Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

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Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment

Jim Forest, Orbis Books, 2014, 160 pp

reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment may sound like the start of one of those tough theology lessons you want to dodge because you just don’t want to go through the pain of failing the exam. But it isn’t. Jim Forest isn’t a theologian—not in the way most of us think of them anyway—but something undeniably of the theological arts resides in good story telling, and Jim is a first rate storyteller. Mixing theology up with stories is like giving medicine with a spoon full of sugar. Loving Our Enemies is filled with stories that make the medicine go down, stories of those who were compelled by Jesus loving them—we all start out his enemies—to begin loving their own enemies.

But Jim doesn’t rely solely on story telling. He clearly understands that “thou shalt” may be the least compelling start to a moral lesson if changing lives is the aim. Each chapter delivers what the book promises—a reflection, a devotion really, on the theme of actively loving our enemies despite how we may feel about them, the obstacles along the way, the hope and joy inherent in the effort, and the promise of potentially converting enemies to friends though there are no guarantees. By the time you finish, you will come to believe—you will have arrived there unawares somewhere in the middle— it is not only right and necessary but possible and desirable to love your enemies.

How does the reader get there? It’s fine to know who our enemies are—Jim defines them all the way down to the the one staring at us each morning in the mirror—and that we should love them, but that’s barely the start. Inspiration or feeling aren’t enough either. The subject isn’t just hard, it’s the hardest, too hard for any of us to accomplish on our own, and Jim knows that. So do we. Conversion, transformation, being made into new creatures for whom the hardest love is possible is what is wanted. This is the aim of the book, and each chapter takes the reader one step closer to going all in.

The essential oil of Christian theology is derived from the stories Jesus told, and by his life, death, and resurrection, he illustrated them, making theology something of a practical art. The reflections of Loving Our Enemies are about the possibility of transformation when knowledge, need, and inspiration move us to choice and action. That is when the anointing oil is applied and change takes place. Loving Our Enemies is about imitating what Jesus did and what many of his followers have been doing till now, and receiving the same grace they did to become new creatures capable of love.

“Making friends of enemies––and making choices not driven by enmity–– happens thanks not only to an inner act of will but still more to the grace we receive from the Holy Spirit. The word grace is often used to describe the transformed state of being that occurs at moments when God enters into our conscious lives. While the obstacles within ourselves often seem impossible to overcome—deeply entrenched boredom, indifference, prejudice, anger and hatred—the wind of grace can suddenly blow away walls that seemed immoveable and impenetrable. We can speak of “graced moments” when we see another person in such a light that we realize that, until that moment, we were blind. We “saw” but in so superficial and limited a way that we were unaware of God’s presence in that other life. The other was more a thing than a person.

“Invariably those graced occasions when God breaks through in us are turning points. We are changed and, even if held captive within the stone walls of a prison, we experience a deep freedom and unspeakable happiness. For the rest of our lives we know that what the French writer Leon Bloy said is true: “Joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Ultimately, we don’t need to be convinced we have enemies, we need to know what to do with them. We need strategies, and Loving Our Enemies is about the hardest strategy, the counterintuitive strategy of love, introduced by Jesus to a desperate race wrongly convinced the only way to successfully deal with enemies is to neutralize, defeat, or eliminate them.

The book covers the tools needed for the journey: praying for enemies, confession, acts of mercy, regularly receiving communion, turning the other cheek, and more. All are amply illustrated by the lives of real people—many you’ll recognize, some appear frequently in Jim’s writing, a few might surprise you, and some you’ll likely meet for the first time. In many ways, in fact, Loving Our Enemies is not unlike Jim’s other books, but there is a key difference for me. More than any of his others, this book seems to contain more of the essential oil anointing Jim’s own life—I get the feeling as I read each chapter that I’m reading the words of someone who is beginning to close the circle, that Jim is now telling the lessons from his own life and using others’ stories to illustrate. I find few things more compelling than an old man telling his own story, having put-up as we say, but making me feel like it’s not about him.

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

Tuesday, October 7th, 2014

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The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality

Brock Bingaman and Bradley Nassif, eds., Oxford University Press, 2012, 349 pp

reviewed by Pieter Dykhorst

The Philokalia: a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality is a collection of essays compiled to introduce readers “to the background, motifs, authors, and relevance for contemporary life and thought” of the Philokalia. It is an easy to read work of scholarship that can help make the challenging spiritual insights of the Philokalia more accessible to the average Christian, while also serving as a serious textbook for seminarians.

