Review: Praying the Psalms with Augustine and Friends

Praying the Psalms with Augustine and Friends (Sacred Roots Spiritual Classics #1), Carmen Joy Imes. Wichita, KS: TUMI Press, 2021.

Summary: A collection of readings for all the Psalms drawn from the writings of Augustine and other classic spiritual writers from Origen to Calvin.

This is the first of the Sacred Roots Spiritual Classics series to be released. The Sacred Roots Project, in cooperation with The Urban Ministry Institute (TUMI) and inspired by the brief but effective ministry of Samuel Morris, a Taylor University student, believes “fresh readings of Christian spiritual classics can lead Christian leaders into a deeper engagement with the God revealed in Scripture and into deeper relationships with one another” (p. 331). The larger dream is to equip a million Christian workers to serve the global poor and this series is driven by the premise that “leaders are readers.”

The bulk of the book is taken up with reflections on each Psalm by Augustine or another classic spiritual writer, with Augustine in the predominance. Each of the reflections are 1-2 pages in length except for a few in verse that may be up to 3-4 pages. Readers are encouraged to read the Psalm in their Bible, then the reflection, and then re-read the Psalm The readings are organized into eight chapters for groups going through this together, which means two or three readings over the day, sometimes leaving one with “make up” days. At the end of each chapter, five discussion questions are offered that concern Habitat, Head, Heart, Hand, and Habits according to an explanation in the resource section.

The readings usually focus in on a verse or several verses from the Psalm. Augustine and Calvin, it seemed to me stayed closest to the text. Mary Sidney Herbert’s verses offered paraphrases of the text, often accompanied with notes on archaisms and what they mean. Others often began with the text and brought in other insights from scripture and the spiritual life. One theme developed in many of the readings is epitomized in John Calvin’s observation on Psalm 4: “David testifies that although he may lack all other good things, the fatherly love of God is sufficient to compensate for the loss of them all.” Throughout we are reminded that God’s most precious gift to us is the gift of God’s self. Caesarius of Arles reminds us from Psalm 41 that “Confession is the very beginning of restoration to health.” Reflecting on Psalm 55, Augustine proposes that “Perhaps the reason your heart is troubled is because you have forgotten him in whom you have believed.” And as the Psalms come to a close, Augustine urges us from Psalm 148 to “Praise with your whole selves: that is, do not let your tongue and your voice alone praise God, but your conscience also, your life, your deeds.”

Reading through the Psalms using this book reminded me of what a gift both the Psalms and the great figures of the church are to us. The Psalms remind us of what matters, God and his word and give us words when we have sinned, are in a great need, beset by enemies, discouraged personally or for our people, and for exultation in God. The saints in these pages testify from the Psalms to the truth of what is written. What a powerful combination.

The reader should not conclude without reading through the resource section which includes an afterword, and explanation of the purpose of this series and a variety of ways to do “Psalm work” and “Soul work including a wonderful chart on what Psalms to pray for particular purposes. Other sections give us brief biographies of Augustine and friends, place them on a timeline, show the Psalms each appear in, and provide for each Psalm, the source of the reading–many available for free online. Resources for further reading are offered as well.

My sense is that this book is well designed for the devotional and discipleship purposes for which it is intended with carefully curated readings, discussion questions for groups, and supporting resources. I might also mention that this may be a good resource for those who regularly read the Psalms as they follow a lectionary set of readings through the year (the one I follow, for example has morning and evening readings that go through the Psalms every two months). Saints through history have found that the Psalms give them language to express their longings for God and the turmoil in their souls. In this book, we get to accompany a number of them as we read the Psalms with them and each other.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Sex and the City of God

Sex and the City of God, Carolyn Weber. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: A story of how the decision to choose “the city of God” transformed love, sexuality, and relationships for the author.

At first glance, the title of this book feels like a teaser, playing off the title of another book by Candace Bushnell and the popular television series that followed. But the book really is about one woman’s sexuality and how her choice to live as a citizen of the City of God led to a larger vision of love, healing of her relationship with her father, and a deeper understanding of the meaning of her sexuality. Add to that a heart-warming love story told by a gifted writer, and you have a truly great read.

The story begins with the father, hospitalized and near death. In his last years, he had come to faith, and drawn close to his daughter, the author. Her mind flashes back to the absentee father of her childhood, and her seventh birthday party, a picture of her in a dress he bought her, waiting for him to come home. He didn’t come.

The story moves forward to her graduate studies at Oxford, and the summer at home after she had started following Christ. In the background of that story is TDH (Tall, Dark, and Handsome) who had shared with her about God, one of the Christians she’d met with but a remote hope for anything more than a good friendship. Back home is Ben, an ex who shows up. A drive in his truck ends at a summer cabin, interrupted by a knock at the door, and a box of books. In the months ahead, she begins to live into not merely a single, but singular life belonging to Christ, a life oriented around Augustine’s City of God rather than the human city.

