“What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.” ― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

Sometimes I am asked by other actors, mostly Christians, but not all, how do I go about deciding whether I should act in a certain play. “How can you play certain characters?” “What about plays that have ‘questionable’ content?” Some will ask because of their own personal scruples; perhaps they find a certain subject matter taboo. Others ask because they believe the very idea of acting in a play to be in and of itself a frivolous, even sinful thing to do. There are also those who enjoy theatre and film, and are sincerely curious about the process; how we thespians reconcile our faith with our art, especially when there’s the potential for compromise. And then there are those who are themselves actors who are serious about the creative work they do. They want to live in the freedom God has granted them as artists, but still remain faithful witnesses in the marketplace. So they’re looking for principles they believe will help them in their decision making process.

“If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul.” – Aaron (from Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare)

I recently started rehearsals for a stage production of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s first attempt at writing a tragedy. Andronicus is a “Revenge Play” – a very bloody revenge play. In it’s time it was one of the Bards most popular plays, probably because of all of the bloody vengeance, but during the Victorian era the play was maligned as too gory and violent. In the past, critics have often been divided as to its value as a tragedy, especially when compared to the later and greater tragedies like Hamlet and King Lear. Nevertheless, most agree that it is definitely Shakespeare’s darkest, bloodiest, and most disturbing play. With knowledge of this, a friend asked me, “Can you do this play? As a Christian, how can you play this character?” I asked myself the same thing, so I wasn’t put off by the question. About twenty-five years ago I read a small booklet written by Frances A. Schaeffer called Art and the Bible.

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“Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person as a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism.”Francis A. Schaeffer, Art and the Bible

In section two of the book he offers four standards of judgment for Christian Art (art consistent with a Christian world view). I’ve been using these standards as guidlines for over twenty years; they’ve been quite helpful and I’ve internalized them as my own, incorporating them in my decision making process when judging whether or not to take on a role or be a part of any stage production. I would like to review the standards with you, applying them to Titus Andronicus to give readers an idea of my process in choosing a role. I’m not a scholar; I’m writing as a practitioner who has shared this same info with other professional artists who have found it to be of some help.  Since I’m not giving a review of this book, I’m only going to focus on section two, and briefly refer to his four standards of judging art:

1. Technical excellence

2. Validity

3. World View

4. Suitability of form to content

These principles must be seen as a unit, not one in isolation from the other. It must also be applied to one’s own situation and discipline. So, using Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus and my own creative discipline of acting, lets see how these principles work for me in the situation I find myself in.

Technical Excellence: This refers to the quality of the material, the skill to which the artist is able to realize his vision, and the ability that they’re able to bring to the medium, the tools used, and how the various elements are used. This one is easy. William Shakespeare easily passes muster. He’s considered the greatest english speaking playwright to ever live. Period. So I don’t even wonder whether or not his material will be technically proficient or excellently crafted; I’ve read them all and know they are. And excellence is important! I try not do perform in bad plays (and a play having a Christian message is no exception). I stay away from religious material that is poorly crafted because its a bad witness, but I will do a non-religious play that is well crafted if it meets these four standards.

Regarding technical excellence, my own skill (or lack thereof) must be taken into account. Just as a musician must be able to read a score, interpret a song, and be technically proficient enough on his instrument in order to bring a certain piece of music to life, so must I as the actor portraying a character. I too must know how to “score” my script, understand it, interpret it, less I perform “off key”. But I myself, am my own instrument, and I must have the technical ability – vocally, physically, emotionally – to bring the role to life. I’m a trained actor who has also been trained in the classics, so the role that was offered to me was one that I felt I could handle reasonably well, with some skill and emotional depth. Though I’m not afraid to take a risk and “stretch”, I try not to accept a role if I do not feel I am right for the part. As I once heard a legendary jazz musician say, “I try to play within myself”.

Validity: This refers to motives; the reason behind doing the work. Is it a work of authenticity, consistent with one’s purpose and world view? Or is it taken on for purely commercial success.  I do not act in plays, or take on roles I don’t believe in. I refuse to pander, nor do I enjoy being used in propaganda, or pander to sentimentality. And by “believe in”, I do not mean that I must personally agree with what the character says and does, but rather, I must agree with the purpose he serves in the life of the play and it’s overall message.

