My own reflection on this important piece by Alan Jacobs:
For many years, I’ve tried to address the problem through teaching the Bible and theology. I still do so, but I am now convinced that though biblical/theological illiteracy is still a big problem with so-called evangelicals, historical ignorance is equally eating our lunch.
Bruce’s knowledge of the Bible was prodigious. Those who knew him well believed that he had the whole Bible, in the original languages and in several translations, committed to memory.
When he was asked a question about the Bible, he did not have to look up the text. He would sometimes take off his glasses, close his eyes as if he were scrolling the text in his mind and then comment in such an exact manner that one knew he was referring to the Hebrew or Greek text, which he either translated or paraphrased in his answer.
If he were in an academic context, the reference might be directly to the original language; in speaking to students who were not necessarily theologians, he would normally use a contemporary translation; in church he would use the appropriate translation familiar to the majority of his hearers, whether the Revised Standard Version, the New International Version, the New English Bible, the King James Version or in conservative Brethren circles, the New Translation by John Nelson Darby, again normally quoting exactly from memory.
He also seemed to know all the hymns of the classical and evangelical Christian traditions by heart as well as a large body of secular poetry–English, Scottish, Greek and Latin. (239)
Most Christians, even if they read on a regular basis, will pretty much choose books that help them live the Christian life. Books extolling “how to” live the Christian life dominate the landscape of bookstores because that is what the market wants.
There is nothing wrong per se with giving practical suggestions for how to live the Christian life. In his terrific introduction to Puritan theology, J. I. Packer underscores how Puritan preachers gave many applications in their sermons.
Applying the truths of Scripture is critical to being a Christian who is growing. James 1:22-25 makes this crystal clear:
But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror;for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was. But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.
The problem occurs when one’s reading is all about application. It is a problem, among other reasons, because we simply assume the author holds to a biblical framework. Sure the author may cite verses here and there, but are they handling Scripture responsibly? It takes biblical and theological discernment to determine whether that is the case.
What are the theological assumptions that the author holds? Those assumptions will inform how the author reads Scripture, and then makes his case for believers to apply his suggestions.
I am always on the lookout for thoughtful introductory books that help Christians think more carefully about their faith.
Gerald McDermott’s The Great Theologians: a Brief Guide is such a book. It covers eleven, perhaps the top eleven, most consequential theologians. The chapters are short, but meaty. The chapters are meaty, but accessible.
If you want to know more about the thinkers that are behind the “practical” books you are reading, McDermott’s book is recommended with gusto!
I’ve now read five of Smith’s books. From time to time, I also read his essays. He is a gifted wordsmith.
Since I’ve written elsewhere (see link below) about my main concern over what Smith has to say about liturgy, let me add that Imagining the Kingdom has many brilliant insights. And ones I largely agree with.
Smith does a better job clarifying his thesis in this book than he did in Desiring the Kingdom. I remain disappointed that he does not address the formative role that mindfully engaged (mindfully is crucial here) meditation on Scripture has for spiritual health.