the glorious message – even when days of parenting teenagers convey otherwise.

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