Category Archives: Book Reviews

Searching for Sunday on the Wilderness Road

I have been a fan of Rachel Held Evans since I read her first book Evolving in Monkey Town (2010). Soon I was following her blog and when the opportunity arose this winter, I was able to get an advance copy of her newest book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church.

Even though I don’t have experience in the Evangelical tradition, Evans has the ability to relate her experiences to others from many traditions – even someone raised Catholic like me. Searching for Sunday is a memoir but not a chronological diary. Reflective of her search for rooted authenticity, she organized this book into sections on the seven sacraments.

Each section begins with a sumptuous, earthy meditation on each sacrament that  recalls their physicality. Sacraments are done not just assented to.  She next shares something of her own experience of the sacrament and stories she has gathered around the country in  a way that makes it relatable to many others. This book is for all of Christendom, or at least American Christianity, rather than one fraction or denomination. In each section we are reminded how many traditions mark these sacraments in different ways, whether they care to recognize it in each other’s traditions or not.

anointingHealing may be  implicitly named in only one of the sacraments but there is healing found in every one of them and in every section of this book.  In this sense each of these sacraments fulfills a vital need for a full Christian life by providing acceptance (baptism), forgiveness (confession), sustenance (communion), validation (confirmation), purpose (holy orders), healing (anointing of the sick), and companionship (marriage) all held together with grace and love.

Receiving the sacrament for the first time is only the beginning. They are meant to be re-experienced for a lifetime. When the church withholds anyone of them them by no longer accepting or sustaining, denying the need for healing, purpose, or companionship, the pain can be intense, leaving scars that last a lifetime. If the church is a peek into the kingdom of heaven on earth, then rejection by the church is a glimpse at hell. What is hell if not the absence of God? We are Christ’s body, if we turn our back on each other is it not inflicting a glimpse at hell on the isolated? Jesus does not abandon or exclude, especially when his church does. How great his disappointment must be.  While the LGBT community has been the most visibly discriminated group, many women still struggle to be heard as well as seen in churches that wield the bible like a weapon to enforce their laundry list for conditional acceptance. Searching for Sunday is a balm to sooth the pain, to let you know that you are not alone, validate your pain and begin the healing process.

When we have been hurt, our instinct is to avoid the pain at all costs. Christianity can not be done alone. Even the most holy anchorite who spent their time solely devoted to 11083615_10206463705340882_7433903619505391052_nprayer, needed the church, depending on their brothers and sisters for spiritual support, physical and sacramental sustenance, a slender line to life. We are no different. Going it alone is just not an option. But, this doesn’t mean that we have to stay where we are rejected, whether that is a parish, denomination or tradition. Perhaps one of the most important messages of this book is that the death of a church (or your relationship to it) is not the end; Jesus is in the business of resurrection. New life in Christ will come, perhaps in unexpected places. The journey will not be easy but Jesus never promised an easy road.

Do you think it was a coincidence that I was offered to read this book early, over a Lent that I had chosen to step away from my parish over? I don’t. Its now the Easter season and I am glad to be back at my parish, but if I ever do need to step away for longer it won’t be the end of the world either.


Aquinas for Armchair Theologians

Timothy M Renick, Aquinas: For Armchair Theologians Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Renick has written a delightful book. Itelligent and witty, the reader gains a good understanding of Aquinas’ theology with real world, modern applications and a sense of fun. Renick skillfully shows how Thomas’ theology underpins modern thought in some of the most unlikely places and also shows us where Thomas is in conflict with modern thought and theology.

The chapter titles give you a good idea about the tone and topic of this book.

