The 4 Books That Rocked My Christian World & Expanded My Faith
How A Jew, A Catholic, A Presbyterian & An Episcopalian Blew-Up My Baptist Brain
When I first considered writing a blog, I imagined it would primarily be made up of short devotional reflections intended to help give spiritual encouragement to congregants, not much different than a Daily Bread devotional. In the process, I never suspected how personal this endeavour would become. I have learned it is hard to write about something unless there is some motivating and personalizing force behind it. As a result I have discovered much of what I write is just as much, if not more so, for myself than for anyone else, and this week’s reflection is no exception.
Back in the early 2000’s, while still wet in the ministry and new to married life, I read a considerable amount that was tremendously formative to my faith and thought. This period was particular influential, because in many ways this was the first time in my life where my reading was not done because of necessity for school, or for work, or even for mindless pleasure, but instead I began to read for curiosity, for personal betterment, and for greater knowledge. Although I could list several influential books, there were four books that were so transformative they deserve their own shrine for the effect they had upon me. With these four books, upon closing the back cover I realized I was no longer the same person I was before I had picked-up each book. My world and my faith had been permanently altered for the better. This week’s reflection serves as a simple “Thank You” for these four mind and faith expanding gifts:
- The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2002)
One of the most important and humbling observations everyone needs to be consistently reminded of is, “The universe does not revolve around anyone of us.” The demise and death of Christianity has been regularly repeated over a long period of time only to prove itself resilient in submitting to such false claims. However if honest, when we look at the Christian Church in the West, we are tempted to see it both on the wane with little influence at best, or at worst, we see it as anemic, problematic, and hopelessly divided. Fortunately, as every magician knows and bets their livelihoods on, “looks can be misleading.”
Jenkins’ work disavows any notion of writing a Christianity obituary anytime soon. Rather, he instructs us to shift our gaze from our insular Western vantage point and draws our eyes towards the East and the South. Once we glance in the direction of East Asia, Africa and South America, we no longer see a disappointing and disappearing church, but an explosion of the largest, unprecedented growth Christianity has experienced in its 2000 year history. Likewise, it will soon be apparent, and in many ways already is, these Eastern and Southern Christians will be the ones giving shape and rebirth to our Western Church world for many generations to come. Finally, Jenkins rightfully alerts us: We should not expect these new and growing Christian expressions to look like, either our familiar Orthodox Catholic and Protestant representations, or like our liberal mainline churches, because most assuradely they will bring their own vibrant flair and diversity to Christendom.
2. The Prophets by Abraham J. Heschel (Harper & Row, 1962)
In simplistic honesty, Protestants neither know how to read, or know what to do with the Old Testament Prophets. Baptists in particular may be the greatest offenders to these spokesmen for God. Grotesquely, because we do not know what to do with them, when we try and do something with them, we generally make a mess.
Anyone who has tried to read Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, etc. knows reading these Biblical books are not for the faint of heart, and making sense of them often ends up being a futile endeavour. As a kid growing up within the Evangelical Baptist world, prophecy was synonymous with end times (*Baptists are not good in distinguishing prophecy from apocalypse, which are two different literary forms and generally serve different purposes), and the purpose of reading the prophets was to unravel all the supposed and novel mysteries of the impending apocalypse. If one couldn’t figure out what a prophetic passage had to do with the Anti-Christ, the Rapture, the Tribulation, or Christ’s First or Second Coming, then it was of little value. As a tragic result, the Prophets either got ignored or manipulated beyond recognition. I am so grateful this perception of God’s prophetic pundits was shattered when as an unsuspecting twenty-eight year old Baptist pastor I began reading the elegant and startling words of Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel:
“What manor of man is the prophet? A student of philosophy who turns from the discourses of the great metaphysicians to the orations of the prophets may feel as if he were going from the realm of the sublime to an area of trivialities. Instead of dealing with the timeless issues of being and becoming, of matter and form, of definitions and demonstrations, he is thrown into orations about widows and orphans, about the corruption of judges and affairs of the market place. Instead of showing us a way through the elegant mansions of the mind, the prophets take us to the slums…. What if somewhere in ancient Palestine poor people have not been treated properly by the rich..? Why such intense indignation..?
“The things that horrified the prophets are now daily occurrences all over the world…. Indeed, the sort of crimes and even the amount of delinquency that fill the prophets of Israel with dismay do not go beyond that which we regard as normal, as typical ingredients of social dynamics. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence; to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world…
“The prophet is a man who feels fiercely. God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed. Frightful is the agony of man; no human voice can convey its full terror. Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.”
In reading Heschel, I learned to read the prophets is to be exposed to both the inexpressible heart and heartache (or “pathos”) God has for his creation. After reading Heschel, the Old Testament Prophets are now approachable, understandable, and most importantly, a cherished and beloved part of my Bible.
