Sunday, November 24, 2013
Book Review - Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church
The genre of daily devotional reading is one with an overwhelming number of entries of varying quality, but in Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church, James Stuart Bell (with Patrick J. Kelly) provides a unique and edifying offering. As the title indicates, Bell has assembled 366 readings from the Early Church Fathers, discussing a variety of topics related to the Christian life. In addition to providing short daily expositions on the Scriptures, Awakening Faith serves to introduce readers to the writings of some of the earliest Christian thinkers and leaders.
Each daily entry begins with a Bible verse (or two), followed by a reading from a Church Father that either references/alludes or has a thematic connection to the Scriptural passage. The selections have been updated into modern language for improved readability. The selection of authors is diverse, ranging from the highly-esteemed, such as Athanasius and Augustine, to the unknown, such as Pseudo-Chrysostom and the author of The Letter to Diognetus. Some of the included authors, such as Origen and Commodianus, are known for having problematic teachings, but as Bell notes in his introduction, the selected readings were chosen to "showcase those things they emphasize that today's evangelicals do not, generally to our detriment." At the end, the book contains brief biographical notes for each of the included authors. Many of the book's readings focus on Christian virtues and personal holiness, often in the form of exhortation. Each passage is limited to a single page (though some extended passages are split over multiple days), which makes for a short but substantive read.
Overall, I found Awakening Faith to be a very useful devotional collection. In the introduction, Bell makes a brief but cogent argument for why modern evangelicals should make a point to familiarize themselves with the wisdom of Christians from eras past. For those with limited (or even non-existent) knowledge of the Church Fathers, this book would serve as a great point of introduction. And even for those with previous experience reading the Fathers, these readings are both encouraging and convicting. As Bell observes, these writers were committed to the Scriptures, and their works overflow with explanations and applications of the Bible. That grasp of Scripture, combined with the exhortation to piety and holiness, provides a model that modern readers would do well to emulate. I also appreciated how the Fathers had a completely different outlook than I do, and I often found myself stopping to ponder their words in ways I might not have if they were modern authors discussing similar topics.
I had no real complaints about the book, although a couple of improvements could be made. First, the book identifies only the author of each selection; it would have been helpful to include the specific work from which it was taken (even if relegated to an appendix). Although the selections are meant to stand alone, there were several times when I wished I could have looked up the surrounding context. Secondly, the heading for each page lists the topic addressed, such as "Holiness" or "The Church"; it would have been useful to have an index of all the topics and associated selections, as there was for readings by specific author. That said, neither of these omissions detract from the overall quality of the book.
In sum, if you are looking to pick up a book of daily devotional reading, are interested in learning more about the early Church, or both, Awakening Faith: Daily Devotions from the Early Church is highly recommended.
(Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for providing an unbiased review.)