October 20, 2011

Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

Zondervan has released Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, a new textbook and reference book on Christian Spirituality designed to be an academic resource from a broadly evangelical perspective that consciously takes into account the history and contributions of the wider Christian community throughout time. The book as two major parts, "Integrative Perspectives" and "Dictionary Entries." The first is a series of 34 topical essays dealing with introductory issues, major topics, and historical overviews. Most essays are five or six pages, and they seem to be good introductions to their respective areas. This first part is more or less what you might expect to find in an intro textbook, and their quality and breadth would make for a quite solid one. The second part of the book consists of about six hundred pages of dictionary articles, ranging in length from about a quarter page to around two pages, though most are around half a page. Their topics range widely, covering topics in spirituality like discipleship, nature mysticism, retreats, lament, and so on; historical figures, such as John Wesley, Vincent de Paul, Oscar Romero; and movements, such as Franciscan spirituality, Pentecostal spirituality, etc. As with any dictionary, I'm sure there is some unevenness in the entries, but the ones I read were good introductions to their respective areas.

 I am certain of the value of this new hybrid book. First, the quality of the integrative essays seems very good, and I especially enjoyed editor Glen Scorgie's overview chapter, which provides a very solid introduction to the rationale and scope of a study of spirituality. He describes authentic Christian spirituality as "a Spirit-enabled relationship with the triune God that results in openness to others, healing progress toward Christ-likeness, and willing participation in God's purposes in the world" (30). The other essays I have sampled seem likewise informative and well-reasoned. One aspect of this project that does come through is that it is deliberately interdisciplinary, both in the sense of incorporating various aspects of the study of the Bible and of theology (OT, NT, systematics, history, as well as the more practical) but also beyond the world of theology to other areas, particularly psychology. There is also a very deliberate attempt in the essays and the dictionary articles to include both distinctively evangelical perspectives and personalities and a very broad scope of other Christian contributions. There is also an obvious geographical diversity reflected in the contributors and the articles themselves that lends a global perspective.

 Thinking about the book as containing two principal parts, I see it being of great value as a textbook. I would envision a professor assigning certain of the introductory essays and pointing to a list of relevant articles for weekly assigned readings. There is also the possibility of setting the students loose in the dictionary portion in search of personalities and paper topics that resonate with them or pique their interest, a benefit of the wide variety of introductions close at hand. With those two types of uses in mind, I think this hybrid introduction and dictionary would make an effective textbook as well as a reference tool, though probably best suited to the former.

 This brings me to a couple weaknesses, which might be easily rectified in future printings and editions. First, and most notably, there is no list of dictionary entries. As I have noted, there is an immense variety of topics covered in the dictionary portion, which is a strength. But without knowing that there is an entry on "Motherhood of God," "Leisure and Play," or "Jarena Lee," one likely wouldn't go looking. So I envision a lot of trial and error in the use of the dictionary. This is mitigated a bit by the fact that each dictionary article ends with a short "see also" list of other suggested readings, but it is still a glaring omission that will hamper the usefulness quite a bit. The second shortcoming is that, while the dictionary articles have a list of "see also" suggestions, the main integrative essays do not, though it seems like these would have been especially useful here. As I've mentioned, I can see a student being assigned a few of the major essays and then a selection of the smaller dictionary entries to suit the instructor's desires, but with no article suggestions, the instructors or students are left to page through the 600 pages of dictionary entries in search of the relevant topics. It would have been useful, for instance to have a list after the "Jesus" article (by Dallas Willard, which was quite worthwhile, by the way) that included suggestions like cross; humility; imitation of Christ; Jesus Prayer; Jesus, name of; Lord's Prayer; Lord's Supper; Johannine Spirituality; Luke's Spirituality; and so on. This would also be of great value in the historical essays, as it would help the reader know which historical figures or relevant groups have individual entries.

 These weaknesses aside, there's a valuable resource here. I look forward to continuing to learn from it.

 Thanks to Zondervan for a review copy and a place on their blog tour.

New P. D. James mystery forthcoming

Knopf has announced on their website a new P. D. James novel that will be coming out December 6, 2011: Death Comes to Pemberly. It is a novel taking up the setting and characters of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and involving them in a murder mystery five years after Austen's novel leaves off. I have enjoyed P. D> James's novels immensely (especially Death in Holy Orders). Her writing is wonderful, her characters, and especially her main characters, have great depth, and theological themes often intertwine with the mysteries at hand. So I look forward to this one.

October 18, 2011

On "praying" to the saints

Thanks to Mike Bird for pointing me to an interaction between Rachel Held Evans (and her readers) and Frederica Mathewes-Green about the latter's writings and her move to the Orthodox Church. I admit that I have always bristled at any mention or allusion to any type of veneration or prayer to saints. And I'm still very cautious about the whole idea, but I was greatly enlightened by her response, which I have excerpted below.

