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hristianity has always been a bookish religion. Not only is a book—we might say the Book—at her liturgical and theological heart, but reading and writing are historically favored spiritual disciplines. In fact, to be a Christian, we could say, is to be a reader (or at least a hearer of readers). Even the ancient Desert Monks, in their pursuit of lives totally committed to prayer, made homes in the wilderness forsaking all but a few possessions. Mixed with a sleeping mat, a sheepskin for clothing, a lamp, and clay vessels for oil and water, inevitably a Psalter was included among the essentials. A Christian carries a book always. In fact, the ideal Christian is a book. Even if he was illiterate, the ideal for great teachers like Origen of Alexandria was ays he can becomif not in his hands then transcribed through memorization on the heart.
Naturally, these spiritual and liturgical practices centered on the “divine library”: that is, the books of the Bible. While Christian reading practices were hammered out on the anvil of Scripture, these practices quickly expanded to include secular works.
Books in the desert often came to be stored in churches near monasteries; undoubtedly most of these early books—and collections—were of holy Scripture or lectionaries designed for public or private reading. But they were later joined by collections of homilies, doctrinal statements such as encyclical letters from the archbishop of Alexandria or canons from the ecumenical councils, lives, and sayings of the saints. (Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and the Life of Onnophrius, translated by Tim Vivian (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993), 19)
The desert ascetics Macarius of Egpyt, Juliana, and Melania were known for their large and varied collections of books. For centuries, the publishing house was synonymous with the monastery. Scribal work, so tedious that antiquity considered it suitable only for slaves and women, for Christians became a spiritual discipline: an exercise to expand the heart’s capacity for God’s love. St. Benedict, following precedent, appointed specific hours each day for monks to read, usually from Scripture and writings of Church Fathers. During mealtimes, a monk read from the Gospels while the other monks ate. This was a life immersed in the word, written and read.
In American Evangelicalism, the individual’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ can be emphasized to the point that the communal character of faith is lost. In Evangelicalism, the individual stands naked and alone under God: he gives an account of his own deeds and misdeeds, and none other’s. This spirituality has been used in revivals to compel the individual to confront her condition and, hopefully, to provoke a moment of decision, yet it also isolates the soul. On Sunday, the Evangelical may experience a sense of community; but in the presence of God, the soul stands alone.
Whether the Whitefieldean “New Birth” or the contemporary and synonymous Wesleyan “spontaneous faith,” (see Wesley, Manuscript Journal, 1:125; June 26, 1738) witness of the Spirit and assurance of the Spirit are conflated, leading to a crisis of discernment. “Faith” was increasingly construed as a subjective experience; namely, the experience of having been accepted and pardoned by God through faith in Christ alone (i.e., our justification). Faith is thus highly individuated, and the “assembly of faith” assumes the character of a voluntary association like a club: communion is accidental, not essential, to proper faith. Many trace, as the Wesleys themselves did, this individuation of faith to the doctrine of sola fide as enshrined in the Anglican Articles and Homilies, and while it is obvious that the Revivalists, particularly the Wesleys, drew heavily on these sources, quoting from them at length, and saw their own revivalistic theology as secure in the stream of Anglicanism, these latter sources define “faith” in a different way that does not result in the same fragmentation. They emphasized a personal experience with God at the expense of the persona of faith, the Church.
It is love of God which saves. Not faith. This does not detract from the greatest tenant of evangelical spirituality: that Christianity must be rediscovered by every soul, whether that soul was a convert or one raised in the faith.
This does not impose limitations on the Spirit. That the Spirit chooses to be passed down from human hand to human hand is not to suggest a limitation on its power, but to convey what character that faith is intended to be. But even for the afflicted soul receiving a baptism by fire in the solitude of his bedroom did not receive nothing from another human being before entering there. Nobody encounters the Spirit without first encountering the Church, even if the Church is one person in whom the Spirit indwells. Everything we receive was first received by someone. We inherit nothing that was not passed through others first.
