When Religion Looks Like Tires

the-ancient-path-talbotThe postmodern world is a confusing one. What are all these narratives people keep blathering on about? What does “power is knowledge” mean? For most folks, this flabbergasting effect creates a strain that results in doubt; doubt of all shapes and sizes and creeds. And for some, this leads to the past. How did people get on way back when? Its not a new question, although there may be a renewed interest in it of late. Enter John Michael Talbot’s The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today.

Talbot’s book is a biographical account of his journey towards Catholicism, primarily through is own study of the earliest Church Fathers like Cyprian and Tertullian. It is a winsome story, that treads many of the paths familiar to modern evangelicals. References to characters like Francis Schaffer and Talbot’s time at L’Abri brim with all the ecumenical flavor one should expect from such a book. After all its in the title: we need old lessons. This postmodern world needs an old faith. The aimless 60s and 70s gave us revolution…but unto what? Talbot asserts that it was in Church Fathers (and subsequently older Christian manifestations like Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism) that the solution to his angst was solved.

There are commendable aspects of Talbot’s book, but they are outweighed by the hackneyed concept. A story of how someone swam the Tiber? Been done (and then some). How many times can the same path be retread? In this regard, I’d even say the title is misleading. It is not a theological discourse on the Church Fathers, but rather a personal testimony about why you should get familiar with them. If one is looking a for a devotional book, or a study guide, you’d have to look elsewhere.

And all of this seems like so much white noise after the recent Pew Research study that demonstrated far fewer evangelicals are converting to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox branches than previously believed. Talbot’s efforts to point Christians back to ancient sources in Church history is a good goal, but I don’t think necessitates the kind of conversion-esque approach that his story lays out.

In the end, The Ancient Path is an interesting biographical journey told in a friendly prose. But that is about as far as it goes.

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The Rule of Saint Benedict (For Contemporary Readers)

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As a Church History teacher, Benedict of Nursia in one of those characters who you just never have enough time for. Spend one class, or even a week, talking about the Benedictine tradition, and you will still feel like there is so much left to cover. Thanks to the folks over at Paraclete Press and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, the horizon just got a little bit brighter.

Paraclete Press has released a modern paraphrase of Benedict’s “little rule” that serves as a welcome introduction to the monastic lifestyle in today’s language. I have read Benedict’s Rule in multiple translations, and this one is probably my favorite. While the previous versions all offer good instruction, Wilson-Hartgrove’s efforts create a fluid reading experience that doesn’t lose the reader in archaic phrasing or difficult language. The truth is, Benedict’s instructions are hard enough to live out, and being able to more readily interact with them bridges a gap of sorts that should be encouraging to anyone whose interested in what it means to live like a Christian, day in and day out, especially in community.

As Hartgrove points out, Benedict’s words are not just “spiritual” suggestions for the individual; this is a brass tacks explanation of what it means to live in community together. As someone who knows what it is like to life in small community, and do dishes, I found sections like “Kitchen Rotation” both humorous and poignant. And as someone actively involved in a church community today, chapters like 23 through 30 remind me that community is challenging. It is amazing how Benedict’s spiritual insight still holds so much truth and application for the Christians today.

This is a book that I cannot recommend strongly enough. New Christians, seasoned Christ followers, and everyone in between should pick up a copy of The Rule of Saint Benedict. There is no question that you can learn from this great Saint of the past, regardless of how modern his language may be.

Primal by Mark Batterson

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Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity is a challenging book. Mark Batterson, a pastor and author, has set about a serious self examination. He isn’t just looking at his own spiritual journey and asking the question, “am I stepping into God’s will?” He is truly confronting the global Church at large, looking American Christianity directly in the eye as if to say, “you know what I’m talking about.” Allow me to let Batterson speak for himself for a moment:

It goes without saying that Christianity has a perception problem. At the heart of the problem is the simple fact that Christians are more known for what we’re against than what we’re for.

Forgiving Batterson for his grammatically incorrect prepositional usage, I want to loudly support his assessment of the Church in Western culture. Batterson offers a fresh perspective for Christians struggling in the mire of dogmatism and stagnation. His views on understanding Scripture, especially his kaleidoscopic comparison, resonated with me enormously. His views on ideas and physical realities were also a welcome relief in a world of rehashed doctrinal statements which seem to contribute nothing to the discussion or say anything different.

It is not that Batterson and I agree on everything. Far from it. For instance, his perspective that much of the Western Church’s problems stem from engaging the minds and not the hearts is something I think is misguided. In my own experience, the exact opposite has been true (generally speaking). However, the points offered by Batterson are still very valuable.

Overall, this is a book that I would highly recommend to ALL Christians. Whether you’re fine as things are, discontent with the state of affairs, or simple seeking to draw closer to God, this is a book that will challenge and inspire you. I echo Batterson’s words, “do we need a reformation? The short answer is yes…The last Reformation was a reformation of creeds. The next reformation will be a reformation of deeds.” May these words be the coming of such a movement.

Fruitful

The school I teach at offers a rather rigorous academic program. It is by no means a perfect program, but it definitely pushes the students to think for themselves (as opposed to thinking for a test). Aside from the senior thesis defenses, and the junior apprenticeship projects, I don’t shirk from asking my students to engage with what they’re learning. In my Church History class, for instance, they’ve been assigned a research paper connecting an event from what we’ve studied with a concern in the Church today. One of my students did his paper on styles of worship, comparing Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli. Here’s a little excerpt:

…I would like to believe they would have agreed to disagree. I believe that if we are mature in our faith, petty things like style preference in worship should not come between us especially considering we are called “brothers and sisters in Christ.” If there is a superior worship style it is irrelevant because the only thing that matters is the worship itself offered to the One who is superior.

Papers like this make me very proud of my students. Its not an issue of agreement (because I agree with some students, and I disagree with others), but it is about taking the subject matter and understanding that it is more than a text book or a set of notes. The moments where the classroom encounters real life are the moments where I feel fruitful, in the truest sense of the word.

They have so much potential for God to unlock, that it is often times surprising. Whether they know it or not, I expect great things from each of my students this year.