I had to give this one some thought when choosing whether or not to do this play. Andonicus has often been accused of pandering to audiences thirst for blood, and depending on the vision of the director of any given production, the blood, and violence contained in this play could be handled in such a fashion that does indeed pander rather than reveal; heightening the blood, sex, and violence in a gratuitous fashion, instead of than revealing something about the nature of evil and revenge.

And then there is the issue of ego. The character I’m playing is problematic for me because most actors will tell you that they would love to play a villain because they’re so much “fun” to play, and the character I’m playing, Aaron, is one of the greatest villains Shakespeare ever wrote. So, when deciding whether to take the role, I had to take care that my desire for a meaty role did not cloud my discernment, or cause me to overlook problems with the role and the play simply because my ego was being stroked. That’s a poor motivation for taking a role and it doesn’t pass the validity test.

“Our highest purpose in theatre is to represent culture’s need to address the question, ‘How can I live in a world in which I am doomed to die?’” – David Mamet

World View: Don’t be fooled. If it’s “Art”, it reflects a world view – Biblical or otherwise.  As a Christian, I seek to create work that reflect themes consistent with a Christian world view (as I understand it), AND reality.  Schaeffer says that art can be Biblical or not, it can reflect truth or not. The Pulitzer winning playwright David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, The Untouchables) has said: “The theatre is the place where we go to hear the truth.”  The work of an artist can be judged, just as we’re called to judge anything else. I do not believe that art must be used only for utilitarian purposes; it can indeed exist simply for the sake of beauty. And yet, art that reflects a Christian world view is also art that corresponds with reality, even if the work of art never uses Biblical or Christian symbols or words in it’s portrayal.

“We should realize that if something untrue or immoral is stated in great art, it can be far more devastating than if it is expressed in poor art. The greater the artistic expression, the more important it is to consciously bring it and it’s worldview under the judgment of Christ and the Bible. The common reaction among many however, is just the opposite. Ordinarily, many seem to feel that the greater the art, the less we ought to be critical of its worldview. This we must reverse.” ― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible

However, Schaeffer points out that for the artist’s art and world view to be Christian and correspond to reality, it must also portray the reality of both the Major and Minor themes of life.  The Minor Theme expresses the brokenness of our world and our humanity. We have all gone astray and cant find our way back to Eden. Having lost sight of God’s ultimate intention for our lives, lives that are wounded, sinful, and bent toward evil.  It is a reality that this world is darkened, filled with violence, wickedness, abuse, and bloodshed. Even the best of us, Christian or otherwise, experience sorrow, loss, and defeat, and we will never experience total victory this side of eternity. We want to return to Eden, because things are not the way they’re supposed to be; God’s creation has been vandalized. This is the Minor Theme of the Bible. Art that is rooted in reality will be honest about this truth. Too often “Christian” art fails to honestly address minor themes, and as a result is dismissed as sentimental propaganda. Non-Christians reject it as out of touch, and not corresponding to reality.

Then there is the Major Theme of the Bible. The major theme reminds us that God has not left us alone. It is a Christian belief that God came and lived among us. He now lives within the believer continuing his work among those who were also created in His image. Things are dark, but we live in the already/not yet, Kingdom of God, so there is also light, and the world is full of faith, hope, and love.

Also remember that one play can’t always explore both major and minor themes adequately; artists can’t always give “equal air time”. But a body of work will portray both minor and major themes, sometimes in the same work, but not out of necessity. Just as we do not judge a pastor based on one sermon, or the Holy Bible based on one book, say the book of Lamentations (or the rape, mutilation, and other atrocities portrayed in the Book of Judges); in the same way we do not judge the world view of an artist, be they actor, musician, or a playwright such as Shakespeare, based on the treatment of one play.

In my opinion, a work of art is not truly “Christian” in an authentic sense, no matter how hopeful, if it has no room for minor themes. It is merely sentimental – not reflecting our true condition. Just as the Christian Bible portrays man acting out all manner of atrocities, so can an artist with a “Christian” world view explore some of these same minor themes. But ultimately the body of the artist’s creative work will hopefully reveal a world view that reflects faith, hope, and love, or the longing for such, after all, “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” – Romans 5:20

