2020 Year in Review

2020 was obviously such a difficult and painful year for so many that I recognize that having the health, resources, and time to devote to my various writing projects is itself a significant blessing. At the end of this most unusual and challenging year, then, I think it is all the more important to pause and take stock of the good things that the Lord has brought over the last 12 months.

The early part of this year was devoted to the completion and publication of my second book, How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology. Launching a book in the midst of a pandemic was hardly an ideal way to get the word out, but I have nevertheless been deeply encouraged by the warm reception it has received from those who have read it. The first published review, from Brandon Smith in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, noted that “The strengths of this book are legion—from its succinctness to its clarity to its theological precision—but its greatest contribution is its avoidance of generalizing early pneumatological development. […] This book is recommended for anyone seeking to understand how and why Christians confess the Holy Spirit’s full divinity.” If you haven’t gotten your copy yet, get it now!

The second half of the year, then, has been consumed with writing the bulk of my forthcoming book, also with Cascade, on the intersection of patristic theology and modern Christian teaching and learning. While there has of course been much written on the integration of faith and learning, I’m not sure anyone has approached these questions from this particular angle of gleaning from the wisdom of the church Fathers on spiritual formation and pedagogy. I am particularly grateful for the large group of outside readers who have been working through the manuscript as I complete each chapter, providing constructive criticism and additional illustrations that really flesh out my points in practical ways. It has been wonderful to spend the year in the company, so to speak, of men like Pope St. Gregory the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil the Great, St. Benedict of Nursia, and St. Cyril of Jerusalem. If nothing else, my time in the Fathers has enriched my own soul. I’ve completed about 150 pages, putting me at roughly 75% of the estimated total length, and am aiming to have it submitted to Cascade by the end of February. If everything stays on track, you can expect to see Teaching for Spiritual Formation: Patristic Insights for Christian Education in a Convulsed Age (working title) from Cascade in fall 2021. Much more on this to come in the new year!

Thank you as always for your interest in support of my work. May God richly bless you in 2021!

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Book Review: Wallace and Thornborrow, Stories of the Saints

“Read us another saint story!” is a common refrain heard around our home. And who am I to resist my older children (ages 6 and 4) wanting to learn more about church history?

This, ultimately, is the triumph of Stories of the Saints (Workman Publishing, 2020), which bills itself as a collection of “bold and inspiring tales of adventure, grace, and courage.” For not only does the volume serve as an introduction to some of the most famous Christians of all time, but it promotes, across all of its stories, the power of prayer and faith, the rejection of materialism and self-comfort, and a call to live for something greater than oneself. What’s more, it introduces topics such as monasticism, martyrdom, and mendicancy (topics that won’t come up in your average Sunday School class!) in an accessible way for children.

Both contributors to the volume excel in their respective tasks: Carey Wallace does a great job of rendering the lives of the saints in a brief and accessible manner (no small feat!), Just as impressive are the illustrations of Nick Thornborrow (I especially like his renderings of Jerome, Benedict, and Francis), which remind me of a cross between a graphic novel and the work of the Israeli artist Bracha Lavee. Workman Publishing brings it all together through high-quality pages and make good use of shiny gold detailing. The volume itself, then, feels like a piece of art and a “special” book for our family that we keep safe between readings.

Supernatural events abound in the stories of these saints. Some might prefer a more purely “historical” introduction rather than one that feels more “legendary” or “mythical,” but Wallace nails the book’s perspective in the introduction:

“Are these stories true? That depends on what we mean by true stories. […] But just because we can’t be sure a story didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true in another way. These stories have been told for generations, some for thousands of years. In this book, they’ve been dramatized, but always based on tradition and history. They come from many sources, but they are among the best-loved and most enduring stories in the world because of the deep truths they contain.” (ix)

The breadth of saints selected is impressive, extending chronologically from Polycarp (d. 156) to Mother Teresa (d. 1997), covering both the Western and Eastern Churches, and providing a great balance of male and female, well-known and more obscure saints. The perspective and selection, especially of the modern saints, is decidedly Roman Catholic, as would be expected, and therefore leaves something to be desired from an Anglican perspective: even if it would be unreasonable to expect John Wycliffe or the Oxford Martyrs in a volume like this, I would have loved to see Augustine of Canterbury or Edward the Confessor. On a related note, it would have been nice to see St. Michael the Archangel included somehow; I’m sure Thornborrow could have done something really impressive with him and it would have been a nice story to read for Michaelmas.

One other minor criticism: the scholar in me would love to have a little more idea of which resources Wallace consulted for constructing her account of each saint’s life; the “further reading” at the back of the book is a nice start, but more specific references would be useful to at least some adult readers working through this book with their children.

