G.K. Chesterton’s St. Francis of Assisi

Chesterton’s little biography of St. Francis is essential reading, not only because of its penetrating insights into the magnificent person of Francis but also because of its insights into the magnificent person of Chesterton.  It is not a conventional biography, but then it is not a conventional subject, much less a conventional author. (See how you start sounding like Chesterton when you type right after reading Chesterton?! Ha!)  Rather, it is a spiritual biography of Francis of Assisi that seeks to explore a matter more interesting than the details surrounding his life, mainly, Francis’ actual mind and heart.

The book does assume some knowledge of Francis, but, in truth, enough of the rudimentary details of his story are provided where the reader with no knowledge of Francis will not be completely lost.  Still, if Chesterton’s approach is confusing, it may be better to read one of the more fundamental biographies available today, probably Omer Englebert’s work (which is at least available on ebook format).

What Chesterton does (with uncanny but, for him, typical brilliance) is draw the reader into the mind-boggling simplicity and singleness of vision that characterized Francis’ view of life after breaking with his old way of life as the son of Pietro di Bernardone.  Chesterton treats Francis sympathetically, describing him as a man who, quite literally, started over.  When Francis gave himself to God, embracing the principles of poverty, charity, and obedience, he did so with a startling purity and, some might say, naiveté.  Chesterton is at his best when defending this naiveté.  He recognizes the danger of trying to institutionalize or force these virtues on all of Christendom in the way that Francis embraced them personally, arguing that it was more necessary for Francis to be absorbed into Christendom than for Christendom to be absorbed into Francis, but he sees Francis nonetheless as a necessary and crucial reminder and challenge to the church and the world.

Chesterton fairly marvels, as any observer must, at Francis’ courage and daring.  His treatment of Francis’ attempt to convert the Muslims to Christianity during the Crusades is fascinating and insightful.  Furthermore, Chesterton’s treatment of Francis’ “ignorance” (in his discussion of Francis as a poet) was really well done.

Along the way, Chesterton rightly skewers the skepticism of the modern world, specifically regarding the more fantastic stories surrounding Francis (which Chesterton, himself, does not necessarily buy hook-line-and-sinker), but more generally regarding the modern penchant of swallowing camels and straining on gnats.  He is right to do so, and Chesterton is at his best in pointing out these modern hypocrisies.

Above all, however, this book, more than any Chesterton book I have ever read, is amazingly inspirational.  There are times when your heart soars reading a book like this.  I suspect that part of this is the similarity between Chesterton and Francis.  Now, of course, there are MANY dissimilarities.  Chesterton could not be called a champion of self-discipline and restraint!  However, they both maintained a kind of childish wonder at the world that God has made.  They both evidenced a purity of faith.  They both, in a sense, lived lives quite against the current of the cultures into which they were born.  One can imagine Chesterton laughing at a bird just as easily as one can imagine Francis doing the same, and both from the same deep theological storehouse.

Chesterton is no Francis.  Chesterton himself would say that very quickly.  But it is hard to imagine a writer who could understand Francis like Chesterton did, or who, in ways fascinating and compelling, saw the world in the same way.

This a very good book.

Read it.

Randy Alcorn’s Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle

Randy Alcorn tweeted a couple of days ago that his little booklet, Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle, was available for free as a .pdf download.

It is, in all, just under 60 pages. As I read it yesterday, it struck me as a wonderful little primer on an important issue that I think could be read with great benefit by Sunday School classes, small groups, youth groups, etc. I think the brevity and simplicity of his approach may make this especially helpful for young people (though a few of the case studies he points to at the very beginning are quite intense, if still briefly presented).

Alcorn first offers some basic facts about sexual temptation:

  • We are targeted for sexual immorality.
  • We are vulnerable to sexual immorality.
  • We are fully responsible for our moral choices.

He then offers helpful suggestions and advice concerning cultivating our inner lives, guarding our minds, and taking precautions with the opposite sex. He warns against subtle signs of attraction and the various ways we rationalize immoral behavior. Furthermore, he gives sound advice on cultivating your marriage, on being honest with your spouse, on accountability, and on confession and repentance.

