Gaius and Titius on Advent
by JUSTIN D. BARNARD
Director of the Institute for Intellectual Discipleship
December 8, 2009 - In his book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis used a contemporary grammar book – what he called “The Green Book” – as a foil for offering broader insights into the emotivist culture of his day. Like Lewis, I have my own “Green Book” – a complimentary copy of a small, recent devotional guide for the advent season.
Undoubtedly, the producers of this “Advent Green Book” are moved by the noblest of intentions. The introduction explains, “Each weekly meditation centers around a specific theme and uses several elements to create an environment for a meaningful experience with God.” The “elements” include prayers, poems, quotations, reflective essays, and artwork from a broad spectrum of historic and contemporary Christendom. These pieces are meant to form a kind of tapestry or, in the language of the devotional itself, a mosaic – a context against which the reader can enjoy “a meaningful experience with God.”
The booklet aims to recover an historic treasury of word and image, bringing both into the living experience of twenty-first century believers. But the manner in which it seeks this end has a trajectory that is distinctly postmodern. Having been liberated from the demands of inheritance, the postmodern Christian stands over and against history, picking and choosing those elements suitable to the mosaic he intends to make. In this way, as the Advent Green Book explains, the devotional elements “serve as a springboard for your own prayer and reflections.” The book makes the exhilarating possibilities explicit: “Any number of other ways might be imagined for using this book.”
The “Ancient-Future” posture expressed in this little guide reflects the spirit of the age. Religion is out; spirituality is in. Institutions are out; personal journeys are in. Faithful obedience and church discipline are out; the “spiritual disciplines” (insofar as they “create an environment for a meaningful experience with God” and so long as they are detached from real structures of history and accountability) are in.
For the ancient Christian, the historic deposit of Christian faith and life was a tradition received. The apostle Paul expresses this posture in writing to the believers at Corinth: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received . . .” The verb matters. Paul does not deliver what he “uses . . . to create” but what he is given.
Sinners that we are, we chafe under the given-ness of the Christian faith and life. As G.K. Chesterton once quipped, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” Devotionals, like the Advent Green Book, that attempt to ease the difficulty by making the “experience” more inviting (“interact with the material in any way that is helpful to you” – it says) – especially, while offering the gloss of authentic, historical significance – undermine our ability to comprehend the posture of those who most deeply embodied the heart of the Gospel.
Of Mary – “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Of Christ – “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”