Interview with James K.A. Smith: Scholarship and Teaching

Many of you know that I have been reading James K.A. Smith since high school, own most of his books and have read a lot of his articles. For a class assignment I had the opportunity to interview Smith extensively, and transcripted the entire 70 minute interview. Here is the most interesting gems from that interview, which, granted, is most of it. It should be known that I was interviewing him for a paper on Christian scholarship, which is why many of the questions hover around that topic, but I was able to talk about his life in general as well.

Interview with James K.A. Smith on Wednesday, March 3, 2010

In his office at Calvin College, Grand Rapids Michigan.

Jasmine Wilson:  First, I would like to ask you a series of questions about how you got interested in the field of philosophy. How did you make the shift from architecture to philosophy?

Jamie Smith: I got saved. (laugh). So, I became a Christian. In Ontario at that time you had to do grade 13 if you were going to go to university. I was going into grade 13, and the experience [of becoming a Christian] revolutionized all my sense of calling and vocation.  Pretty quickly I had a sense that I was called to the ministry. I abandoned my plans to go to the University of Waterloo and do architecture, and ended up instead going to this little bible college in Iowa called Emmaus Bible College, and that was to study for full time pastoral ministry, I thought. While I was there I discovered theology, like more academic theology. It was this that was a wake-up call: it was like, “Oh, maybe this is actually what I’m really sort of made for.”

There was one theologian in particular named W.G. T. Shedd. Well, I don’t know how much you want to know about this… but I got engaged when I was a freshman. Then I got married that following summer. I took a year off to focus on being married for a while. And basically I had a year of independence. I immersed myself in W.G.T. Shedd, who was an old 19th century Reformed theologian. And Shedd’s discussion of the Trinity was my real first-hand engagement with philosophy. He was going back to Plato and Aristotle, and I was really thrilled by that. So that was a big part of it. And we went back to Bible College together then as a married couple, and that year I started reading Francis Schaeffer. It was there that I started to see the cultural relevance of philosophy.  It was also that year that I wrote Alvin Plantinga a letter.

JW: Really?

Jamie Smith: Well… that year I discovered his essay called “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” which was really pivotal for me. I had at that point determined that I was called to be a Christian philosopher. So I wrote Al Plantinga, and I said, “Hey I want to be a Christian philosopher and I want to come study with you at Notre Dame.” And I’m at podunk Bible College, about 125 people… but he wrote back! He  was very friendly, and nicely said, and didn’t so much say, but it’s kind of like, “Given that there’s no chance in hell you’ll ever get into Notre Dame, here are some other options and stuff.”

But it really did encourage me, even though I ended up going in a very different direction. So it was that back door through theology into philosophy [that I took], and I think that also explains why I’ve always been interested in philosophy in service to theology in a way, and in service to the church.

JW: Did you immediately feel called to go into philosophy, or did you feel any other sort of call, having been to Bible College?

Jamie Smith: I’ve always struggled with a call to the ministry too, and sometimes I still feel called to the ministry.  I preached my first sermon when I was 19.  Christmas of ’89. And there was one particular instance where I had to choose between the pastoral ministry track and the academic track. When I finished my degree I got a call to a church as an associate pastor, at the same time as  I was applying to seminaries, and I applied to the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, which would have been the one that represented the academic track for me. That was one point in my life where I felt like I really had to make a decision about something: otherwise it’s been that these doors close, and this one’s left open, so that’s the one you walk through.

And it was a real struggle– I remember it being difficult. But I remember someone saying, “Well, if you keep going on this academic track, it will probably always be possible to come back to ministry,” especially in that free church context, where you didn’t need a seminary degree or whatever, whereas if you went into ministry now, it would probably be hard to pull out of that and go back to school. So that seemed very wise to me, and I went on the academic track, and that flourished.

JW: So the theologians you mentioned [Al Plantinga and Shedd] are particularly Reformed theologians, which is so different than the fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren. How exactly did that happen?

Jamie Smith: There is definitely an irony here. I go to this Plymouth Brethren College, in which the most extolled theologian there was a guy named Lewis Sperry Chafer who was very fundamental in founding Dallas Theological Seminary, which is the bastion of dispensationalism. However, they also did revere what we would call now “Old Princeton,” which was Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield… and Shedd is sort of in the ballpark of that. I remember first encountering Louis Berkhof when I was there too. Now these are very scholastic Reformed theologians, but even though my teachers weren’t sort of really encouraging me to dive into that, as soon as I was introduced to them,  that’s where I started to devote all my energies.