From Karl: I realized after reading Facing East that I'd misunderstood many Orthodox and Catholic practices, such as the use of icons and "praying to" saints and Mary. Can you discuss a couple of common protestant misconceptions on these issues and explain how Orthodox view them? How and why do you think those misconceptions arose? [FMG:] I think much of the misconception about the saints goes back to the word “pray,” which originally meant simply making a request. You could say at dinner, “I pray you, pass the steak sauce.” When we pray to God, we ask him directly what is on our minds; when we pray to saints, we ask them to pray for us. It’s just like when I ask my prayer partners to pray for me. But, with them, I use email or a phone; with the saints, I use prayer. It’s a means of communication. Sometimes people say to me, “I can go directly to Jesus, I don’t need to ask intermediaries,” and I reply, “OK, I won’t pray for you any more, then.” Really, the prayers of the saints are no different from the prayers of our friends on earth. It is “the great cloud of witnesses,” both visible and invisible, all one in Jesus Christ.
I have been slowly growing in my realization of what the communion of saints means, mostly in terms of how I listen to voices from the past and seek to dialogue with and learn from them. But this points in a more active and present dimension that I think has a valid place, if we truly believe in the resurrection. I don't affirm her view without reservation, to be sure, but I found it worth considering.

October 12, 2011

Brilliant Resource!

I just received in the mail my copy of Synopsis of the Pauline Letters in Greek and English, and after a very brief perusal, all I can say is, "brilliant!" The layout looks thoughtful, and having Paul's writings (and relevant passages from Acts) in parallel in this format will be so helpful! I wish I had had this resource years ago. Kudos to Baker Academic and to James Ware for this helpful resource. I plan to get some good use out of it in the near future, and will post some more systematic reflections then, but in the mean time, get this one!

October 10, 2011

Just arrived: Dict of Christian Spirituality

In the mail this morning I received a review copy of Dictionary of Christian Spirituality from Zondervan. I was intrigued by the opportunity to review this book, for a couple of reasons. The first is that it has some really great contributors (Dallas Willard with an article on Jesus and Spirituality was first among the articles that piqued my interest), and I am always looking for ways to deepen my own spirituality. The second was that I wanted to read it with one particular question in mind, What is "spirituality"? It seems to be a contested question in our day, with various types of "spiritualities" on offer. So what does Christian spirituality look like? So we'll see what these authors have to say. I look forward to seeing what comes of it. This is a rather large book (well over 800 pages), so I obviously won't be reading it cover to cover before the blog tour in a couple of weeks, but I look forward to dipping in at various points.

October 04, 2011

Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Metaxas has given us a very readable biography of one of the most remarkable characters of the twentieth century. Bonhoeffer's theological impact is large and continues to be felt widely, his ecumenical connections and his role in the church struggle in Germany propelled him to prominence in the fight against Nazism, and his role in the plots to remove Hitler gave him a place in the military and political history of the Second World War. So he is certainly a man to be reckoned with. Where Metaxas's biography shines is as he seeks to convey the deep conviction and faith that animated Bonhoeffer's thinking and living. A deeply academic man, with a broad education, he also took very seriously the living and practice of his faith. And Metaxas's biography is careful to trace this stream as he moves smoothly through the various important periods in Bonhoeffer's life. Bonhoeffer biography, in fact Bonhoeffer scholarship as a whole, is contested ground these days. Stephen Haynes wrote a book in 2004, The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon, that sought to show the various ways Bonhoeffer has been interpreted (or even co-opted) by various and diverse groups, how his remembrance goes from technical theological interaction to something approaching hagiography. Simply the presence of his popular Cost of Discipleship as a frequent must-read book among young evangelicals and the popularity of his idea of "religionless Christianity" among liberal scholars shows the breadth of interest in him. On the whole, I think Metaxas has navigated the rough waters well. He doesn't seem to excessively elevate Bonhoeffer, noting for instance that his family rarely if ever went to church while he was growing up or that his father was mostly opposed to religion, but he also doesn't shy away from Bonhoeffer's evident and deep faith that drove his thinking and acting. Instead he presents Bonhoeffer as a vibrant and scholarly Christian dedicated to living a life devoted to God but also willing to wade into complex waters without seeking simplistic answers but instead seeking to faithfully live as a disciple of Jesus. I greatly enjoyed this book, and was deeply inspired again by Bonhoeffer's life and his writings, which are liberally but not overwhelmingly excerpted and quoted throughout the narrative. Metaxas tells the story of Bonhoeffer's education and travels, details his involvement with the Confessing Church and its seminary, highlights his major theological writings without focusing on them in detail, and chronicles his involvement in the plots to kill HItler. It is compelling reading, and I highly recommend it.