Category Archives: Book Reviews

“Francis of Assisi and His World” by Mark Galli

The book Francis of Assisi and His World is a relatively small book packed with full color pictures of relics, paintings, maps, and buildings from the time of Francis of Assisi. While this format is uncommon among theology/history books, it makes sense considering it was written by the Managing Editor of Christianity Today magazine, Mark Galli. Though different, the format does fit with Galli’s goal of helping the reader “understand the modern medieval Francis” by giving them a “glimpse of life in the Middle Ages.”[1]

            The textual style of the book built upon the graphical format of the book and helped tell the story of Francis. Though Galli consulted a “great deal of scholarship”[2] in researching the book, he chose to keep the text concise with a moving narrative. This choice worked incredibly well as I found myself fully engaged with the material while pictures of Assisi and Francis swirled around my head.

            Content wise, Galli divided the story of Francis into thirteen parts that follow the general time progression of the saint’s life. The first nine chapters dealt mostly with the more historical events of the saint – i.e. his time as a knight, when he disowned his father, the founding of the Franciscan order, etc. Chapters ten through twelve focused more on Francis teachings and life reflections though they still followed the basic timeline of his life, especially the time after he stepped down from leadership and was preparing to die. Galli uses the last chapter not only to give the reader a sense of what happened to the Franciscan order after Francis death, but also to summarize his conclusion on how the modern reader should respond to Francis’ message.[3]

            It is this later theme that was of interest to me for Galli goes to great pains to remind the reader that Francis was focused on calling people towards “simplicity and poverty.”[4] This was the great message of Francis of Assisi along with the call to forsake one’s sinful actions and embrace the way of Jesus of Nazareth.[5] Sadly this message has been divorced from the memory of Francis with his likeness being used to promote environmental stewardship or service to the poor with no mention of Jesus.[6] This, quite frankly, was the Francis I knew prior to reading Galli’s book.

            In reading this book, however, I have come to a new understanding of who Francis of Assisi was. His call towards simplicity is one that I have found myself embracing over the years in an effort to combat the hyper-materialism of modern American culture. I also enjoyed learning about Francis’ message of humility. His choice to submit to church leadership even though he knew they were incorrect in some things is truly remarkable. All too often, we humans allow pride to divide us rather than seeking to retain relationship with each other through humility and grace. Though Francis’ personal example of humility is one that seems out of reach for myself, I have to admit that it is encouraging and enlightening. To that end, I have a new respect for Francis of Assisi and the Franciscan order he founded.


[1] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 7-8.

[2] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 8.

[3] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 8, 182-183.

[4] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 183.

[5] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 56-57, 138, 179, 183.

[6] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World, 181.

Francis and Clare: The Complete Works

Saint Francis (1182-1226 C.E.) and Saint Clare (1193-1253 C.E.) are two of the most famous saints in the history of Christian Spirituality having “captured the hearts and imaginations of men and women of all nationalities and creeds through the centuries.”[1] Both saints grew up in the Italian city of Assisi around the same time though it is unclear if they knew each other before 1212 C.E. when Clare pledged herself to Christ in the presence of Francis and the bishop of Assisi.[2] In the years that followed this pledge, Clare and Francis became joined together in the minds of their followers as they lived out the ways of Lady Poverty.

            The volume in question contains all the known writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare. The first half of the book is focused on Francis displaying the twenty-eight works firmly established as written by Francis along with five dictated letters/blessings.[3] The most famous of these works is “The Earlier Rule” which help establish and guide the Order of Friars Minor (i.e. the Franciscans).[4] Saint Clare’s writings make up the latter half of the book. Included in this selection are her four letters to Blessed Agnes of Prague as well as “The Rule of Saint Clare” that guided the actions of the Order of Poor Ladies.[5]

            While the writings of both Saint Francis and Saint Clare were interesting from a historical view point, I have to admit that I wasn’t personally impacted by their writings. Their radical dedication to Lady Poverty, while honorable, isn’t something that tugs on my spirit, though I do embrace material simplicity which could be called a sister to Lady Poverty. I did, however, connect, as a lot of people have, with Francis’ view on all of creation praising the Creator King.[6] Lastly, I admit that Francis’ overwhelming support for the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church was a surprise to me. Though he lived during a time when corruption ran deep throughout the hierarchy of the church, Francis taught his followers to respect and obey the priests and leaders of the church.[7] This doesn’t mean that he didn’t call out the sins of the church (for he did!), but rather it shows his deep conviction and love for the Bride of Christ.[8] This, if anything, is a message the modern church needs to hear.