I’m persona non grata now at my college, I can’t even go back. It wasn’t until I went to the Institute in Toronto that I started to realize oh, the Reformed tradition is bigger than this sort of Reformed scholasticism, and that’s when I was introduced to Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, Berkouwer, and Bavinck and another side of the Reformed tradition.

JW: Next I want to ask a couple questions about how one might be a scholar in the discipline of philosophy, which is kind of the main focus of this paper. So first, how would you define a Christian scholar?

Jamie Smith: Well I think ideally a Christian scholar isn’t just someone who happens to be a Christian, and happens to be a scholar, but that there is an integral link between those two. Her or his Christian commitment shape[s] their scholarly agenda, their scholarly commitments, [and] their scholarly curiosity and interests.

Now, this differs depending on what sort of discipline you’re in. So, on the one hand if I’m a Christian biologist, what motivates me to be a biologist should bubble out of my Christian commitments. And on a macro scale I’m going to be committed to some paradigms that will make a difference for how I do it. But on the other hand, if we’re just trying to work on these cells under this microscope to figure out a cure for cancer, it might not look that different.

There’s sort of a continuum I think if you go from the natural sciences across the social sciences into the humanities, and in a way I think across that continuum the thickness of your pre-theoretical commitments become more and more significant in a way.

I think philosophy is one of those disciplines where first of all, people are always being confronted with their fundamental commitments, therefore it’s also a field where you can be the thickest in working from those Christian commitments. To me the paradigm for this is what Al Plantinga lays out in Advice to Christian Philosophers, which is: the Christian philosopher, [and indeed] every philosopher begins from some starting point, which is basically a faith commitment. So the question isn’t whether you are going to be a philosopher who believes, the question is what are you going to believe. And then, if every philosopher is starting from a faith commitment, then the Christian philosopher should have the permission, warrant, and courage to start thinking through philosophical issues from her faith commitments. And that’s I guess what has defined my project.

Now there are sort of covert and cagey ways of doing that and then there are really explicit ways of doing that, and I think both of those are really legitimate and important. Those Christian philosophers who want to have an impact on the academy and be in R1, PhD granting programs are going to have to be a little more cagey and covert about how they do that work, whereas me being at an institutional like this, I can be really thick and forthright about saying, “Okay, I actually think the way to understand how language works is to think about it in terms of the paradigm of the Incarnation.” Well you’re just not going to get to do that if you’re teaching at the University of Indiana or something like that. Maybe someday we will so have equalized [that that might be possible]. This is where I think George Marsden’s “Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship” is helpful. He says that there is a certain irony that in the humanities academy today: you can begin unapologetically from almost any faith perspective except a religious or Christian one, like a Marxist perspective or a feminist perspective. I still think the university is quite that’s the last enlightenment bias that we have.

JW: That’s good that you answered that, because that was going to be one of my other questions. What is the difference between a Christian scholar and a secular scholar? Can you give specific examples of how the two might differ?

Jamie Smith: Well, in a way I think there are no secular scholars.

If by “secular” we meant “neutral” scholars, or just purely rational scholars, I think everybody’s working from their commitment. There are secularist scholars, who think religious starting points should be ruled out of court in principle, but what they’re just doing is instantiating their faith commitment starting points as the rules of the game. Fewer and fewer people make that move, especially in the humanities right now, I would say.

Now, all that said, I don’t mean for the academy to devolve into some sort of tribalism where we all start from our starting points and therefore we just talk to choirs. I think you can still imagine where being honest about our starting commitments actually helps foster dialogue, because now we can say, “Alright, we’re all trying to live in this same world, we’re all trying to sort of grapple with similar phenomena, let’s be honest about our starting points and then try to collaborate and dialogue with one another,” rather than working with some faux sense of neutrality, which is actually covertly shutting out all kinds of people from the conversation. So I don’t think this turns into tribalism. You could still have a university, it doesn’t have to devolve into a multiversity.

JW: Okay. So for instance, if you were to go to a university that does not have Christian orieintation, like the University of Michigan and do your scholarship, would that hinder you? [Let me just say, if I had thought this question out before just blurting it in the interview, I would not have used such a negative word to sort of lead the conversation in a certain direction].

Jamie Smith: It would hinder what I do. Maybe what you could say is because I came to Calvin College, my scholarship took a turn in all kinds of ways. It took a turn because it started serving a particular tradition and a particular space. Not that everybody at Calvin has to do that, but that’s the way it went for me. If I was at the University of Michigan, I would be doing something different. Like for instance, I’ve been doing this work now on trying to get philosophy of religion to be attuned to practices rather than just beliefs. And I think the reason to do that is because worship is so important. So there’s actually really particular Christian intuitions that are forming that.

But I gave a paper at Yale last year or a couple years ago to a social sciences conference where basically I made that argument, but I didn’t have to draw on particular Christian resources.  I just said look, if social scientists want to understand religion generally, we need to move from just counting people’s beliefs and doctrines and ideas and start being attuned to the rituals and practices and realities. And that can be made as a general argument, and it can even be argued in a way Jewish philosophers and Muslim philosophers become really interested in it too.

So even though it’s being informed by my particular Christian commitment I can translate it a little bit into more general terms. I think that’s probably the kind of work I would be doing if I was at the University of Michigan.

JW: How did you scholarship differ at Loyola Marymount as opposed to here at Calvin? (i.e., did the denominational affiliation make a difference?)

Jamie Smith: You keep asking about scholarship– are we also going to talk about teaching, or is this just about scholarship?

JW: This is mostly about scholarship.

Jamie Smith: Can I draw a connection then? I don’t think you can neatly and tidily separate scholarship from teaching, or at least you shouldn’t. Actually I think you probably can, but we probably shouldn’t.

For me, teaching has been integral to also advancing a scholarly agenda, so I’m learning as I’m teaching—there’s a lot of feedback and stuff. In a way, when I was at Loyola Marymount, I had all kinds of freedom because it was a Catholic university, and I  could do that sort of scholarship that’s rooted in unapologetically Christian starting point. But because the context of that university was functionally secularized, the students didn’t give a crap about the questions that I cared about. What that meant was the space of the classroom wasn’t the laboratory for thinking through the issues that I wanted to be thinking through as a scholar. So one of the big reasons why I made the move from there to Calvin was precisely because the questions I want to ask as a scholar are also the questions that students who come to Calvin are asking… for the most part. So that does make a difference. Just having permission is one thing, but having a sort of ethos that fosters it is something else.

JW: You mentioned the classroom as similar to a laboratory. One of the focuses of the class I’m taking is we’re doing different “models” for scholarship, which is kind of a vague word, but examples would be “adventurer,” and we watched Indiana Jones to illustrate that. Others would be, “Crusader,” “detective,” “martyr,” that sort of thing. What sort of model for scholarship do you see in yourself and your colleagues in the philosophy department?

Jamie Smith: Well let’s see, that’s a good question. The first one that comes to mind is “deacon.” In a lot of ways, and I think this is true of my colleagues too, we’re trying to be philosophers who serve the community of faith with our philosophical insights, criticisms, so on. By “deacon” I mean deacon-al in the sense of “service to.”

Now this will sound utterly obnoxious, so maybe I won’t claim this as myself, but let’s also say one of the other functions that philosophers can play as scholars, especially for the Christian community, is “prophetic.” You’re a leading edge, asking the hard questions. Sometimes I think we over-revel in that role as if we’re the only ones who are asking hard questions. But it is true that the essence of philosophy is questioning. If the prophetic is tied to critique, then I think that’s a big part of it. And as long as you always have a sense that your critique is in service to the community of faith, so therefore it [would be] done out of charity and love.

Did you want me to say in terms of one of those models that you just had?  Because I think other colleagues are very much sort of detectives who are doing work in the history of philosophy.

JW: I like the martyr one particularly. So martyr as in, you’re so wrapped up in the work that you kind of just deprive yourself of the basic necessities of life, so you sleep in your office and you don’t remember to eat, and things like that.

Jamie Smith: So that’s quite unhealthy… you sacrifice yourself to the work in a way.

JW: Right. So in line with that, who do you think your work, your scholarship is serving, or who do you intend for it to serve?

Jamie Smith: I think that’s a place where in the last five years I’ve transitioned in that regard. And I’m grateful to be in a place where I can do this. It feels like to me, my work is sort of being received on the one hand by the wider audience of Christian scholars and teachers. If I look at my calendar and all the sorts of talks I go to, I’m usually invited to other Christian colleges to speak to a college-wide or faculty-wide audience just to help think about Christian engagement with culture and stuff like that. So my audience tends to be more interdisciplinary than narrowly philosophical.

