Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Commentary: Beloved Dust by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel (2014)

A friend of mine, a lifelong Episcopalian, told me the other day that he’s never really understood what evangelicals are going on about when they talk about having a personal relationship with Jesus.  I muttered something to him about emotional and intellectual approaches to faith, but we both knew that was skirting the issue.  Having finished Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel’s Beloved Dust this week, I think I’ll just send him a copy and let the evangelicals explain it all in their own words—beautifully, simply and compellingly.

Goggin and Strobel are certainly from the evangelical mainstream.  Goggin is a pastor at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, probably America’s healthiest and influential megachurch, and Warren himself writes a ringing endorsement of a foreword.  Strobel teaches spiritual theology at Biola College in Los Angeles, one of evangelicalism’s strongest colleges.  They speak openly about the spiritual challenges they have experienced within the evangelical mainstream: duty-focused legalism, secret hypocrisy and shallow and trite devotionalism (not that evangelicals have any monopoly on these things).

They invite their readers into a richer life with God, based on God’s gift of love and a recognition of our own sinfulness and mortality.  We are dust, and yet God has claimed us as His beloved through His Son, Jesus Christ.  They critique forms of spirituality that subtly rely on our own effort and try to earn or demand God’s love.  In place of long intercession lists, they advocate regular use of the Psalter, which expresses our dry spells and anxieties honestly, as well as regular recollection of God’s presence and love and simple forms of contemplation.  The authors repeatedly return to the creation story, making good use of recent work in Biblical theology relating the Garden to the temple and the incarnate Christ.  There is also a strong treatment of Christ’s ascension and continual intercession for us before the Father.

This deeply evangelical spirituality has solid Catholic bones, and there are plenty of Augustinian, Benedictine and Cistercian precedents for all the “new discoveries” presented here.  The authors surely know as much, but their reticence about it may be important in relating to their primary audience.  What the work misses, of course, is the firm support of the Daily Office, Baptism’s assurance that we are “marked as Christ’s own forever,” the catechetical discipline of the Christian year, and above all, a promise that Christ feeds His beloved with His own life in the Blessed Sacrament. 

The book was a gift for me from snow bird parishioners, who spend half the year here in Cooperstown and half the year in Southern California.  Here, they are fairly high-church Episcopalians.  There, they worship at Saddleback.  The idea of me moonlighting for Rick Warren must strike anyone who knows me well as comical indeed.  The book has moved them deeply, and they want to lead a small group here in the summer to study it together with some fellow parishioners.  I can understand why, because I think it expresses a spiritual vision we hold in common, the best sort of ecumenism that flows directly from the life and words of Christ.  

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