Suitability of form to content: Is the medium used appropriate; does it do a good job at communicating the message or vision of the artist? This is the final standard of judgment, and I think history has shown the impact drama has in communicating truth. Themes in action, whether on stage or in film are powerful. I also believe that the form to content question has to do with taste. There is much in art and it’s presentation that some Christians believe to be sin issues,  that are often times a matter of taste or personal scruples, i.e., “Don’t eat, don’t touch”. I’m fortunate to be working with a director who seems concerned about balancing risk with “Good Taste” (for those of you who know the play, I hope you appreciated that pun). I also believe that there is no better artistic medium than theatre to address the question, “How can I live in a world in which I am doomed to die?” We get a chance to live vicariously through the characters as we watch theologies (questions about God, the nature of good and evil, etc.) and world views put to the test in action onstage, albeit vicariously:

“There is no more searching test of a theology than to submit it to dramatic handling; nothing so glaringly exposes inconsistencies in a character, a story, or a philosophy as to put it upon the stage and allow it to speak for itself. Any theology that will stand the rigorous pulling and hauling of the dramatist is pretty tough in its texture…I can only affirm that at no point have I yet found artistic truth and theological truth at variance.” – Dorothy Sayers

So for me, Titus Andronicus passes muster on these four guidelines. Yes, it is a dark play. I’ve always felt that for good to be seen as truly good, then evil must be seen as truly evil, not merely “disordered”. What makes the play and the character portrayals consistent with a Christian worldview is that the play says the same thing about sin and evil that scripture says about sin and evil.  Evil isn’t portrayed as noble or heroic. Revenge, though easy to justify from a merely human point of view, is shown for what it is, an evil that motivates others to greater acts of evil.

Though dark, Titus does reflect a Biblical perspective regarding the minor theme of life, no matter how disruptive. The wicked are punished, and the one leader left standing is the one who happens to have a conscience. As rehearsals progress, I’ll continue to share my thoughts and experiences. Who knows? Maybe my views will change or I’ll gain some new insights on the nature of evil. Keep me in your prayers.

“Believers may not often realize it, but even as believers we are either centered in man, or centered in God. There is no alternative. Either God is the center of our universe and we have become rightly adjusted to Him, or we have made ourselves the center and are attempting to make all else orbit around us and for us. When the truth dawns, we are amazed to discover how the snare of making all things to revolve around man has been the bane of most of our preaching and teaching. This is true even of the area of teaching which is considered to be of the deeper life emphasis. As long as men are victims of this wrong philosophy and approach to truth, they cannot avoid reckoning from a self-center. When the center is wrong, then everything in our reckoning is wrong. It is my prayer that in these pages the reader will discover the lost coin of truth and be prepared to take what may seem like drastic measures in accepting a new center, where the whole conception of the Christian life is changed from man-consciousness to God-consciousness; from man as the center to God as the center from which all truth is seen. ” –  DeVern Fromke, Ultimate Intention

The next two books on my list are Unto Full Stature and Ultimate Intention, both by author DeVern Fromke.

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ultimate-intention-big   I was introduced to the writings of Fromke in the mid-nineties. His books, Unto Full Stature and Ultimate Intention, were both in a discounted bin at a discount store. I think I purchased them for 25 cents each. Obviously those who passed up on these books had no idea the treasure they contained. After perusing through a few pages into Unto Full Stature, I new that this book was indeed a storehouse of riches. I read each of these books several times over the next few months, including all of his others which I subsequently purchased (at full price). They were bread and water to a hungry, thirsty young minister’s soul. Fromke’s books focus on the centrality of the cross, and God’s revelation of Jesus as his Ultimate Intention, and Fromke helps his readers learn how to seek God’s glory as their ultimate intention in every aspect of their lives.  Author Frank Viola sums it up best when he says that Fromke’s book’s expose what is lacking in most of  today’s Christian movements: 

  • A groundbreaking unveiling and understanding of God’s Eternal Purpose… The Eternal Purpose is by Him, through Him, to Him, and for Him. And it’s mind-blowingly glorious.

  • An understanding – both theological and practical – on how to live by the indwelling life of Christ individually and corporately.

  • A laser focus on the centrality and supremacy of Jesus Christ. (In most of these movements, some “cause” or theological system has trumped Jesus Himself.) – Frank Viola

Please read Viola’s article on Fromke and the major influence his books had on his life. It reflects my feelings as well: http://frankviola.org/2013/02/22/devernfromke/.

Any one of Fromke’s books could have been on this list, and I highly recommend them. Maybe start with No Other Foundation, a compilation of his writings if you can find it, as I think it’s out of print.

“Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding pressures; to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we”.” – Edwin H. Friedman

“Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage.” – Edwin H. Friedman

9781596271678_p0_v2_s260x420 And the ninth book on my list of 15 Spiritual Formation Books that have influenced me is A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, written by Edwin H. Friedman. Friedman (1932–1996) was Jewish Rabbi and family therapist. Before his death he was well respected among both religious (Jewish and Christian) and secular establishments as a therapist and leadership consultant. He took the concept of “Self differentiation” and family systems theory, as developed by Bowen, and applied them to congregational leadership systems and leadership in general. His book, Generation to Generation, was so influential that it is now required reading at many Christian Seminaries across the country. The book was written primarily for congregational leaders for the purpose of helping them develop in three areas:

  • Being self differentiated
  • Being non-anxious
  • Being present with those one is leading

Friedman defined self differentiation as, “Knowing where you begin, and others end”:

“Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others.”

This, “reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others”, has to do with anxiety. Friedman believed that how a person handled anxiety, their own as well as the anxieties of others, was a maturity issue, and had more to do with the success or failure of an organization than simply learning data and techniques, whether the “organization” was a family, business, or Church. One illustration he’d use (I cant remember which of his books I read it in), is that of falling dominos. The anxiety that organizations experience when confronted with change is like someone knocking over a domino. The domino falls, causing other dominos to fall in succession. One by one each domino falls…UNTIL, one domino chooses to stand firm. The self differentiated leader is a principled leader who knows himself, and is in healthy control of his emotions, so he does not “react” to the anxiety of the group. Friedman, however, is clear to point out that such a leader:

“…is not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny… is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence… is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

In the presence of such a leader the dominos stop falling. The snowball effect of escalating anxieties, and the sabotage that others engage in, are lessened as people learn to stand upright in the face of a crises.

Of course, for such a leader to have this kind of influence, they must be present. It’s easy to be non-anxious if one removes themselves from the company of others. The idea is to absorb the anxiety, to remain non-reactive in the presence of instability. Friedman taught that, “Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot ‘grow’ another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it ‘overgrow’ you.”

In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman further developed the ideas he presented in Generation to Generation, presenting to us a vision of the self-differentiated leader as someone who:

  • is able to detach from the emotional reactions of others
  • is principle centered and clear about their vision
  • is transparent and willing to admit areas of weakness
  • has the stamina to withstand resistance from others
  • is able to regulate his own emotions in the face of sabotage

Although this is marketed as a book on leadership, it has done more to expose my lack of spiritual and relational maturity than maybe any other (the only other leadership book to affect me in a similar way was Dan Allender’s Leading With a Limp). A Failure of Nerve exposed the reasons I had failed in many areas of my life, not just relationally, but also in accomplishing goals that were important to me. It continues to challenge me to grow into maturity, and one of the most important ways it does this is by reminding me that we are only as mature as our relationships reveal us to be, and the importance of staying connected to those we love and serve, even those that are difficult. The concept of self-differentiation, and the role anxiety plays in our relationships, and the need to manage it well, has been life changing to me. No. I have not mastered it, no one ever arrives at being fully differentiated, only Jesus can lay claim to that, but this book has helped me to be quite a bit more resilient in the face of crises, to cultivate healthier relationships with others,and to focus on walking in my own integrity. I’m also better able to stay connected with others even while remaining my own separate self, and regulating my own emotions in response to the reactivity of others; how to not only help others take healthy responsibility for themselves, but maybe just as important, how to stay out of the way of the growth of others. We leaders have a way of thinking we know more than everyone else, at least more than those we serve, and the temptation is to try and lead others by trying to change those who do not want to change, or control them. One of the lessons Friedman has taught me is that:

“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

In the face of change, or other crises, its easy to allow anxiety, our own or others, to overwhelm or distract us, diverting us from that which God has called us to be or do. Or maybe we resort to quick fixes as we try to control and change others as a way of accomplishing our goals. It takes courage, or “nerve” to choose another way to be and lead.

If you are interested in a quick, and entertaining, visual illustration that summarizes some of the principles in this book, here’s a link to a fun video that does an excellent job. Check it out:

“Let us Trust in God’s love more than we believe in the Fear that paralyzes us!” – Edwin H. Friedman

Christian Author and philosopher, Dallas Willard died today at the age of 77, after announcing earlier this week that he was battling cancer. I wrote about his book The Divine Conspiracy, just a couple of weeks ago. His books on spiritual formation and discipleship were a major influence on me and thousands of others. Along with many others I mourn his passing.  He will be greatly missed.  Below you’ll find a copy of his bio taken from Wikipedia.