  • Beginings: Thomas Acquinas Life and Times
  • Human, Angels, and God
  • Why Is There Evil? Do Humans Have Free Will? (and Other Questions Your Better Off Not Asking)
  • Metaphysics 101 (or Why We Are What We Are)
  • Law and Morality
  • The Ins and Outs of Sex
  • “Just War” and Double Effect
  • Abortion, the Role of Women, and Other Noncontroversial Issues
  • Politics
  • Reading Aquinas

Thomas’ theology has a real ‘double effect’ for us today; that is, an action with both positive and negative effects. Yet, Thomas might point out that it need not be so. Thomas pins his theology on his concept of natural law. The problem for us today is that people apply Thomas’ beliefs (based on medieval concepts of nature/science) to modern problems. If we used modern concepts of science/nature with Thomas’ method most of the conflicts over sex,  gender, and other issues  would disappear.

I never fail to be surprised how some medieval notions of science/nature prevail in otherwise modern people today. This is due in part to their incorporation of Thomas’ views on subjects like gender and sexuality, even if they have never heard of Thomas. It calls to mind a discussion I had with a friend from church over homosexuality. His arguement boiled down to his belief that it is ‘unnatural’. As a biologist I had to disagree with his use of the term unnatural because if you look around the animal kingdom you can find plenty of homosexual behavior, especially in birds;  there are plenty of examples in nature, enough to say that this is simply a variant in behavior. (To a scientist, variant has no positive or negative conotation. Its like saying a flower has two variations in color, red and blue.) Since we don’t normally credit these animals with the intellect to decipher moral vs immoral behavior, you really can’t say they are being immoral or unnatural. He wound up telling me that since I’m in the sciences I obviously didn’t know the common use meaning of ‘natural’, or something along those lines. Ironic, huh?

If you would like to learn more about Thomas and his theology, this is an ideal place to start. Thomas’ principles really do touch many aspects of our lives, theological and secular. This book would also be ideal for a small group study.

O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology

[cross posted from Heavenfield]

Thomas O’Loughlin’s Celtic Theology: Humanity, World, and God in Early Irish Writings, Continuum, 2000.

Going through my backlog of drafts and I just realized that I never came back and finished this book review. Better late than never!

This really is quite a valuable book that dispels some common myths and gives you a real sense for what we know of the Irish church. I know my book will be used until it is dog-eared. This book should be a must read for anyone interested in early medieval theology.

This book covers such a wide range of topics that the only way I can think to review is fully is chapter by chapter.


  1. Celtic Theology?: Discusses the concept of Celtic theology and more importantly what it is not. O’Loughlin’s attitude is that Celtic theology is a type of local theology.

  2. Patrick the Missionary: Analyzes Patrick’s work through the two documents that are genuinely accepted as being written by Patrick, notably his Confessio and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. His discussion of Patrick’s world view and personal theology is very interesting. Patrick’s theology of his fulfilling the commandment to preach at the ‘ends of the Earth’ is especially telling.

  3. The Penitentials: The Human Dilemma: He discusses the development and rationale behind the penitentials, and pays special attention to the Penitential of Finnian (Uinniau) and the penitential of Cummean,

  4. Adomnan: A Theologian at Work: O’Loughlin is best known for his work on Adomnan and this chapter does not disappoint. Adomnan was very much on par with Bede as an influential churchman and this chapter highlights all of Adomnan’s other accomplishments other than writing the Life of Columba. I think you would be hard pressed to find a more influential churchman anywhere in the British Isles in the 7-8th century than Adomnan, Abbot of Iona. His three main works, the Cain Adomnan / Law of the Innocents, On the Holy Places, and the Life of Columba are just now really becoming appreciated for the theology, skill and depth of knowledge they reflect.

  5. Muirchu: Dramatist or Theologian? Muirchu is the author of the First Life of Patrick. He notes that Muirchu was skilled at narrative theology, and this is what the Life of Patrick really is. Narrative theology, teaching theology through a story, is fairly rare today but this is the form taken by Scripture itself. The different narrative theologies of the four evangelists accounts for much of the differences between the four gospels. O’Loughlin also discusses Muirchu’s biblical models for Patrick, such as Daniel.

