Water from a Deep Well Book Review
History often provides guidance for today. One example of this is St. Augustine who described his experience rejecting his mother’s faith early on, and tried satisfying his fleshly desire, which turned him to Christianity when he could not. There is a natural inclination against looking for guidance in history despite it being a useful tool. Basic conclusions that have come about in Christianity are that God is loving, and Christ is completely divine and completely human at the same time. Christian belief has throughout history rested on solid doctrines despite them differing from church to church. The book uses themes, anecdotes, and reading suggestions to gain new insights into Christianity. Paul exhorts the church, “…all things are yours…” so Christians today should look at the extensive church history and see “There is more, so much more” (1 Corinthians 3:21; pg. 25).
Many early Christians died as martyrs in Roman arenas. This ended up having the opposite effect of that intended, which was to destroy Christianity; it ended up increasing the interest of non-Christians. Jesus warned His followers that they would be persecuted, and the Apostles definitely were (Mt 10:16-18, 22). Martyrdom has become removed from the lives of Christians in the Western world, but it remains normal in many countries around the world. Romans persecuted Christians for various reasons. They were suspicious of it, because it was foreign to them; it went against Roman culture; it challenged the authority of the Roman state; and it challenged Roman religious pluralism and tolerance. Romans had trouble accepting that God would become human and live the servant life He did. Unlike Roman attempts to reach to a power beyond themselves, God reached down to earth through Jesus Christ. Martyrdom is a result that may or may not happen from choosing to follow Christ. The important thing is that the Christian serve God like Francis of Assisi did: “It was his commitment to live for Christ that made him a martyr, though he never suffered literal martyrdom” (pg. 48).
Though practiced by a very small amount of the people in the Roman Empire, who were mostly concentrated in urban centers, Christianity was noticeable. Christians formed a close-knit community that was unlike anything that Roman culture had at the time. The church grew steadily for over three-hundred years, because pagans found the message attractive. Christians “…developed a massive social welfare system with which the pagan empire could not compete because the pagan worldview did not inspire people, as the Christian worldview did, to serve and sacrifice for the common good” (pg. 56). They welcomed everyone regardless of social status; recruited others by word of mouth; took care of women and children; had high standards for membership; did not separate religious belief from their public life unlike other religious beliefs at the time; and provided care during social crises. The example of these early Christians (as well as those that live in similar conditions today in the developing world) has a lot to teach the Church about what a Christian community could and should be.
Roman Emperor Diocletian assumed the throne in 285 A.D. and began a great persecution in order to “restore Rome’s old glory” (pg. 79). Soon after, Constantine conquered Rome and issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., which resulted in Christianity being legally permitted: “…Christianity ceased to be a persecuted faith and became a privileged faith” (pg. 80). It is estimated that this resulted in the number of Christians increasing from less than 10 percent of the population to over 50 percent. The desert saints movement became a rebellion against the resulting compromising of standards in the church. It flourished during the fourth- and fifth- century in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. The desert saints practiced ascesis in order to purge themselves of their evil desires and serve others better as a result. These saints had to keep from becoming proud of their accomplishments, as they braved the harshness of the desert to become better Christians. One notable example of this practice is St. Anthony who came from a wealthy Egyptian home and left behind his possessions after hearing Matthew 19:21 in church. Despite being an extreme, the dessert saints movement encourages Christians today to take time to subdue evil desires.
Though monasticism has declined since its height in the twelfth century, it is still practiced in Europe and the United States (where it is less visible than in Europe). Monasteries are centered around the biblical pattern of time, since “God established a rhythm from the first moment of creation” (Gen. 1, 2:1-3; Ex 20:8-11; pg. 99). This includes the institution of the seven day week and various festivals. It continues with the daily routine of life. Monasticism was a more formal practice than the desert saints movement, which it emerged from. It followed a similar pattern of prayer and work. Like the desert saints movement, monasticism was a rebellion against the compromise of the church under Constantine and later emperors. Benedict of Nursia built on the work of the official founder of Egyptian monasticism, Pachomius, and later leaders of monasticism to create the most popular form of monasticism, “The Rule of St. Benedict”. Monasteries were a critical part of the “Dark Ages”, but declined due to the growth of cities and commerce, the emergence of universities, and the growth of the middle class.
Icons have served as important symbols of the Christian faith throughout history. They demonstrate the saints in a glorified yet human form, focusing on the spiritual aspects of them. There has been disagreement in the past over the use of them as is demonstrated by the Iconoclastic Controversy (pg. 122). Saints depicted include Melania the Younger (c. 383-438), who came from a wealthy family, but decided to surrender it all for Christ, and John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), who took on complacency, popular culture, and greed (i.e. saying on pg. 134 “it is foolishness and a public madness to fill the cupboards with clothing and allow men who are created in God’s image and our likeness to stand naked and trembling…”) in the Eastern Church.
