J.N.D. Kelly’s Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop

1433119J.N.D. Kelly’s Gold Mouth is, simply put, one of the better biographies you will ever read.  Learned, engaging, illuminating, and well-paced, you will learn a great deal not only about this amazing Bishop of Constantinople, but also about the complexion and intrigues of 3rd/4th century Christianity.  I personally found many of the side details to be as compelling as the primary focus of the study.

Chrysostom was a fascinating, focused, and intense follower of Christ.  There was an edge to him, we might say.  This edge could lead him to be unbelievably stubborn, incendiary, and difficult.  He was a man with big faults…as men of big virtues sometimes tend to be.  He was a polarizing figure, but I daresay his excesses were born more out of genuine convictions about who he was and what the right course of action should be than out of any kind of arbitrary cruelty.  There can be no doubt that Chrysostom loved the Lord and loved the church.  He could be an austere and extreme person, but he was a pastor above all.

Kelly does a masterful job of showing us Chrysostom’s mind and heart, the good and the bad.  He demonstrates effectively the amazing devotion that large portions of the populace held for John even after his death.  It is interesting how the loyalty of the people and their reactions to this or that move surrounding the whole drama of Chrysostom affected the course of events.  Kelly does a great job explaining the ecclesiological climate of the day:  the ongoing chess game between bishops and church leaders, the uneasy relationship between the Church and the state, the turbulent clash between orthodox believers and schismatics, the political maneuvers, the ambitious, the ideologues, and the peacemakers.  What a fascinating period of history this was!

In all, one gets the feeling that Kelly has been honest and fair with Chrysostom.  Those wanting romantic hagiography will be disappointed by this book as will those who want a hatchet job.  But if you would like a clear, honest depiction of one of the more compelling and enthralling figures in Christian history, you will not want to miss this biography.

Very, very good!

Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion

Dancing Alone is the literary equivalent of finger nails on a chalkboard. It is shrill, intense, head splitting, and irrefutably attention grabbing. Having some familiarity with Frank Schaeffer because of my appreciation for his dad, the late Christian writer/pastor/apologist and pseudo-philosopher Francis Schaeffer, I was not completely caught off guard by this. Anyone who has viewed the film series for the book Whatever Happened to the Human Race? knows that Frank, who directed the film for his Dad, is not necessarily…um…subtle.

My wife and I read Frank’s thinly veiled autobiographical book Portofino and found it to be an extremely well written and hilarious book. We look forward to reading the sequel, Saving Grandma, as soon as we can. Dancing Alone is Portofino on speed. It makes and elaborates all of Portofino‘s basic contentions (i.e., the bankruptcy of the modern Protestant movement) but does so with none of Portofino’s charm. In this sense, it is louder than Portofino but not necessarily more persuasive.

But don’t get me wrong: it is persuasive. Frank Schaeffer is one of many Protestants who have joined the Greek Orthodox Church in search of a true depth of worship and a historical validation of theology and church practice. He rightly lambastes the cultural (for that is mainly what it is) “born again” movement and argues instead for a call to conversion that is substantive, grounded in the authentic church, and real.

Schaeffer’s answer to the shallowness of much Protestant life is the utter and complete rejection of Protestantism itself. He feels that Protestantism is inherently unsalvageable due to the fact that the shallowness and emptiness of Protestantism is a necessary outcome of its flawed foundation. I disagree. I disagree very much.

For one thing, Schaeffer’s brush is too wide. I know of no one who would not bemoan the current state of Protestant Evangelicalism. But I dare say that the assertion that there is not vitality in Protestantism borders on hubris and absurdity. God is certainly moving in mighty ways among Protestant believers and much good work is being done. There is also much substantive worship happening as well.

Protestantism is not a monolithic entity, and it appears that there is no longer a real consensus of theology under girding it anymore. I for one argue that certain branches of Protestantism are more legitimate than others. It is impossible to dismiss the whole.

Schaeffer disagrees. He argues that the Orthodox Church is the one, true, apostolic church. But in doing this he has bitten off more than he can possibly hope to chew. He cannot, I am sure, have hoped to dismantle the Protestant theology of the church, salvation, worship, and ecclesiology in this exhausting book, but this is certainly what he wants.

I am glad that Frank Schaeffer is Orthodox. He seems to have found his home. His experiences in fundamentalism were obviously troublesome, and I sympathize with him. In short, his diagnosis of the symptoms are irrefutable. But his diagnosis of the supposed disease behind the symptoms, much less his proposed cure, leaves much to be desired.