The Apprentice Series is a collection authored by James Bryan Smith and published by InterVarsity Press. There are three titles in the series: The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community. This last title was just released. According to IVP, “The series is designed to guide readers in an apprenticeship with Jesus recognizing that we follow Jesus to become like Jesus.”
On the Series website the vision is summarized under four components of change.
“The Apprentice Series is based on a simple structure for producing change.. The first “element” is actually the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit that enlivens all our efforts to follow Christ—including the other three components of transformation.
“The second area where change can happen is in transforming our narratives. Narratives are the stories we live by that give our life purpose and explanation. Often our narratives are at work in our lives without our knowing it. We have narratives about God, our self, others and so forth. Many of us have narratives about God that do not match the narratives that Jesus revealed. We cannot change our behavior until we change the narratives that guide us.
“One way to change our narratives is to engage in soul-training exercises, which makes up the third component of transformation. Each chapter includes a practice that helps the reader open to the Holy Spirit and begin replacing false narratives with the true narratives of Jesus. The exercises are often simple and usually counter-cultural. For example, the first exercise of The Good and Beautiful God is sleep, because when we sleep we are relinquishing our perceived control of life and inviting God to be God.
“The fourth and final component of transformation is community. We cannot change on our own, we need other people on the journey with us to encourage and challenge us.”
And of course, this fourth area is the focus of the third and final book.
Back in January, Paul Hill reviewed the second volume on Next-Wave. He wrote, “Smith’s combination of basic theology and doable “soul training” sets the stage for something significant. For example, take three of his exercises: sleep, margin and slowing down. Clearly, what Smith is advocating here is not another “program” of dos and dont’s but an actual overhaul of life; an overhaul producing nothing of itself. Instead, his “soul training exercises” create space for growth. They create space for the Spirit of God to do the work of re-creation, renovating the heart, the soul and one’s entire life.”
The nine chapters in the second book read like this, each with a subtitle built around “soul training” practices. The nine are:
* Soul Training: Sleep
* Soul Training: Silence and awareness of creation
* Soul Training: Counting your blessings
* Soul Training: Praying Psalm 23
* Soul Training: Lectio Divina
* Soul Training: Margin
* Soul Training: Reading the Gospel of John
* Soul Training: Solitude
* Soul Training: Slowing down
It was in the second book that Smith laid out the four components of change: the mind, disciplines, community and the Holy Spirit. But he recognized that the dominant content of the mind is found in stories: narratives that make up the content and texture of our personal histories. Smith wrote,
“The Spirit leads us to Jesus, reveals the Father, exposes falsehood, offers correction, and gives us the needed encouragement that make growth and transformation possible. The Spirit helps us change our narratives by leading us into truth, enlightens us as we practice the disciplines, and binds us together in community. If not for the work of the Holy Spirit, transformation simply will not take place. But we must participate in this process. By serious reading and reflection, by practicing the spiritual exercises and by entering into community, we create the condition in which the Spirit can transform our character.”
He offers this diagram to represent the relationship of these four components:
Personally, I think that substituting “Personal Narratives” in this place that is usually occupied by “Mind” is helpful. The rising generation connect with the “story” idea and they live in a world that is constructivist in nature. There are also echoes here of Charles Taylor’s “Social imaginary,” a much more integrative category than “worldview” (if you listen to the other Smith).
A “social imaginary” operates below the level of cognition. It assumes that we are embodied, and that our vision of the world is itself embodied in images, stories and legends: held as much in our heart as in our head. In Desiring the Kingdom James K.A. Smith agrees with Taylor that our focus on theory for understanding culture has been unhelpful, “ we must shift to the understanding that is embedded in practices.”
So – the contents of this third in the series?
1 The Peculiar Community
Soul Training: Two-by-Four
2 The Hopeful Community
Soul Training: Sharing Your Faith
3 The Serving Community
Soul Training: Treasuring Our Treasures
4 The Christ-Centered Community
Soul Training: Loving Those We Disagree With
5 The Reconciling Community
Soul Training: Experiencing Reconciliation
6 The Encouraging Community
Soul Training: Finding an Accountability Friend
7 The Generous Community
Soul Training: Stewardship of Resources
8 The Worshiping Community
Soul Training: Worship
9 Writing a Soul-Training Plan
Appendix: Small Group Discussion Guide
“Two by four” – two points, four practices. First, Christians are peculiar. Second, we get our peculiarity because we follow a Christ who rules an upside-down kingdom. Two by four. Smith asks readers to spend two hours with God in the first week of their reading. He offers a range of practical ways to do this for a variety of personality and learning styles. Then he asks for four peculiar practices: these are generally counter-cultural acts that run against the grain of self and culture. These practices help us get self out of the center to make space for God.