  6. The Collectio canonum hibernensis: Marriage and Sexuality Ireland had a well developed legal system that was independent of Roman law and this legal system influenced the Irish canons. He shows that contrary to popular opinion that Ireland was a female friendly, Augustine-free zone, the canons were quite the opposite and influenced by the theology of Augustine. (Just to back this up, read the 9th century treatise on Cain Adomnan and you’ll see how anti-female it could be!) These canons are one areas where there is plenty of detail in early medieval practices.

  7. The Stowe Missal: The Eucharist as Refreshment: The Stowe Missal is one of the only liturgical sources we have for the rites of the Celtic church dating to c. 800, probably at Tallaght. While the Eucharistic rite was Roman, other aspects of the celebration differed more modern practices. Attitudes toward community and communion of the saints was more intense that any we experience today. They really felt strongly in communion with the saints how have already departed this life, especially those of their community, and this is reflected in their liturgy. For example, they stressed that all present must share one loaf of bread at the Eucharist and in the prayers chanted by the congregation while the priest breaks the loaf into as many as 65 pieces arranging them in special patterns on the patten.

  8. The Litanies: Petition, Procession, Protection: This is a specialized section on the differences between early medieval litanies and modern litanies in text, form and function. He particularly focuses on how medieval litanies were processions, such as the litany Augustine of Canterbury led as he approached Æthelberht, King of Kent, for the first time. I would add that we also see these processional litanies occurring in times of pestilence when processions would snake through large communities in an effort to end the plague. Gregory the Great led such a procession in Rome to end the Plague of Justinian. Although not often mentioned in insular sources, we must imagine that frequent processional litanies must have occurred during the plague of 664 and other plagues.

  9. The Cycles of Prayer: This chapter focuses the calendar and daily office among the Irish. He spends some time talking about alternative perceptions of time and how ordinary and festal time was viewed. There is a short discussion of how the daily office is reflected in Adomnan’s Life of Columba and in the Navigatio Sancti Brendani, and on the Teachings of Mael Ruain.

  10. Jerusalem: Our Mother and Home Above This last chapter is a part of a departure from the rest of the book because this chapter focuses on eschatology. O’Loughlin takes Jerusalem as his theme as a “taster” of Irish eschatology. What did Jerusalem mean to the Irish and what symbolism did they invest in it? O’Loughlin focuses on the presentation of Jerusalem in three different works: Jerusalem in Adomnan’s De Locus Sanctus (On the Holy Places), Barrand’s Island in the Navigiatio Sancti Brendani, and the plan of New Jerusalem in the Book of Armagh.

  11. Conclusions

One of the areas that O’Loughlin left out was a discussion of the literature on St Bridget and is generally light on female topics. Likewise he did not really treat Irish Marian theology which is surely present. It has been suggested that Adomnan’s attitudes toward the the Virgin Mary influenced Cain Adomnan, the first law for the protection of women from violence in Ireland. Marian theology has also influenced the literature and traditions about St Bridget. While Bridget is a fairly common topic in Irish scholarship, we still await a systematic survey and Marian scholarship for this period, is even further behind. Given the breadth of topics he did cover, this is not a major detraction.

Do not look to this book for a history of monastic families or even of monastic movements. O’Loughlin’s purpose here is the study of theology more than history. He chooses examples that fit his topic, but makes no attempt to be systematic surveying all possible examples. Hagiography is also not a major topic outside of chapter 5. Here, as in the chapter on Adomnan, he is more concerned with examining the author than his work. His basic question is how was theology done in early medieval Ireland? What was the personal theology of Patrick, Adomnan and Muirchu? How was theology put into practice? I believe that you will find his answers fascinating.

A Guidebook to Daily Prayer

Christopher L Webber. A User’s Guide to the Book of Common Prayer: Morning and Evening Prayer. Morehouse, 2005. $8 on

This is a very handy little book. It is designed for people who know nothing about daily prayer, and so takes nothing for granted. This is a good thing! Webber has reprinted the pages of morning and evening prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), going so far as leaving the same page numbers, and then provides facing page commentary.