Through Bible studies at St. Ebbe’s and reading Augustine, she finds her understanding of sexuality reframed, oddly enough through biblical genealogies. The begotten are not merely part of a human family but the created and adopted family of God:

Sex as the template for genealogy is important because sexuality is a reflection of God’s relationship with us. Our relationship to sex speaks of our relationship to God. And because our relationship to God must precede our relationship with everything else, including our own selves, working from this first relationship changes everything. As a result, more often than not in a culture that neglects our dignity as spiritual beings, pursuing this foundational relationship can feel countercultural, though it is God’s norm, for in becoming children of God we become who he intended us to be (p. 63).

It was not as straightforward path. Many frustrating dating relationships. A tempting episode in another cabin with the heat out. Meanwhile, the conversations continued with TDH, who always treated her and other women with respect, was candid in discussion about his own temptations, and his commitment to a chaste life as a Christian. And then he moved back to the States…

The rest of the story, as they say, is a lovely courtship, and then an honest account of marriage with its ups, downs and temptations (including a writing retreat that turns out a walk through the forest from Ben’s cabin, complete with his truck parked in the drive!).

The story ends as it began, with her father, his last voice message and a reflection on how the choices we make in love may well shape who is with us in our last moments. Along the way, Carolyn Weber’s writing draws us into her life, her longings, her temptations and her struggle with them, her hopes and growing faith. Her writing draws us by her descriptions of scenes and places in which we enter into disappointment, into turmoil, into the cold of the cabin, the wildness of a windstorm, the insistent knocking upon a door. This skillfully written narrative, punctuated with poetry and Augustine, invites us into the the aching wonder of human love shaped by the growing pursuit of the City of God. We are left wondering if God has something better on offer, even when it comes to human sexuality.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Seeing by the Light

Seeing by the Light: Illumination in Augustine’s and Barth’s Readings of John, (Studies in Christian Doctrine and Scripture), Ike Miller. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study on the doctrine of illumination examining how both Augustine and Barth exposited this doctrine in the gospel and letters of John.

Through most of my Christian life I’ve thought of illumination primarily in terms of the work of the Holy Spirit in opening my understanding and my heart to the scriptures. Drawing upon John 15:26-27 and John 16:13-15, I understood the work of the Spirit as pointing to Christ, testifying to and glorifying him, and instructing in all things.

In Ike Miller’s study of John’s writings, he affirms and elaborates this into a much fuller understanding of illumination in the economy of the Trinity, and in the experience of the believer. To do so, Miller studies Augustine’s homilies on John and previously untranslated lectures on John by Karl Barth.

In the first two parts, Miller successively treats Augustine and Barth. In each part he begins first with their methods of theological interpretation, helpful in each case in understanding how they worked with texts and reached the conclusions they did. Then Miller looks at the doctrine of illumination in each interpretation of John. Finally, he sets this within the larger context of the theologian’s doctrine of illumination, finding these largely consistent.

Part three then synthesizes the material in arguing that John’s gospel is a narrative of illumination. This begins with John’s prologue to his gospel, with God’s nature as light, life-giving light in the creation, light on a mission in the Son, coming into the world to bring light in the darkness, and the experience through the Spirit of coming to see the light and walking in it in a new life of faith and ongoing obedience. He goes on to discuss illumination in our reading of scripture, and in our human experience.

All of this leads Miller to a fresh definition of illumination:

[I]llumination is human participation in the Son’s knowledge of the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. In language more attuned to the language of illumination, it is human participation in the light of the divine life.

Lest readers think Miller is jumping on the participation bandwagon in contemporary theology, he demonstrates how this idea is found in Augustine’s study, not of Paul, but of John. He moves us beyond the knowledge of scripture to the knowledge of God through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. He goes beyond mere cognition to the experience of the believer in ongoing dependence upon the light for our lives.

All of this makes for a rich study of illumination, exposing most of us to new material in Augustine and Barth, and a far greater vision of the Triune God’s illumination work in creation and salvation. In doing so, we see yet another of the wonders of the grace of God, through the coming of the Son bringing light into the darkness, and through the Spirit for illumining minds and hearts to see this light and come to it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation

Retrieving Augustines Doctrine of Creation

Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation, Gavin Ortlund. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: A study of Augustine’s writing about creation and what that might contribute to the contemporary controversy.

Imagine a gathering with a young earth creationist, an old earth creationist, and an evolutionary creationist. Fireworks, right? Now imagine that Augustine time-travels from the late 4th-early 5th century and sits down with this group. What would he contribute to the discussion and how might he offer unique perspectives? These are the questions Gavin Ortlund explores in this new work.