And then I guess feel like some of my work trickles down to a level of a more general Christian audience, a sort of “outreach scholarship,” and I enjoy that work, I think it’s important, and I think it’s good that people do that. I don’t think all Christian scholars have to do that, but those who can should as much as possible so we can speak into the mind of the church.

JW: Going back to the model question, at the January Series you were introduced as having achieved “rock star status.” How do you feel about that label, what do you think it means, [and] how does it affect your scholarship?

Jamie Smith: [Laugh]Yeah… so okay, note all the embarrassment now that we’re having this conversation. Well, the greatest temptation for so many scholars is pride, so that amplifies that temptation.  The other is [that] it does create challenges if you are in a discipline that expects high degrees of specialization, doing that sort of work you don’t become more broadly popular. So because I am more broadly popular… some might assume I’m not being very rigorous.

The other thing that happens is everybody wants you to come and talk about the book you just wrote, and you’re like, well read the book!  I can see how somebody could just fall into this rut, and they just keep doing this same thing over and over again. For me, it’s a challenge of how do you keep pressing a scholarly agenda that’s going in new directions? And for me what I do when people invite me places and they say we want you to speak on Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? I’m like, “I’m not speaking on Who’s Afraid [of Postmodernism],” you know, “Read the book! Here’s what I’m working on now, we can connect it to that…” but I try to make these opportunities continue to pull me to have to work on new material so I don’t fall into just sort of repeating myself. I’ve seen this happen to others, they reach this certain degree of attention, and then you’re flattered by it, so you start taking all the invitations, which you shouldn’t do to start with, and then you just keep talking about the same thing over and over again, and five years later you haven’t had a new thought in five years. I don’t want to fall into that. So I think that’s a challenge.

By the way, there’s also, to be honest, family challenges that come with this too, so especially at a place like Calvin, you could never be doing enough. And so, how do you start drawing boundaries and fences and carving out space…. not being a martyr. Fortunately I have a very strong-willed wife who wouldn’t let that happen [laugh].

JW: How exactly do you do your scholarly work?

Jamie Smith: I write in big chunks, I can’t just sort of sit down and generate stuff… I need big chunks of time and really whole days. I also tend to write under pressure. I’m not like some people who wake up and write for two hours every day. That’s not me. I’m more like a binge writer. So I work at home Mondays and Friday for the most part, and then I teach Tuesdays and Thursdays, and I’m on campus Wednesdays. Sometimes I’ll go to the Sparrows or write from a coffee shop or something like that.

JW: Can you describe your process of being a student of scholarship as you were at your various institutions, getting your PhD and even others before that, and when do you feel like you made the transition to being a professor of scholarship?

Jamie Smith: So the difference from being a consumer from being a producer?

JW: Mmhmm.

Jamie Smith: That’s a great question. So I do think I was a little bit of a freak. I feel like when I became a Christian, all of a sudden I understood why I had a mind, and then I just immersed myself in whatever I could. I became a voracious reader and had a really unbridled curiosity.

I’m an autodidact on a lot of levels, even though I’ve had formal education as well. In fact this is another place where I think being married has been a singular gift, because I think I would have become an utterly deformed human being if I didn’t have those sorts of reality checks.

I was a voracious student through my undergraduate career. My first year in grad school I started presenting papers at scholarly conferences, so I feel like that was a turning point in a way. At that level, you are still very much in intake mode, but already I had a sense that this is my vocation, and it’s not too early to start a kind of professional development. My first presentation was at a regional meeting of the Society Christian Philosophers, which is a great place to begin.

So I feel like all through my masters and PhD program I was being both. When I finished my PhD I had probably published, I have no idea, maybe ten articles or something like that. And the field increasingly is like that, I mean to get jobs you have to have published, so certainly in the PhD program one has to becoming a professor, and you’re teaching.  There’s a pretty decent kind of transition phase if people take that seriously. The problem is graduate programs don’t always appreciate that, because the old boys club that is still running the program didn’t have to do that when they were young, so it does take quite a bit of internal self-motivation.

JW: I hope this question is not offensive at all, but I’m just wondering, how, as someone on the philosophy track, you were able to so easily transition to being a writer, which is kind of seen as being a different discipline.

