Review: Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World

Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World, David F. White. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2022.

Summary: An argument for the important role of aesthetics, of beauty, in Christian formation.

Since the Enlightenment, the formation of Christians in their faith has emphasized truth and goodness, reason and praxis, discarding aesthetics. David F. White argues for the recovery of a theologically shaped aesthetic in the church’s effort to form her people. He argues that the consequence of the neglect of beauty has been an excarnate spirituality, divorced from the materiality of being human in God’s good creation.

White begins by considering beauty as a phenomenon pervading all existence from microscopic life to the cosmos. He explores how beauty awakens us to the transcendent, displaces us from the center of existence, draws us into community, and bids us into living worthy lives. From this, he turns to the theological aesthetic of Hans Urs von Balthasar, his aesthetic epistemology and how this leads to our attunement to beauty in creation and the re-enchantment of the world.

Ultimate, an aesthetic of beauty finds its focus in the person of Christ who reveals the beauty of human form. He encourages focus upon the material form of Christ, and a kind of attuned play with the narratives of his life, imagining them, and embodying them ourselves. This leads him into the poiesis or ideas of making of John Milbank. Making begins with the transcendent God who comes as verbum, speech that makes, creates. Humans in the image of God are called into participation in this making as a gift. Formation then cannot remain in our heads; we must get our hands dirty, engaging in a kind of reciprocal gift-giving with others.

White next focuses on liturgy as art. He draws on the insights of James K. A. Smith and the power of liturgies to form us, whether from the church or the culture and he considers how aesthetics can enhance the formative power of liturgy, particularly as beauty is understood as the telos of worship. He urges leaders to recover a vision of the beauty inherent in the rhythms and movements of liturgy, to weave artistic expression throughout and to use the eucharistic meal to focus on the beauty in the form of Christ.

We live in a world that alternates between beauty and terror and White advocates for the role of art in the movement from lament to hope. A theological aesthetic looks for the beauty of people amid brokenness, glimpsing healing amid suffering. He concludes with the image of a church of people formed by beauty as the flash mob interrupting the stale banality of modern life with sounds and sights of exquisite beauty reminding people of the other, better world for which they deeply long.

White, I believe, has made an important proposal in this book, that the church vitally needs to recover a theologically grounded aesthetic. This is more than just embracing the arts. It is understanding the role of beauty, with its focus on both the materiality of creation and Christ, in forming us as knowing makers, participating in God’s poiesis in the world. White takes a deep dive in attempting to summarize von Balthasar, Milbank, and Smith yet ably does so, weaving together their ideas with his own vision of a theological aesthetic. Like White, I’ve been captivated by flash mob videos and like him, I long that the church might captivate the world in this way.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Speakeasy.

Review: The Liturgy of Politics

The Liturgy of Politics, Kaitlyn Schiess (Foreword by Michael Wear). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2020.

Summary: Drawing on the thought of James K. A. Smith, explores how the liturgies of our lives shape our political engagement and the gospel-shaped formative practices our Christian communities may embrace.

You don’t have to go any further than the recent elections to illustrate the messiness of our politics. Some of us are tempted to have nothing to do with it. Yet much of life is political–from the allocation of local school buildings to Supreme Court picks. Alternatively, we look for candidates who embrace “biblical” positions on what we consider vital issues and support them regardless of the character of the candidate, or stances on other issues that also have biblical implications. Furthermore, among certain Christian communities, one’s political affiliation is treated as an article of faith. I’ve seen Christians say “if you don’t support ______, you are not a Christian.”

Kaitlyn Schiess grew up in one such community and attended one of the colleges notable for its alignment with conservative politics, witnessing and experiencing everything I’ve described. She began groping for a different way to imagine political involvement as a Christian. As she read the work of James K. A. Smith she applied his thinking about how the “liturgies,” the thick formative practices of our lives, shape how we engage in our politics.

She begins by looking at the shaping liturgies of our political life, the liturgies of loyalty (“us” versus “them”), of fear (whether it is climate change or immigrants), and idolatry (political influence). These liturgies are informed by counterfeit forms of the gospel: prosperity, patriotism (American exceptionalism), security, and sadly, white supremacy. Schiess contends these are framed as compelling narratives, sometimes in our churches, more often in online media, talk radio and television.

