James K. A. Smith is professor of philosophy at Calvin College, where he also teaches in the congregational and ministry studies department. Here he relates the story behind his latest book, Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith and Learning, coedited with David I. Smith.
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The publication of is the culmination of a long conversation that began in a local coffee shop. My friend and colleague, David Smith, called to ask if I could meet him at Common Ground to catch up and explore an idea he’d hatched. David had recently been speaking at a conference in Boston, where he had heard another presenter float an intriguing hypothesis—that perhaps Christian teaching and learning could be nourished and enriched by drawing on the formative power of intentional Christian worship and historic Christian disciplines. Rather than approaching “faith and learning” as simply the dissemination of a Christian “perspective,” this presenter was suggesting that Christian teaching and learning required an ethos of Christian practices. It wasn’t just a matter of information, but a question of formation.
His interest piqued, David approached the presenter.
“I’m fascinated by what you’re up to—it resonates with some of my own intuitions,” David said. “Do you have some other work or articles I could read as a follow-up?”
“No,” the presenter replied. “This is all just stuff I heard from Jamie Smith at Calvin College.”
Such is the strange world of academe: David had to journey a thousand miles to Boston to learn what I was doing just down the hall from him in the same building! Our coffee shop conversation hit the ground running as we discovered our overlapping interests and questions. Our colleague John Witvliet, of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, then put us in touch with Dorothy Bass, director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. Our round-trip drive to Valparaiso was another opportunity to both cement a friendship and further refine our plans to take over the world.
The result was a multi-year, multi-disciplinary project that pursued answers to the questions we scribbled on napkins at Common Ground.
Our hope is that Teaching and Christian Practices can be a game-changer in conversations about faith and learning, shifting the focus of those conversations from content, theories, and “perspectives” to more concrete matters of pedagogy, specifically by drawing on the pedagogical wisdom and formative power implicit in Christian practices. Indeed, I increasingly think of this book as a sort of multi-authored sequel to my argument in .
Ultimately we hope to see the book in the hands of Christian teachers and professors, giving them concrete case studies that can jump-start new ways of thinking about what we do as Christian educators. We hope the book will be a helpful resource for professional development and the beginning of a new conversation about the nature and task of Christian teaching and learning.