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    Entries in The Ancient Practices Series (6)

    Tuesday
    Dec282010

    Book Review :: Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey (The Ancient Practices Series)

    Pilgrimage is a concept seldom reflected upon within modern Christian discourse, particularly for Western, evangelical, Protestant types, which represents myself and countless readers of this weblog.  With all the emphasis on journey as a metaphor for the life of faith, there isn't much of a charge for us to go anywhere.  Rather, we are told that following Jesus should result in a transformation of the heart that can be chronicled much like a choose-your-own-stay-at-home adventure, even if the setting and backdrop remain static, and the only challenges that emerge are those common to life in suburbia.  The mountains to traverse, the trails to walk, the streams to observe, and the dark monsters we face reside only in our imagination.  Wilderness wanderings, like those of the ancient Hebrews, are things we read about in the travelogue that is our Bible, not the stuff of our lived experience.

    Though rarely addressed, pilgrimage is no less important.  That is why Charles Foster's The Sacred Journey is such an insightful and helpful read.  Foster describes the practice of the transformative movement from here to there.  He invokes the importance within the Christian tradition of sacred, or thin, places, places wherein we pray or experience God more poignantly, more precisely, and that there is value in physically visiting a site possessing a history, a place imbued with spiritual significance long before we arrived on the scene that is likely to endure long after we have gone.  His book testifies powerfully to the physicality of our existence, the embodiment of our faith, and the deep connections that exist between earthly and heavenly realities.

    The final installment in The Ancient Practices Series, Foster's contribution stands above a number of the other volumes for quality of prose and readability.  It is a blessing to read a volume that delights, and this is one.  However, there were elements I found contentious; for example, if I were to sit down with Foster, I would debate with him at length God's preference for the pilgrim and disdain for those who settle.  I would point out that cities themselves serve a purpose in God's economy, and while God may do much formative work in the wilderness, refining the character of a people, God also establishes a land wherein cities might spring up, serving the purposes of government, justice, and oversight for those who reside within God's community.  Cities are places wherein culture is developed and produced, either for God's glory or for the denigration of the human race.  Cities are places where God can work just as mightily for the transformation of a people as God can in the rough and tumble of the wilderness.

    In addition to my critique of Foster's claim that God hates the city (with the exception of one reversal at the conclusion of Revelation), I also found myself unsettled by the frequent invocation of the writings and insights of other religious traditions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in his account of the pilgrimage.  While I agree with Foster that there are numerous parallels between Christian and other conceptions of the value and purpose of the journey for the life of faith, I questioned why Foster could not put those accounts aside for the sake of constructing a distinctly Christian account of formation by way of the pilgrimage.  This is an overall critique of the series, not only of Foster.  With the exception of Scot McKnight's volume on fasting, many of the works in The Ancient Practices Series made certain to demonstrate that none of these practices are exclusively Christian.  However, unlike McKnight, other contributors to the Series did not make a strong enough case for the difference practicing these disciplines or exercises (biblically, theologically, or otherwise) makes when observed in a particularly Christian way.  There was not enough done to establish what difference these practices make for the Christian in distinction from the "spiritual person."  This does not mean that I did not find the work done by Foster and others to be of value.  However, it does mean that I thought that these volumes could have offered an even greater value to the Christian community, and, thus, I think that a greater opportunity may have been lost.

    I'd recommend reading The Sacred Journey.  Even when placing my critiques aside, Foster's writings made me want to go somewhere, and wherever it was that I would be going, my desire was to go there with Jesus.

    DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.

    Wednesday
    Feb242010

    Brief Book Review :: The Ancient Practices Series: Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal

    Now that I've completed Nora Gallagher's The Sacred Meal, I've read six of the eight titles in Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices Series.  I've enjoyed each volume for different reasons, as the style of each author has brought a unique approach to discussing each of these spiritual practices.  This book, in particular, was very unique stylistically.  From a technical writing standpoint, Gallagher has written a delightful book.  However, from a biblical and theological standpoint, I was left longing for more.  Below you will find a few reasons why.

    Within this series, it has not been uncommon for me to long for greater depth in biblical, historical, and theological reflection concerning each practice.  I recognize that these books have not been written for a scholarly audience, and thus do not contain numerous footnotes or extensive technical discussion common to academic works.  However, for the Christian layperson who might explore these books looking for greater insight into each of these spiritual practices, at least some discussion of the relevant biblical texts and an examination of some of the most critical points of theological debate would be incredibly helpful.  In this particular book, the narrative prose and the critical self reflection of Gallagher is inviting, engaging, and enjoyable, and at one level it is informative for those who might resonate with her experiences, but with regard to how those experiences might engage with the wider breadth of the Christian tradition, Gallagher only scratches the surface.  To summarize this first point of criticism, in reading this volume I hoped for at least a deeper level of historical reflection, but was disappointed.

