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.

No comments: