Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life (The Ancient Practices Series), by Joan Chittister


This is quite possibly the worst book I have ever read.

Ostensibly a book about the liturgical year, its history, theology, and significance to our modern lives, this is more accurately two hundred pages of Chittister assuring her readers over and over (and over again) that the liturgical year is important . . . without ever really explaining why. From Chittester's prospective, the point of the liturgical year is to remind us of the life of Jesus so we can emulate him in order to become "fully human" and bring about God's kingdom. ("[The liturgical year] gives us the energy to become the fullness of ourselves.")

That's it.

The whole book contains perhaps 10 pages of actual substance. I had hoped for an educational discussion of the history of the liturgical year and the theological basis for each aspect thereof. (Reformed Protestants are, I think, sometimes too quick to dismiss the merits of the church calendar, and I was hoping to better understand it so I could explain and defend it to them).

I was quite disappointed. In what were easily the most readable sections of the book, Chittister briefly explains the historical controversy regarding calculations of the dates of Easter Sunday and Christmas, but other than that, the book is just page after page of poetic-sounding, frothy, but ultimately meaningless statements about her idea of Christianity, which frankly has more in common with Eastern religions than it does with orthodox Christian theology.

I hesitate to claim to know the state of Chittister's soul, but I can say that nowhere in this book does she articulate the gospel. Her understanding of the purpose of Christ's incarnation appears to be that He came to set a good example for us; the reason for His crucifixion that we didn't "get it"; and the lesson of His resurrection that God was strong enough to overcome the tragic murder of His son. ("[Jesus goes to] the Garden of Olives to await the fate that comes from doing the will of God in a society that claims to be religious but oppresses the poor, ignores the needy, and makes itself God.") She does not appear to have any understanding of man's need for grace or for a savior. The death of Christ only matters in that it allowed him to demonstrate victory over the grave. Chittister does not seem to understand that the cross is the reason for the incarnation, that Jesus came to die. Instead, she fixates on the life and resurrection of Christ; there is no mention of atonement. ("It is not the Passover of the 'destroyer' that spared the Jews in Egypt and generated their exit to the promised land. This Passover is the passage of Jesus from this life to the fullness of divine life.")

Christ is called the savior, but it is not clear what Chittister thinks He saves us from--at most, we are saved from death itself, but not the righteous wrath of a Holy God. ("[Jesus came] with a vision of God who wished them well and not woe...")

The whole book is chock full of statements reflecting Chittister's apparent "bootstrap" theology, whereby the example of Christ enables us to try harder. ("We have some witnessing, some cleansing, and some extra work to do of our own in this life is we are to fulfill the gospel ourselves.") We then live out the social gospel, become fully human ("It is God that humanity needs in order to complete itself."), and even bring about the kingdom of God. ("[W]e have been created to make the world a better place, as Jesus did.") Sin is portrayed as something "outside" us--the worst in us is merely "weakness." ("[We have been] gratuitously saved from evil outside ourselves and liberated from the weakness within us, which, in hard times and on bad days, threatens to overwhelm us.")

Heretical theology aside, the book is objectively terrible. As I said, Chittister takes two hundred plus pages to say . . . nothing. The book is chock full of incoherent and overly flowery metaphors and self-gratifying page-a-day calendar statements. The whole thing reads like a chicken-soup-for-the-soul book of inspirational sayings that sound pretty but are utterly devoid of meaning. Some examples:

--"It is the light of Christmas within us that will take us, if we have the insight to cling to it, beyond a fairy-tale rendering of the great truths of the faith to an understanding of what the dark days of life are about."

--"[Lent is] about reaching back to remember who we are even while we keep on becoming more than we were."

--"[T]he story of the Transfiguration and Jesus' appearance with the prophets Elijah and Moses, assures us that life is not the end, yes, but more than that--that this life requires of us the courage of the prophets for truth, for principle."

--"[The liturgical year] tells us that being human is good, that we are next to God, full of the energy of the universe, fearless, full of faith and sure of more joy to come."

--"The seasons and feasts, the fasts and solemnities, if we are open and alert to them, lead us deeper and deeper into the self, beyond the pull of the present, higher and higher into the One who beckons us on through time to that moment when we will dissolve into God, set free from time to become one with the universe."

Also, an editing critique: On nearly every page of the book, a particular sentence would be highlighted and restated, in much the same way magazine articles will present an attention-grabbing statement in a small white space in the midst of a sea of text. However, these pages, unlike magazine or newspaper pages, do not contain a sea of text. The regular text is quite readable and there isn't a ton of it. Moreover, the editors almost invariably placed this catchy "attention-getting" sentence immediately before or after the sentence appeared in the actual text. This was extremely distracting and annoying. A better editor would have positioned the sentences better or eliminated them completely. Then again, a better editor would have trimmed this book down to a pamphlet.

Bottom Line: If you're looking for a substantive and intelligent book on the history of the church calendar and the theology behind it, look elsewhere. And maybe say a prayer for Joan Chittister.

**Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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