Thirsting for God in a land of shallow wells (M. Gallatin)

For this  post we have a guest author, Maximus Tan, writing about the book “Thirsting for God in a land of shallow wells” by Matthew Gallatin. For Malaysians, it might be easiest to access the eBook through Ancient Faith Publishing’s website.

 

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Thirsting for God in a Shallow Wells is a book about Matthew Gallatin’s journey in various forms and denominations of Christianity, including Seventh-Day Adventist, Non-denominational, Charismaticism, Roman Catholicism, and more. The book also deals with his journey back to Orthodoxy, the history of the Orthodox faith, and his research on the early Church. It also contains a basic introduction to Orthodoxy.

This book starts off by his emerging doubts about the protestant concepts such as Sola Scriptura, in which scripture alone is the complete authority in everything Christian. The author also struggles with relativism in Protestantism, and the idea of “truth” as a rational thing, that is discovered and evaluated by applying one’s faculty of understanding to the Scriptures.

Being a man himself who has been in so many different denominations in Protestantism, Matthew begun to wonder, “what then is ultimate truth?” In Protestantism, it seemed to be that there can be no ultimate truth, since truth is derived from the interpretation of the Bible from each individual person. And it is evident because denominations within Protestantism hold to different views in different issues, each claims to hold the truth. Yet their versions of truth conflict, despite their common insistence on Sola Scriptura.

Some hold to the totality of God’s sovereignty over all aspects of creation including the predetermination of who will or not be saved, to the extent that human free will does not have any influence in this matter.  On the other hand, some hold the completely opposite view. So even though a group of Protestants might agree that  “We are saved by grace through faith in Christ alone”, each denomination interprets and views those words very differently. Slowly, the author began to question his faith and doctrines, even whether he is truly a Christian, since the doctrines and understandings of God that he and other Christians hold are not merely interpreted differently, but rather contradict each other. Since there is only one God, there can never be different contradicting views of Him. As the Gospel of John notes,

“…that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given the, that they may be one just as We are one” – John 17:21,22

It is apparent then, that there should only be one Church, one Body and one teaching. Not a multiplicity of them.

With these troubling thoughts, Matthew realized that the concept of Sola Scriptura, which is the very root of Protestantism, is in itself, fallible. Therefore, Matthew begins to journey into Roman Catholicism. Yet, there are still unsettling issues such as the idea of Papal infallibility, in which the Pope of Rome has the entire authority and jurisdiction over the entire world of Christianity, and also the common view of  Christ’s saving works and the atonement in the Western church with the understanding of a “substitution” or “satisfaction” concepts, which did not arrive until the very end of the eleventh century.

What led him to Orthodoxy then, is through the discovery of the early Church, the practices, the doctrines, the faith and life. The major differences that he noted were:

 

  • The understanding of atonement in light of “substitution” or “satisfaction” concept never existed, rather a God who is loving and self-sacrificing work is to rescue us for Himself from the power of sin, Satan and death, and not form his displeasure of us.
  • From Pentecost on, the Church has always been liturgical, and church meetings were not like today’s free-form worship or home fellowship. This is evident in the book of Acts.
  • The Early Church has always been centered around the Eucharist or Communion, and that the Bread and Wine is not merely symbolic, but truly the Body and Blood of Christ.
  • The Early Church honored departed Saints as living and worshiping in Heaven.
  • Infant baptism was the standard practice in the Church and recognized as a doctrine “received from the Apostles”

 

 

 

 

 

“But we are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God from the beginning chose you for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth, to which He called you by the Gospel, for the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.” – 2 Thessalonians 2:13-15

St. Paul urges the Christians at Thessalonica to stand fast and hold on to the traditions which they were taught. In other words then, truth is handed down to them by Jesus Christ and the apostles, in which the Church of God has always believed, and will always believe. The church believes these things from the beginning, from the day of Pentecost. There is no sense then in deriving truth from personal interpretation of Scripture. And all this fullness of faith and truth is ultimately found in the Holy Orthodox Church! From the church’s teachings, flow the doctrines, the life and the faith of true Christianity.

Personally, as a person who, like Matthew, came from various Protestant backgrounds, I find this book incredibly relatable and useful. It expanded my knowledge about the issues with Protestantism, as well as growing me in light of the teachings of the Orthodox Church. Whether you are a non-Orthodox Christian from other Christian background or other religion, or even Orthodox Christian who seeks to know more about Protestantism coming home to Orthodoxy, I highly recommend this book to all!