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Dallas Albert Willard (September 4, 1935-May 8, 2013) was an American philosopher also known for his writings on Christian spiritual formation. His work in philosophy has been primarily in phenomenology, particularly the work of Edmund Husserl. He was Professor of Philosophy at The University of Southern California.[1] 

In addition to teaching and writing about philosophy, Willard gave lectures and wrote books about Christianity and Christian living. His book The Divine Conspiracy was Christianity Today’s Book of the Year for 1999.[4] Another of his books, Renovation of the Heart, won Christianity Today’s 2003 Book Award for books on Spirituality and The Association of Logos Bookstores’ 2003 Book Award for books on Christian Living.[5]

Willard believed passivity to be a widespread problem in the Church (loosely summed up in his phrase “Grace is not opposed to effort {which is action}, but to earning {which is attitude}”).[6][7] He emphasized the importance of deliberately choosing to be a disciple of Jesus Christ (someone being with Jesus, learning to be like Him).[8][9][10] An important outgrowth of the choice to be identified as a disciple of Jesus is the desire to learn about activities that aid spiritual transformation into the likeness of Christ.[11]

In this regard, being an apprentice of Jesus (someone being with Jesus, learning to be like Him), involves learning about activities that might help one grow in the fruit of the spirit, namely love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).[12][13][14] Such activities might include spiritual exercises practiced throughout the ages such as prayer, fellowship, service, study, simplicity, chastity, solitude, fasting.[15][16] Willard explains the crucial role of engaging in spiritual exercises in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives—a book that was written after In Search of Guidance: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.

Willard has a recommended reading page on his website listing specific titles by Thomas a Kempis, William Law, Frank Laubach, William Wilberforce, Richard Baxter, Charles Finney, Jan Johnson, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Foster, E. Stanley Jones, William Penn, Brother Lawrence, Francis de Sales, and others.[17]

He was influenced by many, including Jacques MaritainAquinasAugustineP.T. ForsythJohn Calvin and John WesleyWilliam LawAndrew MurrayRichard BaxterTeresa of AvilaFrancis de SalesBrother Lawrence, and the Rule of St. Benedict.[citation needed]

He served on the boards of the C.S. Lewis Foundation and of Biola University.[18]

 

                                                                                                                         

“Sorrow spoken lends a little courage to the speaker.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Part Aesop’s Fables meets Animal Farm, meets Lord of the Rings meets Narnia, The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Sorrows are my favorite novels of any genre. The books are equal parts fantasy and fable, but they transcend the genre. Though it may seem strange to include two fantasy novels on a list of favorite spiritual formation books, author Walter Wangerin, Jr., a former Pastor, has created two novels that are works of art that have such depth and beauty that the very act of reading them was a transformative experience.

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Book of the Dun Cow, winner of The 1980 National Book Award, is a tale of two kingdoms . One kingdom, “God’s Keepers”, are led by Chauntecleer. The other is led by Senex. Chauntecleer is indeed the “Cock of the roost”, proud and somewhat arrogant, but a good rooster, faithful, heroic, and respected. He leads the hens and other nearby farm animals that make up the community. Like any community, these animals are filled with personalities that can be difficult, and yet find a way to get along. But unbeknownst to these funny, very human animals lies a great evil. Buried deep beneath the earth, very very deep, is a primordial evil, imprisoned there ages ago by their creator. The evil Wyrm. Wyrm has found a way of escape from imprisonment through the aging, bitter, and envious rooster named Senex, who’s spiritual condition provides an opening for the evil Wyrm. Senex begins to listen to the lies that Wyrm begins whispering to him, and lays an egg. Yes, the rooster lays an egg, and just as unnatural is the disturbing monstrosity that hatches: Cockatrice, who has the head of a rooster, but the body of a dragon, and begins to breed with the other hens who spawn the basilisks. Cockatrice brings with him an evil darkness that threatens to destroy their world, but even more dangerous is the threat to their souls. Told with humor and beauty, the book also carries an emotional wallop as it wrestles with questions we all have about good and evil. We see Chauntecleer struggle in prayer as he tries to make sense of the pain and sorrows they experience, and we see God’s nurture and comfort portrayed in the character of “The Dun Cow”. Though the book isnt an allegory, we do see something of the nature of Christ in the Dun Cow, who offers comfort and nurture to the weary Chauntecleer. We also see the sacrificial nature of Christ in the Eeyor-like dog Mundo Cani who rises to heroic stature.

