Wednesday, June 25, 2008

How Africa Shaped The Christian Mind by Thomas C. Oden

This book makes the assertion that not only did Western Christianity derive most of its leading theological ideas from Africa, but that European scholars have purposefully obscured this fact in the modern era. Why? Although Oden puts it in relatively generous terms, where I come from we call it good old-fashion racism. That said, this is not the central theme of the book. Oden takes the time to explain the geography of the early church on the African continent and the apostolic connections between Alexandria and the Nile Valley, Ethiopia, and the Maghreb (Tunisia, Libya, Algeria). These were hot-beds of Christianity and quite influential in the development of orthodoxy and theological inquiry prior to the Islamic conquests of the 8th Century. Oden builds an extremely good case that the Christianity that is exploding today on the continent of Africa needs to recognize that it didn't come from Europe as an import two centuries ago, but rather came from the Apostles to Africa which in turn went to Europe and then came back to them. The reader is also reminded that some of the great luminaries of the Church such as Augustine, Athanasius, and Origen, were not Hellenized Romans who just happened to live on the continent, but were actually of the indigenous peoples of Africa and retained viewpoints very much in keeping with their cultural identity. While the book may be provocative to some, it is a potent reminder that Christianity is not a European religion but a worldwide religion and always has been.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Attentive Life:Discerning God's Presence in All Things by Leighton Ford

Leighton Ford, now in his sunset of life, offers us The Attentive Life. This book seems to be several things at once. First, it is a book outlining the significance of the canonical hours as they have been practiced in Benedictine monasteries for more than a millenia. Second, it is a book about life stages and the rites of passage most of us experience as we advance in age. And thirdly, it is spiritual memoir which in many ways confesses that the author has lived anything but an attentive life, but is now reflecting and learning to see God's providential workings in his life both past and present. Each chapter is finished with a short biographical sketch of someone Ford believes lived an attentive life in some way. I thoroughly enjoyed the author's candor and honesty about his relationship with God especially in some of the darker episodes of his life. I also see this book as a model for something more Christian leaders (and, dare I say luminaries) should do for future generations. Autobiographies tend to either 'set the record straight' or offer explanations or success models to follow. A spiritual memoir tends to celebrate God more and tell us how He was faithful through our lives. Its always great to hear how someone accomplished great things with their ministry, but in the end God is all that is really important and insights into how you did something like walk with him through a lifetime are a great service to those of us following in their wake. Just a sidebar--Ford treats Benedictine spirituality in a completely uncritical fashion. He speaks of going to retreats at a monastery as if this is something all Christians do or would do if they could. I have no problem with my Catholic brothers and sisters observing a religious life (monasticism) even though I am a committed evangelical. What I do see in this is that evangelicals have a lesser (or poorly developed) tradition of spirituality than do the Catholics. We are great activists, Biblicists, and ecclesiologists, but we need to develop a richer legacy with our spirituality. Perhaps The Attentive Life will help lead the way.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Water From a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries

Just like any gemstone is enhanced by a beautiful setting, author Gerald Sittser has taken 2000 years of the history of Christian spirituality and made it shine by helping us to understand its particular context in time and application in the present. Sittser points us to the saints of old and tells us what makes them extraordinary is they believed there was “more, much more” they could expect to receive from God and that is our spiritual birthright. In some cases the ancients have some very relevant lessons for today’s Church. For instance the strong community life and corporate disciplines of the early church stand in contrast to the individualistic emphasis of today’s Christians who readily change congregations based on ‘felt needs’ and personal aspirations. Another lesson comes from the emphasis on the sacraments from the Middle Ages. While they may have held beliefs that were not totally rooted in the scripture, they were keenly aware they had no self-sufficiency before God and in humbly receiving the sacraments, they were receiving nourishment for their souls. Perhaps the best part of the book is his chapter on missionaries called “Risk”. Here we read about the great missionaries of the 19th century and are led to the realization that God doesn’t look for perfection but rather passion for Him in those He uses mightily. Sittser charges all of us to become saints today. Not the saints of ages past who lived in monasteries, the deserts of Egypt, or died in the arena. Instead he believes we should become secular saints. People who believe God cares about this world and this life and will endeavor to faithfully, gracefully, and in a million small ways, live in such a way as to bring the truth of God beyond the confines of the Church to a lost and hurting planet. This book is history at its best helping us to see not only our heritage, but the possibilities for living faithfully tomorrow.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Rewarding Long-term Marriage

I've been mulling over a statistic I read the other day in Family News from Dr. James Dobson that boggles my mind: the cost of divorce and it's aftermath to American taxpayers is nearly $112 billion dollars a year. Truth be told, I'm not totally shocked by this as I have a daughter who went through a particularly difficult divorce last year. She has received help from the state without which she couldn't begin to get back on her feet again even with child support from her ex-husband and help from her extended family. But this is not going to be a preachy piece on how we need to strengthen the institution of marriage in our country. We have tons of people (like Dr. Dobson) already doing that and doing it well on many levels. What I believe would be helpful would be a public policy that rewarded people for number of years married (to the same person of course!). Couples that succeed in their marriage over a lifetime often contribute far more to society than they ever receive and in some cases are the backbone of their communities. Why shouldn't their choice to stay together, work out their differences, and raise children from an unbroken home be recognized with an extra tax deduction or a one-year hiatus from property taxes. People always tend to do what is in their best interests especially when their behavior is recognized and rewarded. This is something every kindergarten teacher knows and something our congress ought to.