The Introduction overs a wide variety of information. One of the primary concerns here is the difference between Rite I and Rite II. Webber provides a discussion of how Rite I differs from Rite II, but all further discussion uses Rite II. He also discusses the differences between the 1928 and 1979 BCP.

The real value of the book comes when we get to the actual offices. Set up in facing page style, each section has a general description of its purpose, history, and the sources of the actual words. One of the obvious things that comes out of the discussion is changes to the canticles in the 1979 BCP. I have to say I like the additional canticles and I would be happy if there were even more of them. It always surprises me that so much from the apocrypha is included when there are so many canticles in scripture that are omitted (Jonah, Song of Songs, Hannah’s song etc). He goes on to give the sources and authors of the collects included with the offices. The bit about the Phos hilaron was considered a cherished old hymn by St Basil in 379 is interesting. I also thought it was interesting that Webber noted that the Magnificant can be used for morning prayer and that any morning canticle can be used for evening prayer. That is very good to know because always using it for evening prayer is a little too rigid for me. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but it doesn’t always seem like the best canticle to go with the other selections. The book rounds off short discussions of the prayers and a short glossary.

As I said from the beginning, its a handy book. Its not groundbreaking scholarship or comprehensive analysis, but it suits its purpose: to introduce new people to morning and evening prayer. I think it does that quite well.

A Modern Book of Hours

Hour by Hour

Forward Movement Publications, 2007. ISBN 0-88028-240-1, 128 pages. $17.95

Well, it may have taken me a while, but I seem to have found a modern book of hours. Its not quite a medieval style Book of Hours, but its a nice compromise.

Hour by Hour contains the four hours of daily prayer available in the Book of Common Prayer — Morning prayer, Noon, Evening prayer, and Compline– for one week. This means that there are seven sets of prayers. To make it more seasonal and applicable for daily life there are a collection of prayers at the end for the church seasons and major feasts, and for life events (births, sickness, anxiety, thanksgiving, death etc). These prayers can be added to any hour as needed. Because these seven sets of prayers are repeated every week the lessons are good for all seasons.

What it is not is a breviary. Monastic offices aim to be comprehensive, to cover the entire psalter every x days and to read scripture in a systematic way. Books of Hours make no attempt to do this. Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, for medieval people their Book of Hours was the only book they owned so it was not complimented by a bible. I have been using Hour by Hour for a couple of weeks so far and I really don’t mind the repeating weekly. Having a full week’s worth is enough variation. That is not to say that I may not make the same choices, but that I don’t mind repeating. If I really like an office, I wouldn’t mind repeating it even more often. I like it when an office gels together well so that the lessons, psalms, and prayers all reinforce each other. This is something that the daily office doesn’t achieve for me.

Choices for readings etc brings me to another key topic in Books of Hours — they were very personal. I might make some different choices if I were to design one week’s worth of offices. I know I would choose some different prayers for the optional prayers in the back. I’ve already pasted two onto the back flyleaves of Hour by Hour. I also really miss the calendar and one that I could have added my own dates to. Hour by Hour comes completely from the Book of Common Prayer, filling in bible selections for the lessons.

Differences between Hour by Hour and medieval Books of Hours are significant. In some ways this book has more to offer. It has different offices for seven days. Medieval books of hours did not . They had two or three specialized sets of offices: The Little Office of the Virgin (seven psalms of accent), an Office of the Dead (seven penitential psalms), and sometimes another office also more themed. Late medieval Books of Hours and Breviaries had seven daily hours; the Book of Common Prayer calls for four offices daily. Books of Hours always began with a calendar to which owners could add their special memorial days (births, deaths etc); this one lacks a calendar. The earliest Books of Hours were very specialized for their patrons at least in their illustrations and in their extra content.

With all this being said, Hour by Hour is still the best book of hours I have found to date. It would be a excellent book to travel with, whether that is commuting or vacations.