    Secondly, Gallagher's description of the Lord's Meal itself stresses one particular viewpoint concerning the significance of this ritual over others.  Gallagher continually notes how the Eucharist is an all inclusive meal, which I will not deny.  While stressing the all-inclusiveness of this meal, Gallagher seems to use this practice to lift up and champion a number of social justice causes, and while this interpretation of the meal is no doubt valid and instructive, it is only one particular way in which this meal has been of vital importance for Christian people throughout the ages.  In many other traditions, the celebration of Communion reminds those present of the very real cost of salvation, the depth of their own sin, and the great victory which Jesus won on the cross to bring about deliverance from death and the assurance of eternal life.  At the very least, a nod toward the fact that the Passover meal Jesus celebrated with his closest followers appeared to lack one of the traditional elements, that of the lamb, only for it later to be reveal that Jesus himself was the True lamb, would've added a much needed dimension to Gallagher's discussion.

    Lastly, for all of the insight that is to be gained from hearing another person's story, a resource like this one should include some instruction for how the Eucharist should be approached by the reader.  In this respect, Gallagher's contribution in this series differs greatly from Scot McKnight's Fasting in that McKnight quite helpfully gives his readers much to consider in adopting a new spiritual practice.  Gallagher shares her experience as a Communion server, and notes a number of ways that Communion has been deeply meaningful in her Christian journey, but aside from those moments of beauty the reader might see in Gallagher's personal narrative, there is little instruction for someone considering how they might engage in this practice either for the first time, or more deeply after having taken the bread and the cup many times before.

    For these reasons, and for other more specific disagreements concerning Gallagher's treatment (or lack thereof) of relevant biblical and theological material, I do not heartily recommend this book.  While this volume contains a handful of beautifully written stories, the overall thrust of the narrative disappoints, and left me learning more about Nora Gallagher than the Eucharist, or the Lord who gave us the gift of this meal.

    Monday
    Feb222010

    Brief Book Review :: The Ancient Practices Series: Dan Allender's Sabbath

    Dan Allender loves the Sabbath. That much is clear. I appreciate this. As one who does not observe Sabbath faithfully (at times I engage in outright rebellion), Allender's love for this ancient practice kindled my own. The Ancient Practices Series has had that tendency, as on the whole I have greatly enjoyed these volumes.

    Within this installment Dan Allender writes in clear, enjoyable prose concerning the practice of Sabbath. I devoured this book in a couple of days, and after I had put it down, I was eager to return. With three clear divisions (Sabbath Pillars, Purpose, and Performance), the reader is shown theological and biblical foundations for Sabbath observance, the reasons this practice has been given, and how this day can be most deeply enjoyed. Throughout his book, Allender quite thankfully avoids a bland description of Sabbath, and instead opts for the language of pure delight, play, and abundance. Allender also avoids legalistic prescriptions, and rather inspires the imagination for how Sabbath might be engaged with the totality of one's being.

    Despite the fact that I read this book quickly, and on the whole found it enjoyable, I did find it lacking in a couple of ways. First, this book did refer to the biblical foundations for Sabbath practice, most notably the fourth commandment. But as has been true of more than one volume of The Ancient Practices Series, I found the level of engagement with Scripture lacking. What significance did Sabbath practice have for the people of Israel? And, for those in the Christian community, in what way did Jesus challenge Sabbath practices and open up new possibilities for Sabbath observance among those called as his disciples? Such questions deserve attention, for the Scriptures serve as a foundational and critical narrative for the establishment of these practices in the life of the Christian person.

    As another critical observation, it was quite clear that Allender made a choice to avoid discussion of the Sabbath that focused too heavily on our need for rest in a world addicted to work, hurry, and busyness, a move that took something away from the overall value of this volume. Though teachings on Sabbath commonly take this angle, the value in stressing rest as a gift to be received as part of our life rhythm clearly remains, and all signs within American culture (and perhaps others, but I speak from my location) tell us this lesson has yet to be learned. Allender does nod in this direction, but does not treat this aspect of Sabbath fully enough.

