An extended review of the 2022 book by James K. A. Smith
Note: Our print issue contains a shorter version of this review. Faith Today welcomes your thoughts on any of our reviews. We also welcome suggestions of other Canadian Christian books to review: Contact us.
Brazos, 2022. 208 pages. $22 (e-book $20, audio $19, hardcover $30)
Shortly after I began reading this book, I waded into a slew of funerals – one for a man I had never met, another two for elders in my congregation, and finally one for a young friend who tragically passed away without any apparent cause. The tone of this time shook me and brought up surprising memories.
“Our past is not past; it oozes into the present. Skeletons in the closet from generations past still drip, drip, drip into our lives,” as Smith writes.
I was surprised to find that my past was the ground of my present, unavoidable and bearing real implications on my ability to deal with these deaths. Smith’s hermeneutic poetry was able to open my eyes to the complicated, grounding stories I've been living in, and ultimately helped me to inhabit them.
This is a book for those grieving and letting go, and eventually those looking to find peace in their loss. Smith typically has an academic tilt without being overbearing, and this is especially true in this book. How To Inhabit Time artfully combines thoughtfulness with imagery, speaking as easily to the heart as it does the mind.
This is not a book about mastery through letting go. “Too many forms of Christianity merely endure the present as the price to be paid for reaching an atemporal eternity.” Instead, Smith argues, “kairos means ‘every moment might be the small gate through which the messiah will enter.’” This, for me, meant that Christ has been present regardless of the season.
Even funerals and lament are stained-glass in a temple built by years. Songs of glory can resonate through the rubble and ruins that I assumed were desolate of life. “It is winter’s loss that grants us fall’s fire.”
My life will end too, and it has been given a particular shape through time. The frost will come, and then the thaw. All of this is a gift, even if it often feels like a burden. Especially when it feels like a burden, I am welcomed to lay that burden down at the feet of Jesus, the God and inhabitant of our mortal frames.
Time is not all entropy and grief for Smith, however. “Spiritual timekeeping is animated by the future. Such a futural orientation we call ‘hope.’ The church is a people of the future, a kingdom-come community that is always learning anew how to wait.”
Although I dwell in a season burdened by death, I am also drawn forward through that season by the hope of resurrection. Yes, death is inevitable, but so also is the hope we await. All of creation, time included, is an arrow notched and drawn back, fixed on Christ. This movement does not succumb to any power, not even death.
It’s hard to level criticisms at a book as well written as this. I expected more in-depth discussion about the existentialist authors Smith mined for his insights. His book was topical in the same sense that some sermons leave their texts, only he seems to have left the continental philosophers he structured his book on buried in the foundation. Yet Smith also holds tightly to Ecclesiastes, which I appreciate given the subject of time and mortality.
I want to quibble that a whole book on how mortality shapes life should not be allowed to leave uncited any of Ephraim Radner’s work? I would have loved to see Smith interacting with “A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life,” Canadian to Canadian.
As an Evangelical I was hungry for more practical expansions on his ideas. Don’t get me wrong, eschatological radicalism sounds wonderful. I need more practices and liturgies to carry me into that world.
I’m not quite finished with the season of grieving that this book marked the start of. It’s been good company, and I’m grateful to Smith for his reminders of God’s grace in moments of grief or sorrow.
Reading Smith is like sipping a drink as the sun sets, surrounded by close friends and wise guides. Perhaps this language is too psychological, but reading Smith in this season felt safe, not clinical or dogmatic.
How to Inhabit Time helped me acknowledge my foundations and discover their cracks, but it dwells with me anyhow; Christ dwells with me there too.
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