The sacraments have long served as a material representation of the spiritual. The Gothic cathedrals where these sacraments were distributed were meant to be earthly representations of the heavenly as well. They were designed off the principle of harmonious proportion and used architectural innovations like flying buttresses to let in as much light as possible. There were seven sacraments in the Roman Catholic tradition: baptism, penance, confirmation, ordination, marriage, the Eucharist, and extreme unction. The incarnation of Jesus Christ forms the basis of using the material to understand the heavenly. There is always the danger, however, of idolatry, which involves giving divine importance to the material. Baptism was administered to infants on the basis of original sin, importance in God’s kingdom, and bonding them to the church. Confirmation was intended to provide a time for children to be saved and thus welcome them into the church. Penance was designed for the repentance of sins after baptism. The Eucharist represented the continual gift of Jesus’ sacrifice that Christians enjoy. Ordination or holy orders “…endowed the clergy with the authority to consecrate all the other sacraments” (pg. 151). Extreme unction was used to intercede on behalf of the sick and dying. Religious rituals were also popular ways for believers to connect with their faith. These included pilgrimages and the church’s celebrations. Passover was adapted into Easter, and Natalis Solis Invicti was adapted into Christmas. These formed the backbone of the church calendar: Christmas, then Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. There were other festivals and saints days added along the way. The saints and the saints’ relics were also used for Christians to connect to their faith.
Mysticism emphasizes the unknowable aspect of God. It does not seek simply to know about God, but to be united with God. Unlike the sacraments, it focuses on a spiritual understanding of God rather than a physical one. It has three stages: purgation, illumination, and union. Purgation involves denying oneself, so he or she will be more willing to follow Christ. Illumination involves looking at the world around the Christian, looking at his or her own nature, and using that to connect with God. Illumination includes the connection that Jesus provides to God for Christians. Union involves being in such a close relationship with God that the Christian is considered united to God. Two proposed ways this happen is a union of absorption, where “all becomes one”, or a union of relationship, which “…preserves the distinction between self and other…” (pgs. 176-177). Prayer is the tool through which this is accomplished.
In the history of the church, the recognition of sainthood has been bestowed on those working inside as well as outside the church. The latter recognition has not always come easy. The church has often neglected its members that work in society, but the laity has reminded the church of the importance of this work by pressuring the church into recognizing the sainthood of important figures that worked with the laity. The rise of the middle class in the later Middle Ages from 1200-1450 A.D. led to the recognition of saints associated with the mendicant movement, a social engagement church moment. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) was the saint responsible for the Franciscans, a mendicant movement that focused on “absolute poverty, gospel preaching, sacrificial service, and the imitation of Christ” (pg. 197). Dominic (b. 1170) is the saint responsible for the Dominicans, a mendicant movements focused on preaching “to heretics, pagans, and ignorant Catholics” (pg. 197). It was a more pragmatic movement, since “unlike the Franciscans, Dominicans did not view poverty as an absolute good” (pg. 198). It was still challenging for these church workers to relate to the laity. Thus saints emerged from the laity itself. An extreme example of devotion to the service of God was conjugal chastity, where members abstained from sex after having children. Less extreme examples were Beguines - a monastic-like community of lay women; lay followers of Francis and Dominic; and members of the Brethren of the Common Life, which was founded by Geert de Groote, who protested the compromise of the church with communities built around humility, charity, and service. These movements set the stage for the Reformation’s focus on serving God in the larger world.
The Reformers were known for their work challenging the church, but this challenge was just a result of the importance they put on the Word of God. The importance of the Word of God to the Reformers was manifested in the focus they put on preaching. These Reformers included Martin Luther, John Calvin of Geneva, Martin Bucer of Strasbourg, Ulrich Zwingli of Zurich, and John Knox of Scotland. Besides preaching, the Reformers assisted the laity to understand the Word through their writings. Luther realized the grace of God after much struggle with his sinfulness and significant meditation on Romans 1:17. Calvin was a major writer of Christian thought who ended up pasturing the church in Geneva after being pressured to do so when traveling through on his way from what is now France to Italy. Luther and Calvin were part of the Magisterial Movement, which focused on using political magistrates to reform the church. Menno Simon, founder of the Mennonites, on the hand, was part of the Radical Reformation, which focused on withdrawing from society. Others Reformers were part of the English Reformation, which “rejected the pope’s authority over the church and made the crown the head of the church instead” (pgs. 213-214). The Reformers were not just ivory tower scholars; their sermons reflected the similar trials and struggles to the laity they encountered in life. They believed in dedication to turning the written Word of God into the audible Word of God.
