God in The Whirlwind: A Response to James K. A. Smith
Whether I agree with him or not–sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t–I’ve always found James K. A. Smith to be a provocative thinker. He’s sharp, creative, and not afraid to mix it up with all sorts of people. I like that. And I suppose he displayed all those characteristics in his recent CT review of David Wells’s new book, God in the Whirlwind.
Unfortunately, I think he doth protest too much.
In an overwhelmingly negative review in Christianity Today, Smith likens Wells to a harrumphing theological grandfather embarrassed by the 1960′s and pining for the good old days where the church was the church (daggummit!). Smith has no problem with the contention that “the holy-love of God reorients our world” (the book’s subtitle). Smith argues, however, that God in the Whirlwind is severely limited by two problems: a faulty analysis of our cultural situation and a faulty prescription for what ails us.
As to the first critique, Smith finds Wells’s insistence that “The shaping of our life is to come from Scripture and not from culture” to be a false dichotomy of the worst sort:
But isn’t Scripture itself the product of a culture (many cultures), and doesn’t the gospel invite us into the alternative culture of the body of Christ? Our goal is not a biblical viewpoint bereft of culture, but a cultural formation that’s biblically infused.
I find this criticism puzzling for several reasons. First, because I found this book to be much less focused on cultural critique than Wells’s earlier volumes (see p. 13-14). No doubt, many of the same themes are here that first gained traction in No Place for Truth, but on the whole I thought this was–in accordance with the author’s own design–a largely constructive book. Second, I wonder if Smith has missed what Wells is trying to say. I don’t find anything in Wells’s statement that contradicts Smith’s assertion that the Bible comes from a culture, can help us shape culture, and invites us into an alternative culture. In fact, one of the final sections in the last chapter is how the church should be a “counterculture” in the world–a common theme throughout Wells’ books.
Smith is also troubled by Wells’s emphasis on the objective versus the subjective. This would confuse Augustine, Smith argues, because Augustine was often probing his interior self in an effort to find truth. Just consider this famous section from Augustine’s Confessions:
Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you. And see, you were within me and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you.
Instead of using the old objective versus subjective dichotomy, Smith avers, we should follow Augustine’s lead and invite people to turn inward that they might see their emptiness and learn to feel the Creator calling them.
I can’t speak for Wells, but I doubt he would reject that sort of inward turn. What he objects to is plumbing the inward depths of our consciousness and expecting to find God in our own sense of self-worth and self-congratulation. He insists instead that “we must start with God himself if we are to learn about the nature of his love. We must start above, not below” (85). We can know God only as he has chosen to reveal himself, which is in the world of creation, more fully and more clearly, in the Word of God (both infleshed and inscripturated).
One last point: I doubt Augustine meant by the inward turn what Smith takes him to mean. Earlier in Chapter 10 of the Confessions, Augustine reflects on the nature of his memory and his knowledge of God.
Behold how great a territory I have explored in my memory seeking thee, O Lord! And in it all I have still not found thee. Nor have I found anything about thee, except what I had already retained in my memory from the time I learned of thee. For where I found Truth, there found I my God, who is the Truth. From the time I learned this I have not forgotten. And thus since the time I learned of thee, thou hast dwelt in my memory, and it is there that I find thee whenever I call thee to remembrance, and delight in thee.
Take this together with the “Late, have I loved thee” passage and it seems that Augustine is not finding God in his deeply plumbed self as much as he has found God in the memories he carries with him of the truth he once was taught.
Which brings me briefly to Smith’s second critique. He thinks Wells’s prescription for our cultural predicament is too cerebral, too didactic, too intellectual and the expense of the imagination. Anyone familiar with Smith’s book, Desiring the Kingdom, will see those earlier concerns surfacing in this review. And I think Smith is on to something: we are feeling, worshiping, embodied, liturgical creatures, not just thinking brains in a vat. Change doesn’t come just from a new framework of our ideas. We need new patterns, new desires, a new rhythm. But again, I’m not sure that God in the Whirlwind is opposed to all that. It’s a different book than Smith would have written. It doesn’t hit on his themes. But, then, Wells is hitting on a biblical theme. The world does press us into its mold, and we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). Knowing the truth is not an insignificant concern in Scripture.
And I read Wells’s prescription to be broader than that anyway. At the close of the second to last chapter he focuses on worship, and in the last chapter he focuses on service. In fact, the last sentence is an exhortation to be a faithful messenger of the gospel and a practitioner of godly service (242). I thought Wells hit on many of the “embodied” themes Smith appreciates.
In the end, my concern is not so much to rebut another review as to encourage readers that this is a book worth reading–precisely because it is so countercultural and it is so steeped in biblical truth. As Tim Keller put it in his endorsement, “Here we have a ‘practical theology’ for conducting the church’s life based on the reality of a God of ‘Holy-Love.’” That’s what I found in this book. Pick up the book for yourself and see what you find.