Dictionary of Christian Spirituality – Review

Dictionary of Christian SpiritualityDictionary of Christian Spirituality by Glen G. Scorgie

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mentioning “spirituality” makes the typical conservative Christian think of meditation, saying the Jesus Prayer, and similar practices which sound suspiciously New-Age. But, this new Dictionary of Christian Spirituality should dispel such notions. The authors are firmly grounded in Biblical theology, and find their moorings in the Evangelical tradition. At the same time, they welcome the truths that other traditions have emphasized.

The book is divided into two parts: (1) a series of integrative essays on the discipline and history of spiritual theology, and (2) the Dictionary proper, which includes a vast array of entries on all aspects of Christian spirituality.

Overall, this is a welcome addition to any scholar’s or pastor’s library. Interested Christians will also find a wealth of thoughtful, and practical, material. The volume is huge (a mere 852 pages!), but it is bound well, and is designed with a view to aesthetic layout.

(Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the Zondervan book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

View all my reviews

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals – Review

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary RadicalsCommon Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an exciting book! I came to it with hardly any background knowledge on who the New Monastics are, and I think that served me well. I see this text as a healthy injection of ancient wisdom into the postmodern church. This book breathes a freshness and a vitality that are missing from the more traditional churches that have never abandoned the historic liturgies. In many ways, familiarity breeds contempt. I won’t accuse any churches of having contempt for their historic liturgies, but there definitely seem to be churches that take their liturgies for granted. The New Monastics have stumbled into these ancient practices, somewhat like the children in “The Secret Garden,” and are helping to shake up the Church, forcing us to re-examine the central things. What does it mean to worship? What does it mean to live in community? How does God want us to use our resources? Some of the answers given by the New Monastics may sound a little too “politically correct” for some people, but I believe they are basically on the right track. God has a way of messing with our traditions, and our assumptions.

I encourage anyone unfamiliar with “liturgy” to pick up this book and give it the benefit of the doubt. This book is meant to be used in community, in prayer with other people. Use it to give some form and purpose to your small-group worship time. Best of all, the book is filled with Scripture, rather than someone’s pale imitation of Scripture. The lectionary is also helpful, as a guide to reading the Bible together in community. I appreciated the quotes from saints and heroes of the faith. They are truly inspiring. Walking in the footsteps of Christ can be lonely, difficult work, and this book is encouragement for the journey.

(Also check out their website for daily prayer: http://commonprayer.net/)

View all my reviews

The Sacred Meal – Review

The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices SeriesThe Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series by Nora Gallagher

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found Gallagher’s book simultaneously illuminating and infuriating. To start on a positive note, Gallagher definitely has a gift for writing. I’m used to reading fat books by scholars on this subject, but Gallagher brings a lot of wit and earthy wisdom to this topic. And, I’ll certainly agree that the scholars have muddied the waters quite a bit. Jesus told us to do something really simple, but we’ve managed to fragment this sacrament of unity into a hundred thorny questions. Gallagher’s catchy metaphors appropriately turn our attention away from whatever might be going on “inside” the bread, and she exhorts us to remember that “we” are the Body of Christ, when we gather as the Church. When we take communion, she exhorts us to “Look around you,” something I’ve said when I’ve administered communion. Don’t try to conjure up some deep, mystical experience–just look around at all other messed up people that God is in the process of healing. Gallagher has many wonderful stories about her experiences with partaking, and administering, communion–stories about real people being transformed by ancient rite. She helps us to look at this “ancient practice” from lots of new angles, and I think much of what she says is spot on and quite helpful.

But … there were a few parts which made me gag a little. I think Gallagher is far too quick to buy into the neo-liberal reading of Jesus which highlights Jesus’ supposed critique of “empire.” Now, I freely confess that we should do more to care for the poor. I confess that our government is not righteous. I acknowledge that there are more than a few unsettling analogies between America hegemony and the pagan Roman Empire. But, I’m just not convinced that this is the right way to read the Jesus narratives. However, I will agree enthusiastically with one of Gallagher’s conclusions: “So part of waiting in Communion is examining what we did last week to find the kingdom of heaven in our midst and to help others find it” (pg. 37).

A quibble–I didn’t really buy her imaginative reconstruction of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21-28). I find Kenneth Bailey’s interpretation much more convincing (see Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, ch. 16).

Lastly, I believe Gallagher goes too far in her desire to be inclusive and welcoming. She writes: “Communion is so important to me that I don’t think there should be rules about who can take it and who cannot” (pg. 88). Now, I fully applaud the motive here. I’m trying to write a dissertation on some of the reasons why churches should celebrate the Supper more often. It’s important to me. But not more important than the Word of God. Gallagher doesn’t want to create “rules” about who can, and who can’t, take Communion (pg. 89). The only problem is that the Apostle Paul lays down some pretty tough rules in 1 Cor. 11:27-32. Perhaps Gallagher has some exegetical reasons for why Paul isn’t setting up some sort of “fence” around the Table. If so, it would have been nice to have those reasons summarized. She also appears to drive off the cliff of tolerance when she writes: “Thieves are welcome here, and embezzlers; so are murderers and prostitutes and sex abusers and those who have been or are abused … Everyone.” (pg. 92). Now, I agree that no sin should keep us away from the Table, but I would add that no sin we “repent” of, should keep us away. What about 1 Cor. 5:11? When Jesus refused to condone the stoning of the woman caught in adultery, he did not just dismiss her sin. He commanded her, “Go, and from now on sin no more.” (Jn. 8:11). The Eucharist is medicine for sick souls, and repentance (the process of turning away from sin) must be part of how approach the Table (Ro. 6:22).