The way Smith has structured the book makes the practices accessible. For example chapter 2, “The Hopeful Community,” is sixteen pages in length. Then “Sharing your faith,” the practice attached to hope, is about five pages long. This rhythm repeats for each chapter: first teaching and a biblical frame and stories, then practice.
In the second chapter Smith writes about hope. “N. T. Wright says that ‘a mission-shaped church must have its mission shaped by hope; that the genuine Christian hope, rooted in Jesus’ resurrection, is the hope for God’s renewal of all things, for his overcoming of corruption, decay, and death, for his filling of the whole cosmos with his love and grace, his power and glory.’ Roots in the future, roots in the resurrection, roots in the eternal victory of Jesus, roots that are firmly planted in eternal life, roots that nourish the trunk and branches, and ultimately produce the fruit that draws others into the story. Wright concludes, ‘To be truly effective in this kind of mission, one must be genuinely and cheerfully rooted in God’s renewal.’ We have a real reason to cheer. The more we know the story, the more we rejoice.’” (48)
There is a second rhythm anchored in each chapter, and it is “false narrative” then “true narrative.” In the third chapter, for example, the false narrative identified is, “our needs matter the most.” The true narrative offered in its place is “others needs matter the most.” Smith then goes on to describe “the other-centered community.” Jesus example is our example, not merely to imitate him or to earn his favor, but because serving others is the highest way to live. Smith echoes some of Nouwen’s thought here when he writes that if we live in fear we protect ourselves and our things, but when we live in the kingdom of love and grace we “consider others better than ourselves” and look to their interests (Philippians 2). Smith relates a story from a conference with Dallas Willard. When Dallas got up to speak he suddenly announced that he was going to share the single most important task of a Christian, especially for leaders (the pregnant pause)… “to pray for the success of neighbouring churches.” The macro tasks are no different than the small, personal ones, and often set the tone.
I’ll summarize the following chapters by virtue of the false and true narratives.
4 The Christ-Centered Community
False narrative – If we disagree, we must divide
True narrative – Christ followers remain unified. We are one cup, one loaf, one body
5 The Reconciling Community
False narrative – only when we forgive will we be forgiven and healed
True narrative – knowing we are forgiven leads to healing and forgiveness
6 The Encouraging Community
False narrative – The community serves my needs
True narrative – The community shapes my life
This section caught my attention because it is the first place where Smith begins to hint at the importance of a structure and rhythms that move us from our personal and private center toward something larger. On page 128 he writes,
“When we hear the terms rule of life or covenants we often write them off as unnecessary and legalistic. This is because of a false and pervasive narrative: The community exists to serve me and my needs. The community should not tell me what to do — that is up to me.” Smith talks about our consumer culture, an analysis we know.. and experience.. in our daily living. Then he moves on to relate the “true narrative,” echoing these words from John Thompson that connect our personal narrative with God’s story.
Saints cannot exist without a community, as they require, like all of us, nurturance by a people who, while often unfaithful, preserve the habits necessary to learn the story of God. The Ecclesiology of Stanley Hauerwas, John Thompson
And similarly, Rowan Williams writes, ““St. Benedict’s Rule .. puts a few questions to us… one of our problems is that we don’t know where to find the stable relations that would allow us room to grow without fear. The Church .. ought to embody not only covenant with God but covenant with each other – a community where people have unlimited time to grow with each other…”
Smith continues, “The good and beautiful community is not made of merely comfortable Christians but Christlike men and women growing in their life with God and each other. In order to become that kind of community we need a new narrative, a biblical narrative, to reshape our behavior. Here is the true narrative regarding the rights and responsibility of the community: the community exists to shape and guide my soul. The community has a right to expect certain behaviors from me, and can provide the encouragement and accountability I need. From the beginning, the ecclesia of Jesus has practiced soul shaping through man means: corporate worship, the breaking of bread, the teaching of the apostles, corporate fasting and holding each other accountable to godly living.” (129)
Smith moves from here to talk about the paradox of our holy brokenness. Then a bit later (138-139) he contrasts two different churchmen: Whitefield and Wesley. Both moved outside the walls of the fortress on mission. Both saw thousands of conversions. But one built structures to contain the wine: Wesley and his societies and classes. Whitefield did not worry about such things. The Methodist movement endured and transformed society. The revival movement of Whitefield had little lasting impact. In all of this I am thinking about missional orders. The soul-shaping section for this chapter should have been longer: but then, Smith is going to take this up again in chapter nine with a stronger focus.
