By LeRoy Lawson
At Home: A Short History of Private Life
New York: Doubleday, 2010
The Divine Embrace: Recovering the Passionate Spiritual Life
Robert E. Webber
Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006
Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith
Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009
Some authors are hard to resist. I’d already read several Bill Bryson books (Mother Tongue, Notes from a Small Island, A Walk in the Woods, A Short History of Nearly Everything), so when I came across At Home: A Short History of Private Life, I didn’t even thumb through it before buying. I knew it would be good. It is.
This man is nosy about everything, as an earlier title demonstrates. In At Home, he turns his attention from the marvels of universe and the peculiarities of cultures to the most mundane of subjects: how we live. Every day.
His investigation began with his family’s purchase of a 19th-century former Church of England rectory. Where did it come from? What was it like new? What was its setting in Norfolk? How did the country parson who lived there live there? For that matter, what was his home like when his home itself was new?
To find out, he examines the rectory room by room, each room a chapter. Along the way you’ll learn a lot—probably more than you want to know—about the everydayness of private life in the Western world, with little essays on such things as how sewage gets disposed of, what a difference ice makes, what made glass so expensive in the early days, why Shakespeare’s will left his wife his second-best bed (and why that wasn’t an insult). I didn’t know before this book that for a long, long time cosmetics were toxic and fashions (such as hoopskirts and crinolines) were downright dangerous.
I don’t need to tell you what subjects the bedroom brings to Bryson’s research. In the kitchen he regales us with tales of gluttony and the curious cuisine of various cultures—and scary examinations of the actual ingredients (and vermin infestations) in certain dishes popular even today. The author roams from prehistory through the products of the industrial revolution (consider the lawn mower—or the mousetrap) to the luxury of the modern bath (an indulgence not always approved of).
A good reminder for us pampered moderns fixated on privacy is this: for most of human history it simply didn’t exist. Families slept together, usually without beds of their own. Homes consisted of one large room, the “hall,” a smoke-filled enclosure. There were no chimneys; their invention in the 14th century made an upstairs and other downstairs rooms—hence some privacy—possible.
Bryson builds his book around the Victorian rectory, so most of the history here deals with the 19th century, but with frequent excursions elsewhere, along the way sharing, like the encyclopedic tour guide he is, bits of trivia—and the not-so-trivial
—in a tour so captivating you want to stay with him to the very end. Which I did.
Embraced by God
Few things make me more uncomfortable than other people’s attempts to get me to be more spiritual. They just haven’t worked. When in the company of the pious, I feel consigned to the great unwashed. These feelings of unworthiness helped drive me to resign when I was a young minister; they had to be overcome before, eight years later, I could return to the pulpit. Overcome is not the right word. They weren’t. I just finally accepted I would never be worthy, but my task, after all, was to point to the Worthy One. That I could do.
In The Divine Embrace, Robert Webber writes for people like me. He does not prescribe seven simple steps to holiness, nor insist we check our minds at the door and enter into some mystical or emotional suspension of all skepticism. He does not measure spirituality by what we don’t do.
Instead, in a comprehensive review of worship through the ages, he reminds us again and again that spirituality is more about accepting and living in what God has done for us in Christ than about what we do for him. It isn’t reaching toward God; it’s receiving his “divine embrace.” Thus the spiritual life is life affirming, not life denying. It both contemplates God’s story and participates actively in it; it is “relational, lived theology.”
Webber asserts “that evangelicals, having separated spirituality from God’s vision, practice spiritualities of legalism, intellectualism, and experientialism.” We have gone astray by situating spirituality in the self, where “I keep the rules; I know God in a system of thought; I had a born-again experience.” The real locus should be “in the story of the Triune God” who “restored my union with himself. Now, having been baptized into this great mystery, I contemplate God’s work for me and the whole world, and I participate in God’s purposes for the world revealed in Jesus Christ. Spirituality is a gift. The spiritual life is the surrendered life.”
The Divine Embrace is part of Webber’s Ancient-Future series, a helpful excursion showing how biblical teaching (to which he returns again and again) has been lost through the centuries, and calling for a return to God-centered spirituality. Recognizing God’s initiative makes baptism, for example, not a means by which we work our way into God’s favor, but a grateful response to God’s graciousness.
Here is Webber’s summary of God’s story: “He created us to be in union with himself; that unity was broken, but Jesus brought us back into union by becoming one of us, demonstrating what true humanity looks like, by dying to destroy death in the world, and by rising lifting us with him into God’s embrace.”
That’s something we can sink ourselves into.
Taught by Jesus
We turn from the serious theology of Dr. Webber to the still serious but more popular writing in Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg’s Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus. Combining illustrations from their personal investigations with scholarly snippets from their research, the authors ask, “Just how Jewish was Jesus?”
Their answer? Very, from the tassels of his prayer shawl to his rabbinical teaching methods, Jesus, the Son of God, was also Son of Man, a first-century Jewish man at that. To fail to grasp that his humanness was grounded in the people he grew up with, who believed they were God’s chosen people, is to miss many nuances of his character, habits, and teaching.
It’s also to miss how powerfully the Old Testament infuses the New. Recognizing the Lord’s Supper’s Jewish antecedents, for example, enriches Communion. Discipleship also takes on deepened meaning—and heightened expectations. The kingdom of God remains mysterious and complex, as it was to Jesus’ first disciples, but thanks to these authors we are warned against a reductionist “explanation” that distorts Jesus’ meaning.
Though the authors do not parade their theological depth in this introduction to the Jewish roots of Christianity, they can be taken seriously. Spangler is an award-winning author, Tverberg a cofounder of the En-Gedi Resource Center for research into the Jewish roots of Christianity.
In this collaboration they urge us to shed the common tendency to take verses out of context, seeking only to find “what this passage means to me.” Instead, they give insight into what Jesus’ teaching meant to Jesus, and why he could teach with such authority: “But I say unto you. . . . ”
Each chapter closes with suggestions for living as one of Jesus’ talmidim (disciples).
At the feet of the Rabbi. There’s no better classroom.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with CMF International and professor of Christian ministries at Emmanuel Christian Seminary, Johnson City, Tennessee. He also serves as a CHRISTIAN STANDARD contributing editor and member of Standard Publishing’s Publishing Committee.