Review: A Good & Beautiful God
by James Bryan Smith
Let’s be real clear at the outset. My three stars out of five are not for our good and beautiful God. It’s for the book called “The Good and Beautiful God” by author James Bryan Smith. King Solomon, at the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, prayed, “But will God really live on earth? Why, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8.27) Even so, no book can contain His wonders. Perhaps the author should have acknowledged that in the beginning of his attempt.
The book is the first is a three-part series that seeks to be a resource for those wanting to grow in their Christian faith. The Good and Beautiful God attempts to introduce the reader to the “God Jesus knows.”
Upon learning that the author was discipled by Dallas Willard, who has contributed the excellent resource for discipleship called The Spirit of the Disciplines, I was anxious to begin using Smith’s books in my own discipling relationships.
This past 6 months, I’ve met with seven different guys, taking each of them through the book. In addition, I’ve led our church to use the book in its one-on-one discipling relationships. All in all, we’ve had about 25 people using the resource as a tool to encourage one another in our love and service to Jesus Christ.
I think that may place me in a unique position to offer this review. I’ve not just read it. I’ve used it. Often. And I’ve led others to use it as well.
Here are a summation of my thoughts on the resource:
1. No resource is going to be perfect. It’s not about finding the perfect resource to use in a discipling relationship. It’s about doing discipleship. Find a resource, use it.
2.AGBG has some strong points. Here are a few:
For starters, it offers some much-needed perspective in our “Type A” culture about performance-based religion. It urges the Christ follower to depend upon God’s love alone for acceptance, approval and strength.
The first chapter called What Are You Seeking? gives the reader a wise perspective on transformation that helps one grasp the relationship between God’s Word, our own practices in relationship to it and the importance of practicing the Christian life in community with others.
The three strongest chapters are God Is Holy, God Transforms, and How to Make a Pickle.
He has “soul training exercises” at the end of each chapter that are extremely valuable spiritual disciplines for a Christ follower of any maturity level.
3. It has some weak points. The following are a few:
I didn’t notice the perspective until one of the guys I met with pointed it out. However, it’s there. Couched within nearly every chapter are consistent negative references to and examples of pastors. Since I’m a pastor, I was surprised I didn’t catch it. However, it reads at times as a hidden diatribe against pastors because of these references. The only positive reference is a one-sentence mention of the Smith’s own pastor being his friend. I doubt that the author even realized the significance of this, but after having it brought to my attention, it was interesting to note the consistency of negativity throughout.
Another weakness is the author’s unequivocal statements throughout the book that cannot be supported scripturally. Here are three particularly concerning ones:
“The belief that God punishes and blesses us for our actions is not only superstitious, but there is no evidence to support it.” Is Smith reading the same Bible (both Old and New Testaments) that I’m reading? “There is only thing that separates us from God, and it is not our sin. It is our self-righteousness.” He provides no scriptural context for this amazing statement that flies in the face of a mass of scriptural testimony to the contrary. “God is never described by Paul as being angry. Anger is a human emotion.” These statements are in the middle of a wonderful description of how God’s wrath is actually an expression of His holiness. However, even if Paul doesn’t describe God as “being angry,” there is a wealth of other scriptures that do seem to demonstrate His anger. It may be that author’s definition of anger needs to be rethought.
4. As with any resource, it should be read with discernment, always being compared to the teachings of Scripture.
Smith’s initial installment in his series of three is recommendable. It’s not inspiring. I don’t know that it’s meant to be. However, it has some very bright spots. All the same, I would not recommend it to be read by a new Christian without the benefit of discussion with a mature Christian.
We live in a culture where biblical illiteracy is high. I would not encourage the use of this book in isolation. It needs to be read in the context of a discipling relationship or small group to provide shared wisdom and feedback.
However, for the Christian discipler who is looking for a resource to use, this book is a good tool and discussion generator. I found that it’s extremely helpful to teach people to read a book such as this and compare its teachings to scripture. It helps develop critical thinking skills and a biblically-centered, maturing believer.