Friday, November 25, 2011

The Maronites: The Origins of an Antiochene Church

By Abbot Paul Naaman, 199 pages,

Abbot Naaman shows how Christian the Eastern part of the Mediterranean was in ancient times, before Islam's expansion. Ancient Syria boasted Aramaic- and Syriac-speaking church fathers, and a monastery-dotted landscape. Along with the Greek Byzantines and the Egyptian Christians, these centers of theology were debating big questions, such as the nature of Christ in his human and divine natures, long before Europe had become Christendom.

The Second Council of Ephesus in 449 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451 form the backdrop to the events in Syria at this time. Imperial intrigue meshed with church politics and theological issues. Theology, in fact, was a political issue.

Naaman excels at keeping things clear for his readers, who are probably unaware of much of the history and the contribution of the "Orientals, including the Syrians.

Syrians such as Theodoret, bishop of Cyr in northern Syria and founder of a monastery which would play a key role in the formation of the Maronite church, was a controversial figure censored at Second Ephesus but rehabilitated at Chalcedon, where in fact he worked closely with the legates from Rome in formulating key canons of the Council on Christology (the nature of Christ).

Theodoret was a gifted churchman who participated in politics, the church hierarchy, and theological debate. He was a church builder.

Theodoret was also a product of the Syrian church. At this time Christianity almost always expanded through the work of missionary monasteries. Monks did the chief evangelizing work by establishing themselves in under-Christianized areas, or in the case of ancient Syria, where the church was split due to theological controversy. Orthodox monks would establish a monastery where they could fight heresy.

Syria at the time of Theodoret had already long established a rich Christian heritage, like the other centers of ancient Christianity, Armenia, Egypt, and Asia Minor. Monasticism, including a more hermit, or eremetical, style, was a deep part of the culture.

Maron, a friend of John Chrysostom, was a fifth-century hermit priest who built a community known as the Maronites. An anchorite, or solitary, he lived on top of a mountain, and soon attracted followers, as was usual. These hermits were the spiritual guides of the larger Christian community, and though they tended to submit to the local bishop, they too had a parallel power in their counseling and prayer service to the community. "The lives of these ascetics made a tremendous impression on their contemporaries," Abbot Naaman notes.

Marcion was the other pillar of early Syrian Christianity. While he initially tried the solitary life, he eventually lived more closely to community than Maron did. Abbot Naaman gives us a clear sense of the importance of such leaders to ancient Syrian Christianity, which was a more masculine, demanding, and ascetic church than contemporary Christianity: "His reputation for saintliness was so great that people walked four days to come and visit him." Though Marcion was more moderate in his ascetic practices than Maron, he influenced Syrian Christianity deeply.

Syrian Christianity practiced asceticism rather than pop-psychology, so it is worth studying as a way for us to become more Christ-centered.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Useful Servanthood: A Study of Spiritual Formation in the Writings of Abba Ammonas

By Bernadette McNary-Zak, 169 pages, litpress.or

Useful Servanthood is part of an eccentric series of books from Kalamazoo-based Cistercian Publications of works about or by the Desert Fathers of Egypt. If you think medieval theologians and saints such as Bernard of Clairvaux or King Saint Louis of France led interesting or ascetic lives, wait till you read this series.

Abba Ammonas, a follower of St. Anthony, seems like he's following another religion because of the sharply different society and "worldview" that he had from ours. The author introduces the reader to ancient Christian Egypt, its Christian society and practice of discipleship.

The search for holiness formed the entire focus of these monks' lives. Though they lived alone in their cells far removed from other monks in the same community, they nevertheless fashioned a strong network of fatherly spiritual counselors and their disciples. This chiefly occurred through the exchange of letters as well as travel. Even old monks would travel to visit some of their charges.

Readers get a sense of the lively Christian spirituality these people followed. The spiritual elders were respected because they had developed "discernment," the ability to understand what God wanted for a certain person.

Theology for these people was not the academic and therapeutic religion that Christianity has now become. These ancient Christians based their lives on a close relationship with God the Father. They had a deep sense of their own sin and consequent guilt before the Father, and of their need for Jesus Christ. They could discern the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives, and warn others of the wiles of Satan. The formation of a prayerful monastic community was the aim of both monastic leaders and followers.


By Dan B. Allender,

Allender, a clinical psychologist and theologian at Seattle's Mars Hill Graduate School, has written Jesus Christ, God the Father, and the Trinity out of Christianity, and has replaced this all with.... himself.

As with so much contemporary Catholic or Protestant theology, the author loves to write about his own thoughts, feelings, and relationships. The few times that he mentions Jesus, Allender does so in reference to himself, and those all-important thoughts, feelings, and relationships.

Jesus is not the Savior, the One who bridges the unbridgeable gulf between humanity and God the Father. Jesus serves Allender's feelings. Therapeutic theology at its best, Sabbath is the sort of nonsense that is emptying churches, especially of men.