“How many battles make a war?” – Walter Wangerin, Jr. The Book of the Dun Cow

Dun Cow is an epic story of the battle of good versus evil, that combines compelling storytelling and theological reflection with a skill that in my opinion rivals that of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series for sheer power and poetry. But it does so in a very real, and at times painful way. As Jayme Lynn Blaschke wrote in a review of the book:

“There are no corners cut here, no cheap plot devices invoked by the author to get his anthropomorphic characters out of tight spots. Every victory won is marked by tremendous pain. Every defeat lost is marked by untold suffering. There is no bravado in the face of evil here, only terror and self-doubt. Yet despite this, the animal heroes press on, paying terrible prices all for their courage.”

By the end of Dun Cow, Wangerin has asked us to consider the possibility that, “It is entirely possible to win against the enemy, it is possible, even, to kill the enemy… and still be defeated by the battle.” In its sequel, The Book of Sorrows, we are forced to meet this theme head on in a cautionary tale for all of us, leaders in particular.

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After their fierce conflict with the dreaded Wyrm, Chauntecleer, and the other animals are trying to rebuild their lives and their community when once again Wyrm finds a way to infiltrate their ranks, and with tragic consequences. In Sorrows we see a weary Chauntecleer, filled with guilt and doubt, and depressed with an increased awareness of his failings. As he wrestles with his own inner demons, we watch one of God’s creatures, in an attempt to do good and overcome evil, now face the danger of becoming that which he sought to overcome. The book is deeply insightful and also action filled, a story The New York Times called a “…powerful, troubling conclusion”. So troubling and powerful, in fact, the book is difficult to read in places because of its visceral impact. Be forewarned, where Dun Cow was at times very humorous, Sorrows, while remaining heroic (more so in many ways), and so beautiful in places it will literally bring you to tears, it is also grim. The threat of impending danger is real, and we grieve for the characters who have become so dear to us. It is a painful journey as we descend into the heart of darkness of a beloved character. Many people who read the book admit to shedding tears. It’s a painfully sobering, yet beautiful story, that cuts deeply. Yet, it inflicts a wound that ultimately heals. It heals because Wangerin shows us how even in our biggest failings and deepest sorrows, forgiveness is offered, and God’s love, even in darkness, never fails.

“Her ballad did nothing to make the serpants lovely.  Her ballad hid nothing of their dread.  But the music itself spoke of faith and certainty; the melody announced the presence of God.” – Walter Wangerin, Jr.

Once again, these two books together make up my favorite of any genre (they’re also on Eugene Peterson’s list of essential spiritual formation books). They’re beautiful, but Wangerin pulls no punches.

“Here the mystery of my life is unveiled. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The blessing is there from the beginning. I have left it and keep on leaving. But the Father is always looking for me again with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.'” ~Henri Nouwen The Return of the Prodigal Son

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” ~ Luke15: 31-32

I had an interesting experience today after Church service. The speaker had just finished teaching on reconcilation, victimization, and the “unfairness” of life. More importantly he invited us to consider the extravagantly “unfair” nature of our heavenly Father’s love toward us. As I pondered what it would mean for me to be an “Embassador of Reconciliation” toward those I felt had treated me unfairly, I decided to go into our prayer room and share my struggles with another brother and recieve prayer. I was immediately confronted by a print of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of The Prodigal Son:

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Maybe it was the immediacy of the moment after the sermon, or perhaps my realization that I still had “heartwork” to do regarding forgiveness and reconciliation, but the painting stopped me in my tracks as I was immediately overcome with emotion. How providential. What I was feeling in that moment, the awareness of my own sinfulness as well as my hardness of heart toward those who had sinned against me, the memory of Jesus’ parable of “The Prodigal Son”, the awareness of my own need to both grant and recieve forgiveness, it all hit me instantly. All I could do was stand there and gaze. I was aware that God was present and was doing a work in me in at that very moment. I secretly wished (a voiceless prayer, really) that no one else would enter the room and disturb this intimate moment. Afterwards I did pray with another brother, and shared my struggles, but quite frankly, the ministry I was looking for, the confession, the absolution and grace to do what I needed to do – that “heart” work took place as I prayerfully contemplated Rembrandt’s painting, which for me had become a passageway into Christ’s teaching on repentance, forgiveness, and the extravagant grace of God. I find it no small coincidence that the sixth book on my list was going to be Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