Jamie Smith: What do you mean by writer?

JW: Well I just mean you’ve published a lot, and significant volumes whereas others in the department maybe are into the academic journals…

Jamie Smith: Right, absolutely. I get this question a lot, and I’m always disappointed in my answer because I don’t really have one, except that, writing comes really easily to me. And I do think it’s not unrelated to having read so much, right, so if you read a lot and you’ve read a lot of good writing, then who knows whether it starts as a kind of mimicry. I also read a lot of fiction, and I feel like if my writing has improved it’s without question because I’ve also been reading fiction and poetry. Even my sort of scholarly writing.

And the reason I can write so much… I do try to kill as many birds with as few stones as possible, so I try to make things overlap as much as possible. But I don’t think I’m a prodigy or anything, it’s just that I can write three thousand in a day without really being taxed by that. Maybe it’s because I just sort of keep everything fertilized, so there’s just always lots waiting there to be [written about]… I don’t know what other people’s practices are like, it’d be really interesting to know what other people’s practices are like, because to be honest, I don’t think I work that hard. I mean I don’t think I’m lazy. But I think some people think I don’t sleep or that I don’t know my kids or that I work 80 hours a week. I don’t, I don’t work at night, I never work on the weekends unless I’m grading or something like that, I’ve tried to have pretty good boundaries and work within those.

JW: I think maybe because you do connect your teaching and your scholarship so much…

Jamie Smith: Sure. And by the way, sometimes people comment to me that they think I write like I talk, and I think that’s largely true. I’m not a really technical writer, and the reason I use italics so much is because I do the same oral emphasis, and I think that comes from teaching as well. So teaching has probably been even more crucial to my writing than I realize.

JW: Yeah I think that’s true to, because I read Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism before coming [to Calvin], and then I had you in class and then after having you in class I read Desiring the Kingdom, and I could hear you speaking while I read it.

Jamie Smith: Whenever I read Stanley Hauerwas, I can hear him talk.

JW: And he has such a funny voice too!

Jamie Smith: Yeah, he does.

JW: One thing that was recommended was to ask you about your statement on integrating faith into teaching and scholarship that you have for reappointment.

Jamie Smith: To share that with you? Yeah no problem. I just finished my application for full professor. So I have one from my first reappointment, one when I was associate with tenure, and now full professor, I’ll just send them all to you. Most of its going to look very familiar because it’s stuff that I either became, Desiring the Kingdom, or just sort of drawing on Introducing Radical Orthodoxy or something.

JW: I asked you over January if you could have written Desiring the Kingdom before your other ones, and you had said no, it flows from the previous works that you’ve done. Have you seen any difference in what you focus on in your early works and then what you focus on now?

Jamie Smith: Yes, without question. A very simple way is the church has become ever more important. Not just that my participation in the church is important, although I mean that as well, but the place the church has in my theoretical understanding of Christian scholarship, Christian education, and then politics and whatever it might be.

Are you familiar with this book—and I only ask because you seem to be familiar with everything—do you know the book Logic of Incarnation? [I nod enthusiastically]. Okay. So the essay in there by Mark Bowald I think is very illuming.  He basically tracks from the Fall of Interpretation through Speech and Theology up to the present and shows some of the shifts that have taken place [in my writing], and one of them has to do with the role in the church and the ecclesial community. I do think that’s probably the most significant. And that’s where being at Calvin has amplified that. I think I was on that path when I got here. But then, both the thickness of the Reformed tradition and then particularly how that’s instantiated through the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship has helped me. And reading people like Hauerwas and Radical Orthodoxy, all of those things just sort of came together for me.

That shift by the way has something to do with what the Reformed tradition looks like at the Institute for Christian Studies, and what it looks like here. At the Institute for Christian Studies, to be Reformed is to have a philosophical framework, it’s not tied to the worship life of the church. In fact they tend to actually be quite anti-church. So you could also read a lot of my work as getting over that. Because I absorbed a lot of that I think. In The Fall of Interpretation there were two chapters that were cut and one of them was a really excoriating anti-church kind of chapter, which I’m so grateful now was not included.

What became my first chapter in that book [The Logic of Incarnation] I think is a more recent statement of my position. You know, one of the funny things that happens is that people that know me from, (only you would care about this), but people who know me from Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? think I’m this Emerging Church person, whereas I’m really like a Catholic. I guess I keep moving quite a bit from book to book, I’m a sort of moving target.