 

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The Orthodox Faith (T. Hopko)

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These were the first books on Eastern Orthodoxy I had ever read, and it was through these books that I first learned the basics of Orthodox doctrine. The author, Father Thomas Hopko, was the Dean of Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in the United States, and was very well-known and well-regarded among Orthodox Christians in America and beyond.

Luckily for us in Malaysia, all these books are available online for free! The Orthodox Church in America hosts them on their website here.

This series contains four volumes: they cover doctrine, worship, church history, and spirituality. The books contain short, focused chapters on various topics in Orthodoxy. The typical chapter is only about a thousand words long.

The books are written for the reader who comes in with zero knowledge of Orthodox Christianity. The volumes all start off with very basic ideas, and they only get moderately more challenging at the end. The language style is very simple and clear.

Don’t expect this book to cover the nuances of dense theological topics in great depth (I don’t think that is possible to do in his 1000-word essay format!) but Hopko covers the essentials of the faith really well. I consider these books to be an ideal resource for someone who is curious about Eastern Orthodoxy but knows nothing about it. The short, to-the-point chapters make it very easy to digest, and Hopko skillfully explains complicated ideas in ways that are simple, yet accurate. Plus, the version available for free on the OCA’s website is very mobile-friendly. This is an essential series of books, a primer on Christianity by one of the most respected English-speaking Orthodox writers in our time.

 

 

The Brothers Karamazov (F. Dostoevsky)

“… we are of a broad, Karamazovian nature- capable of containing all possible opposites and of contemplating both abysses at once, the abyss above us, an abyss of lofty ideals, and the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.”

The first time I had heard of this literary classic was from the leader of my college small group when I was going to a protestant church. Having read it, I am a little surprised at the wide appeal of the Brothers Karamazov- I thought it was a thoroughly Orthodox Christian book, and a lot of its themes resonate most deeply to someone fully immersed in Orthodox life. It speaks to the author’s skill that this book has become an enduring favorite nevertheless, even for people completely unfamiliar with Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Brothers Karamazov is a story set in late 19th century Russia, centered around the dysfunctions of the titular Karamazov family.  The main driver of the plot is a dispute between the father, Fyodor and his eldest son Dmitri, a tussle that escalates quickly into tragedy.

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I enjoyed greatly the strong characterization in this book. In particular, the four Karamazovs are very different people, and Dostoyevsky fleshes them all out beautifully. The patriarch, Fyodor is an amoral old rascal. His eldest son, Dmitri, is a hot-tempered and passionate young man bound by a quixotic sense of honour. The middle child, Ivan is a reserved, cynical intellectual coping with some deep neuroses. Alyosha, the youngest Karamazov, is a sensitive, thoughtful novice at the local monastery. The interactions between these four thoroughly different people create some delightfully memorable scenes.

Alyosha Karamazov is the main character of the story, and we see the events of the story mostly through his eyes. This works a little strangely, since he is the Karamazov brother least directly involved with the central conflict of the book. He influences the story in subtle but decisive ways, and his interactions with the elderly monk Zosima form the spiritual heart of the novel.

The scenes at Alyosha’s monastery are based on Dostoevsky’s visits to the real-life Optina monastery, and Elder Zosima is based loosely on Saint Tikhon of Zadonsk. My favorite passages in the book are Elder Zosima’s homilies, which delve rather deeply into Orthodox thought and theology. These, at the surface rather unrelated to the principal plot of the book, but we see later how they drive Alysoha’s actions in important ways. The monastery scenes contain beautiful discourses on love, forgiveness, refraining from judging others. These discourses are ever more beautiful and necessary given how dark other parts of the book can be.

“Brothers, do not be afraid of men’s sin, love man also in his sin, for this likeness of God’s love is the height of love on earth. Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love…”

“Brothers, love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time. Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.”

There are other very strong philosophical discourses in the book.  A chapter where Ivan Karamazov explains his objections to Christianity, the Grand Inquisitor, is prominent enough to get its own Wikipedia page. It is a credit to the author that he is able to articulate compellingly both Ivan’s arguments against the existence of a benevolent God, and Zosima’s stirring homilies on the necessity of Christian faith.

The story itself feels a little incomplete however, and most of the character arcs seem unfinished.  Apparently people think that this book was supposed to be the first in a series that Dostoevsky was unable to continue before he died. But this is not to say that the novel ends without resolution. We are treated to a wonderful epilogue at the end, at the funeral of a young child, where Alyosha and the dead boy’s friends talk of the hope that they will see him again in the resurrection. This hopeful ending, rather unrelated to the main events of the book, nevertheless ties all the themes of the book together.

