Friday, July 30, 2010

From the Professor's Bookshelf

It is not easy being a New Testament scholar who studies the Bible every day. I am constantly engaging the scriptures in ways not afforded to most people since their career does not include the privilege of sitting at a desk all day pondering questions. I am very fortunate because I get paid to do my hobby. In fact, I still can’t believe that somebody pays me to do this. But I should I get off this line of thought lest one of the seminary trustees read this entry and begin pondering their own questions.

While being afforded the opportunity to study the Bible as a job is a wonderful privilege, it has its pitfalls. I sometimes find it hard to be inspired, challenged or nourished by what is offered to me by the wider Christian community. Please don’t hear this as a criticism of pastors and authors who are providing the kind of teaching and reading that is building up the body of Christ. My problem is that I find little that helps me to retain my focus on the reasons that I chose a career in biblical scholarship. I am often asking different questions and I need to remind myself constantly that not everyone is interested in what I am thinking. Most books on Spiritual Formation are not written with New Testament Professors in mind.

A book that has helped me to refocus is David deSilva’s Sacramental Life: Spiritual Formation Through the Book of Common Prayer. In this volume deSilva brings the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) to life and explains the purpose behind some of the various rituals and prayers that are outlined in it. I am a baptized and confirmed Episcopalian who has rarely darkened the doors of an Episcopal church in the last twenty five years. But I still feel a strong connection to the rituals and traditions associated with the Anglican community. Over the last five years I have rediscovered my BCP and incorporated it into my attempts at being spiritually formed. The Sacramental Life is helping to make that experience richer.

DeSilva does not cover the entire BCP. Instead he highlights four sacraments that help to encapsulate the meaning of the Christian life. Part one looks at baptism and explains the theological and relational importance of baptism to the individual and the Christian community. Part two looks at the Eucharist and unpacks the significance of the various prayers and rituals that compose the service of Holy Communion. Part three considers Marriage, what it means to the couple, the church and helps us to be conscious of the theological statement of marriage. Part four examines the rite of burial and the hope that is expressed through grief. Desilva notes that the last two sacraments help to “flesh out” the significance of Baptism and Eucharist in particular life contexts (p. 15). Not all of us are or will be married, but we will all face death. I suppose few us ever think about death as a spiritually forming experience, but deSilva provides valuable insights for all disciples who will one day take that step.

I realize that using the BCP will be foreign to many. If you have struggled with need for a prayer book or the feeling that praying prescribed prayers somehow is less spiritual, then you should read this book. DeSilva will bring the BCP to life by revealing its connection with scripture, history and tradition. Rather than view the prayers as bland, boring and uninspired, you will be challenged to pray in new ways. If you come away with nothing else from reading the book it will be the realization that most of our prayers are either unfocused or reflect mostly on ourselves. Using the BCP can help you to develop a prayer life that embraces all of God’s creation.

You are not at a disadvantage if you don’t own a BCP and you will benefit without consulting one. I have not been consulting mine as I read,but then again I am familiar with its content. If you want to consult a BCP, but don't own one, you can access a copy online (BCP Online). You may find it helpful to follow along in the BCP while reading deSilva. However you decide to approach it, I think you would benefit from this well written, insightful volume. DeSilva did not write this specifically for biblical scholars, but this one has found it bringing nourishment to his soul.

Do you want to learn more about the value of using a prayer book or other forms of prescribed prayer? Why not read a short article by David DeSilva entitled Praying with Another's Words. The article is on page 3 of The Table, a quarterly publication of Ashland Theological Seminary.

1 comment:

  1. John,

    Since I came from an evangelical Protestant background, I really never heard the word "liturgy" until I was an adult. My first experience of liturgy in worship was at an evangelical Anglican church in Durham in the UK (St. Nick's, remember that?). After some culture shock, I eventually grew to love the rhythm of the written prayers and the freedom the liturgy gave me to get outside myself, my anxieties, my own thoughts and worries. While liturgy is often described as restrictive by those who criticize it, I found it freeing. While I am still an evangelical and more used to non-liturgical worship, I miss that aspect of the liturgy.

    In recent years I have really appreciated the series of books by Phyllis Tickle called "The Divine Hours;" accessible guides for fixed hour prayer, especially for those new to the practice. I have found the prayers to be theologically deep, the scriptures well chosen and excerpts from hymns and luminaries of the Church through the ages to be thought-provoking and spiritually meaningful.

    I will have to check out this book. Thanks for this helpful review! I am glad you and Dr. DeSilva are some of the voices helping to dispell the myth that liturgy is dry, boring, and spiritually tepid. It is none of those things!

    Thanks again,

    Krista Mournet