The Story of Christian Spirituality
A couple months ago I mentioned that I was reading the books my husband assigned to his Medieval and Reformation Spiritualities course last term. The Story of Christian Spirituality: Two Thousand Years from East to West is one of them, a survey text that introduces broad streams of thought and highlights various leaders and movements by way of short sections and sidebars. As in all compilation volumes, some chapters are significantly better than others in terms of research and writing quality; in this case, the standouts include the Prologue, as well as chapter 8 “The Anglican Spirit,” by general editor Gordon Mursell; and chapters 1 “The Early Church Fathers” and 4 “The Eastern Christian Tradition,” both by John McGuckin.
Chapter 1 is especially helpful as groundwork for the rest of the volume. The writer reminds history students that, while “looking at the leading writers and intellectuals of the day” is “a clear way of introducing the main shape of the Great Christian Tradition that grew up in controversy in the early generations,” it is not, in fact, “the whole story, or even the only way of telling the story”:
The real life of the Christian church was always far richer and more complex than the surviving writings can suggest. These can only hint at it rather than summing it up. The surviving texts are like the archaeological remains of a once-great city. One needs imagination to use them correctly. For example, if we follow the writings of the fathers [the church fathers, also known as the patristics] alone, we largely miss out on what Christian women were contributing during this period as the women of that time were rarely literate. The dynamic contribution of women in these early centuries (and certainly their important impact on Christianity) was made by other means than writing, and if one only looks at texts, one becomes ‘blind’ to women’s significant activity in the early church.
More and more research is demonstrating that while men were generally the writers of the early centuries, women were more often the spiritual visionaries, martyrs, and financial backers and heads of community efforts like the building of Christian cemeteries, monasteries, and ministries to the poor. (I’ll be writing more about this in the near future—I’m currently reading a very interesting book that produces evidence of these critical but highly-overlooked contributions of early Christian women.) So focusing exclusively on the intellectual remains of past centuries leaves out about fifty percent of the actors. But this, too, is only a part of the problem, as the introductory chapter goes on to explain:
Another drawback of the patristic method is that the church’s spirituality is always chiefly expressed in the manner in which it worships. Christian worship was called in ancient times the ‘holy liturgy,’ meaning, in the main, the Eucharist or communion rituals of Christianity and its baptismal ceremonies…. The patristic writings, on the other hand, are usually centred around controversies. They reflect great arguments that grew up between individuals and different churches as to the correct interpretation of the Christian life in a given context. Insofar as they are ‘controversial’ literature, they often have imbalances in their approach, and tend to focus on the argument in hand rather than seeking to give a more comprehensive view of the actual condition of general Christian life.
Thus we are reminded that, if we are seeking to understand the broad streams of Christian spirituality rather than the historical development of theological ideas, it is necessary to look to various forms of evidence, including—but not limited to—the textual tradition.
And that brings us to what is possibly the greatest strength of this volume and what makes it stand out from other surveys, which is the wealth of visual art it contains. On nearly every page appear gorgeous, full-color reproductions of catacomb paintings, funerary sculptures, mosaic pavements, cathedral frescoes, engravings, and illuminated manuscripts. These visual aids bring to life the vibrant and diverse cultures within which Christians have practiced their faith for two millennia, offering us a glimpse of daily realities that textual histories, by nature, simply cannot communicate.
The volume is not without its drawbacks. More than one section would benefit from heavy editing; I’ve already mentioned that some chapters are significantly better-crafted than others. Another disappointment is a bias on the part of some contributors to overlook women figures, a bias obvious in the chapters on later centuries, which left much more textual evidence than earlier ones of the contributions of women. Chapter 6, for example, by Herman J. Selderhuis, covers “Protestantism in Europe” from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries—the eras of Katharine Parr, Jeanne d’Albret, Elizabeth Fry, and other well-documented women reformers—and yet not one woman is mentioned in the timeline. The timeline of Chapter 7, however, on “Catholic Saints and Reformers” of the same period—this one written by Liz Carmichael—includes no fewer than 11 women. We should not have to limit our reading to women writers only in order to receive an accurate accounting of the men and women who played significant roles in any given topic.
Overall, however, the first chapter’s helpful reminders about how accurately to read history in general; the diverse selections of primary sources quoted in sidebars (see the one on ninth-century Anglo-Saxon prayers, for a compelling example); and the fine balance of visual art throughout make this a useful—as well as beautiful—overview of the streams of Christian spirituality since the time of Christ. It is a rare book that is at home both in the seminary classroom and on the family room coffee table.