JW: Because you are so interdisciplinary in some ways, the big thing at the January Series was that your work is, “at the borderlands between philosophy and theology, ethics, aesthetics, science, and politics.”

Jamie Smith: Which, by the way, just kind of means I’m a dilettante. (laugh)

JW: So how do you think that affects your work? Do you see that as beneficial to be in so many different ponds in a way? [If I were to re-ask this question I don’t think I would use the term “beneficial”].

Jamie Smith: I think it’s necessary for somebody to be doing that. Whether it’s beneficial… well I am grateful that my scholarly formation was in a discipline. And it’s really in philosophy, although I think I could hang with about anybody who had a theology PhD as well to some degree. And actually my PhD program, I was able to do a little bit of cross disciplinary work, so I was able to take courses in the theology department and I had theologians on my dissertation committee. So I’m grateful that I did learn to dot my I’s and cross my T’s within a philosophical discipline.

And that it was philosophy is exactly what enabled me to be able to lean out and start to absorb what’s going on in other discourses. That will sound really snobby, but to be honest, I think because philosophers ask the most foundational questions they’re also able to discern the sort of foundational issues in other disciplines. I don’t think that necessarily works for other disciplines.

The problem with the multi-disciplinary stuff is there aren’t clear lines of accountability for your work anymore. So in philosophy you submit to peer review in the discipline. For this kind of work, who would be the peers that you would be reviewed by? So increasingly what happens is the arena of evaluation is how it’s received. And that makes me nervous a little bit. I think it especially makes specialists nervous. I view interdisciplinary work as a kind of necessary evil (chuckle).  I think the nature of the sort of things we’re grappling with requires us to do that.

JW: I also wanted to go back to something you said about the classroom, I really appreciate that kind of connection, and how it affects you as a sort of an individual scholar… so maybe this can be framed in terms of some sort of model, again, model-metaphor, because as opposed to be an individual scholar who’s just sort of, like Indiana Jones, he does it all by himself, more or less…

Jamie Smith: Yeah, the individual hero.

JW: Yeah exactly. So can you just describe a little bit more how you see other people and their affectiveness [I meant affectivity, not effectiveness] on your work.

Jamie Smith: So in that sense students become collaborators with me even if they don’t sort of know that. I do have scholarly conversation partners who are really important to me, but they wouldn’t necessarily be my department members, so the people closest to me might not even be philosophers: Mark Mulder in sociology, John Witvliet…  Because of the nature of my work, my conversation partners are in other disciplines, and I learn a lot from that process.

I guess the other thing that I’m interested in, in terms of modeling, is when I’m teaching material that I don’t know, what I hope is that [I’m] also modeling to students a model of “discovering.”

JW: Let’s say for instance you have a philosophy 153 in which it’s all people taking it for core, and no one’s asking questions. That doesn’t necessarily help you discover anything, or discover together anything, so how do you work when you are stuck with sort of the “trial” classes?

Jamie Smith: Yeah, that’s interesting. Now I’ve started to make a big difference between that course and other courses I get to teach. In that course every once in a while I can still throw in a text that I don’t know very well, and I don’t know if this is instrumentalizing the students,  but it forces me [to engage something],  like I might put in “Augustine on Free Choice of the Will” because I really need to read that closely again. In a certain sense, it doesn’t matter if they’re asking questions, since I’m going to be forced to go through it. The way I think about that 153 course increasingly is, “What do I have to do to try to plant some seeds in these students so that they’ll become reflective Christian leaders later?”  So I don’t expect much out of that course.

Now 200 or 300 courses, that’s a different ballgame, and I think there’s more sense of collaboration that goes on. But even this Church and Society course [a course I’m in with Smith and Mulder], even though that’s a 100 level, it is for core credit for those who want it, but people who are there have chosen to be there and that makes a huge difference.  I feel like we’ve already learned a lot in hearing your guys’ conversation about stuff. I’ve also learned a lot since it is my first time co-teaching.

JW: This is almost asking the interdisciplinary question Iasked earlier, but in a different way, in terms of denominations. You’re kind of known for having different denominational influences. And yet you still have chosen to take root in the Reformed tradition. What are the pluses and minuses of an ecumenical appreciation,  but why did you still have a rationale for picking a specific tradition?