As an alternative, Schiess begins by asking for what are we saved? Her answer is we are saved for the life of the world. The political realm is not the place where we realize the kingdom of God on earth but rather where we steward our calling to care for the creation and pursue the flourishing of other creatures created in God’s image. We our “border stalkers,” involved in our communities and formed in the polis of the church, shaped by the story of scripture heard in a community that transcends our cultural, racial, and national divisions. The church is the community that practices hospitality to the stranger, and in baptism and the Lord’s table transforms the stranger to “one of us.” We learn to shape the rhythms of our lives by the church calendar of feasting and fasting, of waiting and celebrating, of working and resting, and living out our faith in “ordinary time.” The disciplines of prayer and hospitality further shape us.

All this looks forward to the coming kingdom. Drawing on Augustine, Schiess explore life lived between the city of man and the city of God. We live in a space between lament and longing that she refers to as “confession.” We are aware of the limitations of sin as well as our longings for redemption. We live toward the vision of the new Jerusalem, bringing an anticipation and a witness of the future into the present. Yet how do we do so? Some is to listen to how communities on the margins read the story of kingdom come. As we live toward the kingdom, our resistance to earthly powers may put us there.

This is an important first work in political formation by Schiess. It addresses how we might form a Christian political imagination and engagement, something desperately needed in a Christian landscape dominated more by online and media pundits than formative Christian communities. I hope Schiess will keep writing on this subject, perhaps going deeper in describing how real communities are implementing redemptive political liturgies in their formative practices. We need narratives of Christian communities who are doing this and how this transforms their political engagements.


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: Liturgy of the Ordinary


Liturgy of the OrdinaryTish Harrison Warren (foreword by Andy Crouch). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2016.

Summary: Walking through the common events of an ordinary day from waking to sleeping, Warren explores how we encounter in these ordinary things the Christ we worship each Sunday.

I work with people in a university context who struggle to connect the Christ they worship each week with the seemingly ordinary, and often repetitive tasks that make up their days–answering emails, running experiments, attending committee meetings, preparing lectures, holding office hours, and grading papers or exams. In many cases, this occupies the most significant part of their waking hours. And for the ones who are followers of Christ, they often wonder what any of this has to do with the Christ they worship, and are attempting to follow. Time spent in a soup kitchen, a prison ministry, a mission trip–that seems closer to the real deal. Some wonder if they should even be doing the stuff that makes up most of their weeks.

There are others who think even the life I’ve described sounds “cutting edge” compared to spending much of their days feeding, cleaning up after, diapering, entertaining, putting down for naps and getting up again infants and toddlers. Or they work in some form of unskilled or repetitive work. And no matter what our work is, much of life involves a daily round of self-care, home care, and meal preparation, and a host of routine activities–every day.

Let’s face it. Much of life is lived in the ordinary and it is to this that Tish Harrison Warren addresses herself. Her book takes the tasks of the “ordinary” day and reflects on how we are met by and may be transformed by the Christ we worship each Sunday. She explores activities like waking, making our beds, brushing our teeth, losing keys, eating leftovers, fighting with our spouses, checking email, getting stuck in traffic, talking to friends, drinking tea, and sleeping. She connects these with the liturgies she participates in each week as an Anglican priest. She writes:

“And every new day, this is the turn my heart must make: I’m living this life, the life right in front of me. This one where marriages struggle. This one where we aren’t living as we thought we might or as we hoped we would. This one where we are weary, where we want to make a difference but aren’t sure where to start, where we have to get dinner on the table or the kids’ teeth brushed, where we have back pain and boring weeks, where our lives look small, where we doubt, where we wrestle with meaninglessness, where we worry about those we love, where we struggle to meet our neighbors and love those closest to us, where we grieve, where we wait.

And on this particular day, Jesus knows me and declares me his own. On this day he is redeeming the world, advancing his kingdom, calling us to repent and grow, teaching his church to worship, drawing near to us, and making a people all his own.