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Henri J.M. Nouwen was born in 1932, and ordained to the priesthood in 1957. A popular author, of many books, some of which are considered classics, Nouwen, in his latter years served as a pastor at L’Arche Daybreak, a community for handicapped adults in Canada. It was after a chance encounter with Rembrandt’s painting, one that moved him deeply, that he decided to write this book.  In it he describes his own spiritual journey as he consider’s Jesus’s parable of the return of the young prodigal who had left home for a distant land and squanders his inheritance; the bitter, resentful older brother; and the compassionate father. Nouwen said of Rembrandt:

“Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

One of the strengths of the book is how it speaks to our compulsive pursuit of those things that can never satisfy:

“Addiction” might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates society. Our addiction make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self-fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world’s delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in “the distant country,” leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled. In these days of increasing addictions, we have wandered far away from our Father’s home. The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in “a distant country.” It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up.”

Nouwen paints a compelling portrait that enable us to recognize ourselves in both the spiritually bankrupt condition of the prodigal son, and in the self-righteousness of the dutiful older brother. But most importantly he stirs in us a desire to return home, and reminds us that no matter how often or how far we’ve fallen, our Father who is searching for us even more than we for Him, is there waiting with open arms, ready to restore, and eager to lavish His love upon us. The book is a modern classic and highly recommended.

 

“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God; those only can comprehend it who practice and experience it.”  – Brother Lawrence

“We ought not to be weary of doing little things for the love of God, who regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.” – Brother Lawrence

The fifth offering on my list of influential spiritual formation books is the spiritual classic The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.

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The Practice of the Presence of God is probably the most read book in my library. I first came upon the book about twenty-five years ago, and for years I read it at least once or twice a year, and even now rarely does a day go by that I do not pray asking God to help me put its principles into practice.  It’s a short and easy book to read and quite enjoyable, and the principles within are simple and effective.

Brother Lawrence was an uneducated layman in the Catholic Church who served as a soldier before entering the Discalced Carmelite Prior in  Paris. He worked in the kitchen for all of his life as a monk, but was a kind man who was very popular and much admired. He endeavored to “practice the presence ” of God in the mundane tasks he was assigned to throughout each day; in essence, to pray without ceasing. For him, something as simple, and menial as washing the dishes became an intentional act of devotion. He made every moment of his day an exercise where he would not only take moments to stop from his labors to worship God, but also while he was engaged in his labors or interactions with others, he would acknowledge truth that God is always present and converse with Him. No task was too small nor challenge so great that God was not presence, and so he would simply relate to and converse with God as an ongoing act of prayer the way one would converse with a dear friend who is close by:

“He does not ask much of us, merely a thought of Him from time to time, a little act of adoration, sometimes to ask for His grace, sometimes to offer Him your sufferings, at other times to thank Him for the graces, past and present, He has bestowed on you, in the midst of your troubles to take solace in Him as often as you can. Lift up your heart to Him during your meals and in company; the least little remembrance will always be the most pleasing to Him. One need not cry out very loudly; He is nearer to us than we think.”

The simplicity of this small book of letters, his ongoing conversations with another disciple whom he is guiding in this practice, are profound and practical, and makes one long for the same kind of intimacy with God that Brother Lawrence enjoyed. More importantly, he shows us the way as we are invited to listen in on a series of conversations between two brothers learning how to cultivate a close, intimate, relationship with a God who is present even during the seemingly “unimportant” times of our mundane lives. Highly recommended.

“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.” – Dallas Willard

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” – Dallas Willard

The 4th book on my list is Dallas Willard’s The  Divine Conspiracy.  

