Posted in book reviews

Appreciation for a bridge builder

SmedesLewis B. Smedes, the late professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote fourteen books in his lifetime. I’ve read only one, his last, My God and I : A Spiritual Memoir (Eerdmans, 2003), which is a rather backwards way of doing things. Still, if this book is a good indicator of the quality of his prior work, I’ve got some more reading to do!

Professor Smedes sums up his outlook on life in a succinct paragraph (p. 64):

I was, from the start, a Christian of the bridge. I liked bridges that I could cross over to drink from unbelievers’ goblets, to feast on their wisdom, and to admire their good works. I also liked bridges that I could cross over and, with God’s blessing, be a blessing to the people on the other side.

Though he joined the Christian Reformed Church as a young man, it is apparent that Smedes over time grew increasingly uncomfortable with parts of the Calvinistic creed, particularly the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, that “God is in control” of the most minute details of what transpires on earth. In response to this idea, he pens one of the most moving chapters in the book. Recounting the death of his newborn son, only a day old, Smedes observes (p. 121):

On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live, any more than I could believe that we would, one fine day when he would make it all plain, praise God that it had happened.

Smedes’ honest remarks resonate with me. We concur when later he applies the same logic to the events of 9/11/2001, seeing in the terrorist attacks not the hand of God but the pure face of evil. He concludes: “God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil, though, on the way to that glad day, he sometimes takes a beating” (p. 125). I am happy to affirm that God is far more powerful than anyone, but cannot ascribe evil committed by others to a good God, an inescapable conclusion if one believes that God has ordained all that happens.

On the negative side of the ledger, My God and I does not read evenly. The earlier chapters are slow, so the reader should be persistent since the second half of the book moves at a quicker pace.

My God and I is a good snapshot of one who combined the life of the mind with a warm heart for people. It’s a rare combination. In our polarized world, one can pray that the Lord will raise up more conciliators like Lewis Smedes.