His section on counting the cost of sin was very well done. In it, he offers a partial list of the effects of being caught in sexual sin. It is a sobering list and one well worth heeding. He concludes on a positive note, encouraging the reader to victory in this vital and difficult area of life.

Again, this is quite a good little look at the issue of sexual temptation. If you know somebody who could benefit from it, by all means send them the .pdf.

John Piper’s A Hunger for God

John Piper’s A Hunger for God constitutes a biblically-grounded and carefully-reasoned look at an often-misunderstood and often-neglected topic:  fasting.  Piper argues that fasting does indeed have a place in the modern Christian life.  He makes the interesting point that fasting can be seen as the counterpart to (but in no way the enemy of) the Lord’s Supper.  In the Lord’s Supper, we eat to remember what has been done for us in Christ.  In fasting, we abstain to anticipate all that God has in store for us in Christ.

Piper’s discussion of Christ’s admonition against fasting to be seen by men was very well done and very balanced. He notes that “being seen fasting” is not necessarily the same as “fasting to be seen.”  It is a matter of the heart and a matter of motivation.  Furthermore, the biblical reality of corporate fasting helps us see that what Jesus was condemning was a self-righteous and shallow show put on before people in order to be thought of as holy.

Most of all, the book helpfully shows how the lesser gifts of God can blind us to God himself if we do not keep them in their proper proportion.  Abstaining from these gifts for a season is one of the ways we keep them in place and do not allow them to become idols.  I thought this argument was very well said and very convicting.  Most of all, personal experience shows it to be true.  We do not fast because food is evil.  We fast because even good things can control us if we do not maintain a higher appetite for higher goods.

I also appreciated Piper’s point that the very first thing Jesus did when beginning His ministry was fast in the wilderness.  He asks if this may not be a good idea for ministers today.  No doubt it would be, as it would be for all believers today.

Fasting seems to go through cycles of unhealthy proccupation or downright neglect (as far as the attention of believers is concerned).  It is one of those disciplines that begs for careful thought and a balanced approach.  I am happy to say that Piper’s book represents one of the most balanced and careful considerations that I have ever seen.

Read this book.  It really is excellent.


Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission

Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission is vintage Willard.  By that I mean that he here explores the same topics he explores in his other books:  discipleship, the disappearance of the idea and possibility of discipleship from modern Christian practice (thus, the title of this book), the disciplines, and Lordship salvation.  It is safe to say that Willard essentially writes the same book every times he writes a book.  Now, that sounds like a real criticism and possibly a slight, so let me clarify:  I am absolutely thrilled that Willard keeps writing the same book!  Indeed, I hope he does 20 more.

Why?  Because nobody is saying what Willard is saying in the convincing and powerful way in which he is saying it.  Furthermore, Willard has his hand on the great tragedy of modern Evangelicalism:  the disappearance of discipleship.  Thirdly, while he writes the same book in terms of focus and thesis, the wonder is in the nuances and shades he brings.  So his books really do form a kind of prism of discipleship which shimmer, shine, reflect, and refract as you turn them this way and that, and, as such, they form a wonderful whole.

I was first introduced to Dallas Willard sixteen years ago when the pastor of the church I was serving as a Minister of Youth gave me The Spirit of the Disciplines.  It absolutely rocked my world.  The Divine Conspiracydid the same, though I found parts of it troubling.  And now The Great Omission has threatened to top them all.  But not really, because these books need one another and I need all of them.

This book is actually a collection of various articles, lectures, and reviews on discipleship and the disciplines that Willard has written or delivered over the years.  They are occasional pieces, but they flow very well together in this book.

Willard repeats the following a half-dozen times in this book:  Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.

That’s a profound and simple way of putting a truth that we desperately need to get straight today.  Grace does not mean that we do not construct a deliberate, intentional, and solid plan for becoming more like Christ.  At the heart of this plan lie the disciplines that Willard summarize here but has spoken of in greater length elsewhere.

The absence of such concrete plans for conformity to Christ, as well as the absence of any apparent need to construct such a plan leads Willard to a shocking conclusion:  grace as we currently have defined it actually works against us being conformed into the image of Christ.

I agree.  It does.  This is evident and beyond dispute.

