Wisdom from Babylon – Gordon Smith

Wisdom from Babylon Gordon Smith
Wisdom from Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age by Gordon T. Smith
Published by IVP Academic on October 13, 2020

What does it mean to provide leadership for the church in an increasingly secular context? When religion is privatized and secularism reigns in the public square, Christians are often drawn toward either individualist escapism or constant cultural warfare. But might this context instead offer a fresh invitation for the church to adapt and thrive? Gordon Smith is passionate about the need for capable, mature leaders to navigate and respond to a changing society. In this book, he draws on his extensive experience as a university president, pastor, and international speaker to open a multidisciplinary conversation about the competencies and capacities essential for today's leaders. After analyzing the phenomenon of secularization in the West and charting common Christian responses, Smith introduces four sources of wisdom to help guide us through this new terrain: the people and prophets of Judah during the Babylonian exile, the early church in its pagan environment, contemporary churches across the Global South, and Christian thinkers in post-Christian Europe. From these resources he identifies practices and strategies--from liturgy and catechesis to mission and hospitality--that can give shape to faithful, alternative communities in such a time as this. In cultures fraught with fear and division, Smith calls for leaders who can effect change from the margins, promote unity and maturity among Christians, and provide a non-anxious presence grounded in the presence of Christ. Educators, church leaders, and those seeking to understand the times will find this book to be an indispensable resource for cultivating distinctively Christian leadership.

As postmodernity roils on and Christianity moves out of the cultural limelight, Christians are left with a horrifying reality: they are no longer the “default.” Particularly in America, white Christianity has been the default culture ever since Jamestown and Plymouth. But losing that cultural power can be a good thing, shaking believers from cultural complacency and into an understanding of what it means to truly be a follower of Jesus. Wisdom from Babylon seeks to look back into church history when the church was located within a similarly secular age to ask what leadership lessons from then still hold value for now.

It’s important to recognize that Wisdom from Babylon is really about wisdom from within Babylon. Gordon Smith isn’t writing about how secular practices can benefit the church, but about reflecting on times the church was within Babylon—when they were the minority culture. In the first part of the book, Smith outlines four responses to secularity:

  1. Go along to get along. This option allows people to live within the tension, fully a part of the secular world six days a week outside the home, entering into the religious portion within the home and for communal worship. Here, religion is seen as private and personal.
  2. The monastic response. This option calls for retreat, movement away from the public sphere and into isolated communities that try to engage with the secular world the least amount possible.
  3. The culture wars response. The darling of the evangelical church, this option calls for war against secularism and restoration of Christian values as national values.
  4. The faithful presence. In this final option, Smith suggests that believers should simply continue to live public and faithful lives devoted to Christ, engaging with the secular, working within it, but not developing its telos.

From here, Smith considers various points at which believers were in proverbial—and literal—Babylon. One chapter each is devoted to the exilic and post-exilic prophets, the early church, historic minority churches, and modern churches within secular Europe. I appreciate how Smith brings the conversation into modern history, showing American readers how their current situation isn’t new, or even just reflected in the early church, but is reflected by various thriving groups of the church throughout history. The chapter on the voices of the historic minority church, in particular, gives voice to whole people groups whose voices have been dismissed or ignored.

The second part of the book is a blueprint for building a community as a faithful presence amid a secular culture. It is important to note that this is not a parallel community, with all the same goals and values—the same telos—as the secular community, but an alternative one with countercultural goals and values. Smith provides three chapters for developing liturgical, catechetical, and missional leadership. These values of worshipping, teaching, and witnessing form the core foundation for this alternate community and gives it the ability to exist within Babylon.

Wisdom from Babylon concludes with an exhortation to hospitality. Not to fight, ignore, or embrace secularism, but to be kind to those snared in that system, witnessing to them through our actions of an alternative community and kingdom. I came to Wisdom from Babylon because I thought it would be about leadership. In truth, Gordon Smith only uses leadership as a paradigm through which to discuss how we, as the church, should navigate these massive cultural shifts. Smith’s message is clear: we should be concerned, but we should not fear. We don’t need to hide, fight, or assimilate. Instead, we must boldly and compassionately stand as a faithful alternative to secularism’s systems. It’s a magnificent book that goes beyond just leadership and offers a hopeful future for the church in the West.