Thursday, February 13, 2014

Awakening Faith by James Stuart Bell and The Book of Saints: The Early Era by Al Truesdale

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of these books for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

So, apparently people are actually reading these book reviews since I keep getting asked to do more of them. Oddly enough, a few weeks back I found myself starting at two different devotional books from two different publishers, each focused on quotes from Early Church Fathers. I've been looking for something to change up my pattern of devotions and I much enjoy the Fathers, so it was a great moment. It also provides an opportunity to review them together (I hope the publishers don't mind too much).

Zondervan's Awakening Faith is a pretty straightforward devotional in the typical mold. There are 366 pages (you wouldn't want to make a devotional book that's obsolete every four years) each with a topic, a title, a scripture, and an extended quote from a great Christian thinker. The latest I saw was Theodore the Studite who dies in 826, but most were from much earlier.

I'm sure the order was carefully vetted and planned, but I did not discern a pattern in how the authors, topics, or readings were arranged (nor is there really a need for one in this format). There's an index by scripture reference and a short biography of each Father in the back. It also comes with a snazzy, attached cloth bookmark, so you can keep your place.

By far, I think, the strongest part of this collection is the diversity. A wide range of Fathers are used, including those, like Origen or some of the latter Eastern Fathers, who have never been all that favored in Western or Protestant circles. I don't expect Bell has chosen any tremendously controversial excerpts for the books, but I appreciate a willingness to broaden perspective.

The Nazarene Publishing House offering, The Book of Saints, is the first of (so far) two volumes: The Early Era and The Middle Era. As the name suggests, it is decidedly more chronological. Divided into five sections, it is a bit more academic in nature and not a traditional devotional book. There are nineteen fathers, grouped into those with common context, covering 163 individual devotionals (I imagine there are either 203 in the second volume, or a third volume is yet to come).

Each Father is introduced with a short biography and all of the devotionals with their writings come in order. There is a quote from the Father, an historic prayer of some kind, and then a series of scripture references "for reflection."

I appreciate the more historical and liturgical organization. Too often devotionals can devolve into personal self-affirming charades; The Book of Saints makes this less likely. On the other hand, it may seem very foreign to people less comfortable with open-ended spiritual inquiry.

Having used both of these books for a few weeks, I came to the realization that this kind of devotional just isn't something I connect with real well. I've found it difficult to get over the passive connection between the scripture and the writing in a traditional devotional like, Awakening Faith. In this case the Father is almost assuredly not referencing the scripture used and, as a pastor, I'm a little uncomfortable with that connection, even if it is not overt.

As for The Book of Saints, it allows the reader to connect (or not) certain passages to the chosen writing, which allows for more thought and discussion. In the end, both seem designed for a shorter period of focus. I imagine more people want something they can engage with deeply in fifteen minutes than those, like me, who desire something with more depth.

I'd say both books have real value, so long as you know what you're getting into. The Book of Saints seems more promising to me, mostly because of the novelty and depth, but Awakening Faith is certainly among the best of its genre. I am glad to have both in my collection and look forward to continuing to incorporate them into my meditation and devotion going forward.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® 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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