Willard is essentially seeking to strike a blow at the odd and gnosticized form of Christianity that fuels much of revivalistic Evangelicalism.  He is seeking to undermine that weird notion that one may have Christ as Savior but not Lord.  It is a blow that needs to be delivered, and Willard does so here with aplomb, clarity, and charity.

Trust me:  this is a book you will be glad you read.

Jonathan Edwards’ The Resolutions and Advice to Young Converts

This little booklet has a measure of sentimental value for me.  I bought it a few years ago from the bookstore at “Spurgeon’s Church” in London when Roni and I were over there for a DMin. seminar.  I’ve read selections of these, but have only just now read them all.  I regret waiting so long.

Written in 1722 and 1723, Jonathan Edwards’ Resolutions are as timely today as they were when first written.  This 2001 P&R publication is a handsome and well-organized little volume that respectfully preserves this gem of Christian devotional work.  When he wrote these, Edwards was just beginning his pastoral work.  The resolutions reflect a deep and genuine concern over honoring Christ  with and through his life.  Edwards makes resolutions concerning his use of time, how he eats and drinks, his approach to theology and ministry, and the use of his tongue.  He more than once uses the certainty of death as a motivating factor in his life.

I cherish these resolutions and intend to return to them again and again.  If you, like me, need a good dose of perspective from time to time, you could do much worse than turning to Edwards’ resolutions for help.

Benedict XVI’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today

Benedict XVI is a pope worth reading.  To be sure, any Baptist who is a Baptist by conviction will have fundamental disagreements with Benedict on more than a few points, but there is wisdom here that any believer in Jesus Christ can not only appreciate but also grow from.  In truth, I found Benedict’s Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today to be one of the more thought-provoking works on ecclesiology I’ve ever read, even as I disagreed with many of its basic points.

A good bit of this material was delivered by Benedict when he was known as Cardinal Ratzinger in July of 1990 to a theological seminar in Rio de Janeiro.  As such the work is essentially a primer on Catholic ecclesiology.  For the Protestant reader, this book will offer some of the more seasoned reflections on Catholic ecclesiology that you are likely to find on the market today.  So this book will certainly help Baptists and others understand Roman Catholics better.  And yet it would be a shame to read this work only to understand what “they” think, for surely even Baptist believers share (in ways poignant and undeniable) in what Benedict calls here “the crisis of ecclesial consciousness through which we are now living” (p.11).

Benedict bemoans the liberal ideology within the Church “which regards Jesus according to the liberal world picture as the great individualist who liberates religion from cultic institutions and reduces it to ethics, which for its part is founded entirely upon the individual responsibility of conscience.  Such a Jesus, who repudiates cultic worship, transforms religion into morality and then defines it as the business of the individual, obviously cannot found a church.  He is the foe of all institutions and, therefore, cannot turn around and establish one himself” (p.15).

Here is one of the many places where we can benefit from Benedict’s wisdom.  His definition and diagnosis of liberalism is helpful and wise.  As Protestants have been bound in the same struggle against this same liberal impulse, we may rightly say that Benedict is speaking no less to us than he is to the Roman Catholic Church.

Benedicts understanding of the Church is profoundly Christological.  The Kingdom proclaimed by Christ is found in Christ Himself and the Church is likewise defined by and embodied in Christ who is present in the Church’s central act of worship:  the eucharist.  “It follows, then,” Benedict tells us, “that it is entirely impossible to conceive of the New Testament’s notion of the people of God apart from Christology, which in turn is no abstract theory but a concrete event taking place in the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist” (p.33).

As a Baptist, I do not want to distance myself from the idea of Christ’s presence in the sacraments (even as, obviously, how I would understand Christ’s “presence” would differ markedly from Benedict’s), but I badly want to add this:  “and in the proclaimed, heard, and lived Word.”

Benedict next moves to a discussion and explanation of apostolic succession.  To be perfectly honest, I remain unconvinced.  I do appreciate Benedict’s attempt to ground the idea in exegesis of the text, but as I wrote “non-sequitur” in the margin a couple of times as I read, I was impressed once again by the seriousness and severity of the divide between the Protestant and Catholic ideas of “the Church.”

