This post is an introduction to a bit of conversation we’ll be having with James K.A. Smith. Jamie’s work has had a substantial impact on my thinking. I appreciate how he finds consilience between aspects of postmodern thought and Christian theology, and his two books on Reformed theology and Radical Orthodoxy (here and here) are very helpful. I’ve also enjoyed many of his commentaries and thought pieces in popular publications such as Christianity Today.
The occasion for this conversation is the introductory essay to Jamie’s book The Devil Reads Derrida, “The Church, Christian Scholars, and Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a wonderful discussion of the tensions inherent in being a Christian scholar, particularly for those of us in the evangelical tradition. His vehicle for exploring those tensions is Frank Ginsberg, a character played by Steve Carrell in the movie Little Miss Sunshine. Frank is the self-described “preeminent Proust scholar in the United States,” yet he becomes embedded in the shenanigans of his sister’s low-brow family on their way to a tacky child beauty pageant. Along the way, Frank learns to take himself a little less seriously, and even to love his sister’s family, without losing — in fact, while enhancing — the fullness of his life as a scholar, family member, and human being.
So often, those of us who attempt to labor at serious scholarship, and who feel called to this work as our Christian vocation, feel like Frank at the beginning of Little Miss Sunshine. As Smith notes in the essay, “I’ll be the first to admit that I am often exasperated, frustrated, and embarrassed by my own faith community — that there are days when I can’t stomach being described as an ‘evangelical’ because of the guilt by association.” Yet, he goes on to say
if [the evangelical community has] bought the paradigms sold to them by voices on Christian radio that I think are problematic, then the burden is on me to show them otherwise. My responsibility is not to condescendingly look down upon them from my cushy ivory tower, but to take time to get out of the tower and speak to them — and, please note, learn from them. Christian scholars would do well to be slow to speak and quick to listen.
There are so many things like this that I find helpful about this essay. If you’re interested in the vocation of Christian scholarship, or if you’re a pastor or church leader trying to figure out where a scholarly-minded congregant is coming from, I’d urge you to chew it over.
In our next couple of posts in this series, well talk with a bit with Jamie Smith about the vocation of Christian scholarship and the roles of Christian scholars in the Church.