“‘What do we do now?’ This might be the first question of discipleship. It is the question asked by the disciples at the foot of the cross: The Messiah is dead. What do we do now?” So begins James K.A. Smith in his new book, Discipleship in the Present Tense.
It is also one of the questions Smith aims to answer in this collection of 24 essays, brought together as scholarship for practice, Christian scholarship for the church.
It is what Smith describes as “outreach scholarship.” “This kind of writing is responsive,” he said. “I believe a Christian scholar can be called on to help the body of Christ think through contemporary issues, some of which they didn’t even know were coming down the pike.”
The second question “What time is it?” is a necessary prelude to the discipleship question, according to Smith. “To follow Jesus today—and to be the body of Christ today—cannot be reduced to simply parroting what we’ve said and done in the past,” he wrote. “We inhabit a different time.”
Smith believes there has to be something contemporary about Christian thinking that includes a gratefulness to the wisdom of tradition.
“The Bible doesn’t talk about genetic testing or evolution or the debt ceiling,” said Smith. “What I’m trying to do is think biblically in the contemporary moment. What does faithful Christian thinking and living look like given the contemporary state?”
In this regard Smith considers the intersection of faith and culture, historic Christian tradition and the pressing challenges of the present, church and academy, and faith and doubt.
The focus of the essays spans from parenting, poetry and pedagogy to painting and praise bands. In “A Letter to Young Parents,” he gives practical advice in reminding parents to call upon the church for help in raising their child, as was promised at their baptism. “To become a parent is to promise you’ll love prodigals,” he writes. But there will also be a moment when “you can hardly believe that the little bundle you brought home from the hospital has grown into this beautiful, mystifying, wonderful young man.”
He also tackles deeper topics like redemption, the Reformed tradition and universalism. In “Redemption,” Smith defines the word by describing what it looks, smells, sounds and even tastes like to see all of creation renewed: “It looks like the bodily poetry of Rafael Nadal and the boyish grin of Brett Favre on a good night; it sounds like the amorous giggles of Julia and Paul Child and smells like her kitchen; it reverberates like the deep anthems of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello; it feels like the trembling meter of Auden’s poetry or the spry delight of Updike’s verse; it looks like the compassionate care of Paul Farmer and Mother Theresa.”
Like these excerpts suggest, the book is accessible to Christians who want to find answers to the questions Smith poses. “There’s such a mix of things in the book, it should pique the interest of a variety of audiences,” he said. The pieces are reprinted as the original appeared in publications meant for layreaders. “It’s James K.A. Smith without the footnotes,” he added.
All of the pieces, though, are meant to be reflections and not the last word. “This book is not ‘Here’s what you should think,’” said Smith. “It is ‘Here’s how you should think about these contemporary topics.’”
Smith believes bringing the pieces together helps shine light on different perspectives within the essays. He also thinks the book helps fill a void in the area of Christianity and culture. “There’s a bit of a vacuum of really thoughtful Christian materials on these kinds of issues,” he said. “It’s surprising if you walk into a typical Christian bookstore, you have a hard time finding nuanced material on contemporary culture. One of the reasons I write about it is to speak into that vacuum a little bit.”