Lenten and Lent-Adjacent

Review by Cole Hartin

Richard J. Foster’s Learning Humility: A Year of Searching for a Vanishing Virtue is a bit of a puzzle. As a meditation on humility, it is surely a welcome gift during the season of Lent. But the path to the subject is labyrinthine. Instead of a study structured topically or historically, it is a haphazard set of field notes from Foster’s musings in a calendar year, and not a standard Gregorian calendar year, mind you. Foster uses the Lakota calendar instead, because of its “close connection to the earth.” Okay. Foster is part Ojibwa.

So what we have with Learning Humility is a collection of diary entries grouped into the weeks of the 13 Lakota moons. They feel scattered and out of joint at times. Sometimes they are meditations on Scripture or reflections on what the great thinkers of the Christian tradition have had to say about humility. At other times, Foster writes about tending his home fireplace, hiking, or snatches of Lakota history. I am left feeling like these are notes for a book rather than a finished project. Foster has enough of a following, and enough of a legacy, that he can get away with it.

I read the book quickly at first. I didn’t enjoy it. But I submitted to the text and came to be warmed by Foster’s prose. It’s best to think of Foster as a tour guide, rather than a sage. He brings us to saints and has us ponder their writings. One of the few times Foster mentions Lent, he writes:

I’ve tended to have a rather dim view of the contemporary practices surrounding Lent. Often these practices are embarrassingly trivial … perhaps fasting from coffee or chocolate or other equally trite things. And for me the liturgical traditions that have grown up around Lent seem to be little more than efforts at “organized gloom,” with no genuine rationale for the gloom.

I suspect Anglicans might have a different perspective on the liturgical practices of Lent. Foster is not all critical: he is attracted to an Eastern Orthodox practice of adopting an “interior posture of ‘humility and repentance.’” Maybe cultivating this posture can go hand in hand with our liturgical practices.

If Foster addresses Lenten themes in indirect ways, Esau McCaulley tackles them head-on in Lent: The Season of Repentance and Renewal. Lent is the first in IVP’sFullness of Time series, a collection of short “theological and spiritual reflections that seek to provide spiritual formation by helping the reader live fully into the practices of each season.” Each is meant as an “accessible guide to the church year … more than a devotional but less than an academic tome.” If McCaulley’s first contribution is any indication of what is to come, we can expect short (about 100-page), heartfelt reflections written for a popular audience that are beautifully printed and bound.

Other than a short introduction, and an even shorter conclusion, it is divided into four chapters. The first is a meditation on the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the second focuses on Lenten disciplines or rituals, the third is an exegesis of the prayers and Scriptures of Lent, and the last walks us through Holy Week. All of McCaulley’s reflections are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. Though he references the 1662 edition, his primary text is the Episcopal Church’s 1979 prayer book.

McCaulley gives readers an excellent introduction to the season of Lent. It is deeply shaped by Scripture and the prayer book tradition, sprinkled with allusions to McCaulley’s life in Baptist and Anglican churches. The tone is sermonic and there are flashes of insight throughout. For example, in writing about the readings from Palm Sunday, McCaulley notes, “These readings (without extensive commentary) also help us remember that the cross is not just something to discuss, interpret, and understand. It is a thing to behold.”

His discussion of Lenten rituals is also excellent, with its insistence that the spiritual disciplines “open up space to encounter the grace of God” and are not meant to be burdens or ends in themselves. For all of this, though, McCaulley’s writing is sometimes awkward, and the editors would do well to catch some of the typos (such as “Psalm Sunday” on p. 30).

McCaulley’s book is a resource for young Christians or mature believers who are just discovering the Great Tradition of the Church.

Emma Ineson’s Failure: What Jesus Said About Sin, Mistakes, and Messing Stuff Up is not a book about Lent, and it refers to Lent in only a handful of places (see 16, 79). But it is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2023. It follows on the heels of Ineson’s previous book, Ambition (SPCK, 2019). The book seems primarily intended for British people with some knowledge of the Church of England. Ineson is Bishop to the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, and she quotes frequently from Archbishop Justin Welby.

Her book is an attempt to answer some questions about failure, and it may be read “during Lent or at other times of the year — any time when failure may be possible.” Ineson adds that “Lent is a good time to read it, though, because it’s the season when we’re supposed to examine ourselves and see where we’re lacking.”

Though Ineson is privileged (she lists her besetting privileges on p. 4, and again on p. 41) she is qualified to write this book on failure because she lives “with a constant worry” that she “may not be quite good enough.” She is also worried about her community, especially the Anglican Communion. Ultimately, though, she believes she is qualified to write this book about failure because she is a “member of the human race.”

The book has six chapters. After a foreword by Archbishop Welby and a lengthy introduction (chapter 1), Ineson defines failure more generally (chapter 2), before moving to a theology of failure (chapter 3). She then focuses on the failing Church (chapter 4) before moving to Jesus, “the greatest failure of all” (chapter 5). Ineson concludes by giving practical advice about how to “fail well” (chapter 6). Suggestions include learning how to fail widely (in many areas) and how to lose an argument.

The content of the book is extremely fresh, with references to the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, Lambeth 2022, the murder of George Floyd, Brexit, the rising cost of living, and the nastiness of Twitter. This makes the book exceptionally timely, but it may seem stale in a few years. I wonder if it would have been better as a series of blog posts or as an eBook.

The style of the writing is also very strange. Ineson is extremely chatty, her tone informal. This does not stop her from drawing from a variety of sources, classical thinkers (Augustine looms large), liberation theologians, and modern poets. I think she is trying to represent some classical Christian thinking on sin and atonement in a way that is fun and interesting.

I appreciate that her prospective audience is broad, and she is trying to keep her writing inviting. But the wittiness and newsy references made the book feel a little forced, a little too light. It will find its way into many hands during Lent, but I think the Church may be better served if the books by Foster and McCaulley gain more traction.

The Rev. Dr. Cole Hartin is associate rector of Christ Church, Tyler, Texas.


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