Tag Archives: James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith: ‘We were created for stories’

Two of the most-clicked posts on this blog have been Paul Holmer: How literature functions and Umberto Eco on theory and narrative. The common theme between the two might be that storytelling is not only necessary, but also of greater value than systematized and abstracted knowledge. Granted, the structure of Eco’s quotation seems to give priority to theorizing, but Holmer argues that humans learn more broadly and deeply from stories than from abstract or systematic knowledge.

So a quotation from James K.A. Smith’s book Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church,  found in this recent review, was a welcome addition to the theme:

“We were created for stories, not propositions; for drama, not bullet points.”

In this context, it’s probably worth remembering that beloved storyteller C.S. Lewis warned against systematizing the Bible.

The core argument of ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks, according to James K.A. Smith

I think Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith indirectly makes an appeal for liturgy in his comments on New York Times columnist David Brooks’ book, The Social Animal:

“The core argument of The Social Animal–and the one that impinges on how we make policy and organize social institutions like schools–is that we are creatures of habit and we absorb fundamental, orienting habits through embodied but unconscious routines and rituals.”

The above is an excerpt from a letter Smith posted on his blog and sent to the New York Review of Books. Read the entire letter and post here.

Fors Clavigera: The Medium is the Message; James K.A. Smith on worship

Philosopher James K.A. Smith writes,

In giving talks around the country about Desiring the Kingdom, one of the themes I regularly press is the refusal of any form/content distinction when it comes to Christian worship. This is central to my argument: when I claim that Christian worship forms and orients our loves, it’s not just any old version of Christian worship that does this. Indeed, much of what evangelicals think of when they think of “worship” (=music) does not have the potential to be formative in this way. What we need is Christian worship that embodies the unique logic of the Gospel, practicing and enacting the specificity of the Christian narrative. This is why, over time, the church, led by the Spirit, has communally discerned a certain given “shape” for core elements of Christian worship (which can then be “indigenized” in different ways in different contexts at different times). 

‘The Gospel is not a “content” that can be distilled and just dropped into any old “form” that seems hip or relevant or attractive. You can’t distill Jesus from Christian worship and then just drop him into the mall or the coffee shop or the concert: while you might think you’re “Jesu-fying” this medium, in fact you just end up commodifying Jesus.’

From there, Smith gets into some interesting reflections on media theorist Marshall McLuhan, a convert to Roman Catholicism known for his saying, “the medium is the message.” Read more here:  Fors Clavigera: The Medium is the Message.

Christianity’s tension between ideas & practices; Ken Myers & James K.A. Smith talk it out

I loved the way Francis Schaeffer engaged ideas. However, ideas can be overemphasized, both in apologetics and church life.

What follows are excerpts from a conversation between Mars Hill Audio Journal‘s Ken Myers and Calvin College philosopher James K.A. Smith.

MYERS: The concern that I had — and I had this concern with Schaeffer — is that, Schaeffer makes it sound like all of Western history is a kind of excretion of practices which were purely based on ideas, rather than a complicated intermix between ideas, and economic and technical developments — and particularly economic developments. Well, anyway, this is taking us …

SMITH: Well, it’s interesting … I find this conversation about the relationship between practice and ideas really important, and I find it important for the church … that dialectic between practice and reflection is exactly the process of sanctification.

MYERS: Exactly … We participate in practices before we know what we are going to learn from them.

SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

MYERS: We don’t participate in practices because we’ve learned all the things they represent, and now having signed the contract that we agree with all these things, we’re going to now do them.

(From Mars Hill Audio Journal, Volume 82)

This reminds me of a quotation by another contemporary Christian philosopher, Linda Zagzebski, from a personal essay she wrote for the book Philosophers Who Believe:

“The natural order of religious belief is not usually to form propositional beliefs first and only later to engage in the faith life of a community. If we disengaged ourselves from the practice of faith in order to ‘find out’ if it is justified, there is very little chance that we will ever find out.”

I think these things can, in part, point to the value of liturgical worship. Participation in liturgy is a kind of externalized practice that can work in conjunction with ideas to develop a whole person.

Plato and Plotinus in contemporary theology and philosophy

Nerd that I am, I recently posted a question at the University of Sheffield’s website Ask A Philosopher.

I’m a nerd, but with context. My scattered reading habits have recently included the book Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition (2005), in which Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote a chapter entitled “Will the Real Plato Please Stand Up?” The chapter reflected the importance of Plato in contemporary theology and in philosophical discussions within some Christian circles. The chapter began with a pro-Plato quotation from John Calvin.

So I was curious if Plato and Plotinus (founder of neo-Platonism; two interesting quotations here) have much traction in broader swaths of academic philosophy today. What follows is the question I posted to Ask A Philosopher and David Robjant’s answer, for which I am very grateful.

Who are some of the contemporary philosophers who generally accept Plato’s metaphysics? Who are some who generally accept neoPlatonic metaphysics? Are these philosophers in the minority today?

Not that they mightn’t exist, but I can’t think of any contemporary followers of Plotinus within academic philosophy – assuming that is what you might mean by ‘neoplatonic’. I’ve a feeling – and it is no more – that I’ve heard of Plotinus’ One being taken seriously by the occasional theologian.

Plato, on the other hand has had atleast one rather illustrious minority follower who, if not contemporary, is at anyrate deeply engaged with the giants of the contemporary scene and very recent: Iris Murdoch.

I should add, however, that it is not universally agreed what ‘Plato’s Metaphysics’ amount to, and if you want to know what Murdoch agrees with, you will have to read Murdoch. You will get very little idea of what Murdoch is for by reading any of the widely cited commentaries on The Republic.

My own opinion is that Murdoch is right about Plato, so that if one understood Plato aright, one would understand him as Murdoch does, rather than as do Ryle, Popper, Vlastos, Annas, etc. As I see it, it is a tremendous help to Murdoch’s discovery of Plato’s good sense that she is actually looking for it.

We tend to distinguish Plato scholarship from mere Platon*ism*, as if distinguishing the professional from the mere amateur. My sense however is (and this is an important thought backed up in Murdoch by a great deal of influential argument concerning Mother in Laws and the Ontological Argument) that to understand someone aright it may be necessary to attend to them with love.

David Robjant


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