Christian Spiritual Classics

I’ve been co-editing a book for the past year or so that is a guide for an evangelical reading of Christian Spiritual Classics. As a part of our research for this volume, I came across a new book edited by Arthur Holder called Christian Spirituality: The Classics. At first, if I’m honest, I was a bit worried when I saw the title! It was a little too close to our volume for comfort, but when I received the book I realized it was doing the exact opposite of what we are. Holder’s overall goal is to take the ever-growing interest in spiritual classics and provide a reader that covers the great bulk of them. Each chapter is written by a different scholar who follows an outline template, offering helpful continuity throughout the volume. The authors cover thirty texts, starting with Origen and ending with Merton. Each chapter gives a broad look at the author and context, provides an overview of the content, addresses the reception of the text throughout history, and then explores various ways these texts can be meaningful for today.

In an attempt to be broad, I fear that Holder missed some opportunities along the way. One must wonder how Cassian’s Conferences or Institutes fail to make it into a volume like this. All in all though, when having to make editorial decisions (which I certainly understand!), he addressed the breadth of the tradition well. Oddly, as I read the volume I was struck by how few of the authors gave dates for the works they are addressing. With a whole chapter about one work, one might assume it would be important to get around to talking about when it was written! I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I wasn’t working on a volume in the same area, but I found it odd that someone would fail to mention the date (or the debates about the dates) of the work. That seems like an important detail in talking about the overall context in which a work was written.

That said, the volume sets out to provide terse overviews of these works, and it does an excellent job of it. It is certainly valuable to have a quick chapter to read before you dive into a work which is probably pretty foreign (I am especially thinking of students coming to these works for the first time). It would be a great volume for a class that covers Christian spirituality, as long as the actual texts are read. Holder follows the line that most books of this kind do, that the best way to introduce classics is to provide information about specific classics (including overview of context, synopsis, etc.). My worry is that students will often take the overview and figure that is enough. In short, my worry is that this becomes “Cliff’s Notes” for classics!

Also, and this is again based on my own interests, I would have liked to see less historical analysis and more theological analysis (or, the same about of historical analysis with some theological analysis thrown in). Highlighting key doctrinal decisions these thinkers made which precede their “classic” work would be more illuminating for the reading of the texts than talking about the broad historical situation (which certainly can be illuminating but not nearly as much as the actual ideas which guide the thinker’s theology). With those asides in place, I do think this would make a great textbook for a class on Christian spirituality for students new to this material (alongside the volume I am co-editing of course! When it comes out that is.).

All that said, it might be interesting to have some comments about spiritual classics. Does anyone use a book that is generally considered to be a “spiritual classic” for a class they teach? Why, or, maybe more interesting, why not?

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