Monday, March 23, 2015

The Ancient Path (book review)

There is a general crisis in Christianity in the Western world, one centered in large part on the area of praxis. What does it mean to practice the Christian life in its entirety? Is there such a thing as Christian praxis for those of us not in a monastic community? John Michael Talbot's The Ancient Path takes up this very issue. It is an attempt worthy of consideration because it is so sorely needed. However, the book is at times frustrating as conflicting styles seem to prevent the author's goals from coming together.

Talbot's thesis is fairly straight forward. The Patristic era ("the Fathers") established everything one needs to walk the way of the Christian life. This runs the span from individual behavior (example) to one's interaction within the larger ecclesiastical structure (chapter on the bishop). All of this is much needed, as we are in a period in which the mode of the Christian life and the need for an institutional church have come to be regarded as quaint artifacts of a previous era at best, totally irrelevant at worst.

Having these laudable aims in mind, the book becomes mired in a conflict of writing approaches. Simply put, Talbot's renowned pastoral writing style and the more "doctrinal" or 'theological" selections never really gel. Most every chapter begins with Talbot's pastoral insight via the example of his own life on the life path (practical and spiritual, active and contemplative) he finds rooted in the earliest centuries of Christianity. This is followed by another subsection in the chapter that attempts to explore the theme laid out in the pastoral section with a more theological or historical approach. The chapters then tend to close with Talbot's pastoral and personal insights. This leads a disruption in the content flow and an unsteady narrative quality. Breaks in the personal narrative in chapter 3 to discuss the Patristic conception of the person of Jesus Christ, and in chapter 4 to discuss the concept of salvation as presented in the Didache come off as somewhat belabored excursions, primarily for catechetical repetition. In these instances, Talbot's ability to pull the reader in through his personal illustration of the themes which demonstrate the praxis of the Christian life is nullified.

The Ancient Path shines when Talbot is allowed to be Talbot, when it is purely the approach he is so well known for and when he provides the personal narrative of his life correlating to the ancient path. As such, there are chapters that positively work and accomplish what the author seems to have set out to do.Chapters 5 ("Community"), and 8 ("Nothing Without the Bishop") are probably the sterling examples of this, chapter 8 providing a keen insight into how the bishop could guide his flock through the example of Bishop Andrew McDonald and his involvement with assisting in the development of Talbot's Little Portion Hermitage and in the eventual marriage to his wife Viola (herself a former Cistercian nun). Even here however, we are given a glimpse into something that could have been so much more were the format of the book abandoned in favor of something that clearly plays to Talbot's strengths. Talbot mentions earlier on that the relationship with Bishop McDonald began with skepticism on the bishop's part and eventually developed into trust and guidance. The book could have been better served with a full chapter that detailed the building up of that relationship.

Talbot, whatever one things of the era of Roman Catholicism he represents, is almost iconic in the field of contemporary spiritual writers. The theme of this seems natural for him. Ultimately though, it never really finds its bearings enough to get off the ground. 

No comments:

Post a Comment