[1] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare: The Complete Works (New York City: Paulist Press, 1982), xv.

[2] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 170.

[3] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 7.

[4] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 107-108.

[5] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 170.

[6] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 19-20.

[7] Regis J. Armstrong and Ignatius C. Brady, eds., Francis and Clare, 69.

[8] Mark Galli, Francis of Assisi and His World (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 59, 182.

Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis

Born in a small town in central Italy, Saint Bonaventure entered the Franciscan Order in 1243 C.E. at twenty-six years of age while studying at the University of Paris.[1] Fourteen years later he was elected as the Minister General of the Order, a position he would retain until his death on July 15, 1274 C.E.[2] Throughout his career, Bonaventure was a prolific writer whose writings covered multiple genres including sermons, administrative writings, scholastic treatises, spiritual works, and lecture series.[3] The volume currently under review contains three of Bonaventure’s spiritual writings (The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis), which, when taken together, “offer a comprehensive picture of Bonaventure’s Franciscan spirituality.”[4]

            Bonaventure’s mystical masterpiece The Soul’s Journey Into God is the first work offered in the volume. Drawing off St. Francis’ vision of a winged Seraph, Bonaventure develops six stages of illumination (one stage per wing of the Seraph) through which “the soul can pass over to peace through ecstatic elevation of Christian wisdom.”[5] Written in seven chapters, the work serves a summa of mystical theology in that it brings together all the “major strands of Christian spirituality”[6] during the Middle Ages.

            The second work included in this volume is The Tree of Life, which is a “meditation on the life of Christ, based on the Gospel accounts of his birth, public ministry, passion, death, resurrection and glorification.”[7] The work is split into three parts focused on the mystery of Jesus’ origin, his passion, and his glorification. Within each of these parts, Bonaventure uses the image of a tree bearing twelve fruits (four fruits per part) that provide the reader with a view of the “varied states, excellence, powers, and works”[8] of Christ’s love. Taken together, these fruits will nourish the soul of the one who “meditates on them and diligently considers each one.”[9]

            The last work of Bonaventure included in this volume is his biography of St. Francis entitled The Life of St. Francis. This work was written at the “unanimous urging of the General Chapter”[10] of the Franciscan Order at their meeting in Narbonne in 1260 C.E.[11] A few years after it was completed, the General Chapter of Paris in 1266 C.E. declared it the official biography of St. Francis, cementing its position within the Order and expanding its readership.[12]  The work itself was written along a “thematic order”[13] with events placed within fifteen chapters that loosely follows Francis’ life. Within the thematic order of the book, one can detect a broad selection of nine chapters in the middle that follows the three stages of the spiritual life: purgation, illumination, and perfection.[14] While this order may conflict with the modern view of a biography, it fits within the norms of the Bonaventure day.

            Though each of the three works in this volume were interesting in their own way, I must admit that it was Bonaventure’s The Tree of Life that warmed my soul the most. I loved Bonaventure’s simple yet powerful way of waking the reader through the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As I read through the meditations, I found myself being drawn afresh into the story of Jesus. Of all the writings within this book, it is this work that I see myself coming back to time and time again. It really is a “bundle of myrrh,”[15] as Bonaventure called it, that I can hold close to my heart.


[1] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey Into God, The Tree of Life, and The Life of St. Francis, trans. Ewert Cousins (New York City: Paulist Press, 1978), 5.

[2] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 7-8.

[3] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 9.

[4] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xx.

[5] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 54.

[6] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 20.

[7] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, xix.

[8] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 121.

[9] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 122.

[10] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 182.

[11] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 37.

[12] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 40.

[13] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 183.

[14] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 43-44.

[15] Bonaventure, Bonaventure, 119.