A work by and for scholars, the book is apparently long overdue on academic shelves. Many readers will be surprised, as I was, to learn that the editors created it while doing their own Philokalic research and discovering that “a large lacuna exists in scholarly literature on the Philokalia.” To begin to fill that gap, Bingaman and Nassif produced an anthology on the “History, Theological implications, and Spiritual Practices of the ” by leading scholars of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant traditions. And the list of authors makes compelling bait! The Orthodox among them include Kallistos Ware (who also wrote the introduction), John McGuckin, Andrew Louth, John Chryssavgis, and Bradley Nassif.

The Philokalia: a Classic Text is also an aid for the rest of us. If the Philokalia itself is like a field manual for spiritual boot camp, Bingaman and Nassif’s book is like the Field Manual for Dummies. Anybody familiar with the Dummies series knows that it takes an expert to make a difficult subject easy to read. While the Philokalia is considered by many Orthodox to be an indispensable guide to spiritual growth, it often seems impenetrable to the newly initiated . The essayists in A Classic Text succeed in unpacking the various themes of the Philokalia in a way that invites one in to begin the work of making it personal.

Likewise, nobody would ever take reading about fox holes as a substitute for digging one and spending the night in it. While The Philokalia: a Classic Text should prove to be an enticement to opening up the Philokalia for anyone pursuing Orthodox spiritual growth, there are no shortcuts. Before reading either book, any notions of finishing with an easy certificate in Philokalic studies should be dispensed with.

While exploring themes like the Jesus Prayer, asceticism, theology, and others––those one would expect a book like this to examine––Bingaman and Nassif included essays on more mundane but necessary topics, like the history of the Philokalia, and a few surprising ones as well, like the last chapter: Women in the Philokalia?

Other expected areas are examined through lenses that make fundamental concepts in the Philokalia understandable and useful in a modern context. A chapter by Christopher C. H. Cook, Healing, Psychotherapy, and the Philokalia, looks at “the nature of the pathologies that the Philokalia diagnoses,” what Orthodox call the passions, from the perspective of a mental-health physician. Reading again some of St. Maximos’ texts on virtue and the lengthy list of vices found in Peter of Damascus through the lens of modern psychology only made their insight more relevant to my life in a modern context.

As I read through The Philokalia: a Classic Text, skipping from section to section, I realized I was also, unexpectedly, having fun. I was treating it as if it were not the manual it is but also a travel guide. You’ll see what I mean if you pick it up: the essayists are all familiar with a beautiful place they have visited—“philokalia” means “love of the beautiful”—and write to tell about it. The best travel books don’t simply tell you where to eat, how to catch a cab, or about local customs—they make you want to go and find all those things out for yourself. This book is no different. Its authors seem to know the Philokalia and entice others to get to know it as they do. John Chryssavgis’ insights on Silence, Stillness, and Solitude, something I’m currently exploring, are like photographs from a beautiful land.

For all that, the book isn’t exhaustive, and one is left hoping for a follow-on book. Until then, this book will serve well and word of it should spread quickly as it finds its way into homes and studies.

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Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

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Recommended Reading: Summer 2008

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

His Broken Body

by Fr. Laurent Cleenewerck

Euclid University Consortium Press; 438 pages, $33.50

Not often is a book published which has the potential to serve as a catalyst for history-making events. His Broken Body: Understanding and Healing the Schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians may have that potential. Certainly it will make a book that will greatly help any Christian who is saddened by the disunity of those claiming ancient and apostolic Christian roots.

His Broken Body tells both sides of the story in a comprehensive manner. New light is shed on a multiplicity of concurrent, and competing, early church viewpoints and practices such as Eucharistic vs. universal ecclesiology and Petrine succession not only in the bishop of Rome, but in every bishop. There is also the fascinating concept of the “Church as Hologram.”

For many readers, seeing this material for the first time will be an epiphany. It was for me. I know of no other single source that addresses so much in one volume. I’ve had to dig for years through both Roman Catholic and Orthodox resources to gain even a small portion of what is made available in His Broken Body. Both uncritical ecumenists and unyielding traditionalists will likely be surprised to find controversial topics addressed in such a balanced, truthful and faithful way.

