Henri, Vincent, and Living in the World with Kindness: A Review of Carol Berry’s “Learning from Henri Nouwen and Vincent van Gogh

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

Carol A. Berry first met Henri Nouwen in the bookstore at Yale Divinity School back in the 1970’s. As she recounts in her moving (and brief) book, Learning from Henri Nouwen & Vincent van Gogh, he initially appeared like “a man dressed in a well-worn, baggy, moth-eaten sweater with a woolen scarf around his neck” (4). Though Nouwen may have looked like a disheveled, older student, he was actually teaching at Yale at the time, and Berry was deeply moved while sitting in on Nouwen’s lecture on Vincent van Gogh and the nature of the compassionate life. Nouwen is known by many as a deeply kind Catholic spiritual writer, and for me, his writings—and especially letters—have been a real gift. Nouwen felt a deep connection with van Gogh as a fellow wounded healer who desired to connect with other and provide them with comfort, and he worked hard to share this connection with his students (8). As Berry puts it, the hope was that, “Through Vincent’s story, through the parable of his life, we were to come closer to an understanding of what it meant to be a consoling presence” (52). Her book aims for a similar purpose. Continue reading

Advertisements

Working Towards Reading the Bible Post-Critically: Reviewing “Scripture and Its Interpretation,” Edited by Michael Gorman

Reading Scripture together, and wrestling with its significance, is a central practice for many Christian communities, especially ones tracing their heritage to the churches that grew out of the Protestant Reformation. “The essential form of the common life,” Ellen F. Davis suggests, “is in the broadest sense a conversation in which members of the community explore and debate the meaning of their sacred texts” (Preaching the Luminous Word, 90). Of course, getting acquainted with the world of biblical scholarship, and seeking to relate to the Bible seriously as both a subject of rigorous, critical study and as a means of encounter with God, can sometimes be a difficult task.

The essays gathered together in Scripture and Its Interpretation: A Global, Ecumenical Introduction to the Bible seek to make the path into the realm of scholarly biblical studies less steep. As Michael Gorman explains in the introduction, the aim is to help readers explore “the breadth and depth of Sacred Scripture,” approaching the text alongside others “from familiar surroundings as well as those from other centuries and locations” (xxii). It seems to me that one of the strengths of this book can in fact be seen in its title, which suggests a frank recognition of the ways in which reading Scripture and engaging in interpretation are always bound up with each other. Continue reading

Loving All Our Fellow Creatures: Exploring William Greenway’s “Agape Ethics”

We inhabit a world slowly coming to grips with the increasingly urgent challenge of climate change. In this time of ecological crisis, daring to believe that God’s love extends to all creation, not just humanity, and that the value of the surrounding world doesn’t depend wholly on its usefulness to us, is a costly yet necessary risk. It’s a time for remembering that we are part of a vast, complex, and remarkably interconnected world.

This is the sort of perspective offered up by the agrarian writer Wendell Berry. In one of his essays, he writes, “All, ultimately, are of a kind, belonging together… in this world,” adding that, “From the point of view of Genesis 1 or of the 104th Psalm, we would say that all are of one kind, one kinship… because all are creatures” (2015, p.96).

In his 2016 book, Agape Ethics, William Greenway echoes this affirmation and gives it deeper philosophical justification by drawing on the works of 20th century philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (p.39). Both the substance and even language style of Greenway’s writing reflect the deep imprint of Levinas on him. Throughout the book, he seeks to nudge readers towards coming alive to “having been seized by love for every creature,” without, of course, overlooking the pain and suffering that is also present throughout creation (pp.4-7).  Continue reading

Rowan Williams on Following Jesus as a Way of Life

being-disciples

Discipleship is a mode of being, a way of life—this is the conviction that forms the guiding center of Rowan Williams’ reflections on the nature of following Jesus in his newly published book, Being Disciples. “We are caught up in the task of showing that what we say is credible,” he notes in the introduction (p.vii). While this task is always a pressing demand for those who follow Christ, I dare say that there are aspects of life in today’s America that make it especially challenging (let the reader understand).

The main body of Being Disciples is composed of six chapters, which were originally delivered on separate occasions as lectures and talks. The book itself forms a companion to Williams’ earlier examination of the essentials of the Christian life, Being Christian. The topics he addresses range from holiness and forgiveness, to the role of the disciple in larger society and life in the Spirit. In this post, however, I wish to concentrate especially on his opening chapter, “Being Disciples,” which gives some important reflections on what it means to embrace the invitation and command of Jesus to “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19, NRSV). Continue reading

What Does Worship Really Look Like?

forest-cottageWhen it comes to Christian worship, no shortage of images come to mind. Scenes both somber and vibrant. Sounds that can range from choral melodies to enthusiastic folk rhythms, depending on the stream of Christian tradition. All of these can emerge when the Church gathers together for worship—and that’s just in regards to music, much less other worship practices. For me, all of this brings up a larger question: what exactly is worship?

This is a question that has received a variety of responses. Therefore, it isn’t too surprising to find Andrew McGowan explain in Ancient Christian Worship that worship often means different things to different people in many Christian churches today (2014, p.2). For some, it refers to things like “communal prayer and ritual,” while for others it expresses something more like a deeply personal feeling of belief and inward orientation towards life. For still others, worship basically denotes a kind of Christian music (p.2). Continue reading

Spiritual Formation and Theology: A Review of Keith L. Johnson’s “Theology as Discipleship”

theology as discipleship

Academic theology is dry, irrelevant to the rhythms of everyday life, and even potentially detrimental for those seeking to pursue a life of deep discipleship. These kinds of charges might strike some as strange, but in the first chapter of Theology as Discipleship, Keith L. Johnson notes that, unfortunately, they are surprisingly common in the contemporary Church. “In fact, many smart and faithful Christians cringe when they hear the word theology due to the negative connotations the discipline carries” (p.20).

For Johnson, the fact that these charges are plausible in the eyes of so many suggests that, sadly, a perceived divide has developed between the world of academic theology and the everyday practices of Christian life (p.11). He acknowledges that:

It is possible for a Christian to participate in the church for years and never engage in disciplined theological thinking about core Christian doctrines or the history of the church’s debates about them. It is also possible for academic theologians to devote their entire careers to the discipline and never be asked to translate or apply the content of their scholarship to the concrete realities that shape the daily life of the church. (p.12)

Continue reading

Slow and Steady Growth: A Review of Alan Kreider’s “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church”

patient ferment

On the first page of Alan Kreider’s new book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, he asks readers to pause and consider a sometimes overlooked question, “Why did this minor mystery religion from the eastern Mediterranean—marginal, despised, discriminated against—grow substantially, eventually supplanting the well-endowed, respectable cults that were so supported by the empire and aristocracy?”

Kreider, a Harvard-trained professor emeritus at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, has spent much his career studying early Christianity. In The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, he draws together this lifetime of work into a readable yet detailed study the early Church’s growth, looking especially at the period before Constantine’s reign (p.4). Continue reading