Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age
Gordon Smith, Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020. pp. 190. ISBN: 978-0-8308-5326-7, $25.00.
One of the most pressing challenges for Christian leaders in the Western world is navigating the rapidly changing cultural landscape in which we minister. The Judeo-Christian consensus, once the dominant worldview of western civilization, is now fading away. In its place have burst forth strident ideologies such as Critical Race Theory, Transgenderism and Neo-Marxist economics. The weight of these views are increasingly felt via the courts and local and national legislatures which leverage their political power to impose fines, restrictions and social pressure on both individuals and institutions that fail to abide by new and ever-changing norms. In addition, partisan divide has racked the United States for the past decade culminating in the demoralizing presidential campaign of 2020. Christians in North America haven’t faced this type of social disruption since the late 1960s and it is obvious from their blogs, publications and public statements that it weighs heavily on them.
Gordon Smith seeks to provide help for pastors, teachers and academic leaders struggling to lead their people and organizations in this strange new world. He comes well equipped for the task: he currently serves as President of Ambrose University in Calgary, Canada. He is an ordained minister in the CMA and a teaching fellow at Regent College as well as a widely published author. Centering this book in songwriter Bob Dylan’s observation that ‘the times they are a-changing’, Smith declares the following in his introduction:
This means that we must get beyond any nostalgia or wishful thinking. It means that we must honestly and courageously engage the world into which we are called, seeking to ask: For this time and this place, what does it mean to provide effective leadership for the church? What are the competencies and dispositions that are needed (p. 2)?
Smith devotes himself to answering these questions in the work’s two main sections: Reading and Understanding the Times and Forming the Alternative Community: Competencies and Dispositions. He begins the former with a foundational chapter on secularity, approaching it from an inter-disciplinary angle via the study of history, sociology, and philosophy. While admitting that secularity is a complex topic, Smith defines it as the belief that religion is to be privatized and have no voice in the public square (p. 7). Drawing on the work of such notable scholars as Mark Noll, David Martin and Charles Taylor via James K.A. Smith, he labors to guide the reader thru the maze of various theories and studies of secularization. At the practical level Smith argues that the spread of secularity has resulted in the disenchantment of western life where few, if any, give credence to the idea of the transcendent. This, in turn, has led to the ‘buffered self’ where we create our own sense of meaning without any regard to an outside authority. One need only spend a little time on Facebook to see the accuracy of this part of his assessment.
Having defined our cultural context, Smith moves ahead with an insightful discussion of four ways Christians have responded to the new social realities. These are ‘Go Along to Get Along’, The Monastic Option, Culture Wars, and Faithful Presence. He does a commendable job of laying out both the strengths and limitations of each one and then returns to them in a later chapter. In between he suggests that there is great wisdom to be had from the exilic prophets (Esther, Daniel and Ezekiel), the early church (most notably Ambrose and his protegee Augustine), minority churches from around the world, and three Christian voices from contemporary secular Europe: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Ellul, and Lesslie Newbigin.
Having proposed that the struggles and insights of believers who lived in the past or in a minority status can provide help to those of us ministering in the contemporary West, Smith uses the latter section of his book to make the case for creating, nurturing, and sustaining an alternative community (i.e. – the church). Three chapters are leveraged to argue for the necessity of cultivating liturgical, catechetical, and missional leadership. These are then rounded off with a plea for ecumenical engagement and an exhortation to the consistent practice of spiritual disciplines by those in Christian leadership. Finally, in a brief conclusion, Smith issues a short missive encouraging the practice of hospitality towards those not yet a part of the faith community, especially the refugee, the foreigner, and the stranger. As he notes, “Hospitality is the very heart of God and thus one of the hallmarks of the reign of God in our world” (p. 179).
I was attracted to the promotions for this book because I know that Dr. Smith is an accomplished author with some significant leadership experience and I’m always on the lookout for fresh insights and ideas on how to engage our culture with the Gospel. In some ways he provides real help in this regard. His chapter on Catechetical Leadership warmed my heart because he rightly, in my view, sees the church as a teaching-learning community. In addition, I found his final chapter on the importance of practicing the spiritual disciplines to be both challenging and encouraging, a genuine achievement in view of the tired nature of this now well-worn topic. Moreover, Dr. Smith’s range of research and reading is impressive and his book is exceptionally well-written, a tribute to both him and the editors at IVP.