This novel is a classic, with a very profound portrayal of Orthodox thinking, and of Christian lives lived well. I think Orthodox Christians especially would get a lot out of the Brothers Karamazov.

 

 

 

 

Beginning to Pray (A. Bloom)

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Anthony Bloom (also known as Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh) is a prominent and prolific Christian writer and broadcaster with a fascinating life story. He was a Russian émigré,, whose family fled during the horrors of the communist revolution. They escaped to France, where he became a medical doctor, and participated in the French Resistance when the Germans invaded. He ended up becoming the head of the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain and Ireland.

His book, Beginning to Pray  starts with an interview where he explains this life story. The rest of the book consists of short essays containing reflections on prayer, or more specifically, on learning how to pray. The focus of the book is pastoral rather than theological.

Beginning to Pray is a brisk read: around 120 pages or so, and the language is clear and lively. There were multiple times, when reading Anthony Bloom’s books that I had to turn back  to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up something by C.S. Lewis instead. I felt that their writing styles were very similar, in that both have an uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts with simple and engaging language.

“You remember how you were taught to write when you were small.  Your mother put a pencil in your hand, took your hand in hers, and began to move it.  Since you did not know at all what she meant to do, you left your hand completely free in hers.  This is what I mean by the power of God being manifest in weakness.  You could think of that also in the terms of a sail.  A sail can catch the wind and be used to maneuver a boat only because it is so frail.  If instead of a sail you put a solid board, it would not work; it is the weakness of the sail that makes it sensitive to the wind.  The same is true of the gauntlet and the surgical glove.  How strong is the gauntlet, how frail is the glove, yet in intelligent hands it can work miracles because it is so frail.  So one of the things which God continues to try to teach us is to replace the imaginary and minute amount of disturbing strength we have by this frailty of surrender, of abandonment in the hands of God.”

The essays are organized around addressing practical obstacles that Christians face in prayer. For instance, the first essay is about the challenge of praying when God feels absent, another is about being “in the moment” and avoiding the impulse to rush through prayer. He relies heavily on example to explain his points: stories from the Bible, from church history, from folklore- he even makes reference to The Little Prince.

There is an emphasis throughout the book on the importance of humility in prayer. When we pray we are encountering God, in all his transcendence and power. A lot of the obstacles to prayer that the Beginning to Pray deals with are a result of regarding this encounter too flippantly. There is also a sense of humility on the part of the author. I did not get the sense that I was getting a lecture on prayer from someone who has figured it all out, but rather that I was reading reflections from someone who has spent his life trying to learn how to pray better himself.
I would add that while the ideas in Beginning to Pray are firmly Orthodox, I think Christians of all denominations would enjoy and appreciate it. As evidence, note that the book is currently being published by Paulist Press, a Roman Catholic publisher. Thus to everyone who struggles with the idea or the practice of prayer, this is a book I would highly recommend.

Becoming Orthodox (P. Gillquist)

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Father Peter Gillquist is a name familiar to many Orthodox Christians in the United States. He was one of the leaders of a house church movement that, in 1987, chose to enter en masse the Antiochian Orthodox Church, bringing 2,000 Protestants into canonical Orthodoxy.

Becoming Orthodox (Ancient Faith Publishing) is the first-person account of their remarkable journey. The book begins in the late 50’s, as Father Gillquist “finds Jesus” in a through Campus Crusade, a protestant organization that ministers to college students in the United States. Gillquist eventually becomes a Campus Crusade staffer. In the early parts of the story Gillquist struggles with finding the proper place of his campus ministry within the Christian church. He talks about how lifeless the institutional  church seemed to him, in contrast to the vibrancy and authenticity of his campus community. And yet his Campus Crusade group was not, and could not be the Christian church.

Gillquist develops a vision of what the true New Testament church “should” be. In 1968 he leaves Campus Crusade, and together with a group of like-minded friends forms a network of house churches that bring about this vision.

In the middle parts of this book Gillquist and his group go into an in-depth study to figure out what the Christian church of the first few centuries really believed. The middle chapters contain a lot of explanation of basic Orthodox Christian theology, as he and his friends discover that the historical church worshiped and believed just as today’s Orthodox Christians do.

There is a surprising amount of suspense at the end, as Gillquist’s movement (who now call themselves the “Evangelical Orthodox”) decide they want to join the Orthodox church.  Gillquist writes candidly about the resistance they encounter both within their movement and in the Orthodox church leadership both in America and abroad. Eventually, most of the leaders of the Gillquist’s movement agree to take their churches under the Antiochian Orthodox church, and the book ends with the joyous account of these mass conversions.