3. The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton (Penguin Books, 1908)
There is no simple way to summarize this book as it may be the ‘trippyest’ book I have ever read, and equally, the most profound apologetic work in defence of God’s character I have encountered. Chesterton, a Catholic journalist, author, literary critic, and global celebrity at the turn of the twentieth century, has been deemed, “The Prince of Paradox,” and this work may be his finest example of displaying his literary power through the medium of paradox (*Two seemingly contradicting ideas that in actuality create a unified picture). Out of the four books highlighted, Chesterton’s is the only novel, and as difficult as it is to summarize, I will attempt to make an overtly simplistic attempt (*as a warning, for anyone who attempts to read this work, you will either love it and engage it, or you will find it confusing and pehaps nonsensical):
In his novel, Chesterton invites us into the psychedelic dreamscape of Gabriel Syme. Within Syme’s dramatic vision, he finds himself as, both a member of an anarchist society that is planning to topple civilization, and as an undercover agent with the mandate of toppling this secret terrorist cell. Each member of this group is code named after a day of the week, and as it turns out, each member, with the exception of “Sunday” who is the head, are also undercover agents commissioned to bring down Sunday. In the end, it is revealed, Sunday and the Chief or Police are one and the same person, and all of the six agents represent the six days of creation. Syme shockingly discovers: God is both the pragmatic law giver who keeps everything in order, and God is also the potential anarchist who has the power to turn everything upside down. It is God who holds all the grandeur and creativity of creation and is the genius mind who possesses all the personality traits that help make creation remarkable. God is the pragmatist and God is the poet; God is the soldier and God is the martyr; God is the accountant and God is the one who throws away the books; God is judge and God is jester. And God created the mysterious world with these unique paradoxes to reveal His magnificent glory!
When Syme awakens, he never sees the world quite the same again; and since reading this work of Chesterton, I have never quite seen the world or God the same way either…
“He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.”
4. Telling The Truth: The Gospel As Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner (Harper Collins, 1977)
This book, as far as I can recall, is the only book I ever read through, and the moment I finished it, I immediately picked it back up and re-read it.
This book consists of four parts based on four preaching lectures, Presbyterian minister and author Frederick Buechner gave in 1976 at Yale Divinity School. Buechner speaks directly to the preacher on their task of preaching, which demands of them to express the Gospel of Christ with all the creative, and narrative genius that all the great stories tellers excel at; and to do so within the three broad categories of narratives: Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. If the preacher leaves out any of these elements, he is not properly telling the truth, nor is he rightfully speaking to the experience of his audience.
The preacher must speak to the tragedy, which is the seeming absence of God that everyone experiences. The preacher must also speak to the comic and often surprising ways God breaks through the silence of tragedy, which causes us to laugh and experience joy. Finally, the preacher must preach the fairytale element of the gospel, as the story that at its heart is too good to be true, where good ultimately triumphs over evil.
In the processes of encouraging preachers with these vital elements of communicating the gospel, Buechner also weaves in elements of some beloved classics and Bible narratives to help make his point, including: Shakespeare’s King Lear; Baum’s Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Tolkiens’ Lord of the Rings; Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia; and Scriptures’ narratives of Abraham and Sarah, and Pilot and Jesus. Finally for Buechner, the biggest failure of the preacher is to be too timid, too cautious, too prudent it their telling of the truth:
“The joke of it is that often it is the preacher who as a steward of the wildest mystery of them all is the one who hangs back, prudent, cautious, hopelessly mature and wise to the last when no less than Saint Paul tells him to be a fool for Christ’s sake, no less than Christ tells him to be a child for his own and the kingdom’s sake…
“Let the preacher tell the truth. Let him make audible the silence of the news of the world with the sound turned off so that in that silence we can hear the tragic truth of the Gospel, which is that the world where God is absent is a dark and echoing emptiness; and the comic truth of the Gospel, which is that it is into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present in such unlikely ways and to such unlikely people… And finally let him preach this overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary with the extraordinary, as the tale too good not to be true…”
Jenkins the Episcopalian — Juxtaposed my narrow Canadian Baptist world with a diverse and global Christianity far more expansive than I had ever imagined.
Heschel the Jew — Helped me see the heart and indignation of God for his beloved creation through the rantings and ravages of His Prophets.
Chesterton the Catholic — Challenged my mind to be in awe of all the creative glory of our gloriously creative God.
Buechner the Presbyterian— Bolstered me to unapologetically proclaim the Gospel of Christ with all the magic, wonder, power and urgency it demands.
Curious — what works have helped shaped your faith and enlarged your world?