But I’m not sure that the book accomplishes what its author set out to do, at least from my perspective as a church historian, pastor, and preacher who has lived through various cultural changes as well as the rise and now growing demise of the evangelical movement in North America over the past forty-five years. For starters, I’m not convinced that secularity as Dr. Smith defines it is the cultural air we’re breathing. Instead, I would suggest that since the late 1960s our society has been a battleground between the historic Judeo-Christian consensus versus an ever-evolving neo-paganism. The former revolves around belief in God and a traditional moral order while the latter has successively given birth to new gods and goddesses such as radical feminism, unrestrained sexual expression of all kinds, and the vast power of technocracy. In fact, I was surprised that Dr. Smith used Lesslie Newbigin as an important voice to heed in view of Newbigin’s impassioned argument in most of his books that a hardened paganism has arisen in the West far more challenging than the one encountered by the early church. Recent sociological studies of Generation Z and a purview of any Sunday’s The New York Times would seem to validate this interpretation.
A second problem that I have with this book is its lack of a vibrant call to outreach and evangelism on the part of the Church and her members. Instead, we’re given consistent encouragements to be a faithful presence and engage across ecumenical lines in order to learn from the ideas and experiences of others. These are not bad suggestions; any pastor or church historian would agree that there is much to gained from various Christian traditions as well as establishing a visible presence in a particular community over the long term. But the cumulative message that comes across in Wisdom From Babylon is that the best Christian leaders can do is attend to the interior health of the church and her members, hoping that people in the surrounding communities and larger culture might be drawn to the Faith by our good lives and a revitalized catechumenate. Once again, this is not bad but seems depressingly inadequate given Jesus’ commands to the apostles in Matthew 28 and Acts 1. In addition, I believe that Dr. Smith has unintentionally weakened Augustine as a “voice of wisdom” in this regard. While he clearly articulates the latter’s position on the church’s engagement in the political realm via Book XIX in The City of God, he left out any discussion of Augustinian ecclesiology as seen in the bishop’s conflict with the Donatists. There Augustine articulated a view of the church not as “anti-society” or simply engaging society but, over time, encompassing all of society and transforming its operation and institutions to reflect God’s kingdom. It was this “Augustinian vision” that propelled the early medieval church to embrace the barbarian tribes of western Europe, bringing them both civilization and Christianity. Certainly, there were unintended consequences in this regard as evidenced by some negative developments in the later medieval era. But early popes such as Gregory the Great as well as the Benedictine monks took it as their God-given responsibility to engage those in the world with the good news of the Gospel, as difficult as that certainly was. I think it unlikely that our resurrected Lord is calling the contemporary church in the West to anything less than that.
A third concern I have with this book is its occasional tone of disdain for low-church evangelicalism, particularly as manifested in styles of worship and a less-than-traditional use of liturgy. One of the great strengths of Christianity over the centuries has been its ability to adapt to various societies in order to be a Gospel-presence within those cultures. As a child of missionaries, Dr. Smith certainly knows this! The danger, of course, is that churches can become syncretistic, merging too much of the ‘world’ into the fabric of the church. But is the use of contemporary music, coffee bars, and multiple services by some churches a reflection of worldliness? I continue to come across this lament in various blogs and comments, mostly from academics, who cannot seem to stomach that a lot of people like big churches with upbeat music and a minimalist liturgy. Given that many of these churches have reached lost people with the Gospel and seen their lives transformed by Christ, I’m always hesitant to offer too much criticism of their ecclesiology. And while I share some of Dr. Smith’s concerns about the lack of biblical and theological knowledge in many churches at large, I think a better way forward is to offer ways that pastors and teachers can both reach the lost and develop depth in their congregants. Perhaps this is where the church would be better served by listening to theologically informed practitioners such as Tim Keller and James Emery White instead of more high-brow writers and critics, however well-meaning, who reside in the academy.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology
Haddon Robinson Chair of Biblical Preaching