First of all, Ortlund observes that Augustine helps us to step back from the controversy to consider the sheer wonder of creation. God created, not out of need, but his extravagant goodness. Augustine was absorbed with creation, believed it mirrored our own purpose of being created for God and finding rest in God, a theme he develops at the end of The Confessions. Indeed, for Augustine, the doctrine of creation was not an optional prequel to theology but absolutely foundational.

While not afraid to speak from conviction about the goodness of creation when faced with the dualism of Manichaean heresy, Augustine urges humility and the avoidance of rashness in interpretations, admitting where he thinks several views are equally possible. He exemplifies this with his own careful handling of Genesis 1, and his rejection of literal twenty-four hour days because of difficulties within the text including fitting all the events of day five into twenty-four hours.

Augustine also offers different perspectives on the problem of animal death and suffering. Responding to Manichaean ideas, he defends the goodness of predation. He also proposes the idea of perspectival prejudice, in which our local perspective often obscures the larger picture.

Finally, Ortlund looks at Augustine’s writing on Genesis 2 and 3 concerning the question of a historic Adam and fall. Augustine both admits the literary complexities of the text and his convictions about the historic character of Adam and the fall in the garden, while leaving room for figurative interpretations.

In one sense, Augustine can’t resolve the differences between the contemporary “camps.” He was unaware of the science to which contemporary interpreters respond in differing ways. By modern standards, some of his exegetical conclusions would be ones to which many would take exception. Yet Ortlund proposes that Augustine offers perspective that may enrich and change the tone and character of these discussions. He reminds us of the wonder of God’s work in creation. He exhibits an uncharacteristic humility, admitting both what he knows and does not, speaking with conviction about what is clear, and peaceably and humbly the matters on which interpreters may differ. In such areas, he exhibits a flexibility and openness contemporary scholars might emulate. Ortlund also shows us a careful scholar dedicated to rigorous study to understand what scripture affirms. These dispositions would not resolve our conflicts, but would create a character of conversation that would be God-honoring.

Ortlund’s concern focuses on the conversation between Christians. But wonder, humility, and rigor of study are also dispositions characterizing dedicated scientists. The animus between faith and science that has existed may well be rendered unnecessary if more on both sides emulated Augustine. We cannot invite him to the table except by mining his writings. Ortlund offers a study of Augustine’s writings worthy of Augustine’s dispositions.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Other Side of Thanksgiving

1870 Thanksgiving

It is customary, usually as a prelude to carving up the sacrificial bird of Thanksgiving, to take time to reflect on our blessings–blessings of family, friends, substance, the goodness of life, the grace of God. This is right to do. What I want to reflect on is what happens on the other side of that meal, which in so many ways is contradictory to the spirit of Thanksgiving, and the corresponding quality of contentment, that rejoices in life as it is and our possessions as they are. Contentment essentially seems to say, I’m thankful that I have enough and don’t need a little more.


Actually, it often begins with the meal itself. It is one thing to be thankful that we have food and are not hungry. It is another to stuff ourselves more fully than the bird on our table! This is one with which I struggle. I am a bit like Simon, my son and daughter-in-law’s beagle, who basically will eat until he explodes. Perhaps this year, I can simply eat to the point where I am not hungry, where I’ve enjoyed something of everything without reaching that state of bloated uncomfortability.

We also give thanks for the family and friends in our lives. Being content with them is another matter! We often would like to make them a bit more “the way we want them”. And herein is the grief of many Thanksgiving gatherings! Why do we not simply let each other be who they are with all their endearing and sometimes annoying foibles? Truth is, we won’t change them and to try only changes the mood–for the worse.

Another area of thanksgiving is our material blessings. For many of us, we have so many of these we are constantly having garage sales and down-sizing and clearing out! What then is it that compels us to acquire even more? This year, we can’t even wait until “black Friday” as more and more of our stores stay open or open late on Thanksgiving day. True, some of this is early Christmas shopping–gifts for others who in most cases also have more than enough! I realize that at least some of this can be genuine expression of affection for people we really care for and sometimes it can be fun to choose gifts that we think will be just right for the person for whom we care. Yet much of this seems fueled by the sense that “more is better” and “we want more” as the children in one recent commercial argued. Instead of being content with what we have, to say that what we have is enough and more, “enough” becomes “more than we have”.

Why is contentment so hard? Why is it that thanksgiving is often little more than a passing sentiment soon forgotten in our dissatisfaction with life as it is? Is our discontent really with our food, friends, and stuff? Or is it an inner discontent–the longing of restless hearts? And where do we go to find rest and contentment for the restless heart? Augustine in The Confessions wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And so I would close this reflection with the prayer that you might truly enjoy thanksgiving with contentment and rest of heart today!