Fr. Laurent’s style is almost conversational, yet rigorous: outstanding both in its directness and charity, sticking to the point like a laser, irenic in its approach. It’s an example of “speaking the truth in love.”

Fr. Laurent helps us understand the Church as it understood itself during the first millennium, with all its glory (and shame), in unity (and schism), replete with concurrent differences and agreements.

Not everyone will agree with Fr. Laurent’s conclusions and perspectives, but his analysis will be hard to fault and his obvious desire to move in a forward direction with concrete steps is worthy of admiration and emulation.

- Darrin Roush

Recovering the Icon:

The Life and Work of Leonid Ouspensky

by Fr. Patrick Doolan

St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, $33

Few people did so much to recover the understanding of classic iconography and the theology of icons as Leonid Ouspensky. Thanks to Fr. Patrick Doolan, we now have an excellent introduction to Ouspensky’s work in a superbly illustrated book, with the added benefit of a biographical essay by Lydia Ouspensky.

In his youth in Russia, Ouspensky despised the Orthodox Church. Going from village to village preaching atheism, the future iconographer entered houses and threw out the icons he found within. In 1918, he joined the Red Army. Captured by White forces, moments before execution by a firing squad, his life was saved by a compassionate colonel. His attitude toward bloodshed was soon after transformed by being witness to the execution of an unarmed captive. “Brothers,” said the man to those who were his killers, “what are you doing?” Ouspensky, his wife writes, “afterward remained unconditionally intolerant throughout his life to the killing of any living creature.”

Like so many other Russians fleeing the disaster of revolution, Ouspensky later settled in France, first working in a coal mine. Later, following study at an art school, he made his living as a commercial artist. Interest in icons opened the doorway to baptism. In time his love of icons became so compelling that icons became his life’s work. Iconography had been in decline since the seventeenth century. By careful study of representative ancient icons, Ouspensky set out to rediscover an all-but-lost tradition and its methods. His icons are now renowned throughout the Orthodox world.

For more than four decades, Ouspensky taught iconography in Paris to pupils who came from many countries. Each student heard his humble admonition: “The old icons are the best teachers.” An icon was not an aesthetic creation, he taught, but a vision in lines and colors of the Divine World, and it pervaded, conquered, and transfigured the fallen world.

“If you want to know Ouspensky,” Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh writes in the book’s foreword, “stand in silence a long while before an icon of his.”

Fr. Patrick Doolan, himself a well known iconographer, was one of Ouspensky’s last students. He oversees the icon workshop at Saint Gregory of Sinai Monastery in Kelseyville, California.

- JF

Questioning God

by Fr. Ted Bobosh

Light & Life Publishing, 210 pages, $18

Fr. Ted Bobosh has written a verse-by-verse meditation on the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis, chapters which he sees as foundational to Christian theology.

Here is an extract concerning the Adam and Eve passages in Genesis:

“For the first time in Genesis, God finds something ‘not good’ – man is alone. A flaw in God’s paradise? Hadn’t God foreseen this? Did he assume he was to be Adam’s partner? …. [And so Eve is created.] …. But when it comes to making a ‘helper fit for man,’ the Lord does not once again go to the ground but rather takes part of the man to form the woman. To do this, God has to put the conscious being into unconsciousness. The woman like the man was especially created…. God does not consult with Adam or get Adam’s approval. God takes the initiative, the man is passive. The woman is made to share Adam’s life and to be his helper…. [But] clearly being a helper does not imply inferiority. Woman is a helper equal to man…. The solution to man’s problem [his aloneness] is found in man, not in the stars…. Each human since Adam is really brought forth from the side of humanity – from humans who already exist. We are dependent on one another…. Each human conceived is a fit helper for other humans and each has a God-ordained role in the universe… We each are bearers of the image of God, having a soul where God’s own breath interacts with our physical nature.”

Digging in the rich soil of Genesis, and drawing deeply from the writings of the Fathers, Fr. Ted has produced a book which cannot help but deepen the reader’s appreciation of the primary stories on which our tradition has its foundations.

- JF

Summer 2008 issue of In Communion / IC 50