Jamie Smith: You’re probably making it sound more rational than it was. So I do think you can tell a story of a pretty linear pilgrimage for me to where I am today. It’s not quite a sampling, and I think you can see a trajectory. But it still might end up in Rome (laugh), I don’t know.

I have tried to take seriously the kind of “bloom where you’re planted” principle, so in a lot of ways I am where I am because that’s where Calvin College is, and Calvin College is sort of everything I could have ever hoped for. And if this is the tradition that could create Calvin College, then sign me up for that tradition. Partly that’s the way it goes.

The other is, I believe very strongly in the catholicity of the church, but I think that catholicity always has to find some sort of particular expression, so as long as I can be in a tradition that understands [itself] as part of that catholic tradition, then I can be pretty comfortable. That’s why I say, coming from an Assembly of God background, for me, becoming Christian Reformed was a way of becoming Catholic because it hooks you up to the creedal and confessional tradition.

That said, I do think that my range of denominational experience or background has given me sensibilities, which I’m grateful that I bring to being Christian Reformed that I don’t think others have who have only been Christian Reformed. That’s not a knock on them, it means that I inhabit that space a little bit differently. That comes with its own challenges too. So, for instance, it’s very hard for my wife to be Christian Reformed. She’s Pentecostal, she will always be Pentecostal, and Christian Reformed churches don’t look like Pentecostal churches. Now Pentecostal churches also come with a bunch of crap, and nobody misses that, but what you do miss is a kind of enlivened charismatic that’s authentic and genuine. So in a way there are prices to pay for being located in some tradition. But that’s going to be true of anywhere, right? It’s sort of what crap can you live with.

So I feel like I’ve really nested in this tradition because it’s a thick and generous tradition and now I feel like I owe it to this community who has made possible everything that I’ve been able to do. I really do have a strong sense of being indebted to generations who have come before to the constituency that supports this place and I really want to serve them. It might not be forever, but I think it will be for a long time.

JW: You mentioned that Calvin was kind of your perfect place in some ways. Can you explain that a little more?

Jamie Smith: Well… not that it doesn’t frustrate me too.  Calvin is a place that has a really rigorous respect for the life of scholarship and the life of the mind. That’s all just taken for granted. It also though is a place that values different kinds of scholarship, like advanced guild-oriented scholarship [and] popular outreach sort of scholarship, so I can kind of do all those and it’s still valued here. And it’s got a really thick sense of the tradition that it’s coming from, it’s not just a generic evangelical sensibility or whatever. So all of those things come together to still make this a really unique place. My work has just exploded since I came here. I don’t think that could have happened elsewhere. It’s also a place that takes that scholarly work seriously enough that they put their money where their mouth is and so you of course have reductions and sabbaticals and stuff like that, that’s all very tangible support that makes it possible. I couldn’t have done all that I’ve done if I was teaching 7 courses a year.

And I think Calvin has a sense that it has national responsibility in that regard. In a way we owe it to sister colleges to sort of share our resources. I do think a number of folks here have a sense that we are trying, that we have resources that those others don’t, and if we can sort of share those resources, you know lead conversations, that’s good.

JW: This isn’t necessarily tied to this, I’m just curious because I’ve experienced what was a nondenom[inational] church. But it wasn’t necessarily the nondenom[inational] church that ends up looking exactly like a Baptist church.  The founders of the church had been from various disciplines [er, I meant denominations]: Pentecostal, Catholic, and just all across the board, and would include practices of worship from the Quakers, and from the creeds, and did hymns but also did praise songs… but it was kind of eclectic.  I could see maybe the criticism would be that it doesn’t have a lot of history, in that sense—it’s not tied to a particular historical denomination… but I really loved it, it was great. So I’m guessing, what I’m trying to say is sell me on the particular expression being one tradition.

Jamie Smith: There’s other ways in which I want my congregation in this particular tradition to have the sensibility that nondenominational churches that you’re talking about have. My concern about that phenomenon is just authority and accountability. I’m actually really pro-authority and pro-institution, and in a strange way, I’m not pro-schism, but I’m pro-denomination because it creates structures of accountability that run counter on our emphasis on autonomy.

