Some time ago I confessed to a group of fellow-ministers that I did not believe in the actual existence of the devil. Some of my doubts had to do with life experience—I had never encountered anything “demonic” that didn’t have at least five more compelling explanations. But mostly my doubt was instigated by the empty, superstitious, and often destructive theology in which angels and demons and “The Devil” take center stage.
I’ve grown to appreciate the value of pouring one’s heart out to God, but to also think of prayer beyond the one-sided reverent conversation I send out from my head and ‘heart’ into oblivion. Michael Plekon’s book Uncommon Prayer seeks to make sense of prayer beyond the explicit traditional forms we are accustomed to in private or done in public worship.
“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of a mind,” Noll writes in his opening sentence. That is a controversial umbrella statement, of course, but the evidence is there. Written in 1994, Noll provides ample evidence at the outset of his book that the “life of the mind” is not a prized virtue among modern North American evangelicals (broadly defined). Those of us who have spent time with this particularly broad group of Christians probably already know this. Noll’s book asks why this is the state of things.
Christians in my world are not known for their poverty. Which is strange because Jesus said crazy things like “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:58), and a host of other things about renouncing possessions, giving to the poor, etc. and his life was consistent with these teachings. But we live in a different day and age, myself and most everyone I know were born into relative affluence. What do we do about this? Do we find ourselves in the position of the rich young ruler who is told by Jesus to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor?” Perhaps.
Yet why should the Church not be the best and most ideal environment for good theology? Yes, ministry is a busy life. Between pastoral visits, emergencies, funerals, weddings, prep for sermons and classes, handling some administrative duties, and the inevitable arrival of unexpected visitors it seems like one has little time left to sit down at the desk and read, study, research, and write. And yet all of these tasks are the fertile grounds on which good theology is done. They are the lifeblood of the Church in which the Spirit moves invisibly and sometimes visibly. The question is not whether good theology can come from the Church. It is why hasn’t more come out of the church!
Later in life Merton would repent from this [sectarian] attitude and embrace a radically ecumenical perspective. It is for this reason that he would later disassociate himself from his early autobiography, describing it as “the work of a man I have never even heard of.” There are lots of reasons and developments in Merton and in Catholicism for this change of heart. Other people could do a better job at tracing all that out. Merton’s own struggle with the ecumenical question—from skepticism to embrace—makes me want to engage with my own. And so here goes.
The more I pray the more difficult I find it to pray. I was taught to pray spontaneously, as if this were the only kind of prayer that was authentic. Written and rote prayers were almost automatically condemned as mere ritual without heartfelt meaning. I admire the concern for authenticity, but I must admit that I lack the imagination, the vocabulary, often the enthusiasm and desire to conjure up new words for God every time I want to pray or am called to pray.
It is against this unrealistic elitist conception of sanctity that Plekon tries to construct a better understanding of what it means to be a saint, a holy person (hagios). The brilliance of this book is that it is not an academic diatribe, neither is it a sustained theological treatise (though it is both academically sensitive and theologically deep). The method that Plekon chooses to think through sainthood is by thinking about actual saints as he sees them. Thus the book takes us through a host of biographies from persons across the theological and ecclesial spectrum—some living, some having entered their rest.
As I’ve suggested in some earlier book sketches, I think Protestants like myself have a lot to gain by learning from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One of the ways I’ve grown the most by listening to the Orthodox voice is the way I think about salvation. The way I typically heard the story growing up made salvation a matter of alignment, like applying for membership in the right club, and then a lifetime’s work trying not to get kicked out. And salvation was taught this way because of our underlying theological assumptions. Now, I’m not saying this is completely wrong, but I do think there’s some serious gaps and even errors in that way of thinking.