Hollow Faith by Stephen Ingram

There are a plethora of books in this world. The problem, as one of my college professors used to say, is that you have to read all of them. I’m attempting to make a dent in my enormous reading list, and I completed Hollow Faith by Stephen Ingram the other day.

Hollow Faith will be familiar territory for many. Stephen is working with the same data (the Nation Study of Youth and Religion) that Kenda Creasy Dean worked with in Almost Christian. Stephen’s book, however, focuses more narrowly than does Kenda’s. Almost Christian really looks at the big picture, how parents and the church are modelling a faith that is almost Christian to the students in our youth ministries. Hollow Faith, while acknowledging the truth of this, focuses on six related areas in the lives and faith of students. It’s not a long read, and in my opinion is well worth it.

The Good
Each of the first six chapters are written with youth workers in mind. After laying out the argument of each, and presenting the evidence, Stephen moves on to offering practical advice on how we might combat these negatives in our lives and ministries. The entire thing is quite helpful.

I also found Hollow Faith to constantly push the boundaries of conventional thinking in terms of theology and praxis. In one section, tucked away in a chapter on meism, Stephen says:

We have to stop being “pastoral” in these situations [one’s in which students focus on what they get out of a mission trip, e.g., wanting to feel satisfied, or have a meaningful experience] and in goo and loving ways help our people and youth understand that disaster relief is not about how they feel or what they get out of the work. Unfortunately in the modern church this attitude switch rarely happens. We have to begin to construct theologies with our youth that regularly put them into unsatisfying situations, give them work that does not give them a “mission high” and all along the way help them understand that the work of God is referred to by Jesus as a cross we are to bear. The last time I checked, carrying a cross was not very fulfilling, satisfying or a good experience. It is important to reframe our work and mission as something that is much bigger than ourselves, our desires and our plans. We need to help our students see that God was at work in the situation before we got there and will continue to be at work long after we leave.

That is just one example of the helpful, against the grain thinking that Hollow Faith is filled with.

After the first six chapters, however, Hollow Faith also includes lesson plans for each of the six areas on which it focuses. I found the lesson plans to be understandable, easy to follow, and I imagine I’ll use them in the future with minor modifications–which is saying something. I hate using other people’s lesson plans. Each of these lessons are challenging without being preachy. They push students to think more deeply about their faith and the presuppositions they have, without coming off as being holier-than-thou. It is a difficult balance to strike, and I’m rather impresses that Stephen was able to walk that tight-rope with such aplomb.

The final chapter is written for parents. I found it, once again, helpful.

The Bad
There isn’t a great deal to list that is bad. Most of these things are simply nit-picky. I would have preferred the parent section to be longer and more robust. A chapter on how to navigate through the difficulties of students who want to focus on themselves, and essentially be moralistic therapeutic diests also would have been helpful. But these things are omissions, not things that negatively impact the book that is there.

The Ugly
Throughout the book there are a number of typos and editing errors. It seems to me that another copy edit wouldn’t have hurt the book before publication. But this is really, honestly something most people won’t notice. I simply have my attention attuned to such things because of my own writing.

All in all, I can heartily recommend Hollow Faith. It may not be as groundbreaking as Almost Christian or Christian Smith’s original study, but it covers some ground that neither of those books cover. For those involved in youth ministry, it is well worth the read. I’ve already begun using some of the ideas in Hollow Faith to help prepare our team of students who will be travelling to Guatemala next summer. That may be the highest praise I can offer a book on ministry.

Downtime by Mark Yaconelli

Mark Yaconelli constantly challenges me with his writing. I’m not, generally speaking, a contemplative person. That isn’t to say that I don’t think deeply about things. I very much enjoy thinking, but just being? That’s another thing altogether. Mark’s constantly call to a spirituality that is deep and ever-deepening is much needed in youth ministry and, if I’m honest, in my own life.

After a very busy summer in which I realized that I, my leaders and our students needed time with God, not more stuff to do, I picked up Downtime: Helping Teenagers Pray. I’m fairly familiar with Yaconelli’s other two books Contemplative Youth Ministry and Growing Souls, and I hope to read Wonder, Fear and Longing soon. What struck me most about Downtime is the extent to which it really is a how-to kind of book.

That isn’t to say that Mark’s other books are all theory, far from it. But Downtime has a decidedly “this is something to might try,” vibe to it. This really makes it a great resources to have on your shelf. The first three chapters serve as a kind of introduction concerned with helping us prepare to encounter God. The overall title of this section is “Slowing to the Speed of God,” and I can’t think of a better metaphor for what Mark is trying to explain. It really is about slowing down and walking beside God.

The remainder of the book consists of chapters which outline various prayer exercises surrounding a particular theme. So, for instance, chapter ten talks about rest. Mark starts the chapter out with a story and a question: What if I designed retreats and exercises in which young people were encouraged to pray be sleeping? He then goes on to discuss our tendency to over-schedule retreats. He shares a story about a time when he led a workshop and asked attendees to take a 30 minute nap.

In chapter twelve, Mark talks about what it might look like if we were to view eating as a form of prayer. Once again, this is accompanied by various stories and examples of what this might look like, as well as an excellent discussion regarding fasting and students. This format is repeated for ever chapter in the book and is the primary reason why the book is so helpful.

Although this isn’t a book that I think makes a great introduction to Mark’s ideas (for that, check out Contemplative Youth Ministry) it is certainly a book worth having on your shelf and worth looking at often.

P. Kyle McCarter’s Textual Criticism: Recovering the Text of the Hebrew Bible

I fully realize that this book is from 1986, so it may seem a bit late to be writing a review. However, you’ll have to forgive me since I was only 2 when the book originally appeared. This is one of the required texts for my Textual Criticism seminar at Harvard this semester. I’m looking forward to the seminar, and this book was short so I decided to go ahead and review it before the semester gets underway. I should also point out the fact that I am hardly an expert when it comes to textual criticism. Keep in mind that this review is very much from a student’s perspective.