Human beings are a result not only of their genes but also of their histories. If they want to understand who they are, humans need not only to experiment with themselves but also to allow themselves to be told something. What is true anthropologically is true of Christianity. The Christian alive today is the result of a history.
American Evangelicalism inevitably endears itself to a spiritual relativism: relativism of the existential rather than cosmic variety. Relativism is the philosophy of isolation. Here, the soul is utterly alone in the cosmos; it cannot be heard nor speak to anybody but itself. I often suspect that relativism naturally occurs in America, due to the isolating tendencies of its culture and economy. The opposite of relativism is not objectivism or idealism, but community. One finds it is impossible to maintain the principles of relativism while participating in profound communion with other human beings, just as it is difficult to avoid relativism as we become more isolated and indifferent to others. Relativism is not so much an intellectual school as a description of an anthropological condition’s affect on the mind; namely, the condition of utter isolation. This relativism isolates the mind, places the human voice on an island where my scream as much as it pleases, but will neither be heard nor can it hear other voices. They cannot bridge the existential chasm between floating islands. No one really hears another; no one really speaks to anyone except himself. This is the world of relativism.
Under the title of postmodernity are we not slipping increasingly into a world that cultivates forgetting? Human beings are less and less their own memories, ever more only their own unlimited experiments. Friedrich Nietzsche, who as the presence behind the spirit of our times has long supplanted Hegel and Marx, connected his “new way to live,” with which he tried to do away with Christianity and all monotheistic religion, with the triumph of cultural amnesia.
In the smallest and greatest happiness there is always one thing that makes it happiness: the power of forgetting . . . One who cannot leave himself behind on the threshold of the moment and forget the past, who cannot stand on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without fear or giddiness, will never know what happiness is. (Nietzsche, The Use and Abuse of History, 6)
The vision of human happiness is grounded now very simply in the capacity to forget, in the amnesia of the victor or at least the one who has made it through. “Blessed are the forgetful,” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 217) declares Nietzsche, and juxtaposes his “beatitude” with that of Jesus of Nazareth: “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matt. 5:4), those who cannot overcome the pain of remembrance.
Nietsche says, “If something is to stay in the memory, it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in memory” (On the Genealogy of Morals, II.3). Postmodernity has totally absorbed this, and in an attempt at self-induced therapy, has vouched either to forget or merely to file the contents of the past, like a mass for storage, at a remote, impersonal distance, where it remains on hand but can’t hurt us anymore. But this is the same as to forget. We remember as a computer remembers, but a computer remembers nothing precisely because it cannot forget anything. As Johann Baptist Metz put it, “Cultural amnesia means shutting down the pain of remembrance in the cultural memory of human beings.”
Remembrance is a disruption. It dislodges in time, makes a map out of the invisible process we call time and indicates where in it you are currently. Remembrance pulls one out of where one is and to another point in time, one perhaps predating his birth.
For the Christian, memories are more foundational than ideas. We begin not with abstractions of the Unmoved Mover, of whom only negative statements can be said, but with the historical work and person of the Crucified One. The Eucharistic rite is not a conclusion at the end of a theological process, but its starting point. The Gospels were not read as theological treatises by the early Church Fathers, but Justin Martyr calls them “memoirs of the apostles.”
This is an inaccurate portrait of faith. Faith has a communal character. It does not appear in the soul ex nihilo. If Abraham does not sacrifice Isaac, I am lost. Abraham’s faith is a part of my faith. It is because he perseveres that the integrity of the faith is preserved long enough to be passed down to me. There is a genetic link between all Christians across time. What was in Abraham and Moses and Peter and Paul is in me. It is the same thing, passed down. Retrieving obscure Christian classics can open the vistas of your faith onto its historical horizons. To read is to hold the faith in a grand company extending to the ancient past, to understand it is not your faith only, your sole possession, either to do with as you wish or to possess pristinely, untouched by other human hands. It is not your faith; it is the faith momentarily in your care. While its source is ultimately divine, it did not arrive to you without human mediation. The faith does not grow vertically, with God depositing it anew in each soul; it grows horizontally, from person to person, both across geographical space and chronological time. The faith increases not from God to person, nor text to person, but person to person.