    Simply because Allender's love of Sabbath is contagious, I would recommend this book. The shortcomings I have noted do not outweigh the potential benefits this book could bring. Allender describes this practice as something to be cherished, and I believe that his description, in many ways, provides an uncommon lens through which to see God's good world that includes his gift of Sabbath.

    Monday
    Feb082010

    Brief Book Review :: The Ancient Practices Series: Douglas LeBlanc's Tithing: Test Me in This

    Belief and practice should fit together like hand and glove, and Thomas Nelson Publishing continues to remind us of this very fact through their Ancient Practices Series.  In Douglas LeBlanc's Tithing: Test Me in This, we have yet another helpful installment chronicling a spiritual exercise in the Christian tradition, that of giving.  As noted within the book, the tithe is a Christian spiritual practice commonly regarded with disrepute in a similar way to fasting, and thus is often tragically neglected.  Despite this, LeBlanc seeks to make the case that tithing remains a vital practice in need of recovery, and seeks to demonstrate through storytelling the type of difference tithing can make in the development of Christian character.

    When picking up this book, don't expect an expository guide to the practice of tithing, or a theological treatise on why tithing is a standard Christian practice.  Rather, in this book you'll find a catalogue of modern saints marked by generosity.  In this respect this book has a fantastic implicit message, being that we only learn how to be virtuous by looking to those who are virtuous.  In the most extreme case of generosity, all Christians look to Jesus, who withheld nothing in making possible the salvation of humankind.  But the reality of Jesus becomes more real as we look at those who follow after Christ living the life made possible through him.  Thus LeBlanc's case studies in generosity prove immensely helpful.

    As a biblical studies and theology enthusiast, I was a little disappointed that this book did not address the relevant passages of Scripture and corresponding developments in church history relevant to the practice of tithing.  Other books in this series have given some attention to the biblical and theological roots of the ancient practices, providing a firm foundation that runs deep.  While I was deeply impressed with the case studies provided, and was given some insight when those personal testimonies included a textual or historical basis, direct attention to primary sources would have enhanced the overall quality and utility of this particular book.

    The bottom line: this is a good, quick read with some helpful examples, but I would've found a fuller, multi-dimensional approach to tithing more helpful, particularly considering that so few people understand the theology behind the tithe and the critical need for a generous spirit to bring about the most good in the world.

    Thursday
    Jan212010

    The Ancient Practices Series :: Robert Benson's In Constant Prayer

    Do you pray the hours?  I can't say that I do.  But that doesn't mean that I'm not fascinated by the practice itself, believing that the discipline of praying at appointed times and the benefit of reciting well composed, theologically sound, and carefully crafted prayers can immensely further spiritual growth.  I never have given much thought to taking up the practice of praying the hours until I read Robert Benson's In Constant Prayer, another volume in The Ancient Practices Series.  But now I've been challenged to consider it very seriously.

    With delightful prose, Benson describes the daily office.  He plainly tells us about the church's tradition of faithfully praying together, whether gathered or apart, at appointed times and hours.  He tells us how we are able to grow by disciplining ourselves to pray at designated moments, noting the subtle intersection between the daily and the divine.  And all along he adds color to his discussion of how and why we pray the words given to us at a common hour by telling delightful stories from his experiences as a writer, a speaker, and a friend.

    Some of you might be wondering, what is the daily office?  In common usage, praying the daily office simply means to pray at appointed times of day.  In many prayer books, these appointed times are Morning Prayer, Noontime Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline Prayer (Bed-time).  These prayers normally take a certain shape, beginning with a call to prayer, followed by a psalm of invitation (such as Psalm 95 or Psalm 121).  This is then followed by a collect, or gathering prayer.  Then a canticle, or a hymn of praise is read, then an appointed psalm or psalms.  Then there is the reading of Scripture, followed by a response, then the prayers of the people, confessions of sin, and finally a blessing to bring this time to a close.

    Some of you may be thinking that this would take forever.  Benson notes that it normally doesn't take that long at all.  In fact, he's found it only takes about 12 minutes.  That isn't that long to pause, read Scripture, and be in God's presence.

    Benson's book provides many more details about the daily office that are illuminating.  He also notes a number of resources that can help one establish this pattern of prayer in one's life.

    How has this book impacted my own spiritual journey?  First, I have a deeper understanding of the daily office, and how might one go about taking up that practice.  Second, I have taken up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and have used it from time to time to guide my prayer life.  And thirdly, I've been challenged as a writer.  Benson is delightful to read.  Of the books I've read on spiritual practices as of late, this one has been the best.