Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Review)

My roots are very conservative Southern Baptist and evangelical. It would be a serious understatement to say that all things having to do with ‘spirituality’ were frowned upon – or at least ignored and pushed to the margins – in the churches I grew up in. I remember coming back home from college (where I was a Bible major) one weekend and a deacon asked me what I was studying in my Bible classes. I naively told him that last week we had been discussing the ‘in Christ’ spirituality of the Apostle Paul. This deacon’s reaction was less than positive. Spirituality it has been thought in many conservative evangelical circles is associated with all things ‘weird’. And to bring up mysticism was to stop a conversation altogether, in fact, many I grew up around were sure there could be no such thing as ‘Christian’ mysticism.

Some may find it strange then that Eugene Peterson is one of my most favorite authors and one of my main teachers concerning spiritual theology. Through Peterson and others I have found that spirituality is not all manner of weirdness and that while they had their flaws like everyone else in the world, we evangelicals can learn a thing or two from the Christian mystics. The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality is a great resource in pursuit of this aim. Glen Scorgie underscores one of Peterson’s basic ideas about spirituality when he says, “Christian spirituality is the domain of lived Christian experience. Its about living all of life – not just some esoteric portion of it – before God, through God, in the transforming and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit.” (27) There it is, spirituality is not about the strange or esoteric. Indeed, ones spirituality is where does life ‘in Christ’ and through the Spirit (to pull themes from the Apostle Paul) in the everyday, ordinary, and mundane stuff of life. Scorgie also give us a valuable matrix of Christian spirituality to keep in mind. He discusses the relational, transformation, and vocational dynamics of Christian spirituality in which there is one key to being spiritually deep. These three dynamics exist in an interdependent matrix in which Christ is with us, Christ is in us, and Christ works through us through the Spirit. (29-30)

With the emergence of authors of such as Richard Foster and Eugene Peterson, evangelical attitudes toward spirituality and Christian mysticism have greatly improved. The publication of Dictionary of Christian Spirituality is a testimony to this reality. But this is not JUST a dictionary. Before one gets to the approximately 600 pages of alphabetized dictionary entries there are 34 chapters comprising 240 pages of ‘integrative essays’ that are well worth the price of the book as a whole. Covered are such topics as Old and New Testament foundations for Christian Spirituality, Human Personhood, Eschatology and Hope, Spirituality in Community, Liturgical Spirituality, Prayer, Mysticism, Spirituality in Relation to Psychology and Therapy, and Mission and Ministry, and four chapters devoted to the history of Christian Spirituality (just to name a few). The dictionary entries contain smaller article as covering a wide swath of subjects ranging from Baptist Spirituality to Methodist Spirituality to Anabaptist spirituality as well as people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Karl Barth to an article each on the Cappadocian Fathers.

I am well pleased with the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. From what I have seen thus far it represents well the diversity of Christianity and covers not only Protestant and evangelical spirituality but also Catholic and Eastern Orthodox spirituality. I was especially pleased with the wide inclusion of Eastern Orthodox material (and discussions of theosis/deification even) not only because of the influence of Eastern Orthodox on me personally but because Protestants in general and evangelicals specifically (western as they are) have been guilty of ignoring or forgetting about our Eastern Orthodox brethren. As one who desires to learn from and incorporate a wide variety of Christian sources in my spiritual practice I appreciate the Dictionary of Christian Spirituality. This book is a great starting point and at the end of each chapter and article there are resources for further reading.  With this book we have the opportunity to learn deepen our spirituality from the witness and testimony of the whole church (I just wish that it had an index).

Just to be official, everyone should know (in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”) that I received this book free from Zondervan as part of a give away to read and talk about on my blog. I was not required to write a positive review, a bad review, or an in between review. I hereby swear that the opinions I have expressed are my own and that I am solely responsible for any typos that appear. I also apologize for such a late review. My copy arrived rather late, I just started a new job, and there have been a number of family concerns.