If I am to spend my whole life being transformed by the good news of Jesus, I must learn how grand, sweeping truths—doctrine, theology, ecclesiology, Christology—rub against the texture of an average day. How I spend this ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life. “

She connects waking and baptism, as Lutherans often are taught to do in making the sign of the cross and saying, “remember your baptism” upon waking. Making beds reminds of the rituals that form a life. Brushing teeth represents all the embodied tasks that make up our day, and how we meet Christ through the bodily acts of standing, kneeling, and bowing. I particularly loved the chapter on sending email, and the blessing and sending that is part of our worship, and that may be implicit in our responses to our inboxes. She makes drinking a cup of tea a reminder of the enjoyment of all that is good in the sanctuary of God.

She concludes the book with a chapter on sleep, reflecting on the gift of sabbath and our struggle with lives of activism, and a resistance of sleep that may reflect a fear of dying. She poses an interesting question:

 “What if Christians were known as a countercultural community of the well-rested–people who embrace our limits with zest and even joy? As believers we can relish sleep as not only necessary but as an embodied response to the truth of Scripture: we are finite, weak creatures who are abundantly cared for by our strong and loving Creator.”

Warren writes with an unvarnished realism about her own life, and yet there is also this sense of stepping back from the whirl of ordinary life in the various moments of the day to remember, and listen, and reflect on how Jesus as the Incarnate One brings his shalom into the whirl of the ordinary–whether it is a fight with a spouse, lost keys or a traffic jam. Warren’s thoughtful reflections help us move to that same place, a kind of center of quiet where the new creation life of Christ can enter into the ordinary spaces of our days.

This is a book I can give to those wondering if there are greener pastures of Christian activity than the everyday circumstances they find themselves in. It is a book that makes the connection between the extraordinary things we preach and pray and participate in each Sunday, and the ordinary realities of each week. From when we first wake until we lay down our heads at night. And all the spaces between.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: You Are What You Love


You Are What You LoveJames K. A. Smith. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016.

Summary: Smith contends that our hearts and the ways we live our lives are shaped by what we love and worship, and that “liturgies” historically have shaped the loves of our hearts and the ways of our lives.

So often, in Christian circles, it is thought that if we can instruct Christians in right doctrine and help them apply this rightly in their lives, they will live Christianly. James K. A. Smith would not deny the importance of right doctrine but would argue that it is the shaping of our hearts, our loves, desires, and what we worship, that is crucial in translating right belief into our practices. Several years ago, Smith framed out in great depth this argument in Desiring the Kingdom (reviewed here). Many have asked for a more distilled version of this material, which he provides in this new work.

Smith begins by observing that we are not simply thinking things but rather people shaped by the habits of our hearts. Re-shaping our lives means recognizing the existing habits of the heart, often more culturally than convictionally-shaped, and re-orienting our hearts by re-orienting the focus of our worship. He believes this fundamentally happens through “liturgies” that re-shape the loves of our heart along the lines of loving the Triune God and loving our neighbors.

The problem he sees in much of contemporary church practice is its thin, expressive form. In an effort to turn away from liturgical formalism, it has rejected the proper uses of liturgy. Instead, he would contend as follows:

     “If worship is formative, not merely expressive, then we need to be conscious and intentional about the form of worship that is forming us. This has one more important implication: When you unhook worship from mere expression, it also completely retools your understanding of repetition. If you think of worship as a bottom-up, expressive endeavor, repetition will seem insincere and inauthentic. But when you see worship as an invitation to a top-down encounter in which God is refashioning your deepest habits, then repetition looks very different: it’s how God rehabituates us. In a formational paradigm, repetition isn’t insincere, because you are not showing, you’re submitting. This is crucial because there is no formation without repetition. Virtue formation takes practice, and there is no practice that isn’t repetitive. We willingly embrace repetition as good in all kinds of other sectors of life–to hone our golf swing, our piano prowess, and our mathematical abilities, for example. If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth” (p. 80).

Smith then explores how Christian worship is meant to “re-story” our lives in a narrative arc of gathering, listening, communing, and sending. In the final three chapters he writes about liturgies at home and at work, and most tellingly, of the shaping of the hearts of our young. He decries the “next big thing” of much of youth ministry and contends for communal practices of eating, praying, singing, thinking and reading together across generations in both families and educational settings.

