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Wednesday, October 9, 2019

"Resilient Faith" (Gerald L. Sittser)

TITLE: Resilient Faith: How the Early Christian "Third Way" Changed the World
AUTHOR: Gerald L. Sittser
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2019, (240 pages).

Finding a middle path, a way that meanders between any extremes, or some "third way" has been the pattern among many movements in the path. Evolution sees it as "survival of the fittest." The secular world views it as natural selection. The business world thinks of new potential as a new wave. Whatever it is, the possibility of a new way in the midst of conflicting old ways is always a path of hope. In the Early Church, this "third way" is the Jesus Way. Jesus spoke about this as He moves among two huge forces of resistance: Roman and Jewish. Followers of Jesus were also known as followers of "The Way." This way has resisted the Roman persecutions, the Hellenistic cultural forces and Jewish legalistic regimen. In doing so, this way of Jesus impacted the early centuries and is continuing to do so today. By studying the why and how of this Third Way, author Gerald Sittser helps us understand and learn from the resilient gospel of Jesus, and to see its relevance today in our increasingly challenging world. The recurring question that Sittser asks throughout the book is this: How did the Christianity flourish in the light of persecutions and inhospitable conditions? On top of these, they had to resist worldliness. They had to battle heresies. They had to endure being ostracised for their beliefs and lifestyles. Interestingly this "third way" disappeared overnight upon the official recognition of Christianity after Constantine's influence in AD313. It also took on negative perceptions due to the crusades, the Thirty Year War, and many other politicizing of Christianity. In our modern era, we are challenged with a post-Christian hostility, a Millennial scepticism, and the rise of new age spiritualities. In writing about faith and the resilience of the Christian beliefs, Sittser aims to help us see the future with hope even as the days appear dark and daunting. He does this by comparing and contrasting the old and new eras constantly. It flourished in the early centuries because it was deemed new and novel. It was also seen as a major threat to the pre-existing establishment then. During the persecution era, Christians pledged allegiance to Christ incurring the wrath of the Roman emperors.  He begins this with a focused look at how the ecclesiastical tradition helped shaped faith through the ages. However, he soon discovers that it was not the Church per se, but the belief in Jesus that is more significant. The Third Way is the Jesus way. For in Christ, we see a bridge between the old and the new; the old world and the new world; the renewal movements and the desire for spiritual refreshment; etc. This pattern of renewed focus on Jesus and revival in the Spirit is what makes the Christian faith resilient.

The Third Way overcame many challenges in the past. It overcame religious and political persecution in the early centuries. It overcame the politicizing of religion, or the Constantinian effect on the Church. It overcame the theological battles against heresies. It overcame the attacks on the Theology of Christ; Trinity; the Person of Jesus; etc. It overcame the cultural divide; language differences; ethnic distinctions; and many other divisive elements of society. While the Church played a huge part in preserving the Third Way, it is not ultimately the reason for the resilience of the Christian faith. For the Christian faith is more a movement rather than a monument.

My Thoughts
Christianity now has become post-Christian. No longer are we seeing the West as a Christian country. It has gone to the other extreme, to become like the Rome of yesterday, where the religion is the world. The world is increasingly secular, atheistic, and overwhelmingly hostile to anything to do with Christianity. Yet, during moments where things look dim and dark, it is heartening to take a look at history, and in spite of overwhelming difficulty, the faith continues to grow in leaps and bounds. The Third Way then is still the relevant Third Way today. This bears testimony to the living Christ. By tracing the historical resilience, Sittser shows us that what happened in the past could embolden believers today to remain hopeful in spite of marginalization of religion. This "something else" is about going back to the fundamentals of our faith. In our modern Church scene, people are seeing revival in terms of megachurches, loud music, attractive programming, and so on. Yet, these things are mere cultural adaptations where people adapt the faith to fit the cultural expectations. This will not make the faith any more resilient. A simple test would be this: Remove these expensive equipment, ambient atmosphere, comfortable chairs and fads, we would realize that only Christ makes all the difference. The early disciples didn't have what the modern church have. They don't even have any training from the theological curriculums of our modern seminaries! Their teacher is Jesus and their guide is the Holy Spirit. We too have the same Teacher and Guide because Jesus and the Holy Spirit is with us.

One of the most famous words from Dr Richard Halverson, former chaplain to the US Senate was: "In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece, where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome, where it became an institution. Next it moved to Europe where it became a culture, and, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise." I would even add that today, it has become a nice add-on instead of the main thing. This book is heavy on Church history, and gives readers the foundation of understanding the unique challenges faced by the early church. We should not take the simplistic approach that in order to grow, we must replicate the past to reinvigorate the present. No. Instead, we should be encouraged by our ancestors who fought the good fight and finished the race. Every generation will have their own battles to face and to overcome. We shall overcome but only in Christ. For without Christ, we can do nothing. With Christ, nothing is impossible. The belief in this alone will not only continue the legacy of the Christian faith, it strengthens our faith too.

Dr Gerald Sittser specializes in the History of Christianity, Christian Spirituality, and Religion in American Public Life in Whitworth University's Theology faculty.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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