7 The Generous Community
Three false narratives
* God helps those who help themselves
* if I give it away, I have less
* what I have is mine for my own pleasure
* God helps those who cannot help themselves
* if we all share, we all have enough
* what I have is God’s, to use for his glory
8 The Worshipping Community
False narrative – Worship is a personal matter designed to inspire the individual
True narrative – Worship is a communal activity meant to form a people
9 Writing a soul training plan
This final chapter is different than those that have preceded. Smith begins by saying the end is just the beginning. Then he recommends a final exercise. He argues that two things are really helpful when working at change: a strategy, and a community to support us. Yet many believers miss on both points. Why? Because of false narratives that inhibit us, in this case two of them: 1. I don’t need a plan, and 2. I can do it on my own. His answer to the first narrative is classic: fail to plan, and you plan to fail. Nothing – especially spiritual growth – goes far without a plan.
As to the second narrative, we are not designed to go it on our own. The Christian life is designed to be lived out in community. This is at least one of the core meanings of “Body of Christ.”
Next Smith refers again to a rule. “The idea of a rule comes from the Latin word regula,” and as we know both Augustine and Benedict wrote a rule. Moreover, the Methodist movement built on the wisdom of the Fathers in this. On the Northumbria website, Andy Raine writes:
A Rule then is a means whereby, under God, we take responsibility for the pattern of our spiritual lives. It is a ‘measure’ rather than a ‘law’. The word ‘rule’ has bad connotations for many, implying restrictions, limitations and legalistic attitudes. But a Rule is essentially about freedom. It helps us to stay centred, bringing perspective and clarity to the way of life to which God has called us. The word derives from the Latin ‘regula’ which means ‘rhythm, regularity of pattern, a recognizable standard’ for the conduct of life. Esther De Waal has pointed out that ‘ regula’ ‘is a feminine noun which carried gentle connotations’ rather than the harsh negatives that we often associate with the phrase ‘rules and regulations’ today. We do not want to be legalistic. A Rule is an orderly way of existence but we embrace it as a way of life not as keeping a list of rules. It is a means to an end – and the end is that we might seek God with authenticity and live more effectively for Him.
Smith is not intent to prescribe a rule, but instead offers a guide to developing a personal rule. And this is where I’m puzzled. The entire tenor of the book has been communal practice, and now we shift to a personal rule? I think I understand the intention here, but it seemed strange to me that the first steps are toward a personal rule and then the hope that an individual will seek to covenant with others for their personal practice. Only secondly does Smith suggest (page 198) that a group could consider developing a shared rule. I argue that because of the increasing fragmentation in our culture, and the pace, we need to first covenant to a shared journey and then form a common practice. I’m not convinced that we will stick to a set of practices unless we first form covenant communities. And even to choose from a smorgasbord of practices is fragmenting unless we begin with a covenant.
This is one of the reasons that my Fieldbook moves toward, integrates, and encourages a shared covenant. The parallels between Smith’s work in this third book and my own book are quite strong, with this single difference.
Smith closes with some suggestions on self-monitoring using an Examen practice, and then the book itself closes with a chapter by chapter study guide for groups – 28 pages in all. The guide is written by Matthew Johnson and Christopher Fox and looks to be carefully designed.
See also The Apprentice Series
I created a summary sheet based on The Good and Beautiful Life, using Smith’s 4 parts diagram and some material from Dallas Willard. It is designed to be printed on two sides of a single sheet. Link to Resource PDF