I’m thankful to Gallagher for writing this book, and for forcing us to re-think a ritual that so many of us take for granted.

View all my reviews

(Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”)

Review – The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God

The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God The Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God by St. John Maximovitch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a short little book. I was hoping for more. Apparently, St. John was a very holy man who upheld the Orthodox Tradition. This book doesn’t have much in the way of footnotes or sources (for further study), but one of the main points of the translator’s (Fr. Rose Seraphim) introduction is that one must participate in Orthodox worship for a long period of time to really understand what the Orthodox believe about Mary.

Indeed, it is an ancient principle of Christian theology that “prayer determines belief”–how we pray shapes what we believe.

I enjoyed the section against the Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary’s “Immaculate Conception” (that she was conceived free from original sin) the best. I guess that because I’m a recovering Calvinist, but it was illuminating to see that Church Fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, and Bernard said things that sure seem to contradict Rome’s current understanding (which was only proclaimed a “dogma” in the 1800s).

For Westerners, who are almost completely ignorant of Christianity outside the US, Orthodox can be quite strange and foreign. This little book did a decent job of explaining some of the things the Church has believed from the very earliest times, and also showed how Orthodoxy does not go as far as Rome in their high view of Mary.

View all my reviews >>

Does Unity Matter?

As a follow-up to my review of John Armstrong’s new book, Your Church Is Too Small, here are some verses to provoke more discussion, prayer, and concrete actions towards visible church unity:

Jn. 17:20-23

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” (ESV, emphasis added)

Now, some maintain that Christians already have “spiritual” unity, and that is all the Bible requires.  My big question is, “How will an unseen, spiritual unity convince an unbelieving world?!”

Continue reading “Does Unity Matter?”

Your Church Is Too Small – Review

Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church by John H. Armstrong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Next week, I’ll be meeting with a couple pastors and friends from our little town in North Carolina. We’ll be a diverse little group, but we will be exploring ways to work together in our town, to present a united witness, as well as create a network of Christians who can respond to needs and hurting people within our own community.

Now, I’m naturally a shy and retiring person. I’d rather write about this, than actually do it. What would motivate me to do this? Well, John H. Armstrong’s new book, Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission is Vital to the Future of the Church, would! I didn’t actually get the idea from Armstrong (I heard about a similar group in Colorado), but Armstrong confirmed my resolution, and gave me a solid kick in my sectarian, Reformed rear-end.

This a fantastic book! This week marks the official “blog tour” for the book. You can find other reviews at the Koinonia blog.

Here are some highlights:

“My thesis is simple: The road to the future must run through the past” (17). Armstrong is concerned with recovering a true sense of “catholicity,” a vision we share at the Reformed Liturgical Institute.

“True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to grips with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian. The result will be new forms of man-made religion that embrace recycled heresies” (18).

Armstrong chronicles his journey into greater catholicity. He stresses the theological and Biblical mandate for unity, and shows how this unity must be Trinitarian–unity in diversity. While Armstrong appreciates the aspects of the “Great Tradition” preserved in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox communions, he does not surrender Reformed distinctives.

What is most encouraging are the stories of actual churches working together in their towns, guided by a shared love of Christ, and motivated by the Spirit that brings ultimate unity (Ephesians 4:4-5).

There are many details to consider, and much more work to be done in this area. Armstrong doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But, he does believe that Jesus actually wants a unified people, and he shows how this is our ultimate apologetic (Jn. 17:22-23). For this, we should all be grateful.

View all my reviews >>

Well, at least he stopped branding faces …

People tend to lament the conversion of the Roman emperor Constantine to Christianity.  Yes, he wasn’t perfect.  Yes, he probably chose Christianity to unify his empire.  But, it wasn’t all bad. 

John Meyendorff highlights the mixed-bag nature of the Christianization of the Roman Empire: “If the Roman  state, now Christian-inspired, hardly modified its philosophy of marriage, it did begin to integrate some principles of Christian family ethics.  Thus help was provided to parents unable to feed their children and tempted to abandon them.  The sale of children to slavery and their use for prostitution was severely punished.  Laws prohibiting celibacy, which was encouraged by the Church, were abolished.  Homosexuals were to be burnt at the stake.  Earlier, Constantine had condemned pederasts to gladiator’s fights, but soon decided to abolish such fights altogether, after also forbidding mutilation, by fire-branding, of a criminal’s face because ‘it bears the similitude of God'” (Imperial Unity and Christian Divisions, 10-11). 

So, in the midst of what most would consider barbaric punishments, we have laws against child-abuse, and a thoroughly Christian reason for not branding criminals on their faces! 

I love Meyendorff–although he is Eastern Orthodox, he is truly objective.  He doesn’t shy away from the messy (or objectionable) details of church history, and nor does he over-emphasize the virtues of the early church.