“A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss” by Jerry Sittser

In the fall of 1991, Jerry Sittser’s life changed when his wife, mother, and four-year old daughter were killed in a car crash while he and his other three children survived. The accident, as Sittser noted later, forced him down a course “which [he] had to journey whether [he] wanted to or not.”[1] He had to find a way to adjust to his new life as “there was no way out but ahead, into the abyss.”[2] As Sittser walked into the abyss, he kept a journal of his reflections in an effort to help process what was happening in and around him. Friends would later encourage him to write a book on the subject of catastrophic loss, hence the origins of this book.[3]

While the book A Grace Disguised contains vignettes of Sittser’s personal experience, it is not about his experience per se. Rather it is about the “universal experience of loss”[4] and the “transformation that can occur in our lives”[5] through this loss. As Sittser found in his own journey, it isn’t the “experience of loss that becomes the defining moment” of life but the way in which we “respond to loss that matters.”[6] In a way, Sittser’s book is akin to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in that both writers focus on how people respond to suffering and loss rather than trying to avoid or deny pain altogether.[7] (Sittser is familiar with Frankl’s book as he references it as something that helped him on his journey through the pain.)[8]

Though the book is fairly short, I found myself struggling to make it through the pages due to the subject material. Losing my wife and/or children through a sudden catastrophic loss like Sittser is one of my secret fears that sometimes keeps me awake at night. Knowing that they could die at any moment though the sheer randomness of the universe brings all kinds of emotions to the surface. It is as Sittser comments in chapter eight, “suffering may be at its fiercest when it is random, for we are then stripped of even the cold comfort that comes when events, however cruel, occur for a reason.”[9]

I, however, disagree with Sittser’s conclusion that God is in absolute control and that every event ultimately has a reason.[10] Instead I embrace the concept that humanity is engaged in a war between the spiritual forces of good and evil. When bad things happen, they do not happen due to the will or inaction of the Creator but rather because of the war around us. Jesus, who is in the trenches with us, promises to take the negative events in our lives and use them for good through the cruciform power of his love (Romans 8:18-39). Though this war motif may not encourage everyone, it helps me deal with the pain that comes from living in this world as it means my life is part of something bigger than what I see on the surface. Which, as it happens, is similar to the reason Sittser wants God to be in control.[11] Though we traveled different paths, in the end both Sittser and myself “choose to believe that there is a bigger picture”[12] in which our lives (the good and bad) play a part.


[1] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2004), 29.

[2] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 29.

[3] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[4] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 18.

[5] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[6] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 17.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 80-81.

[8] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 46-48.

[9] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 111.

[10] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 149-161.

[11] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118-119.

[12] Jerry Sittser, A Grace Disguised, 118.

“Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy” by Viktor E. Frankl

Born, raised, and trained in Vienna, Austria, Viktor Frankl launched a neurology and psychiatry career in 1937 within the shadow of Nazi Germany. Five short years later Frankl and his family were sent to the concentration camps of War World Two wherein his father, mother, brother and wife would die. The next three years would be some of the most difficult years Frankl life; yet they also proved the launching pad for his later career as the founder of logotherapy.

Originally written over the course of nine successive days in 1945 soon after Frankl was liberated from a concentration camp, the book Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy is partly biographical and partly scholarly. The first part tells of Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps. The second part, which was added to the book in 1962, gives readers a basic introduction to logotherapy, a school of Psychotherapy founded by Frankl. The final section was added to Man’s Search for Meaning in 1984 and deals with how humanity continues to have hope in the face of pain, guilt and death.

The focus of the first section of the book was to let people know that “life holds a potential meaning under any conditions, even the most miserable ones.”[1] To this end, Frankl proceeded to tell the stories of the common prisoner and their “unrelenting struggle for daily bread and for life itself.”[2] In the midst of these stories, Frankl highlighted the ways in which the human psyche adapted and responded to the horrors around them. In the words of Friedrich Nietzsche “he who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”[3]

The second part of the book focused on introducing the reader to the world of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of psychotherapy developed by Frankl that focuses on the “meanings to be fulfilled by the patient in his future.”[4] In other words, it seeks to help each person discover the meaning of their lives though either accomplishing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, or through the attitude one takes when experiencing suffering.[5] At its core logotherapy is built upon the thesis that humanity is “ultimately self-determining”[6] and is not bound by the conditions or genetics provided to them by fate. Humanity, therefore, has the freedom to change both the world and themselves for the better if they only choose to do so.