These minor critiques aside, this outstanding book will be well-loved by parents looking to form in their children (and in themselves!) an appetite for what is good, beautiful, and true.

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Book Update: Teaching for Spiritual Formation

In light of the complexities and challenges of our present time and place, the early church fathers of the distant past would at first glance appear to be unlikely conversation partners for educators interested in making deeper connections between their Christian faith and the work of teaching and learning. It is my contention, however, that it is precisely in a time such as ours that the voices of our great forefathers need to be invited to the table, to speak afresh that wisdom that has endured through the centuries and proven itself time and again to be a source of inspiration and edification for Christians through the ages.  

The above paragraph sets out what I see as the animating vision of my forthcoming book, Teaching for Spiritual Formation. I’m now about 50% finished with the draft of the manuscript, and think it’s coming together well. The risk in writing an interdisciplinary book like this is that it will appeal to neither Christian educators nor patristics people, but I’m grateful to Cascade for believing in this project. On a personal level, I’ve enjoyed digging into the literature on catechesis, monasticism, and contemplative spirituality, and to engage with some really interesting patristic homilies that are strikingly relevant for today.

Below is the tentative chapter outline of the book (remember, I’m only 50% of the way through). If you have interest or expertise in any of these areas, please reach out and I’d be happy to share chapter drafts with you!

TEACHING FOR SPIRITUAL FORMATION

1. Introduction: Christian Education in a Convulsed Age

2. Who Are We as Teachers? Gregory the Great and Spiritual Direction

3. Who Are Our Students? John Chrysostom and Embodied Learning

4. What Are We Teaching? Basil of Caesarea and Inculcating Virtue

5. How Are We Teaching? Benedict of Nursia and Classroom Liturgies

6. What Are We Building Towards? Cyril of Jerusalem and Catechetical Stages

7. Conclusion: The School as Monastery

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New Book Announcement: Teaching for Spiritual Formation

I am very happy to share the news that I am under contract with Cascade for a new book with the working title Teaching for Spiritual Formation. This project brings together two of my passions, the study of the early church fathers and the craft of teaching, and builds off work I presented at the Kuyers Conference on Christian teaching and learning back in the fall of 2019 (remember then?).

In Teaching for Spiritual Formation, I aim to advance a new vision of Christian teaching and learning by drawing upon the riches of historical theology to build upon emerging discussions about the character of a distinctively Christian pedagogy. While the work of David I. Smith has initiated some important conversations that are helping teachers re-imagine the work of Christian education with respect to their teaching practices (as opposed to merely curricular choices or building relationships with students), this conversation could be enriched, deepened, and more carefully grounded by drawing upon the largely untapped resources of historical theology. Indeed, by grounding our thinking about classroom practices in the realm of early Christian theology, and particularly patristic wisdom about spiritual formation, we can unlock a broader perspective on the art of teaching. Setting these insights in dialogue with contemporary pastoral theology on spiritual formation can provide an additional new lens for thinking about how teachers can cultivate the work of the Spirit in the lives of our students. As a result, our teaching is able to more intentionally shape students into Christ’s likeness and thereby better prepare them to withstand the turbulence of our increasingly post-Christian society.

Much more to come!

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“Preaching Pentecost” on Anglican Compass

I’ve got a new article up on Anglican Compass about preaching Pentecost during Coronatide. It’s an easy introduction to some of the themes I develop further in How the Spirit Became God, so check it out here!

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Book Reviews Posted: Allert, Hicks, McConnell

Thanks to Review of Biblical Literature, I’m now able to post my published RBL reviews on my personal website. I’ve got Craig Allert’s Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, Jonathan Hicks’ Trinity, Economy, and Scripture, and James McConnell’s The topos of Divine Testimony posted on the Book Reviews page here.

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Book Launch: How the Spirit Became God

CASCADE_TemplateI’m happy to share that Cascade has published my new book How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology. It’s everything you ever wanted to know about the early development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit (and more, no doubt!), written in an accessible style for both church and academy. I’m particularly grateful to Matthew W. Bates for penning such a gracious foreword, and to Daniel B. Wallace, Zachary J. Cole, and David B. Capes for their thoughtful endorsements. It’s been a major labor of love, culminating some six years devoted to the study of early Christian pneumatology, and so I’m very excited to see the fruits of my work finally be available to everyone. And, if nothing else, it has a pretty picture on the cover and would look nice on your bookshelf, bedside table, church office, and so on.

You can buy the book now from Cascade’s website for under $20; it will be available on Amazon and through other retailers in due course.

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“How to Teach Like an Anglican” on Anglican Pastor

I’ve got a short article up over on Anglican Pastor about Christian pedagogy from an Anglican perspective. As I begin:

I suspect we can all readily articulate what it means to worship like an Anglican, to pray like an Anglican, and to read the Bible like an Anglican. But how much have we thought about what it might look like to teach like an Anglican?

