Here’s the first part of our conversation with James K.A. Smith about Christian scholarship.
Dave: As I’ve read some of your work, I see some similarities in our backgrounds: Plymouth Brethren upbringing, small Christian college, efforts to develop a more generous and rigorous perspective while retaining the core vitality of that simple faith. I’ve seen a similar pattern in some other Christian scholars, thinkers and provocateurs whose work I appreciate. I wonder if you could describe a bit of how you became “called” to the vocation of Christian scholarship?
Jamie: It’s a bit of a convoluted path, but I think there’s an underlying thread of continuity. I should say that I was not raised in the church. I was converted to the Christian faith when I was 18, through my then girlfriend’s (now wife’s) family who were Plymouth Brethren. So my welcome into the church was through one of its most sectarian portals. As you know, a Plymouth Brethren assembly can be a pretty intense immersion in Scripture, and I was quite intentionally discipled by Deanna’s uncle and father. Within a year, I had abandoned my longstanding plans to be an architect and was on my way to Emmaus Bible College, a Plymouth Brethren school in Iowa.
My sense was that I was called to be a “teacher”–but when I left for Iowa, I could only imagine that as a “pastor-teacher.” In short, I thought I was called to be a preacher (my wife thinks I still am!). But in the course of my studies, I discovered systematic theology. More specifically, I discovered the Reformed tradition–though at that point, this was the tradition of “Old Princeton.” I read W.G.T. Shedd’s Dogmatic Theology with hungry awe. And I started to get an inkling that maybe my vocation of “teaching” could look different, along an “academic” track. (I should note that I also started preaching when I was 19, and those opportunities as a ‘circuit rider’ in southern Ontario provided lots of feedback which seemed to confirm that I might have gifts in this direction.)
I suppose the turning point came when I finished my degree in pastoral theology. At that point, I received a call from an assembly to join them as associate pastor (well, they were Brethren, so they didn’t use that term!). But at the same time, I was contemplating graduate school. I went through a couple of weeks of internal struggle about that decision. But eventually I felt God had confirmed my calling to a more academic vocation, and I felt peace about that decision. But I suppose I still think of being scholar as basically a way of being a “teacher.”
Dave: In your “Little Miss Sunshine” essay, you address what I’d call the “relational” aspects of Christian scholars vis-a-vis the local church. In my experience, those relational issues can present some difficult emotional tensions — times of feeling isolated, worries that you’ve “gone too far,” confusion and even anger from the people you hope your perspectives will serve, and direct opposition from popular leaders and teachers who don’t undersand you or your work. I’m curious how you navigate those tensions, and what advice you’d have for other Christian scholars and thinkers about this aspect of the scholar-church relationship?
Jamie: Great question. It has not always been rosy. Indeed, in the Plymouth Brethren, young people were encouraged to pursue all sorts of education except theological education, which was seen as inherently corrupting. (I can still remember a “prophecy” teacher who used to make the rounds. His self-published book proudly displayed “Ph.D.” after his name on the cover, despite the fact that his doctorate was in chemical engineering!) When I began my graduate studies, I continued preaching in a number of Brethren assemblies. One by one, I was called before boards of elders who were concerned about my orthodoxy. I can still remember a gang of them showing up at our house, and my wife having to endure seeing me subject to their inquisition–after which I was banned from preaching there. Eventually, this sort of exclusion became a reality at my “home” assembly. (The tipping point was a sermon I preached entitled “Trivial Pursuits: Or, Things That Bother Us that Don’t Bother Jesus.” I basically suggested that maybe the pre-trib rapture and women’s headcoverings were not the most important aspects of Christian faith. That was enough, I guess.)
I also have some letters in my files from my former Bible college professors in which they describe me as a “student of Judas Iscariot.” Every once in a while when I need a reality check, I pull those out. (I could be a lot more bitter than I am, don’t you think?
Of course, the tension here is not all “their” fault. It was undoubtedly the case that in my mid to late twenties, I was an arrogant prick at times (if you’ll excuse my French). The Apostle Paul, that insightful psychologist, was acquainted firsthand, I think, with the ways that “knowledge puffs up.” In some ways, I just had to grow up.
But I would encourage emerging scholars in the church to keep a couple of things in mind: First, if you are called to be a Christian scholar, then you are in some way called to serve these brothers and sisters. Not everyone has the opportunity to develop the expertise that you’re developing, and so you can’t possibly expect them to know what you know. But you’ve been gifted with the opportunity which means that you need to be a steward of that opportunity. Second, being a scholar means developing expertise in a particular field. But that certainly doesn’t mean that we know everything (we just act like that!). The fact is, there is wisdom in our congregations which we might never possess. Let me give you just one example: While I might have arcane knowledge of French philosophy, that certainly doesn’t make me an expert father. In fact, in my congregation will be assembly line workers who’ve never attended college but in fact have deep wells of wisdom about parenting. If I want to make myself available to teach my brothers and sisters, I also have to be teachable. I need to sincerely trust and believe that the Spirit has distributed gifts throughout the body and that I’ll be a student more often than I’m a teacher.