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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

"The Magnificent Story" (James Bryan Smith)

TITLE: The Magnificent Story: Uncovering a Gospel of Beauty, Goodness, and Truth (Apprentice Resources)
AUTHOR: James Bryan Smith
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2017, (192 pages).

The Bible has sometimes been referred to the Story of stories. It tells of a Big Story that we are all part of. Stories have a way of revealing life as they are without the need to explain every little detail. Stories are less about facts but more about life as they are. They could be dissected and analyzed but stories go beyond the dimensions of exegesis and analysis. They are pregnant with meaning and spiritual significance. For author James Bryan Smith, these stories are also opportunities for spiritual formation. According to Smith, there are four ways to use these stories individually. We can prepare a notebook with empty pages to be ready to answer questions. We can read each chapter thoroughly to let the content seep into our hearts. We can do the weekly soul training exercises. We can journal our reflections on the notebook. He encourages us to use the content to interact, to encourage, and to connect with others to make the writing of our own stories as part of our communities. We cannot do this on our own. The best way forward is to be formed into the likeness of Christ, which is what the magnificent story is all about. This magnificence is described in three ways. It is beauty magnified; goodness magnified; and truth magnified. These are the "three transcendentals" to help us live out the divine story of our lives.

After showing us the high bar of spirituality, he then exposes the low bar of sin. Our fallen nature has rendered us falling for stories that are smaller than the real one. False stories such as the works-based gospel which reduce us to religious people focused merely on doing good works; the shame-blame gospel that scares us into submission; and all of these false gospels. These are not the stories we ought to build ourselves upon. They are false narratives or "shrunken stories." We need to anchor our stories on the Trinity and to see the three transcendentals are asserted together, yet are different. These have elements of participation and community. He points out the problems of false narratives again for anyone rejecting the Trinity. Throughout the book, these three transcendentals stand out as the author probes:

  • Is it beauty?
  • Is it good?
  • Is it true?

This book is important for three reasons. First, it helps us see our identities as being part of a bigger story. Our personal stories cannot be isolated from the bigger story. I am often curious about the word 'history.' It seems like a merging of two words: 'his' and 'story.' It is thus important that part of our own story could be traced back to our history and our background contexts. Second, it does not settle for false narratives. It insists we affirm all three transcendentals as much as we affirm God as Trinity. In fact, ancient heresies often deny the Trinity in some way. There is no laziness allowed for spiritual formation. One needs to embark on the soul training to learn to see the three perspectives of the magnificent story, and to see them as one unifying whole. The exercises in each chapter facilitates our progress in this area. Finally, it leads us forward to cultivating our relationship with Christ. This is beyond words or instructions only but is beneficial when we actually put the exercises to the test, to put ourselves to the demands of spiritual formation. There is the use of our five senses  of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste to bring together the three transcendentals. Our eyes train to see Jesus's smile in the light of earthly beauty. Our ears learn to listen out for sounds of beauty amid the noises around us. We let smells captivate us and point us toward our relationship God. We learn to touch and to be touched by God. We exercise our taste fore the goodness of God all around us. At times, the exercises do seemed forced. That is why the exercises cannot be a one-off endeavour. Practitioners will come back to the exercises to do it multiple times on different occasions.

Overall, this is a book about spiritual formation, engaging our five senses from a spiritual perspective, and honing our Christian practices toward the three transcendentals of beauty, goodness, and truth. Eloquently written with lots of examples and exercises, this book is a helpful resource for anyone interested in the practice of spiritual formation.

James Bryan Smith is a theology professor at Friends University in Wichita, KS and a writer and speaker in the area of Christian spiritual formation. He also serves as the director of the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute at Friends University. He is also author of a very popular Apprentice series on spiritual formation and executive director of Apprentice Institute.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Inter-Varsity Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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