Saturday, November 9, 2013

Book Review: Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church

Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church edited by James Stuart Bell. Zondervan (2013), 384 pp.
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I was excited to review Awakening Faith for obvious reasons. I'm well acquainted with the resurgence of interest in the church fathers among evangelical Protestants, and it's one of the things that compelled me to pursue doctoral work in patristics. Though I'm aware of a few books responding to that interest from an academic perspective, I was not familiar with any devotional books geared to that demographic.

The first thing I noticed about this book is that the daily entries included no citations indicating the larger works from which the excerpts had been drawn. I don't think this only bothered me because I'm a grad student; I felt that it got in the way of my ability to fully understand and appreciate what I was reading.

Here is an example of what I mean. I was really struck by #107, "Death's Power is Broken," by Braulio, a figure I had not heard of before (the helpful biographical sketch in the back explained that he was a seventh-century Spanish bishop). However, I had to do a fair bit of Googling before I was able to identify the letter this excerpt came from, and then, though I was not able to confirm this in a scholarly edition, I was a bit surprised to notice that the translation in Awakening Faith seems to have omitted a line. The book's translation reads, "The hope of resurrection encourages us because we will see again whomever we lost on earth. [Christ] is so powerful that it is easier for him to raise someone from the dead than it is for us to wake someone who is sleeping!" But when I tracked down a rendering of the work elsewhere, I saw that the line, "Of course, we must continue to believe firmly in Christ; we must continue to obey his commandments," seems to have appeared between those two sentences originally, though the book includes no ellipsis to indicate an omission.

I'm not suggesting that this is an illegitimate choice on the part of the editor, but that it made me wonder what other editorial choices were made in this compilation. Without knowing more about his principles for selection, it is hard to guess; and the lack of citations makes it difficult not only to read more of a work that piques one's interest, but also to get closer to the original language and intent of the various authors. I was surprised not to find a bibliography at the very least.

I hope this illustrates that I'm not setting out to be pedantic, but that some gesture toward the larger context of these writings is important -- not only for appreciating the writings in themselves, but for one's ability to apply them personally, much less use them devotionally. If Bell's goal is to encourage more reading of the fathers, then I thought he might have done more to make the fathers' writings accessible to an unfamiliar audience.

This leads me to a hesitation about the reading of the fathers within an evangelical or confessional Protestant setting (as my friend Coralie discusses in her own review). It would be easy to pick up Awakening Faith expecting consistency of thought among the figures represented, and continuity of theological ideas between their period and ours; but neither is reflected in this selection of readings, especially when it comes to areas like the sacraments, soteriology, and sanctification.

While looking at areas of difference can be illuminating, prompting us to ask different sorts of questions than those we are accustomed to asking, it can also be very confusing. I am still running into this challenge, as I am beginning a dissertation on fourth-century preachers and finding that some of John Chrysostom's sermons are not recognizable to me as the proclamation of the gospel. It's disorienting, and I think it would be even more so for readers who don't encounter it every day.

I liked aspects of the book. There were many beautiful excerpts I enjoyed reading and that were worth lingering over (especially, I noticed, on the person of Christ, and on suffering and death), and it presents an impressive variety -- far from being limited to a few famous names, it covers a wide swath of the Latin-, Greek-, and Syriac-speaking church, even pushing into the more northern frontiers, and it extends from the second century through the eighth.

Though it contains plenty of good material, and I expect to refer to it again for my own purposes, I hesitate to recommend this book for general use. Even as someone who has studied the church fathers for the better part of a decade, I felt a bit like I had been tossed into the deep end without the means to orient myself properly. I think a volume like this is needed, but that to be as edifying as possible, it should provide more guidance in how to read the fathers well.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review

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