The third and last part of the book deals with the question of “can life retain its potential meaning in spite of its tragic aspects?”[7] In answering this question, Frankl reminds the reader that “happiness cannot be pursued.”[8] Rather, it is something that one finds once they have a meaning to life. Happiness is a by-product of a meaningful life that comes naturally no matter the situations or conditions in which one finds themselves. Building upon this, Frankl explores how the different avenues of finding meaning in life help combat the tragic triad of pain, guilt and death.

On a personal note, I thoroughly enjoyed Frankl’s view that humanity is free to make our own choices. I am saddened by the voices both within and outside the church who claim that the actions of humanity are predetermined by God, fate, genetics, and/or the environment in which we live. In the years since I originally read this book I have found myself returning to Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps of War World Two as proof that I can choose to act Christ-like even in the most difficult of situations. In fact, it is, as Frankl notes, in the tough parts of life that “people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.”[9]


[1] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 12.

[2] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 18.

[3] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 84.

[4] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 104.

[5] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 115.

[6] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 133.

[7] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 139.

[8] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 140.

[9] Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, 145.

Being Missional

Elder Paisios the Athonite once said, “The goal of reading is the application, in our lives, of what we read.” No truer words can be spoken about Kingdom Theology and the three themes intertwined within that worldview. Our theology is to be lived out clearly for the world to see. Otherwise we fool ourselves into thinking that we are something we are not. James put it this way in his letter:

“Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:22-25)

If we claim to be servants of the King, then we must focus on our lives and set our hearts on the King’s business. Everything we do must be centered around and lead to the promotion of the King’s mission. We are to be intentional and deliberate in declaring that the rule and reign of the Creator King has broken into human history and has provided humanity with a new way to live life. It is this deliberateness that causes one to become missional in everything. Our life no longer belongs to ourselves, but has become pledged to the King of Kings.

I cannot overstate the power of living on mission. All too often we think that following Jesus means praying a short prayer of salvation one day then spending the remaining decades sitting on a church pew each Sunday. During the week, we are free to pursue whatever dreams or desires we want as long as we read our Bible, pray occasionally, pay our tithes and don’t do this or that like all good little Christians. This view of the Christian life does not reflect the reality of what it means to follow Jesus and join with him on his mission. I don’t know about you, but I didn’t sign up for a country club; I signed up to change the world with Jesus and to defeat the forces of evil that destroy and enslave billions of people worldwide!

We, the people of God, need to change the stories that we are telling each other. We need to get rid of the “American Dream”, where we pursue the nice little house with the white picket fence, two cars, a boat, some kids and a steady job. Life is not about shopping, hunting, sports, parties, how many activities you do or how much stuff you own. Life isn’t even about how often you show up at church or what religious activities you perform. Jesus said life was about following him.

In the first century, disciples of a Jewish rabbi would leave their families, homes and communities with the single-minded focus of learning to live life like their rabbi. They didn’t just want to know what information their rabbi knew; they wanted to think, act and be like them. There are even stories of disciples following their rabbi into the bathroom in an effort to know everything about them, so that they could replicate it in their own lives. While slightly humorous, those stories tell us a lot about those disciples. They weren’t fooling around, adding on religious activities or mindless prayers to their daily schedules. They were serious about living life. They had a mission and nothing, not even a bathroom door, was going to stop them from their goal of being like their rabbi.

Shouldn’t we be that way towards our rabbi, the King of Kings? Perhaps, instead of simply going to church and doing all the “right” things, we should be intentional and deliberate in being like him. Jesus told his disciples at the Last Supper that if they loved him, they would keep his commands (John 14:15–21). And what were his commands? To proclaim that the kingdom of God is near, heal the sick, cast out demons, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, love God the Father with their whole heart, body, mind and soul and love their neighbors as themselves. Seven things. That’s it. If we have bowed our knees to King Jesus, we are to daily crucify our own desires and pick up the cross of Jesus, committing to walk out these seven commandments of the King. And though we may fail – or rather, even though we will fail – we are to get back up and try again and again and again and again.