I spent several years working with a bunch of different campus protestant Christian organizations in the United States (including a spell with Campus Crusade) and so I found Gillquist’s account very relatable. I definitely felt a similar tension in that the work I was doing seemed like a blessing to other college students, but the campus ministry also felt unhealthy in that, for some of our members, involvement in our group was “replacing” the church, and that as a consequence we were propagating a form of Christianity that was watered down and incomplete.

Fittingly for a former Campus Crusade staffer, Gillquist’s book reads like a good “personal testimony” of a man finding God. His anecdotes are very engaging, the language is lively, and the conclusion is incredibly satisfying.  It feels like the intended audience for his book is protestant Christians unfamiliar with Orthodoxy,  since large portions of the book give a basic explanation of Orthodox theology and worship. Nevertheless, this is a very worthwhile and edifying book even for Orthodox Christians, and a compelling account of a man trying to follow God the best he can.

 

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen is one of my favorite Christian authors, and his is a very fascinating life story. He was a missionary in Peru, had an illustrious career as an academic theologian, with stints at Notre Dame, Harvard Divinity School and Yale Divinity School, before giving that up to work at the l’Arche Daybreak Community in Toronto, a community for people with intellectual disabilities. There, he developed an interest in ancient Christian iconography, which culminated in this book.

Behold the Beauty of the Lord: Praying with Icons is a collection of four essays on four famous Russian icons: the Savior of Zvenigorod, Rublev’s Trinity, the Theotokos of Vladimir, and the Pentecost Icon, displayed in order below:

The book contains beautiful glossy removable pages of all four icons, and I think Nouwen intends for the reader to contemplate them while reading the corresponding chapter of the book.

 

Nouwen makes the point that what we receive into our lives visually is as important as what what we receive verbally, through reading or listening:

“But what do we really choose to see? It makes a great difference whether we see a flower or a snake, a gentle smile or menacing teeth, a dancing couple or a hostile crowd. We do have a choice. Just as we are responsible for what we eat, so we are responsible for what we see. It is easy to become a victim of the vast array of visual stimuli surrounding us. The ‘powers and principalities’ control many of our daily images. Posters, billboards, television, videocassettes, movies and store windows continuously assault our eyes and inscribe their images upon our memories…

For you who will read these meditations it is important to gaze at the icons with complete attention and to pray with them. Gazing is probably the best word to touch the core of Eastern spirituality. Whereas St. Benedict, who has set the tone for the spirituality of the West, calls us first of all to listen, the Byzantine fathers focus on gazing. This is especially evident in the liturgical life of the Eastern church.

Nouwen explains the features of the four icons in expert detail, and ties them into the devotional life of the praying Christian. He does not neglect the historical and liturgical contexts where these icons appear. Despite not being an Orthodox Christian himself, it is clear that Nouwen has taken the time to understand well the eastern Christian perspective on prayer and iconography.

This is a very worthwhile read, especially for the reader unfamiliar with the history and importance of iconography in the early church.  For me, as one emerging from protestant traditions that have suppressed the visual aspect of Christian discipleship in favor of just reading and lecturing, it was incredibly helpful to learn how the Holy Spirit works in us visually. As goes one of the Orthodox communion hymns, oh taste and see how good the Lord is.

 

Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann

The Lenten season is meant to kindle a “bright sadness” within our hearts. Its aim is precisely the remembrance of Christ, a longing for a relationship with God that has been lost. Lent offers the time and place for recovery of this relationship. The darkness of Lent allows the flame of the Holy Spirit to burn within our hearts until we are led to the brilliance of the Resurrection.

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Great Lent, by Alexander Schmemann (St Vladimir’s Seminary Press) was a Godsend of a book. My first encounters with Orthodox lenten practice were rather challenging. There were all these dietary rules, new services,  new prayers, and new church music, and I did not know how to make head or tail of it. This book does a wonderful job explaining the meaning of the traditional lenten elements, and brought their beauty to life.

The book covers with great detail and clarity both the theological and practical aspects of doing Lent well. There are thorough explanations of the liturgical practices, line-by-line analyses of some of the prayers,  and down-to-earth advice on maintaining a correct attitude toward lent. Deep theological concepts are explained with remarkable simplicity. A layperson or a  non-Orthodox Christian will have no difficulty understanding most of the text.

This book should be compulsory reading for Orthodox Christians during this season. I also think it has some benefit for non-Orthodox who wish to understand the significance of traditional Lenten practice a little better. I will not talk at length about it, because the Antiochian Orthdox Archdiocese of North America has made long sections of the book available on their website for free.

May this “bright sadness” be kindled within your hearts in this season of Great Lent.