Conversion has been a critical part of evangelicalism. John Newton was a notable example of this. Forced to serve in the British Royal Navy, Newton became “bitter about life and hostile towards Christianity” (pg. 233). His behavior was horrible until reading the book The Imitation of Christ, which began to change him until he became a Christian. Despite being a Christian at the time, he worked in the slave trade to support his family. It was not until after health problems forced him out of the slave trade, becoming a pastor, and William Wilberforce’s urging that he demonstrated any objection towards the slave trade, but he did become an important voice in the abolition movement. The dramatic change in his life echoes in the song “Amazing Grace” (pg. 238). The Puritans emphasized that conversion often happens as a process, the Pietist movement emphasized the resulting holiness, and the Moravians emphasized the importance of converting the world. These aspects do not address whether a conversion is authentic. Jonathan Edwards suffered this problem when a revival broke out in 1735, as that atmosphere quickly came to an end after six months. George Whitfield’s eloquent preaching style began a movement towards more control over changing people’s lives than the way the 1735 revival occurred. John Wesley’s (1703-1791) “dramatic conversion became the prototype” for the goal of this movement, and his strategy for conversion became the foundation of the Methodist faith (pgs. 250, 252).
Jesus commanded His followers to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). This inherently involves risk taking. Jesus Himself is the model of this, as He sacrificed everything to connect humanity to God again. The phases of Christian evangelization have been divided into four parts: evangelization of Greco-Roman culture, evangelization of Germanic and Viking tribal groups, Reformation era evangelization of Europe, and global evangelization. Christians from all kinds of different backgrounds have had to make great sacrifices in order to fulfill The Great Commission. Examples of these are Jean de Brébeuf, a member of the Jesuits (which were formed by Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556)) who was martyred by the Iroquois after ministering to the Huron; C.T. Studd (1862-1931), who left Cambridge “considered the best English athlete of his day” to work in southern Sudan founding an organization called at the time the Heart of Africa (pg. 264); Mary Slessor (1848-1915), who went from being a school dropout and textile factory worker to evangelizing in Nigeria; and William Carey (1761-1834), who went from a cobbler with little formal education to translating the Bible in India. David Brainerd (1718-1747) and Jim Elliot (1927-1956) had shorter stories, but no less inspiring. These missionaries did know how the future would unfold, but they trusted God with each step it took to get there.
Having Jesus as our guide and help should affect every area of our lives. Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was still an activist for the poor after she was converted, but an activist with the foundation being God’s love for humanity. Susanna Wesley’s (1669-1742) “…entire life was offered as a living sacrifice to God, as wife, mother, home manager, educator, letter writer, Bible study leader, servant of the poor and champion of other” (pg. 288-289). Jeremiah Evarts (1781-1831) worked to preserve the rights of the Cherokees out of his Christian convictions.
I enjoyed Sittser’s book. It was well organized, as each chapter was built around a common theme that the examples in that chapter share. While many of the examples in the book are extreme, they challenge us to take the aspects of the Christian life they highlight more seriously. The book also managed to focus on the beneficial parts of Christian history. While it is tough to get past the disagreements we may have with the church in the past, Sittser does not focus on this, though he does inform us of it when it is pertinent to see what the church has done right. For example, when talking about Martin Luther, Sittser notes the practice of selling indulgences not to bash the Catholic Church’s history but to better understand Martin Luther’s deep conviction for the Word. Sittser manages to find things we can learn from many church movements during every period in church history. This approach yields a comprehensive history, while still being relevant. This balance is surprising. The book manages to read like a Who’s Who of Christian history, while still being applicable to us today. While it can be repetitive at times (since the application is usually made clear during the chapter), Sittser makes the application of each chapter abundantly clear by mentioning it at the end of every chapter. Though many themes are highlighted in the book, there seems to be a central one of Christian sacrifice. It is easy for me to look at Christians who sacrificed everything for their faith and think that that is great for them, but it does not apply to me, since God has called me to a different mission field. As the stories in this book illustrate, however, I do not know everything God has in store for me. God may have given me an idea of the future he has for me, but He has certainly not told me everything. Even though no Christian’s situation will be identical to the people mentioned in this book, we can and should learn from their stories; I need to surrender my life to God daily wherever I am. I should be willing to go to the extremes mentioned in the book if that is God’s will for me. I need to trust that God knows what is best for me. Despite the different circumstances, these figures have a lot to teach us like the author said. The early martyrs and modern missionaries encourage us to be courageous for the cause of Christ, the early Christian community encourages us to love one another, the desert saints and monastery members encourages us to prioritize our walk with God over material things, the sacraments remind us that we can use the physical to connect with God, the mystics remind us that God cannot be fully understood using the physical, the Medieval laity encourage us to be salt and light whatever occupation we are in, the Reformers challenge us to take the Word of God more seriously, and Evangelicals encourage us to fulfill the Great Commission. We should heed these lessons carefully.
©2009 Jorge Eduardo Fernandez