In our media-saturated age of church-shopping, in our days of 2000 years of Christian tradition stretching out behind us, in our world where a wealth of information is available, it is often very difficult to know where to begin. The sheer size of my so-called “basic” bibliography is a testament to that. Here are a few thoughts and resources on how to begin tackling the Great Tradition with an aim to spiritual renewal.
Begin with any of these in prayer, and the Spirit will help guide you into the Classic Christianity that has brought the Church to where she is.
i. (Re)discover the Gospels and Psalms! Evelyn Underhill calls these the basic texts for the beginning Christian mystic. Mystic or not, these are the places to go to see the face of God Almighty and find words to pray and hear His teachings. A Psalm a day (at least) is an ancient practice and one that helps keep the spirit healthy. And the Gospels are the original documents that tell us of the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Christ the Lord. They are well worth being acquainted with.
ii. Here are 3 modern books to begin in the quest for “Classic” Christianity, books that have helped my quest:
Foster, Richard J. Prayer, Finding the Heart’s True Home. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992. This book is not about Classic Christianity as an intellectual exercise or specifically about the concept of the Great Tradition. Rather, it is a guide to prayer that examines a number of different types of prayer, approaches to them, and is notable for its breadth. This book draws from all Christian traditions — various Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox, as well as from throughout the history of the Church. This is a great place to begin actually entering into the Tradition as a living thing we are all a part of.
Humphrey, Edith M. Ecstasy and Intimacy, When the Holy Spirit Meets the Human Spirit. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005. This is a “popular” book written by a scholarly theologian. Using the Trinity as her jumping point, Humphrey takes us on a journey through Christian spirituality, always looking at the themes she addresses through the lens of Scripture and reason, yet gaining assistance in interpreation from the saints who have gone before, pulling the rootedness of tradition as well. In one very helpful chapter, she gives us a sampling of different “spiritual theologians” from the ancients to the moderns. Again, not a book about the Great Tradition, but, rather, a book that draws you into the Great Tradition and guides you into spiritual theology and a greater understanding of the questions at hand.
Oden, Thomas C. The Rebirth of Orthodoxy. HarperCollins, 2002. Oden sketches out “signs of new life” in mainline Protestantism, and he sees one of the most potent sources of new life in the first five centuries of consensual teaching of the Church, the age of the Fathers (Patristics). This book is an engaging read that gives hope for the future of the Church as well as a drive to learn even more about Patristics.
iv. Here are 3 classics to start at:
St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation. SVS Press, 1977. This book is a gem, complete with a brilliant introductory essay by C.S. Lewis and St. Athanasius’ treatise on reading the Psalms appended at the end. Herein we catch a glimpse of who Christ is and why on earth He came to earth. St. Athanasius, throughout, never loses sight of the soteriological (salvation-ological) impact of the Incarnation of the Word of God and passes on his own sense of wonder at this impassably great event.
Foster, Richard J. & James Bryan Smith, Eds. Devotional Classics. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993. The other two books I’m recommending as starting-points are entire works. This book is an anthology 52 bite-sized portions from a vast range of Christian authors from St. Augustine of Hippo to Julian of Norwich to John Calvin to Thomas Merton each coupled with a Scripture passage. The readings are divided into the sections “Preparing for the Spiritual Life”, “The Prayer-filled Life”, “The Virtuous Life”, “The Spirit-Empowered Life”, “The Compassionate Life”, and “The Word-Centered Life.” Editions newer than mine also include “The Sacramental Life.” This book is a blessing and useful for individuals and groups.
Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. London: HarperCollins, 1952, 1980. A modern classic. Lewis strips down Christianity and gives us the basic teachings. He seeks to find that which all Christians everywhere have always believed, and he does so with style, logic, and grace. One of most recommended & talked-about books in Christian circles, it has suffered the fate of being well-known and not well-read. A book worth reading and thinking over.
These are just a few thoughts to get launched into the Great Tradition. Once you’ve got your feet wet with some of these, feel free to come on by and hunt down some new things from the rest of the website!