29 June 2014

Book Review: Water From a Deep Well

Water From a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality From Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (2007, IVP) by Gerald Sittser was an excellent book, but perhaps a bit difficult to classify.  It is part church history, part Christian spirituality, and part practical living. In engaging prose, Sittser explores the history of Christianity, stopping along the way to reflect on what lessons we have learned from those who have gone before. He effectively shows different movements over the history of the church: the witness of the early Christian martyrs, the belonging of early Christian community, the struggle of the desert saints, the rhythm of the monastics, the holy heroes celebrated in the eastern church through biography and iconagraphy, the importance of the sacraments during the Gothic period, the importance of ordinariness among medieval lay people, the importance of the Word to the reformers, the centrality of conversion to evangelicals, and the essence of risk to pioneer missionaries. As you can imagine this book is sweeping and ecumenical in its scope.  Though Sittser highlights components that featured centrally in different movements of the church, there is no doubt overlap. 

Sittser wisely not only identifies the positives that modern Christians can learn from each of these periods or modes of spirituality, but also points to their potential risks and abuses. For example, during certain movements of the church, it was considered more spiritual to abstain from sexual relations, and some couples would make vows of chastity within their marriages.  Broadly, it seems that any of these approaches, taken to the extreme, lead to rather significant legalism, which Sittser explicitly shows.

There is material here to challenge all. There are things here that will resonate deeply with most Christians and things that may unsettle them.  Regardless, there is much for all to learn. 

On the second to last page, Sittser wrote, "The church as a community, however, is capable of advancing the cause of the kingdom, if only just a little. Through sheer numbers alone that 'little' can amount to 'much.' There are well over 150 million Christians in America (out of some two billion in the world), though of course not all are serious about their faith. What if just one third of those--50 million--began in modest ways to live more earnestly and deliberately for the kingdom? What if these believers consecrated their lives to God, began to practice spiritual discipline and committed themselves to serve God's kingdom? Just one hundred extra dollars a year would provide 5 billion dollars to help fight AIDS in Africa and battle sex trafficking in Asia. Just one hundred extra hours a year (only two a week!) would provide 5 billion volunteer hours to man soup kitchens in cities and pound nails for Habitat for Humanity. Just ten letters a year would send five hundred million pieces of mail to Washington to lobby for worthy causes. What if ordinary Christians used a little less water every day, consumed less energy and ate healthier food, recycled more conscientiously, purchased fair trade products, rode buses more often, and invested in just one cause outside their normal routine? Churches move slowly, just like glaciers, which is why activists become so impatient. But when they do change, they can become as powerful as an advancing glacier that sweeps away everything in its path. In the end, slow, incremental, concrete change might be the most effective kind" (page 294). 

Read this book. I promise you won't agree with everything, but you will benefit.

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