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The Divine Conspiracy is a Masterpiece, pure and simple. Though my list of 15 spiritual formation books come in no particular order, I will say that this book changed my life, and when I thought of making this list, it was the first book I thought of (and always is since I first read it thirteen years ago). It isn’t a devotional book though it is deeply spiritual. Nor is it a “how to” manual, although it is pragmatic and instructive, which shouldnt be surprising since Willard is a brilliant thinker and renowned teacher. In The Divine Conspiracy Willard gives contemporary christians  a vision of what meaningful spirituality and discipleship is and what it looks like in practice. It’s a brilliant presentation of a Christian worldview of authentic Christian discipleship in the world. Richard Foster, author of the contemporary spiritual classic Celebration of Discipline says of Willard’s book:

“A masterpiece and a wonder…the book I have been searching for all my life…I would place The Divine Conspiracy in rare company indeed: alongside the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Wesley, John Calvin and Martin Luther, Teresa of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen, and perhaps even Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. If the parousia tarries, this is a book for the next millennium.” – Richard J. Foster

High praise, I know, but much deserved.  Christianity Today named Willard’s book their 1999 Book of The Year, but it’s really one for the ages. Read it and find out why.

I was recently asked to name the books and authors that have most influenced me or helped to form me spiritually, so I’ve decided to post a list of 15 of my favorite spiritual formation books. Over the past ten years or so there has been a renewed interest in the topic of spiritual formation, and much confusion. In general, spiritual formation is the growth and development of a person’s interior or spiritual life through the practice of specific disciplines. This means that there are many perspectives and approaches to spiritual formation depending on one’s belief system, thus the confusion among some Christians. But rest assured, as unfamiliar as some might be with the term, there is no way around the reality that one way or another we are all being spiritually formed. The issue for Christians is whether we are being intentional in our pursuit to become formed into the image of Jesus Christ. So, by way of definition:

Christian spiritual formation is the intentional process of being conformed to the image of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of others. Though it involves the practice of spiritual disciplines, it’s also a way of life lived in community with others, and grounded in Scripture.

Over the next several weeks I’ll highlight the spiritual formation books that have been most influential in forming me spiritually, or I think may be helpful to those who are new to the subject. Today I’ll start my list with three books from an author who has most informed my concept of the vocation of a Pastor: Eugene Peterson.

In 92′, 93′, and 94′, Peterson wrote three books on the vocational calling of a pastor:

1. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work 

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2. The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction

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3. Under The Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness

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I discovered these books at a time when I had grown extremely discouraged with church work, and increasingly disillusioned with pastoral ministry. I saw one leader after another use ministry as a means to promote themselves and advance their careers. Many of those who were sincere in their wish to serve were overwhelmed with the business of “running” the Church. In these books Peterson Calls us back to the pastoral vocation of prayer, scripture (studying and teaching), and spiritual direction. Peterson helps leaders reclaim their “Vocational Holiness” from those who would “…enlist them into religious careers”.

   

…. Well, actually, I’m back and still “In Exile”. It’s been nearly two years since I last made an entry in my blog “Ron In Exile”. Why the long hiatus? Mostly due to lack of time (teaching and performing took up a lot of time). But I also did it for the sake of my spiritual health. Though I found blogging about spiritual issues helped to clarify what I believed and why, I also realized that it held a potential danger for me at that time.  One can spend so much time reading books, and thinking about subjects to write about, that it becomes easy to believe that one embodies the truths they’re writing about. In an earlier post I quoted Helmut Thielicke and wrote:

“‘Theology makes the young theologian vain and so kindles in him something like a Gnostic pride. The chief reason for this is that in us men, truth and love are seldom combined’ (Thielicke).  As theologians, since God is love, our study of God should make us more loving, otherwise it is a vain intellectual pursuit.  If we use knowledge to control and intimidate, or as a shield to mask our own insecurities, then we become nothing more than Pharisees seeking to justify ourselves at the expense of others.  It’s too easy to confuse intellectual understanding with actually walking in the Spirit.  “Possessing” knowledge about some spiritual truth does not of itself make one more spiritual.  It may in fact lead to self-deception.  If theological study does not cause one to live into the truth revealed to them, then his theology has failed him, or better yet, he has failed his theology.  It is a sobering warning Thielicke gives when he writes, “Whoever ceases to be a man of the spirit automatically furthers a false theology, even if in thought it is pure…death lurks in the kettle” (p.36).  Living the truth is what makes a man spiritual. Being a doer of the word is what brings life.

And so I took some time to try to live into some of the truths I believe God was trying to work into my life during that season. I read no new theological or ministry related book that wasn’t devotional in nature, but I did listen to lots and lots of new music, read and performed in several plays, and spent more time getting to know and learning how to better love the family members and neighbors that were around me. Death was “lurking in the kettle”, and I’m still learning, but I do feel more rooted in love and ready to start blogging again. I hope you’ll follow along.

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