Monday, October 17, 2011

Book Review: The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

Thanks to Zondervan for supplying me with a review copy and a slot in their blog tour.

Christian spirituality is an interesting topic to devote a dictionary to (and Zondervan isn't the first to do this). The church has historically pursued spirituality with intellectual vigor. Unfortunately, it seems to me that this is not the case as strongly as it was before. We have a bifurcation, spirituality as dissected in the academy and a pragmatic spirituality of the churches (at least in American low-church Evangelicalism). The goal of The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality is to provide an accessible resource that draws upon the rich spiritual history of the church as well as the advances in understanding that academic study of Scripture, theology, science, and other disciplines have brought.

The dictionary is split into two main parts. The first part contains thirty-four essays from four to seven pages in length covering major topics in Christian spirituality. These are wide ranging, from essays on 'Music and the Arts' to 'Byzantium and the East (600 - 1700)' to 'Grace and Spiritual Disciplines' to 'Contours of Evangelical Spirituality.' The vast majority of these are solid and very informative. Each of the topics covered were split into a half-dozen or sub-topics in which, depending on the subject of the essay, either briefly detailed the history of the topic or explained and evaluated the range of views on the matter. They also provided a bibliography of ten to twenty works if you wanted to read further on the topic

The second part of the dictionary contains typical dictionary entries. These are typically between a half a page and a page long. In terms of topic selections I thought that there were two major strengths. There are quite a few articles on various spiritualities. These include non-Christian spiritualities like Muslim and Native-American spirituality as well as Christian Spiritualities covering a specific geography, like Korean Christian Spirituality (which was very illuminating for me, in a Korean-American church setting). There also is a wealth of entries on different figures in church history, from Ignatious of Antioch all the way to contemporary people like Wolfhart Pannenberg. The insights to Christian spirituality that they had are explored. For figures from church history a a relevant, brief overview of their life is included.

I attempted to read a wide range of both essays and dictionary entries. Some of them were very, very good. However, there was a bit of a problem of unevenness both in quality and depth, especially among the dictionary entries. Some, like 'Knowledge of God' utilize a lot of undefined technical language. Others, like 'Lifestyle' are very basic, almost to the point of not being of much help. It seems like the dictionary could have used a stronger editorial hand to achieve a bit more uniformity.

Also, as I tried to think through how someone would use this book, I think that an organized index or table of contents would have been helpful, at least of the people covered in the dictionary entries. I know that this isn't usually done in dictionaries, but I think it would be helpful here because most people won't come to the dictionary wondering about the spirituality of William Penn. However, someone might come to the dictionary as their first step in researching Quaker spirituality. That person will probably never stumble across the entry on William Penn. If you had some sort of organized list of people covered in the dictionary, then they might.

With all of that said, I still have to say that I found The Dictionary of Christian Spirituality to be a useful resource. Pastors in a shepherding role dealing with spiritual formation would probably be the target audience and for them it would be a good addition to their libraries. It's a good, quick, non-technical resource that would aid in developing curriculum or as a starting point for personal study. The breadth of topics and ecumenical focus more than make up for any of its deficiencies.

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