Once the isolating venture of evangelicalism ends, and the soul is permitted to look upon its historical legacy, it reads these classics not merely as interesting historical artifacts from a bygone era and culture. She will experience a sense of ownership: this legacy and its books belong to her. They are her own faith expressed in an earlier iteration predating her birth.
Few Christians today are raised with a connection to Christians past outside those in their own families. Few give ear to the voices of the dead, to whom they owe their faith. This is not about becoming conversant in a body of theological literature; it is about engaging a conversation with the dead.
The soul of a classic is the sense of indebtedness it creates.
These disciples are all ahead of us. They are only dead to us: they are not dead to God. They set out before us, and they have travelled further and waited longer than us. We can say, as our baptism service does, they fought ‘valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil’, and they remained faithful to Christ to the end of their lives. The more experienced Christians ahead of us in this procession are here to serve us. They are the only the best-known members of the communion of the Holy Spirit along which good things come to us through those who are ahead of us. What they receive, they pass on to us. They are waiting for us and will not finish without us (Hebrews 11.39-40).
a reader. Origen of Alexandria describes the sanctified soul as an ark containing a grand and varied library. : , as well as forms of ministry, discipleship, and learning. . the Church were a publishing house, , holds a trove of writings. Read Religiously promotes and thoughtfully engages obscure Christian classics. Fifteenth-century Humanists first coined the term “Christian classics” to describe those books that are for the Christian tradition what the likes of Homer and Plato were for Classical Greek culture. So defined, Christian classics are books by Christians, for Christians, that edified the Church in a formative way. This literary legacy is rich and varied.
The Christian classics treated on this site are not obscure in the sense of difficult, necessarily, but in the sense that the average reader isn’t likely to engage them—or even hear of them—outside of seminary or graduate school. Read Religiously hopes to correct this travesty, so that the formative works of Christianity might delight and edify a new readership.
A Diabolical Correspondence
Grubgall, I recognize this is your first assignment, so I will try to be gentle. According to your file, your man is young, carnal, baptized, but with a Christian religiosity that is no more developed now than it was a decade ago. You complain that the shame he feels over recurring sins is as stale a pleasure for you as…READ ON
The logo of Read Religiously symbolizes the religious heritage which the Church passes down through her books. A white hand extends from above in an open gesture of tradens, “passing down”: the Latin word from which we derive “tradition.” The fingers are subtly arranged in the so-called “El Greco gesture,” a stylistic hand-sign popular in Renaissance art that might have roots in Ignatian spirituality, but which here forms a “w” representing the written word. The hand crosses a field of Tyrian purple, a color associated in the ancient world with royalty and the higher powers of the human being; namely, the mind. The shape of the field, though reminiscing a coat of arms, is that of an open book. The hand seems to pour in from the whiteness beyond the field. Though electing the confines of the word, it exists ontologically beyond and epistemically through the word, and so is not itself thoroughly “word.”
Read Religiously promotes a practice of reading that centers on the Christian classics. The vlog is an unlimited series that puts this practice on display. Using poor production values and (clearly) amateur-level videography, the vlog focuses on cultivating a habit of reading. Each episode ends with a reading from the Christian tradition.
Your guide through these obscurities, Blake Adams (B.A., 2014, Patrick Henry College; M.A., 2020, Wheaton College Graduate School), is an independent scholar, essayist, and editor who specializes in patristic theology and early Christian history. His primary interests lie in early Christian literature and exegesis, especially as represented in the writings of Origen of Alexandria. Other interests include the history of the English Reformation, the history of the Bible, and the history of Christian art. To finance his writing and reading habits, Blake tutors Latin privately and copyedits manuscripts for Wipf & Stock Publishers. For a portfolio, see the Publications page.