I do not deny what Benedict explains very persuasively:  the presence of apostolic authority in the New Testament Church and even some evidence of Petrine primacy in the New Testament.  I do not see, however, the implicit evidence for (especially) Petrine succession that Ratzinger finds in the text (he readily admits that “there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament”).  Furthermore, I regret that Benedict did not give serious consideration (in this work) to the fact that the Apostles are present in the Church as it proclaims and heeds “the apostles’ teaching.”

Obviously Benedict has misgivings about the idea of ecclesial autonomy:  “The Church must constantly become what she is through unitive love and resist the temptation to fall from her vocation into the infidelity of self-willed autonomy” (39-40).  Speaking of local churches and the Church catholic, Benedict writes:  “In this respect it can be said that we find here a preliminary sketch of a Church that lives in manifold and multiform particular Churches but that precisely in this way is the one Church.  At the same time, Luke expresses with this image the fact that at the moment of her birth, the Church was already catholic, already a world Church.  Luke thus rules out a conception in which a local Church first arose in Jerusalem and then became the base for the gradual establishment of other local Churches that eventually grew into a federation.  Luke tells us that the reverse is true:  what first exists is the one Church, the Church that speaks in all tongues – the ecclesia universalis; she then generates Church in the most diverse locales, which nonetheless are all always embodiments of the one and only Church.  The temporal and ontological priority lies with the universal Church; a Church that was not catholic would not even have ecclesial reality…” (44).

Earlier Baptists, and many modern ones, will want to stress the priority of the local church and the future coming of the church catholic.  That being said, there is a growing trend of Baptist catholicity that feels that the radical “autonomy” which is often championed in some quarters is derived more from American individualism than from New Testament exegesis, even while it affirms the basic principle of “local church autonomy.”  There is, to be sure, fascinating and occasionally tendentious cross-currents in Baptist life today over the issue of the church local and the church catholic and how these realities are to be understood.  Regardless, all Baptists would reject that which the Pope is clearly moving towards in this selection:  the unity of the catholic Church under the supposed modern successor of Peter (“Nevertheless, there is also a positive tendency today.  Many non-Catholics affirm the necessity of a common center of Christianity.”).

Benedict has some interesting discussion of apostolic primacy in the N.T.  He does not deny the evidence for the primacy of James, but argues that James had primacy over Jewish believers and it disappeared with the collapse of Jewish Christianity.  He then argues for Petrine primacy and succession, even while acknowledging that “we must first of all note that there is no explicit statement regarding the Petrine succession in the New Testament” (65).

But Benedict’s argument for Petrine primacy and succession seems unconvincing to me.  His argument that “it was with this Church that every community had to agree; Rome was the standard of the authentic apostolic tradition as a whole” (69) seems to me a serious oversimplification that does not account for evidence that Rome ascended to its primacy over time and that its primacy was not always assumed by other communions.  Furthermore, his contention that “the Roman primacy, or, rather, the acknowledgement of Rome as the criterion of the right apostolic faith, is older than the canon of the New Testament, than ‘Scripture’” (70) strikes me as pandering to the choir.  The statement is quite different from an acknowledgement that Rome had ascended to ecclesial power before the formal recognition of the canon by the church.  Finally, Benedict argues that “the essential point, in my opinion, has already become plain: the martyrdom of Peter in Rome fixes the place where his function continues” (72).  This strikes me as an amazing non-sequitur that is utterly unconvincing.

All of this being said, I am quite happy with Benedict’s definition of the Church itself, even as  I would undoubtedly understand certain phrases of this definition in a different light than he intends:  “The Church is accordingly the gathering of men from the four corners of the earth and their purification for God.  Together, the two answers describe the essence of the Church and thus introduce us into her practical dimension; both answers can be summed up in the one statement that the Church is the dynamic process of horizontal and vertical unification” (76).

On we could go, but suffice to say that this is a thought-provoking work that will, at the very least, give the Protestant reader an interesting insight into Catholic ecclesiology and theology as it is articulated by one of the Catholic church’s brightest minds.

