Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book Review: The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister

I recently received a copy of The Liturgical Year: The spiraling adventure of the spiritual life by Joan Chittister, which is one of the latest titles in Thomas Nelson's series on "The Ancient Practices" of the church. (Disclaimer: I received this copy for free from Thomas Nelson, in exchange for my commitment to write this review.)

I read another title in this series, Fasting by Scot McKnight, last spring-- and it was excellent. I was excited about the opportunity to read this title, too, for two reasons: a) I have increasingly become a student of the idea of the liturgical calendar over the last several years, and b) I hoped to find a similar unpacking of complex and somewhat obscure ideas in this title that I had found in McKnight's Fasting.

I must say, I was/am quite disappointed.

There is a segment of Christians for whom everything is about the sentiment. The historical foundations and bases for Christianity serve very little purpose for them-- indeed, if those things were entirely removed or discredited, nothing much would change about the way that they think, feel, and practice their version of Christianity. (I would go so far as to say, like Paul, that they gospel they offer is no true Gospel-- because Paul himself appealed to the very real and historical bases of the faith as the thing that makes it credible instead of lamentable.) I may unpack this idea in a future blog post, because I think it is both common in some circles and dangerous.

That said, Chittister's presentation of Christianity and liturgical practice dips into this pool of sentimentality often. It's not hard to recognize; in fact, there are some give-away phrases that show up frequently. When I read Chittister speak of "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith" in an opening chapter, I had a hunch of what was to come. Unfortunately, I was right.

The problem with the dichotomy of "the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith" is that the two are historically one-- there is no difference, yet the writer (and others) speak of them, and deal with them, as if they are distinct. Likewise, the problem with Chittister's larger development of The Liturgical Year is that she deals with the historical and biblical aspects as distinct from what makes its it valuable.

The thing about the concept of the liturgical year is that it is biblically, theologically, and historically-based: every concept (at least of the contemporary protestant practices of it) is rooted in a biblical and/or theological foundation. Every piece of it has a biblical/theological meaning and purpose. Likewise, each part-- and the whole-- has a rich foundation of historical practice and purpose. It would not be a stretch to imagine a book filled entirely of the biblical, theological, and historical discussions around each aspect of the liturgical year (which is what I had hoped that The Liturgical Year would be).

Those parts of the discussion are in there; but they are included anecdotally, or sometimes to set up a discussion on inconsistency or problem. But they aren't the focus of the book; they are not even a part of the focus. The thrust of the book, it seems to me, is the sentiment of the seasons. In other words: in the eyes of the author, the importance of the liturgical year isn't so much what it means; it's what it means to you or to me.

A full, well-lived Christian life, though, has plenty of things to be sentimental about without making everything about being sentimental. The Liturgical Year wastes an opportunity to be a book of substance instead of mere sentiment.

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