Paul told the church in Corinth that they were to “follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). How awesome would it be if the churches around the world were filled with people so dedicated to the King of Kings that they told their neighbors, co-workers, family members and strangers to follow their example as they followed the example of Jesus? If this happened, it would radically change the world in which we live. Religiosity would stop, people would be quick to ask for, and give, forgiveness, the hungry would be fed and people would know there was another way to live life. Sin, evil and death would lose their power as people embrace the rule and reign of the Creator King.

 

Excerpt from my book The Here and Not Yet (pages 219-221) published by Vineyard International Publishing. Available in paperback and ebook versions – click here to find out more.

“The Orthodox Way” by Bishop Kallistos Ware

I was first introduced to Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way on September 2, 2006 when it was given to me after a chance meeting with an Eastern Orthodox priest. This priest, whose name I do not know, gave me five books about the Eastern Orthodox Church after briefly taking to me in a hotel restaurant in Los Angeles. Of the five books the priest gave me, Ware’s The Orthodox Way stood out because of its spiritual depth and simple prose. Twelve years later I can honestly say that this book changed the course of my life by introducing me to the path of the mystic.

The book itself isn’t that long, just six short chapters bookended by a prologue and epilogue. The purpose of the book is to introduce the reader to the “fundamental teachings of the Orthodox Church”[1] without being exhaustive or too technical. Rather, Ware lays out “some of the decisive signposts and milestones upon the spiritual Way.”[2] He does this by addressing six different facets of God as noted by the chapter titles: “God as Mystery,” “God as Trinity,” “God as Creator,” “God as Man,” “God as Spirit,” and “God as Prayer.”[3]

Though each of these chapters are packed with amazing gems, the first chapter, “God as Mystery,” was the one that had the most lasting impact on my life. The overall gist of this chapter is that God cannot be known strictly by intellectual reason or as the “conclusion to a process of reasoning.”[4] Rather, knowing God means knowing him as a person who loves and cares for us. Faith in God is, after all, “not logical certainty but a personal relationship”[5] that embraces the presence of doubt while still embarking on the journey.

At the time of my first reading of The Orthodox Way, I was an associate pastor of a small church and a graduate of Vineyard Leadership Institute (a two-year Bible and leadership training program). The temptation to logically figure out God was strong both because of my previous studies and the demands of the church. Through this book I was able to “embrace the mystery of God without having to understand everything.”[6] It gave me the freedom to embrace the unknown while still using my mind and intellect for the glory of God. As St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the great intellectual Church Fathers) said, “God’s name is not known; it is wondered at.”[7]

Another gem within Ware’s book is his liberal use of quotes from the Church Fathers and Orthodox service books.[8] Most of these quotes were placed before and after each chapter, though he does sprinkle them throughout the body of the chapters. It was through reading these quotes that I was introduced to the Desert Fathers, although it would be years later before I fully realized the spiritual wisdom of these passionate followers of Jesus.[9]

Time does not permit me to expound on the other gems lying within the pages of Bishop Kallistos Ware’s book The Orthodox Way. For far too long the Protestant church in the United States of America has ignored our sisters and brothers in the East. The time has come for us to learn from the Eastern Orthodox Church for “they have a rich heritage of following God and seeing things that we have never seen.”[10]

 

Endnotes

[1] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1995), 9.

[2] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 9.

[3] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 5.

[4] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[5] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 16.

[6] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog), September 24, 2010, accessed February 19, 2018.

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, Commentary on the Song of Songs, quoted in Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 14.

[8] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way, 10.

[9] Joshua S. Hopping, “Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers” (final paper, St. Stephen’s University, 2016), Wild Goose Chase (blog), released in three parts on November 9th, 11th, & 13th, 2016, accessed February 19, 2018.

[10] Joshua S. Hopping, “Embracing The Mystery Of God”, Wild Goose Chase (blog).