For instance, this fabulous church in De Moines, Iowa called Christ Community Church, basically was a non-denominational church that together made a pilgrimage to becoming this kind of Catholic, Anabaptist… it’s basically the church of Saint Stanley Hauerwas sort of thing. They actually got to the point, even though they started out of a Baptist church plant, or split, they got to the point where they said, “But you know what, we need to be accountable to somebody,” so they actually looked for a tradition that would absorb them and welcome them. They ended up becoming Mennonites, but at least that created a structure of accountability. So otherwise what happens is it’s too easy for communities to become centers of charismatic celebrities. What’s Mars Hills after Rob Bell goes? That sort of phenomenon. That said, I’m not making any particular apologetic defense for what church looks like in Eastern Ave. CRC., except that, because I think its tied to historical practices, there are certain ways they won’t go wrong. That doesn’t mean there aren’t all sorts of ways they could be better.

JW: What does it mean to be a successful scholar?

Jamie Smith: That’s a great question. I’m not trying to be successful Jasmine, just trying to be faithful. (I laugh). That is true a little bit. You know there’s so many ways to be a Christian scholar. So is Jim Vanden Bosch a successful Christian scholar? Yeah, he’s poured himself into generations of students. Again, I worry that the emphasis on Christian scholarship over the last 20 years has tended to come at the expense of teaching, and if you think of teaching as a mode of public scholarship in a way, then I think you could be a very successful Christian scholar because you have formatively poured yourself into generations of students who go on to doing things for the Kingdom.

For me, I guess because I do feel also called to contributing toa national conversation or something like that, I will be successful to the extent that the agenda I’m pressing gets traction in the Evangelical community. See, in some ways, I think I’m always going to be exiled to be somebody who’s trying to get Evangelicals to remember they’re catholic, small-c catholic. And in a way then you could judge the extent to which I have been successful in twenty years if you can see a difference in the shape of evangelical sensibilities. So in that respect I’m really encouraged.

The fact that Desiring the Kingdom could get a book reward from Christianity Today I think is a really interesting signal, because there’s so many things about that book that Evangelicals shouldn’t like, so many things that you know John McArthur would think it’s a catholic book. So to me that’s a little bit of a signal that there’s a tide turning, or the extent of attention that its getting at other Christian colleges gives me hope that there’s something in the water and the Spirit’s at work in ways.

I do want to just be faithful, but [I] also hope that in being faithful the Lord sort of uses that in ways. Although I would also say, I will only be a successful Christian scholar to the extent that… well I don’t know if I want to put this on myself, this has to be a holistic, to the extent that my family’s doing well in 25 years too. I feel pretty good about that. My son comes to Calvin in the fall as a freshman. So I don’t want to judge my performance by his performance, but for me because of that sort of martyr temptation, it will be a bigger accomplishment for me if— I’m not saying “if” as if I think this wouldn’t happen— at the end of my career, I want to be celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary, and that will always be more important to me than how many books are on my CV, partly because we come from such messed up families. But I do think it’s such a holistic aspect… I don’t want to compartmentalize that.

JW: You brought up the martyr metaphor again, which makes me wonder: is there a way we could do a… monastic metaphor for scholarship in terms of the communal aspect?

Jamie Smith: Yeah…and in some ways, I feel like there are pockets of that that have nourished me here at Calvin College. So if by monastic we just mean the rhythms of a community and life that sort of contribute to fueling the imagination for Christian scholarship. That’s why to me, chapel is really important for my work and I go on the days when I don’t want to. In some ways I still wish we had more of that. And at Calvin we all have so many obligations on us that pull us away from that and into fragmented little silos. But I agree that as much as we could foster communities that are pursuing those sorts of rhythms together, [we should]. This is one of the things when I visit Christian colleges that are smaller, and also probably Christian colleges that don’t have so many research pressures, they do have usually great community. There’s this sort of intimacy in those places that sometimes makes me jealous. And we have so many obligations on us here.

You know Calvin is both trying to be this great liberal arts teaching college with all the expectations of an R1 research university (at least in the best departments, that’s not universal). But no R1 university is trying to be that sort of teaching college, and no teaching college is trying… because you can’t do both, and so our workload is doubled already.

One of the reasons I support the faculty-church membership requirement is because I think in all sorts of ways we don’t realize that also contributes to an ethos, you know there’s this certain shared [commonality]. It’s not perfect and it’s not ideal, but there is more going on there than I think we sometimes give credit for.

JW: Thank you very much for your time!

One thought on “Interview with James K.A. Smith: Scholarship and Teaching

  1. renpaul says:

    I found this a very interesting interview with an author I also enjoy reading. I’m slowly poring over Desiring the Kingdom at the moment.

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