Landmarks and Resting Places

The Journeyby Alister McGrathDoubleday. 147p $17.95

The author of this book takes a simple idea and makes the best of it. The idea is to use the tried and true metaphor of the life of faith as a journey on which difficulties chronically deter pilgrims, who return to the starting gate over and over. McGrath understands well this frustration because he, too, had been a recidivist until he was able to recognize that the spiritual journey, like any other journey, needed a map, a compass, companionship and the willingness to try a new route to get out of the rut in which he found himself.

An accomplished academic in the field of historical theology, McGrath had no difficulty appreciating the trustworthiness and reliability of the Scriptures, but he found that reading the Scriptures as a series of factual statements and not as an involved pilgrim was at the root of his problems. He credits Ludolf of Saxony as the one who gave his spiritual life a new lease with the suggestion that he enter the world of the Gospels as though the past events were happening in the present moment. In his academic and professional life, McGrath understood. From Ludolf he came to see that he needed to experience the reality that lay behind the words of the holy writings. Affect and the imagination were to be nurtured, and McGrath apparently followed with profit Ludolf’s suggestions to go with the Wise Men to Bethlehem.... Help his parents carry the Child and present him in the Temple.... Accompany the Good Shepherd as he performs his miracles.... Touch his body with a kind of devout curiosity.

Although set on firmer ground, thanks to Ludolf, McGrath knew that an unobstructed path did not lie ahead. What he found for himself, he suggests to othersnamely, that we hitch a ride with great spiritual writers and thinkers of the past and learn from and be encouraged by them. Fortunately for us, these precursors often left behind ruttersan archaic term referring to books in which a ship’s pilot recorded minute details of a voyage so that the steps could be retraced in safety. More than a map, a rutter is an amalgam of geography, expertise and personal experience. A rutter points out landmarks to orient us, wildernesses where the going gets rough and oases where refreshment recharges our batteries. Rutters are therefore indispensable to hitchhikers, and they form the structure for the stages McGrath identifies in The Journey.

Four landmarks frame that journey for the Christian: creation, exile, redemption and consummation. These are paralleled by four wildernesses: Doubt, Failure, Fear and Suffering, and four oases: refreshment, rest, fellowship and feast. Readers will find these terms familiar and even old fashioned, and the counsel offered to hitchhikers likewise has the same ring to it. Listen, for example, to McGrath extrapolating for us the guidance of Isaac Watts at the redemption landmark:

So how does Watts encourage us on our journey?... Watts’s hymn calls to mind the cost of our redemption and the enormous privilege of being called to share in the journey of faith. So often we see it as a burden; in reality, it is a privilege. Our Lord has already been through whatever pain and sorrow we know and experience along the way. He knows and understands what we are going through. He has been there himself.

In addition to Watts, McGrath hitches rides with Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, J. I. Packer, Anselm of Canterbury, Alexander MacLaren, Susanna Wesley, John Bunyan, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, John Stott, Horatius Bonar and C. S. Lewis. Thumbnail biographies introduce guides with whom we may not be acquainted, and very brief excerpts from their rutters intersperse McGrath’s straightforward commentary. Lewis fans may be disappointed to find that only one well-worn paragraph is quoted from Surprised by Joy, with the vision of a heavenly Narnia as the backdrop for the feast oasis of the last stage of the spiritual journey. McGrath sums things up this way:

As Lewis’s Narnia feast utterly surpasses the bleakness and drabness of wartime England, so the New Jerusalem will transcend anything we currently know. We can take great comfort from the thought that heaven is like the best of this worldonly better.

Many writers of the last hundred years, C. S. Lewis prime among them, have tried to contemporize the spiritual journey with its high and low points for new generations of men and women. McGrath is not among these. His strength is to leave the wisdom of ages past intact for readers to make their own way and to find their own meaning and sustenance.

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