“The Essential Rumi” translated by Coleman Barks

Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (Sept. 30, 1207 – Dec. 17, 1273), better known as Rumi, was a Persian born Sufi Muslim teacher, religious leader, poet, and Islamic scholar. Since the day that they were written, Rumi’s poems have been enjoyed by countless people in multiple languages. In recent decades, his poems have enjoyed a renaissance in America with Rumi becoming “one of the best-selling poets in the United States.”[1]

As a Sufi Muslim, Rumi was follower of “Islam’s immensely complex and infinitely diverse mystical tradition.”[2] Though rooted in the core beliefs of Islam, Sufism is a “medley of divergent philosophical and religions trends”[3] with concepts borrowed from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religions. This background allowed Rumi to become “dissolver of boundaries” with poems that speak to the heart of humanity regardless of religious affiliation. This mystical belief in the connection of all of humanity can be seen most clearly in Rumi’s statement that he saw “one altar” and not three when he went “into the Muslim mosque and the Jewish synagogue and the Christian church.”[4]

Rumi’s poems are characterized by his usage of “anything human beings do, no matter how scandalous or cruel or silly, as a lens to examine soul growth.”[5] This style, though effective at one level, also tends to drive away some readers due to the crude and unrefined nature of the poems. I, for one, fall into this latter group as I did not find Rumi’s poems to be enlightening, enriching, or beneficial. Rather I found them to confusing and unhelpful in stimulating personal spiritual formation. Part of this, I readily admit, may be due to my personal preference and enjoyment of prose over and above that of poetry of any nature.

There were two poems of Rumi’s that I did find of interest. The first being the “Chickpea to Cook” in which the chickpea learns from the cook that flavor comes through the heat of the stove.[6] Coleman Barks, the poem’s translator, elaborates on this poem stating that the chickpea is the disciple who listens to and obeys their teacher (i.e. the cook).[7] Though this may be the official scholarly interpretation of the poem, my heart understood the poem along the lines of personal hardship. Spiritual growth, wisdom, and maturity rarely come when life is at its best; rather these things are born out of a heart that allows God to refine us like gold in the melting pot (e.g. Malachi 3:3, James 1:2-4, Isaiah 48:10).

The “Elephant in the Dark” was the second Rumi poem that stood out to me.[8] This poem tells the story of three men who look at an elephant in a dark room. Each one only sees and feels a portion of the elephant and, therefore, comes to an incomplete understanding of the animal. This is most likely one of Rumi’s most famous poem, though he is not always given credit for it. Hence while I have heard multiple variations of this poem over the years, I did not know its author. As such, finding the true author of the poem was like finding a coin in a rain-soaked field, a pleasant surprise that makes the trudge through the mud bearable.

In conclusion, I found the poems of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī as translated by Coleman Barks in the book The Essential Rumi interesting though uninspiring. However, I am sure lovers of poetry will most likely disagree with this conclusion as seen by the lasting international fame of Rumi. To each their own.

 

Endnotes

[1] Azadeh Moaveni, “How Did Rumi Become One of Our Best-Selling Poets?”, The New York Times (New York City, NY), January 20, 2017, accessed February 19, 2018, .

[2] Reza Aslan, No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), 198.

[3] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 199.

[4] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks (New York: HarperOne, 2004), 246.

[5] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 173.

[6] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 132-133.

[7] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 132.

[8] Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, The Essential Rumi, 152.

No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam by Reza Aslan

Islam rose to the forefront of the global consciousness on September 11, 2001 through the bloody actions of several self-proclaimed followers of Islam. Yet in spite of the almost constant barrage of information since then by news pundits, political leaders, and religious personalities, it seems that most people living in the United States still don’t understand the basic concepts, history, or divisions within the religion. Written four years after the 9-11 terrorist attacks by Reza Aslan, a Sufi Muslim immigrant to the USA from Iran, the book No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam seeks to provide the reader with a basic understanding of Islam.[1]

Using chronological time as a scaffold, Aslan focuses on telling the theological history of Islam rather than outlining the territorial spread of the religion. This focus on the theological development of Islam allows Aslan to highlight the various reformation movements within the religion. In fact, Aslan goes as far as to say that the book itself is less about the origins of Islam as much as it is “an argument for reform.”[2] Though not widely known in the United States, “Islam has been in a constant state of evolution”[3] since the very beginning. Hence the power and glory of Aslan’s book is that it informs the readers of the struggles within Islam as its religious followers try to adapt their religion to a changing world while remaining true to their traditions, scriptures, and deity.

