Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church (Review)

9780310514879Bell, James Stuart, with Patrick J. Kelly.

Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church

Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. Hardcover. $24.99.

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With thanks to Zondervan for the review copy.

The Fathers, I’m afraid, remain an unknown quantity to many, and perhaps most, devout churchgoers. This isn’t only true of Evangelical Protestants, but even of Orthodox and Catholics, who lay claim to patristic theology and spirituality as their own inheritance, and ostensibly consider such an inheritance to be both foundational and authoritative. Part of the problem, of course, is that the body of existing patristic literature is so extensive as to send even the most determined new reader into fits of debilitating fatigue. Moreover, those who might survive a first encounter with a bibliographical listing of patristic works, even only in translation, go on to face various other obstacles: the translation might be so archaic as to be incomprehensible; a deficit in historical and/or theological background might render the basic argument of even a short work inscrutable; and so on. And then there’s the open secret that many people just don’t know how to undertake a serious reading of literary classics, let alone a philosophical or theological treatise. Or, perhaps more distressingly, they’re simply not interested in ever undertaking any such reading.

And yet the Fathers ought to be read, as the introduction to this little book rightly pleads. The Fathers are our forebears in the Faith, and we owe them filial respect. They are authentic teachers and witnesses, the champions of Christian doctrine,  who through their struggles, and sometimes even through the shedding of their own blood, handed down to us the deposit of Faith. They teach us to read Scripture anew, and they are sure guides in the path of virtue, in which they exercised themselves. So clearly, again, the Fathers ought to be read. What isn’t so clear is that our average churchgoer must read, e.g., St Ephrem the Syrian with the goal to understand the meter of his Syriac poetry, or St Basil the Great with a view to mastering the multiple facets of his argument for the divinity of the Holy Spirit. That is to say, there ought to be a place for a devotional reading of the Fathers, unencumbered by the business of critical introductions and apparatuses, and with a view to spiritual edification—and, needless to say, this isn’t only true for our average churchgoer, but for initiates of patristic study as well. It is here that Awakening Faith lends us a hand.

The book features 366 page-long selections from early Christian writers from 1st to the 9th centuries. Occasionally a longer reading or narrative will be split into two sections (or, exceptionally in the case of the Martyrdom of St Cyprian, the Conversion of St Augustine, and St John Cassian’s instruction on covetousness, three). The idea isn’t new, of course, and it has a quite respectable pedigree, arguably reaching back to the Byzantine and Medieval catenae and florilegia. The execution of this particular volume, however, is very much in the style of daily devotionals known to Evangelical Protestants: each numbered daily reading is provided with a thematic classification, a title, and a short Scripture quotation to frame the selection. These added editorial aids do feature from time to time some instances of vocabulary more familiar to Evangelicals than to the rest of us (“evangelism,” “plan of salvation,” “witness and testify,” “the lost,” together with the charming warning in the introduction not to be alarmed by the occasional reference to the “Apocrypha”). This does not at all detract from the value of the chosen texts themselves, which to me seem to have been well selected on the whole. I do note that, as is often the case in projects of this nature, “Church Fathers” seems to be understood as basically synonymous with “early Christian writer.” Yet, at least as far as we Orthodox are concerned, not every ancient writer is thereby a Father: certainly, St Theodore the Studite is a Father in a way that Theodore of Mopsuestia can never be. That said, as far as I can tell, no reading in this volume is problematic from the point of view of the consensio patrum, and I appreciate the broader exposure to early Christian literature in both prose and verse that the selections afford. The selections themselves have been edited for syntax and vocabulary, and the editors have laudably resisted the temptation dumb down the texts to the point of banality. Instead, the selections are given in elegant contemporary English. They read quite well, and command one’s full attention.

There is a full listing of all of the early Christian writers featured in the book, from St Ambrose of Milan to St Zeno of Verona, which provides brief bibliographical notes on each author together with a list of their numbered selections as given in the devotional. These notes are succinct and very well done; I do regret the recurring use of the jarring “Antiochean” for “Antiochene” in them, and hope that future editions of this book (of which I hope there shall be many) will correct this. Perhaps the most disconcerting omission in this publication is the lack of citations for each of the chosen selections. Once or twice I have wished to follow up on a reading, and have had to expend considerable effort to find the source. I should like to encourage either the editors or the publisher to make the list of sources available online to those who wish to have it. Surely this is but a minor chore in our age of electronic dissemination.

Another desideratum would be an index of the topics assigned to each of the readings (“Father and Spirit,” “Jesus Christ,” “Holy Days,” “The Bible,” “Holiness,” and so on). With such a tool in hand, one could proceed to navigate this book in one of three ways:

1) In numerical order, from 1-366;
2) In alphabetical or chronological order, by author; or
3) Thematically, by assigned subject.

Each method would only improve and enrich the reading exercise in new ways.

In spite of these minor imperfections, I am very pleased with Awakening Faith, and look forward to using it daily for my own enrichment and edification, as I have been doing in recent weeks. I warmly recommend this devotional to one and all.

3 responses to “Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church (Review)

  1. I do note that, as is often the case in projects of this nature, “Church Fathers” seems to be understood as basically synonymous with “early Christian writer.”

    Such was my reaction when examining the ACCS in detail. Pages upon pages of commentary from the likes of Pelagius, Origen, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, alongside that of Ss. Augustine and John Chrysostom. *sigh*

  2. Be still my heart! Your blog is back and you’ve posted a review! I’ve only been waiting since, what, 2007-2008? So glad that it was as glorious as I had always hoped it would be! May this review be archived and consulted for time immemorial! Well done my friend, well done indeed!

  3. Pingback: Awakening Faith Blog Tour | Cross Focused Reviews

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