Sabbath is the very definition of triteness: It is empty and tedious, and offers nothing new. Again and again, the words mean nothing. What do the following thoughts mean?:

"A Sabbath is a safe and cozy day to explore. This doesn't imply that a Sabbath has no risk or danger - it is danger chosen as fitting our comfort." Again: "The privilege to walk hand in hand with time doesn't come because you merely yearn for it or know it would be good for yourself and your family."

These sentences don't mean anything. They are fluff claiming to be theology. Sabbath is more than a waste of time because it falsely claims to be theology. It's like reading Eat, Pray, Love as marital advice.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Men Hate Going to Church

By David Murrow,

This revised version of the original book offers churchgoers a reality check. Church emasculates men, and offers an environment rich in feminine thinking and visual cues. It therefore repels men. Yet without the risk-taking, energy, and skills that men possess, churches decline.

Through observation, case studies, anecdotes, and common sense, author David Murrow tries to shake things up. He outlines the deep historical roots of feminine Christianity, going all the way back to the Middle Ages.

Everything about the way churches function, the big things and the little things, pleases women and ignores men. This means that men just don't have the skills that match churchgoing. Churches need soft and cuddly Sunday school teachers and musical people who like to sing for 30 minutes. They ask for people good at establishing and maintaining networks of relationships. The hug, weep, pray for 10 minutes, hold each other, and share their feelings. All terrible things for men.

This analysis is most powerful when Murrow suggests activities churches could do that would utilize men's skills.

The language of the churches is also feminine. Intimacy, including passionate intimacy, with God is highlighted. Homoerotic images are often evoked, such as resting in the arms of Jesus. What man wants to hear this?

What man says to another man, "Let's have a personal relationship." Why would having "a personal relationship" with Jesus be appealing for a man?

Murrow keeps things real, often showing how men simply do not fit into the churches. To borrow from Ronald Reagan, "Men didn't leave the church. The church left men." Murrow shows how this has happened, and offers ideas on a better way.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Good Work: Christian Ethics in the Workplace

By Esther D. Reed, 129 pages,

While certain strains of Christianity, within both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, have inspired many of the worst aspects of modern capitalism, Christianity holds the answers to the problems caused by the modern economy. Reed's well-balanced discussion displays none of the anti-Christian rhetoric common to many such works, as she is herself a theologian and writes from within the religion.

She finds hope in Orthodox icons, the writings of John Paul II, Protestant writers, and the Bible. Getting back to the heart of the tradition will reorient Christians so that their economic activity will serve Christ. She does not argue for an immature escapist position whereby Christians should somehow head into the woods and avoid gainful employment.

First, from Orthodox icons she reminds readers of the transformative, transfigurative aspect of Christianity. Through Christ we mysteriously participate in the life of God. This practice can make us less predisposed to participate in today's mindless, ever-growing consumerism. Icons, by giving us a glimpse of heaven, remind us that our work, rather than being about money, worldly success, and acquisitiveness, carries eternal meaning. What we do has a spiritual dimension.

Reed highlights the thoughts of John Paul II that are more critical of capitalism. The late pontiff emphasized the dignity of the human being, and showed how work was a reflection of this dignity. He obliged business owners to respect that dignity by ensuring, for instance, that working conditions were not abusive. Yet he reminded his readers that the Church's task was not to outline a specific economic model. Christians were called to live their lives in the marketplace, and this would transform the economy.

From the Bible, St. Paul's tent-making ministry can inspire Christians. He did not see his trade as a vocation in itself, importantly, but as a way to live his higher vocation. Working Monday to Saturday enabled him to preach Christ on Sunday: "the normality of daily life is taken for granted by Paul and is not elevated by him to the level of a vocation or particular call."

Reed repeats a major theme of her book, which is that many Christians have gotten carried away with equating their work with their vocation. She warns that this can put a spiritual gloss on demeaning or mindless work. While all Christians can have a vocation, and "Vocations are not reserved only for the clergy," not all work is vocation.

Corporations, Reed warns, are turning the work-as-vocation into an excuse to turn us all into workaholics. They promise that through a spiritualized work we can actualize ourselves. Companies spiritualize what is in reality a "fiercely competitive workplace ethic." Importantly, she concludes, "Christian discipleship does not necessarily place a theological or spiritual obligation on believers to seek their vocation in the workplace." Christians can relax, and stop forcing themselves to be super achievers.

Though Christianity got us into this workaholic mess by claiming that work was vocation, by challenging many assumptions and reading the biblical and patristic sources closely, and listening to the wisdom of John Paul II's encyclicals Laboren Exercens and Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, we can begin to define better our real Christian vocations and put our paid work into perspective.

A timely book for our workaholic society.