Even this distillation of Smith’s work is worth savoring and reading slowly. It is an important work for any charged with leading the formational and liturgical life of churches, as it is for those engaged in the formational work of education, and those who care about the translation of Christian believe into Christian practice in the workplace. It recognizes that we are far more shaped by our heart-habits, whether it is praying the hours, or regularly checking our phones, than simply by what we formally believe. Far too often we are those, who, like the author, read Wendell Berry and Michael Pollan’s challenges to healthier agriculture and eating while sitting in a fast-food restaurant. Just as weight loss programs help us develop better liturgies toward food, Smith contends that the work of the church is to lead us in liturgies that shape our hearts around our beliefs in ways that God works to transform our lives.

I’ll leave you with three questions this provokes for me:

  1. If an outsider were to observe the lives of our congregation or group for a week, what would they conclude we love?
  2. What “liturgies” inside or outside our community seem most formative in shaping these “habits of heart?”
  3. What “liturgies” might we embrace to begin to be formed along the lines of what we believe?


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology

Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology
Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology by Andrew Louth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eastern Orthodoxy is largely unknown territory to me. Icons, mosaics, standing worship, the liturgy and prayers are not part of my experience. Andrew Louth gives us a clear and beautifully written description of this world rooted in the theological beliefs that give shape to Orthodox practice, which itself shapes Orthodox belief. In Orthodoxy, one believes what one prays.

Louth starts with the sources that inform Orthodox theology which include scripture, the Fathers, the Councils, and the liturgy. This last was illuminating to me in understanding that Orthodoxy is not simply rooted in the Seven Ecumenical councils but also in the Fathers and in the liturgical practice of the church.

Louth then walks us through a “systematic” overview of Orthodox theology, beginning with the doctrine of God, the creation, Christ, sin, death, and repentance, being human, sacraments and icons, time and liturgy and eschatology. His chapter on the Trinity was for me worth the price of admission as an example of both careful and reflective thought about the God to whom we pray. Under the category of creation, his exploration of the idea of sophiology, that creation came about through God’s work via Wisdom, a contested idea, was intriguing in terms of asking the question of what would be the nature of such a creation.

His treatment of Christology helps us understand how the Church as a whole came to understand what it means to affirm Christ as both fully God and fully human. Under sin, death, and repentance, the notion of ancestral, as opposed to original sin stood out as of interest–that instead of being responsible for Adam’s sin and sharing in it, we’ve inherited a sinful nature from the first couple. Regarding being human, he explores the notion of Sobornost, the community shaped around common, Conciliar belief and the notion of theosis, or the divinization that is our destiny, not that we become gods but that we are drawn into the being of God, fully reflecting God’s image.

The next two chapters explore some of the most distinctive aspects of Orthodoxy in its emphasis on the physical via sacrament and icon, and in the liturgy. Under this latter, the focus on how infinite space and timelessness are brought into the time and space practice of the liturgy helped me grasp the sense of mystery and wonder that accompanies Orthodox worship. Then his last chapter explores the last things. Most distinctive here were the discussion of how the eucharist brings the future into the present and his concluding discussion of damnation and the possibility discussed by Orthodox theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware (as well as Rob Bell!) that the greatness of God’s love at least allows the possibility of a final universal salvation of all rational beings.

Reading this gave me a glimpse into the Orthodox world and an appreciation for the deep embrace of Orthodoxy of its adherents. I was reminded how much we share in common because of the shared affirmations of the Seven Councils. I was impressed that Orthodoxy has much to contribute to contemporary discussions of Trinitarian theology and the nature of God. The physicality of Orthodox practice challenges the latent gnosticism of much of Western Christianity. I was also aware of the places where we part ways including the concluding points of the book about universal salvation (which would not be embraced by all Orthodox).

What was most significant for me was simply to listen to this voice from within Eastern Orthodoxy that helped me understand the ethos and pathos of Orthodoxy as well as the logos of its doctrine. Louth, as well as theologians like Timothy Kallistos Ware have performed an important work in promoting understanding that might begin to heal this longest-standing divide in Christendom.

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