Nancy Klein Maguire’s An Infinity of Little Hours

“But monks are dumb!”  The comment was made in the midst of a Wednesday night prayer meeting discussion in which, somehow, the issue of monasticism had come up.  The lady who said it meant it with all the genuine sincerity of a cradle-Baptist who, for the life of her, could not see any merit whatsoever in the very idea of monasticism.  The comment was undoubtedly buttressed by a strong dose of anti-Catholic sentiment and perhaps even by the Luther movie I had showed some months earlier to celebrate Reformation Day.  After all, Luther’s vow to St. Anne had proven to be an act of fear-driven works righteousness, so the whole enterprise must be absurd, right?

I gently pointed out that calling every aspect of monasticism “dumb” was perhaps unwise, especially given the crucial role that monasticism has played in preserving and transmitting the Bible.  But in my mind I had a much more visceral reaction to such a statement.  Dumb?  Really?  And the average Southern Baptist minister is what exactly?  A paragon of virtue, wisdom, and Christ-likeness?  And what of the laity?  What of the whole comfortable, American, Evangelical enterprise?  What would we call it?

Monasticism is not without its problems.  I agree with Bonhoeffer’s diagnosis in Discipleship that when the church set apart men and women who were to give all for the gospel, it inadvertently excused the cultural accomodationism that the majority of those within the church had fallen into (i.e., “Well, after all, we’re not monks!”)  But perhaps that objection also states the great virtue of monasticism:  it reminds us, in sometimes shocking and uncomfortable ways, that (to borrow from Kuyper) “there’s no square inch of reality over which Christ doesn’t say ‘Mine!’”  As such, monasticism has a prophetic role to play in the Church.

An Infinity of Little Hours is a spellbinding chronicle of 5 young men’s attempts to join the rigid Carthusian order.  The Carthusians have recently been given a great deal of attention, most compellingly through Philip Groening’s “Into Great Silence,” a project that was ironically finished just a few months before Maguire’s book.  While this book lacks the overall spiritual, emotional, and psychological punch that Groening’s haunting documentary provides, it is right up there with it.

Maguire’s book is a profoundly beautiful and a powerful work of art.  It is immensely educational.  It draws the reader into the inner workings of an order that most people throughout Christian history have known very little about.

The Carthusians are fond of their motto:  “Never reformed because never deformed.”  While the reality undermines this sentiment somewhat, it is by-and-large true that this order of monks have remained amazingly unchanged throughout their long and rich history.

The book follows the journey of five young men from 1960 to 1965.  Each came to the order seeking nothing less than God Himself.  Not surprisingly, most of these five were strongly influenced by Merton’s Seven Story Mountain.  Only one of the five would ultimately remain with the Carthusians, but all five had their lives indelibly marked by their fascinating, demanding, and daunting journey in the order.

What strikes the reader more than anything else is the challenge of solitude that each of these men faced.  The Carthusians spend the majority of their time in their cells, essentially small houses.  Their lives are dominated by the monastic hours that call them every day, time and time again, to corporate prayer and to choir.  Hearing of the various men’s struggles with learning how to sleep only a few hours at a time was fascinating and made me seriously question whether or not I would ever be able to do such a thing.

Maguire’s book is sympathetic.  Perhaps it is because she is married to an ex-Carthusian.  She has no desire to ridicule this life that must appear ridiculous to many observers.  She depicts the Carthusians as men who are passionate about knowing God and see in the monastic impulse a powerful tool for doing just that.

To be sure, her depiction is not overly-romanticized.  She shows the political wrangling within the order, the ambition that occasionally grips the monks, and the inner conflicts and tensions that plague all human relationships at times.  Her chapter on the conflicts in the choir was humorous and fascinating.

The book will undoubtedly leave the Protestant reader with some problems.  The most fundamental problem with this attempt at living the Christian life is its stifling legalism.  I’m almost hesitant to mention this, because American Evangelicals tend to call almost any attempts at mortifying the flesh “legalistic.”  To be sure, we have a perverse understanding of “freedom” that borders on antinomianism.  But the fact remains that monastic expressions like the Carthusian order have a stifling measure of legalism under which even the majority of their own applicants eventually wither.

I was moved by the pitiful fact that more than a few Carthusians collapse under the psychological strain of the order.  Than neither proves nor disproves anything, of course, for many SBC pastors collapse under the stress of the ministry as well!  The book does reveal that some of the more excessive aspects of the aestheticism of the Carthusians are being softened a bit.  Showers have been installed in some of the monasteries (with no hot water, of course), and a few other things along those lines.