Check out the whole article here!

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2019 Year in Review

Another year, another 12 months spent immersed in the development of early Christian views of the Holy Spirit. A fair chunk of the year was devoted to researching and writing How the Spirit Became God: The Mosaic of Early Christian Pneumatology, which is due out in late 2020 from Cascade. By the time I’ve completed final revisions for this book in the spring, I’ll have spent five years on the subject. With the new decade, it might be time for me to take a break and explore a new topic.

Towards that end, I’ve been working on some ideas on how to bring early Christian theology into conversation with pedagogy (that is, teaching and learning) from a Christian perspective. In October, I read two papers at the Kuyers Institute/INCHE conference on Christian education at Calvin University; the first used John Chrysostom as a lens for re-imagining the nature of our students, and the second used Augustine as an impetus for designing deeper discussions. I plan to post this second paper in full on this site soon in the new year. As a new area for me, I’m particularly interested in any feedback on my work thus far.

I enjoyed writing another book review (on Craig D. Allert’s Early Christian Readings of Genesis One, for RBL), and I’m sure I’ll do another in the new year. But aside from any final edits on How the Spirit Became God, I think I might try my hand at some more informal (here and elsewhere on the internet) writing, particularly on topics related to Anglican theology and spirituality. Thanks for your interest in my research this year, and happy 2020!

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Theological Formation — Probing Cultural Christianity: On the Church

Part of what it means to grow as Christians who love the Lord with all our minds is to be constantly reflecting on our beliefs about God, our selves, and the world in light of what we are learning from our study of Scripture, tradition, and reason. In this final part of a three-part series, I will demonstrate some ways that my theological formation has probed the assumptions of cultural Christianity, challenging some of my earlier thoughts about the Christian faith.

Example #3: Worship: What Is Church All About?

“I didn’t get anything out of church today.” This attitude characterized my initial approach to worship: it’s ultimately about what I get out of the service. Granted, the evangelical mega-church model has done much to reinforce this belief through its emphasis on seeker-friendly entertainment, with a worship band and celebrity pastor on stage, performing amidst colored lights and smoke machines before a captive, passive audience. The weekly liturgy of these churches is thus centered on musical worship and the sermon.

I have come to believe, though, that there are at least two problems with this model. First, the church has historically viewed the liturgy of its earthly worship as joining together with the heavenly liturgy already in progress. When we come to church, we are not meant to be spectators but rather active participants in the cosmic worship of the eternal God. This strikes me as a profoundly more appealing reason for devoting an hour-plus every week of my life to this thing we call church than simply seeking entertainment or even community.

Second, Christianity has historically balanced Word and Sacrament (cf. 1 Cor 11:23-26; Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 65-67; Did. Ap. 2.59[13]); the absence of the Eucharist (Communion or the Lord’s Supper) from the worship service represents a major break from historic Christian teaching and practice. As a sacrament, the Eucharist (like baptism) is “an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace,” gifted by Christ to His people as true spiritual food and drink.

If, then, the Eucharist is a central part of Christian worship, then the gathered worshippers are those who have been baptized into the body of Christ; to put it another way, the Eucharist is a “family meal” and baptism is the means of entry into the family of God (in early Christianity, those who were not baptized could attend the first part of the service but were dismissed prior to Communion). In sum, the church is not about me and my feelings. Rather, church is an opportunity to gather together with the Body of Christ for the purpose of corporate worship, even as we are nourished by Christ through Word and Sacrament.

What strikes me is that a more a conception of worship centered around Song and Word can be “replicated” or even “replaced” by Spotify worship playlists or sermon podcasts. But a view of the church’s worship oriented around Word and Table not only more closely aligns with Scripture and the tradition of the church, but compels us to participate in the corporate life of the church’s worship in order to be fed in the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.

Summary

Christianity, from the beginning, has taken on some of the ideas and customs of the cultures in which it has taken root, whether for good or for ill. In the context of the modern United States, Christianity has often been corrupted by a spirit of self-centered, consumer-minded individualism, which is the precise opposite of the others-focused, self-giving community to which Christ calls us. Christianity is most definitely not about how I invite Jesus into my heart by affirming a few beliefs about God and thereby get a ticket out of hell so my soul can spend eternity floating around a disembodied heaven. It’s not about my happiness or success. Rather, Christianity is about entering into God’s story, one in which the self-revelation of the Triune God in the story of the creation and redemption of the world invites me into turning from worship of self to worship of God, to laying down my life for his kingdom purposes. Ultimately, our fundamental orientation is to self or to God and others; there is no middle path.

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