Antiochian Scholar Releases Two New Titles
Dr. Bradley Nassif is a scholar and author known especially for his ecumenical involvement and active role in Orthodox evangelism. Raised within the Orthodox Church as a Lebanese-American, Dr. Nassif is currently Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He has served as a teacher for the Antiochian House of Studies and is a member of Holy Transfiguration Antiochian Orthodox Church in Warrenville, Illinois.
This spring, Dr. Nassif released two new books with broad appeal to both Orthodox and Christians from other traditions. Antiochian.org asked him about these titles and how they came about.
1. You have just released two new books with Zondervan. Tell us the back story for each one--what were your objectives in becoming involved in each project?
Bringing Jesus to the Desert is a book about the desert fathers and mothers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria from the 3rd to 6th centuries. Dr. Gary Burge from Wheaton College invited me to write this book as part of a series he's editing titled "Ancient Context, Ancient Faith." Each book, including mine, can stand on its own. But together, they focus on the theme of the desert as it appears in the Bible and early Christian literature.
I wrote the book with two goals in mind: First, to introduce readers to a group of desert dwellers whose stories and sayings were once well-known, but now tragically forgotten. Most Christians know about such people as Sts. Augustine, Anthony of Egypt, John of the Cross and other greats. But very few have even heard of Sts. Makarios, Pachomius, Melania, John the Little, Moses the Ethiopian, or Simeon the Stylite (a "pillar saint" in Syria). So I take readers on a journey back in time and travel through the deserts to meet these people and to hear their ancient wisdom.
The second reason why I wrote the book was to inspire Christians to a life of greater wisdom. Too many books nowadays are abstract or filled with flowery, verbal artistry. But average people today long for simple, direct teaching on how to follow Christ in their daily routines. So I wrote this for the common Christian -- the business person, homemaker, grocery clerk, doctors, nurses, sales people, CEO's as well as for the clergy. I wanted something simple, but solid; easy, yet profound and wise. And I found that in the desert fathers.
The book Four Views of Christian Spirituality is a dialogical conversation between a Catholic (Scott Hahn), Mainline Liberal Protestant (Joe Driskoll from Berkeley), Evangelical (Evan Howard) and Orthodox (me). Each of us wrote an essay on how their tradition understands Christian spirituality. I titled mine "Orthodox Spirituality: A Quest for Transfigured Humanity." After each of us wrote our essay, the other three writers could respond to what was written as viewed from their own theological background. The end result is a book that gives readers an overview of similarities and differences within the Christian tradition. By the way, my essay can serve as a companion piece to an earlier one I wrote titled "The Evangelical Theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church" in Three Views on Eastern Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism, ed. James Stamoolis (Zondervan).
2. Re: the Four Views project, what emerged as the central shared belief or doctrine, and what emerged as the most noticeable difference?
The central shared belief was the call to enter into the inner love-life of the Holy Trinity. We are called to communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Catholics, Evangelicals and Orthodox all hold these truths as central to Christian spirituality. Mainline liberal Protestantism, however, does not. That was the most noticeable difference. There is absolutely no gospel in mainline Protestantism because Jesus Christ had no Incarnation, sacrifical death, resurrection or ascension. It's all about civic work and fraternal organizations. As the Catholic writer Scott Hahn put it, " 'If Christ has not been raised,' it's hard to see how progressive mainline spirituality can ever be more interesting, relevant, or inspiring than actual direct participation in local government or civic philanthropic clubs."
3. Tell us what you believe is gained by interacting with, and speaking to, non-Orthodox Christians of various denominations and groups?
The greatest gain from intra-Christian dialogue is Christian unity. In John 17 Jesus prayed for the unity of all His people. The Orthodox are not the only children God has in this world. There are wonderful fellow Christians in historic Protestant and Catholic communities, too. So true dialogue can never be just a monologue. We must listen as well as speak. Yes, we believe Orthodoxy possess the fulness of the faith; but we are also called to listen what our brothers and sisters from other denominations have to say to us. And this listening must be authentic, not fake. Our witness to the world can be improved if we are willing to be self-critical -- to correct our imbalances or misplaced emphases in the way we live our faith in the world (not in what we believe). We have much to gain for Christ by working together with evangelical and Catholic Christians in moral and social causes. The late Chuck Colson was a champion of this vision, which I also share.
4. Re: Bringing Jesus to the Desert, why do you think the legacy of the Desert Fathers and Mothers has endured across space and time?
Their legacy has endured across the centuries because they embody the victory of truth in their lives in a very clear and simple way. "Christ is Risen!" and for that reason they are victorious over "the world, the flesh and the devil." They reveal that the heart is where all our troubles arise. The heart is the core battleground of human existence. The heart is where sin is conquered, the passions are destroyed, and human nature is renewed. That's why their life and teachings are so relevant and timeless -- their struggles speak to the core of Christian living across the centuries and across the cultures.
5. What principles of the spiritual life from the desert saints speak the most to us still today?
That's a hard question to answer since the whole book is about principles of the spiritual life. If I were to boil it down to a few essential points, I would say the following: The goal of the desert fathers is to love as God loves. As Anthony of Egypt put it, "Your life and death are with your neighbor." Moses the Ethiopian taught that a Christian must "die to his neighbor and never judge him at all, in any way whatever...To die to one's neighbor is this: To bear your own faults and not to pay attention to anyone else wondering whether they are good or bad." Likewise, Makarios exhorted, "The remembrance of wrongs robs us from the memory of God." A tender story was also told about John the Little who was so filled with love for people that he retrieved a prostitute from a brothel on the very day she would die. I could go on... But it all adds up to one simple lesson that is told in a thousand different stories and sayings: We are called to love God with all our heart, and our neighbor as ourselves. That's why the desert dwellers engaged in great feats of asceticism. They fasted much because they were hungry for God; they slept little so they could be spiritually awake; they memorized Scripture so their thoughts could be renewed. All this adds up to one simple goal: to love as God loves. The tender stories and colorful sayings by these ancient desert dwellers will hopefully inspire readers to reach that same destination.
Dr. Nassif is available for lectures and weekend retreats on the topic, "Desert Wisdom for City Dwellers." For parishes interested in sponsoring a retreat, contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.