I was also struck by the fact that two of the five young men that Maguire chronicles eventually left the order and embraced the homosexual lifestyle.  There is no evidence that homosexual practices occur in the order itself, but the anecdotal evidence provided by Maguire would suggest that perhaps monasticism (and the priesthood itself?) attracts men who are trying to overcome their own demons.

In all, however, I am very glad to have read this book.  I would recommend it (cautiously) as a fascinating look at a unique movement.  There are aspects of this movement that must be rejected.  But I daresay there are aspects that would strengthen the devotional life of the average Evangelical in powerful ways.

Read this book.

John Piper’s When the Darkness Will Not Lift

John Piper’s little book, When the Darkness Will Not Lift, is tellingly subtitled “Doing What We Can While We Wait for God – and Joy.”  That’s well said, for oftentimes in seasons of darkness we simply must (1) do what we can and (2) wait.  But that’s not all, as Piper shows masterfully, if too briefly, in this book.

I was particular moved by Piper’s argument that the first step towards emerging from depression is a renewed understanding of justification.  We must remember, in other words, who we are in Christ and where our certainties and strengths lie.  Justification, then, becomes an anchor on which the despairing soul can latch itself.  Whatever else might happen, the fact of our having been declared righteous by God through the shed blood of His Son keeps us from drifting into utter despair and ruin.

There are, to be sure, other issues, and Piper lays them out well.  I found his discussion of medication and the physical dimensions of depression most helpful.  In an admirably balanced way, Piper showed that there are undeniable physical components to depression, and that this has been recognized by the saints for ages.  I found his anecdote about Martyn Lloyd-Jones interest in the then-developing field of antidepressants to be interesting.

Piper does not believe it is wrong, in some cases, to take medicine.  Even so, he warns against seeing medicine as the cure for depression and he rightly sounds an alarm against the grotesque over-medicating of our society.  He bemoans the quick and arrogant medicating of children when new research is showing that placebos have been shown to be just as effective, if not more so, as traditional medication.

But, again, Piper does not use this caution to write off all medication.  Sometimes it is necessary, and I am glad to see him say this, even as I agree with his criticisms of our pill-happy society.

There is practical advice here, to be sure.  Piper wisely talks about the need to serve and work and get out of ourselves.  He points out that joy, too, is a duty in Scripture.  He warns against the deceptive “certainties” of despair and asks us not to believe its siren call.  He writes of the need to help one another and minister to one another during times of darkness, and shows how this can happen.

In all, a tremendous little work.  It’s too brief, coming in at 79 pages, but the themes are developed further inWhen I Don’t Desire God.

I’m glad I read this book.

Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution

Shane Clairborne’s Irresistible Revolution is a provocative read, to say the least.  Clairborne belongs to what has been called “the new monasticism.”  He’s one of the founders of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, a group of “ordinary radicals” seeking to live the life of Christ in a culture that desparately needs a counter-cultural alternative to the predominate ethos of both the world and (unfortunately) the church.

Bonhoeffer once suggested that the future of Christianity will find its vitality in a new monastic expression.  Flannery O’Connor onced wondered aloud whether a Protestant monasticism would be possible at all.  Clairborne obviously agrees with Bonhoeffer and would answer “yes” to O’Connor.

I suppose it would be easy to write off Shane Clairborne at first glance, but I’d argue that doing so would be a naive and sad example of judging a book by its cover.  He’s young and he has dreadlocks.  His two books are intentionally designed to look like they were pieced together by a 1st grade class.  So, as I say, it would be easy to look at these things and write Clairborne off.

If you’re tempted to do so, let me say this:  don’t.

Clairborne is not, of course, without his problems.  It’s one of the refreshing points of the book that he doesn’t mind saying so himself.  He comes across as genuine.  He’s a provocateur, to be sure, but there’s a meaning to the madness, and there’s a great deal of thought behind the shock value.