A good example of this struggle is the ongoing debate over the role of human reason in reading and understanding the Quran. The Rationalist school of thought within Islam believes that all “theological arguments must adhere to the principles of rational thought.”[4] Hence to them, the proper way to interpret the Quran is to read it within “its historical context.”[5] This allows proponents of the Rationalist school of thought to adapt the message of the Quran to the culture of the time. The Traditional school of thought, however, holds the opposite view, claiming that “human reason, while certainly important, must nevertheless be subordinate to the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet.”[6] This view leads to a more literal reading of the Quran that states that the Quran and its interpretation “has never changed and will never change.”[7]

This debate reminds me of the Liberal/Fundamentalist divide within Protestant Christianity in the United States. Within this divide it was the Liberals who embraced science and human logic while the Fundamentalists held to a “strong emphasis on the inerrancy and literal truth of the biblical record and the falseness of modern, skeptical, evolutionary science and philosophy.”[8] As such, it can be said that Fundamental Evangelicalism and Traditional Islam both hold to some of the same philosophical concepts.

In closing, I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed Reza Aslan’s book No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. It gave me a greater understanding of what is happening within Islam and among the various people groups who embrace the teachings of Muhammad. As the last decade has taught us, the world is changing with Islam quickly becoming a major player on the global scene. Accordingly, the reforms within Islam have now become the reforms of all people as these reforms have the potential to shape the world’s geopolitical and cultural structures in multiple ways.

 

Endnotes

[1] “Reza Aslan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, accessed on January 1, 2018.

[2] Reza Aslan, No god But God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (New York: Random House, 2005), xx.

[3] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 266.

[4] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 153.

[5] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 161.

[6] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 153.

[7] Reza Aslan, No god But God, 161.

[8] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 534.

Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea

            Though it is common to think that that we who are alive are the ones who are braving new territory, the reality is that we are always following someone else. In his book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter, Thomas Cahill shows that for those of us steeped in Western thought and culture it is the ancient Greeks who got there before us. As Cahill so eloquently states at the end of the book, “whatever we experience in our day, whatever we hope to learn, whatever we most desire, whatever we set out to find, we see that the Greeks have been there before us.”[1]

Cahill, however, makes it clear that his book contains “no breakthrough discoveries, no cutting edge scholarship.”[2] Rather his approach is to draw together the various pieces of the past and “try to remain in their presence till [he] can begin to see and hear and love what living men and women once saw and heard and loved.”[3] This method of reviewing history proves to be extremely effective in drawing out the humanity of the ancient Greeks that so often gets buried under the text of their mythology and philosophy.

The book itself is divided into seven chapters plus an introduction. Each chapter is preceded by a fragment of Greek mythology that corresponds to the theme of the chapter.[4] The chapter titles themselves summary the concepts explored by Cahill: The Warrior (How to Fight), The Wanderer (How to Feel), The Poet (How to Party), The Politician and The Playwright (How to Rule), The Philosopher (How to Think), and The Artist (How to See). The structure of the book shift a bit in the final chapter as Cahill looks at how the Greco-Roman world merged with the Judeo-Christian worldview to create the society that would become the Western World.

Being an avid reader, I have had the pleasure of reading the stories of Greek mythology over the years. As a youth I devoured the stories of Jason, Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, and others as if I was traveling with them. In the years that followed I’ve discovered that that some of the stores originated from various physical events that happened around the Aegean Sea.[5] Thomas Cahill, however, managed to breathe new life into the familiar stories in a way I’ve never seen before. He did this by showing how the stories themselves helped shape the worldview and actions of the ancient Greeks. Homer’s Iliad, for example, not only entertained the people through its stories of adventure and war, it also taught them that violence was inevitable, “whether the violence of the gods of the violence of man against women or of man against man.”[6] It was this latter concept that I failed to grasp in my youth.

Beyond the casual reading of their mythology, the writings and philosophy of the ancient Greeks has typically been far from my mind. Thomas Cahill’s book Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, however, has awoken a desire to learn more about the worldview of the ancient Greeks and how this worldview helped shape the rise of modern Western civilization. To that end, it must be said that Cahill accomplished the mission implied in his book’s subtitle in that he showed me “why the Greeks matter.”[7]


End Notes

[1] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea: Why the Greeks Matter (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003), 264.

[2] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, 7-8.

[3] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, 8.

[4] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, 8.

[5] e.g. Siro Igino Trevisanato. The Plagues of Egypt: Archaeology, History and Science Look at the Bible (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2005).

[6] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, 63.

[7] Thomas Cahill. Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea, i.