The first thing that deserves comment is the size of the book; less than 100 pages, including appendices. As a student I’m extremely thankful. The book is good, it says what needs to be said and then moves on. McCarter excels at being concise in his statements. These are all things that hit the mark, as far as a student is concerned. At the same time, it means that McCarter’s book will never be the only text in a graduate seminar on textual criticism. This is fine though, since it serves well as an introduction (which is really all its supposed to do).

Something else that jumped out at me in the book is that McCarter is quite witty. Having an author who is easily able to inject wit into a textbook always makes for a more enjoyable read. In Textual Criticism this is done with style. I lost track of the number of places I chuckled as I read through the book. A question for any of you Johns Hopkins students, is McCarter this witty in class?

I should also mention the appendices. These short addendums are quite helpful. A glossary is the first to appear, and defines some of the basic vocabulary of text criticism (witness, codex, haplography, homoioarkton, etc). The second appendix is a bibliography of primary sources. For someone who has not done much in depth work with textual criticism, this is a gold mine of information. If this information wasn’t already available on the Internet, its inclusion alone would justify the purchase. Even so, it is still convenient to have the information in one easily accessible place. The final appendix deals with the textual characteristics of each book, or section of books, in the Hebrew Bible. This is another extremely helpful resource for beginning students, and one I’m sure I’ll consult often this semester.

In my opinion, the negatives of Textual Criticism are few. Obviously, because of its brevity, it doesn’t touch on every issue imaginable in textual criticism. It is, after all, more of an introduction than a monograph. You’ll have to move on to Emanuel Tov’s Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible for a more thorough treatment of the various issues. The only other negative is one that I’m not entirely sure I’m educated enough to give at present. However, with that disclaimer, I’ll go ahead; McCarter appears to be quite in love with LXX, and often makes very little mention of the DSS. Conversely, Tov mentions the Qumran materials often and even accuses McCarter’s Textual Criticism of adopting “the approach of the period before the discovery of the new data [ie, the DSS]” (Tov, Textual Criticism, 14).

Those caveats aside, I think McCarter’s Textual Criticism is a helpful introductory textbook. It certainly doesn’t offer the depth of Tov, but it provides a way to quickly get oneself up to speed on the necessary material. It’s worth reading, especially for those who only desire an introduction.

Ooze Book Reviews: A Short and Easy Method of Prayer

I had the opportunity last month to become a member of the Ooze Select Blogger network. If you aren’t familiar with The Ooze, just click here. I enjoy many of the articles and discussions that take place over there. I’ll admit I’ve had less time than I’d like during the semester to keep up to date, but I digress. As part of this network, I receive books to review, which is an absolutely incredible thing. The first book review that I’m doing as part of this blogger network is A Short and Easy Method of Prayer by Madame Jeanne Marie Bouvier de La Motte Guyon. Now, the question is: does this book have anything going for it beyond the incredibly cool name of the author?

The answer is: sorta. First, any reader needs to keep in mind that this is a translation of the original French. Beyond that the original book was written in the 17th century, so to say that it is legacy would perhaps be an understatement. I’ve developed an interest in reflective practices over the past several years. In that regard, Madame Guyon’s book serves as a decent introduction to contemplative prayer. She has several absolutely pithy statements throughout the book. One of these is plastered on the back cover: “Prayer is the application of the heart to God, and the internal exercise of love.”

I found myself vacillating as I read the book as to whether or not it was worth reading. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that it is worth reading as an introduction to contemplative prayer, though perhaps that really isn’t the correct designation as she advocates a complete ceasing, and normally contemplative prayer, although advocating ceasing, at least begins with some type of contemplation of, er, something. There are a few things I do disagree with strongly:

1. She likes the internal a bit more than I do. That is to say, I think reason and contemplation work together, hand in hand, each informing the other. Madame Guyon would like us very much to throw reason out the window, or so it would seem. Take for instance, this comment, “Compose catechisms particularly to teach prayer, not by reasoning nor by method, for the simple are incapable thereof; but to teach the prayer of the heart, not of the understanding; the prayer of God’s Spirit, not of man’s invention.” Strong words indeed! Words that I fundamentally disagree with. I think the heart and understanding, reason and contemplation, can — indeed must! — work hand in hand as we live our lives. I think it is simply wrong to draw such a strong dichotomy between the head and the heart.
2. She was thrown into prison shortly after this work was originally completed. Normally that would be an almost immediate “buy it yesterday” in my book. However, my guess is that she was thrown into prison for her views on union with God. Those views are, shall we say…interesting. To be concise, Madame Guyon basically says we need to get rid of our own soul and be filled with God’s. To some extent I agree. We do need to give up ourselves, and in so doing allow the Holy Spirit to mold and shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. However, I got the feeling that Guyon didn’t mean what I want her to mean — though I could be wrong.

I need to mention some of the positives of the book though. Not because I’m required to, but because I think that some really do exist. For starters, the manuscript really encourages the reader to rest. To just stop being, stop doing, and rest in God. I think there are few things that the American church needs more than learning to stop and rest in God (I suppose one of those things would be getting a bit of that “reason” and “understanding” that Madame Guyon dislikes). For that bit alone the book is worth about half the Amazon price. She also has a section that is insightful in regards to confession. It’s almost, though not quite, insightful enough to make up the rest of the Amazon price.

Ultimately, should you buy this book? Eh. That depends entirely on what you’d like to read. If you’ve an interest in contemplative prayer or 17th Century French mystics, than sure. But if you already have a basic idea of what contemplative prayer entails, there are probably better books out there to purchase.