To be sure, Clairborne offers the occasional eye-rolling moment:  his statement that he used to be really opposed to abortion and homosexuality…and that he’s still opposed to abortion (the silence, I suppose, is supposed to be tantalizing).  He quotes Crossan’s work on empire, noting that Crossan is indeed provocative, but that he’s not personally interested in getting into those controversial points.  Fair enough, I guess, except that Crossan’s theological quirks include the belief that Jesus did not rise bodily from the dead and that his body was likely eaten by dogs.  (Please note that I am NOT suggesting Clairborne believes the same.  In fact, I expect he does not believe the same.  It’s just the tendency of guys to quote left from heretics that gets a bit…whatever.)

But Clairborne needs to be heard.  I would suspect that Clairborne’s proposals of simple living, breaking free from the consumer culture, peace, and radical, literal enactments of Scripture would free my own denomination (the SBC) from the decline that it finds itself in.  In fact, I think that the SBC is in prime need of a new monasticism of the type that Clairborne et al. are living out.

There are genuine moments of conviction here that need to be heard and pondered.  His trip to India and time spent in the leper colony was powerful (especially his observation that many lepers don’t know the words “Thank you” because they’ve never had occasion to use them).  The Jubilee on Wall Street was brilliant and genuinely prophetic, and what these guys are doing in Philadelphia and beyond is not only worthy of emulation, it’s profoundly biblical.

There’s a part of me that wants to dismiss Clairborne, but there’s a much bigger part of me that is frightened of what will happen if I do.  What happens, for instance, when a person or a people scoff off the literal imitation of Christ in favor of their own middle-class churchianity?  What happens, for instance, when we truly reach the point of flipping past the poor on our TV screens without seeing in them not an opportunity for philanthropy but the presence of Christ himself?  What happens when we uncritically applaude the war machine without weeping over the loss of life that war brings?

Shane Clairborne has his critics.  His politics have been called simplistic and his pacifism has been called naive.  His theology is occasionally messy and he is in desparate need of a haircut.

But Shane Clairborne would like to follow Jesus:  seriously and radically.

I’m not suggesting that the rough edges are not important.  I’m just suggesting that Shane Clairborne, and what he’s doing, is.

Calvin Miller’s Into the Depths of God

Every now and again you come across a book and are able to tell while reading it that what you’ve got is something special, something that (hopefully) will be around for a very long time. Into the Depths of God, by Calvin Miller, is one such work. I could not help but feel while reading it that I was encountering mature thoughts, the type which rarely surface in too many Christian books today. And, in a sense, I felt that I was reading a book which was the encapsulation and culmination of Calvin Miller’s own journey of faith and words. Into the Depths of God has done with prose what The Singer did with verse, and that is no small compliment.

It is difficult to describe this book. One might be tempted to feel a little frustrated that it doesn’t slavishly follow a tight outline, though the progression of the work is plain enough to see. Miller does not A,B,C his way towards the depths of God and he offers no fill-in-the-blank promises for those who hope to experience them. It becomes clear in reading this book why this is so. Miller sees our journeys into the depths of God as being journeys of relationship and intimacy with the Father, not journeys of workbooks and three point sermons. Furthermore, Miller is an artist, a linguistic craftsman who would be as out of place defragmenting such a topic as a mathematician would be trying to parse “The Wasteland.” While he certainly does not lapse into any sort of stream-of-consciousness free form, Miller has never been a fan of dissection and categorical systemization. This work, like so many of his, bears the marks of fluidity and freedom, the two virtues that will always escape lesser writers.

Into the Depths of God is a powerful and soul searching book that forces us to consider our own compromises and our own demi-god fascinations with the comforts of shallowness. Miller interacts profusely with the greater body of Christian mystical literature, yet he never seems to become detached in the airs of ethereal vagueness. Far from it. Here is a work that is often penetrating, frequently insightful, and truly provocative.

You will not be comfortable with this book, which is, in and of itself, another mark of its greatness. All great books disturb the universe. C.S. Lewis once said that reading Thomas A Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ was like a bird without wings reading about the stratosphere. For the sake of decorum, we will refrain from saying that Into the Depths of God rivals The Imitation of Christ. But it is only for the sake of decorum that we will refrain from doing so. In secret moments I might confess to you that I quite often found myself, while reading this book, pondering the stratosphere.