Q&A with James K.A. Smith, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Calvin College
Inspired by the interviews in the Paris Review and Bomb magazine, "The Questions" in Sports Illustrated, and the regular interviews on the blogs of Tom Peters and Guy Kawasaki, Comment has asked a diverse group of mentors for their stories.
Comment: How would you explain what you do to an interested nine-year-old child?
JS: My family wonders whether I do anything at all! Having grown-up in a hard-working, "blue collar" home and town, working is equivalent with making—and usually dirt and sweat. When I worked in factories making oil filters and truck springs, it was clear that I had been "working" to them. Now when my "factory" is twelve feet from my bed, they're not so sure. But I try to tell them that I'm still making something, and my mom piles my books up on her coffee table as some attempt to let the neighbors know that, yes, Jamie does do something.
But at the end of the day, I "make" books to try to invite people to live differently. As a philosopher, I try to invite people to experience the world differently by taking just a bit of time to step back out of our everyday absorption and involvement with the world in order to think about it a little bit. Sometimes this means actually making the world a bit askew in order to see it in new ways—and most importantly, to think critically about how I live in the world. How do I interpret the world that presses in upon me? What do I love in it and about it? What do I hate? Why? What should I love? What's the shape of human flourishing? How does my understanding of the world reflect my understanding of God?
Perhaps I could say that, in some small way, I "make" books and write articles to try to help my sisters and brothers imagine what it looks like to be disciples of Jesus who live "abundantly" in a broken world, looking for kingdom come.
Comment: What first drew you to this work?
JS: Well, it's a defense mechanism: it has been a largely successful way of assuaging my conscience for running as far as I could from the pastorate! Shortly after my conversion to Christian faith, others helped me to see that I had gifts related to teaching. As I was working on developing and cultivating those gifts, and getting equipped for what I thought would be pastoral ministry, it became further clear to me that the channel for my life was not (primarily) preaching, but teaching in a college context. And as I grew as a teacher and scholar, I realized that I felt most "in the flow" when I was at my desk writing, sometimes almost trancelike, with Rachmaninov or Radiohead in the background, lost in the joy of articulating ideas. Of course other days can be incredibly difficult, tormented by blank spaces, so easily distracted by the latest online headline about Britney Spears or yesterday's NASCAR dustup. But even on the worst day, I can still barely believe I get paid for this.
What all of these moments of discernment had in common was the sheer thrill of being a conduit of illumination. Without wanting to sound to Oprah-fied, I have to say that in those moments I feel I can say, "Oh . . . so I was made for this."
Comment: As a novice, what were your most valuable learning experiences?
JS: Having teachers who loved me enough to be honestly and forthrightly critical. I still recall getting my first paper back from one of my graduate mentors, Bob Sweetman, and being immediately disheartened by the oodles and oodles of ink all over the paper (he must have gone through two pens!). But it was also easy to see in and through it to his shepherding heart. I now try to do the same for my students.
Comment: What is the best advice you've ever been given?
JS: Find a job you love and you add five days to every week.
Comment: From what sources do you draw inspiration for your work?
JS: My wife has been, without a doubt, my most important teacher. I think one can track themes in my writing (community, friendship, love, formation) that have emerged precisely because of the sacramental nature of marriage.
My intellectual inspirations are almost countless. It is one of the great blessings of my work to be able to baptize my curiosity and redeem it in writing. So my inspirations range from Saint Augustine to, more recently, the moving correspondence between Walker Percy and Shelby Foote.
Comment: What rituals and habits structure your workday?
JS: My work is structured by two key rituals. First, for over a decade I have worked from a tiny home office on Mondays and Fridays. This is partly the result of being part of a wonderfully collegial department, which means colleagues regularly dropping by and "interrupting" whenever I'm at the office. Working at home on Mondays and Fridays is my primary way of guarding time and space for writing.
While working at home, my day is marked by tea time at 10:30 a.m. and about 2:30 p.m. This was a habit I learned while on sabbatical in Cambridge several years ago. Then and now, part of the delight of such tiny daily Sabbaths is that I move downstairs and enjoy tea with my wife (on our front porch when Michigan weather permits). Working at a frenzied pace for the first decade of my career, it took me a long time to realize that rest makes one's work both more delightful and more productive.
Comment: What are your favorite tools?
JS: Though I am a relatively recent convert, I couldn't imagine working without my Mac PowerBook G4. However, I still find myself subject to the Gates empire insofar as I have been unable to disconnect myself from Microsoft Word as my writing environment. My only other indispensable tool is Yorkshire tea.
Comment: Tell us about a project that delighted you.
JS: Sometimes it's the little things that are most delightful. Of course, some bigger projects have been sources of delight. For instance, the experiences of producing Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?, coupled with its reception, have made that project a delight. But another project comes to mind: a little piece I just wrote on the poetry of Franz Wright (recently published in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin). Wright's poetry grabs me by the kardia and won't let go, on so many different levels, from the experience of absent fathers to the sacrament of the Eucharist. Being able to write on his work was an opportunity for homage that brought great joy. And you can imagine my delight when one morning in my "inbox" I found a note from Wright himself, thanking me for the piece. I was ready to build a tabernacle on the mountain for him right then and there.
Comment: How do you plan your work?
JS: A number of years ago I recall reading the preface to a book by a friend, Chris Thomas, on New Testament perspectives on healing (The Devil, Disease, and Deliverance). In the preface, Chris talked about praying about his research agenda. As an aspiring Christian scholar, I immediately felt convicted and challenged: Had I ever done that? Ever since that time, I have tried to engage in prayerful discernment about the next stages of my work.
Usually just before I finish one project—say, a book—I've already glimpsed where I need or want to go next (usually a later chapter of a book will presage that theme of a next book). And so I can narrate a story of continuity between all my projects, even if they might move in different directions.
That said, there is also a sense in which early decisions continue to constrain and press a particular agenda and trajectory simply because one's earlier books continue to generate invitations to write on those same topics. Just when I think I've finished with Derrida or hermeneutics, I get an intriguing invitation to write once again on those themes. The problem, however, is that I suffer from a kind of theoretical ADD: my curiosity lacks discipline, and by the time I've published a book on a particular topic of theme, I'm usually pretty bored with the topic and ready to move on. Nonetheless, there always remains gaps and facets of a topic that continue to haunt me, so I take these invitations as an opportunity to probe just a little further into the nooks and crannies of a topic or figure.
Comment: How does your work connect to other aspects of your life?
JS: My work is so entwined with the other spheres of my "life" that it's hard to distinguish the two. This is both a blessing and curse: on the one hand, it means that one's work is not a drudgery that one trods off to unwillingly. The joy of reading in the evening, for instance, or spending a week in Venice, are all fodder for a writer. On the other hand, it also can mean that one never really stops "working," which means it can be difficult to draw boundaries. Work can threaten to consume everything.