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Living the Christian Story: The Good News in Worship and Daily Life
by Sister Mary Jean Manninen, CSM
Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000
(117 pages; $12.00, paper)
reviewed by Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
Sister Mary Jean Manninen’s Living the Christian Story opens with a look at the Easter vigil as an illustration that the Christian life is essentially a story:
It is first of all a Story, a Story as long as time and as wide as human life, and a Story into which we are invited to enter. . . . The Story is something given, recounting the mighty acts in history of a personal God. . . . This Story deals with a community, not primarily with individuals, and we experience it first of all in community.
Our Christian faith tells us, through Scripture, that this story consists of certain specific events in history that record the relationship between God and his people. While to the “outsider, and often to the questioning adolescent, this historicity has long presented a problem” in fact the historical nature of the Christian faith is at the core of its identity. So is the fact that Christians today continue to live that story in history. The following chapters in the book take a close look at particular aspects of the Christian story and how we know and live them today.
Her first look is at the Bible: the Bible is, she writes, “the Ground of our story.” “Among a thinking Christian’s first questions needs to be just how he is to read, study, and interpret Holy Scripture, and what place the Bible has in his faith, prayer, and daily life.” Some ways of reading Scripture lead nowhere good: “entrenched literalism,” and “liberalism that claims to rewrite Scripture” both “leave no reason for reading the Bible at all.” For Christians, however, the study of Scripture inspires and indeed should itself be part of prayer. Moreover, it tells us in an authoritative way what we believe, and how we came to know it. One more aspect of her chapter on the Bible looks at the idea of “myth.” With C. S. Lewis, she concludes that there is indeed a Christian myth; the difference between it and other myths “is that the Christian myth is a myth that really happened.”
Next, she looks at the Liturgy: we enter into the “historic reality” of God’s mighty deeds and our own faith just as Jews do at the Passover. We are “the people of God assembled for worship, with special roles and functions” and together we recapitulate the entire Christian story, most especially in the Eucharist. The Liturgy proclaims Scripture to the assembled community, and calls believers to participate actively in the sacred. It is “a drama” with a “definite hierarchy.” The “leader” is “not necessarily chosen for his natural gifts or his ‘worth,’ but an appointed head who is in some sense a representative and an icon of God himself as Father, Shepherd, and Ruler of his people.” By her assertion that this “hierarchical ordering” is simply the biblical way of doing things, and that this “does not in any way contradict the idea that all are of equal worth in the sight of God,” Sister Mary Jean offers a gentle but firm antidote to a common misconception.
A chapter on spiritual warfare also stands out. Ideas of warfare, armor, and battle seem like antiquated concepts for many modern believers who may not have even seen any of the three outside the context of a book or museum. But all are essential to the serious Christian’s spiritual life.
“There is a spiritual world very closely interwoven with our everyday one,” she writes,
. . . and our little struggles have a third dimension, a much bigger and more important one than we usually realize. God not only calls us to a war but also provides us with the equipment for that war. The Word of God, the Word that is the Logos, Jesus himself, is given to Christian soldiers on earth through the written word and through the gifts of God’s grace. The armor is adapted to the needs of each. Each one is to march out to do battle with whatever particular enemies are in his path, in God’s strength and not his own. Then all may come together to know the power of Christ’s resurrection.
Toward the end of the volume, readers encounter a short history of the Community of Saint Mary, founded in New York City by Harriet Starr Cannon in 1865. Sister Mary Jean’s order, of which she was once Mother Superior, is, in her words, “one of the more traditional communities” in the Episcopal Church. Its scriptural and traditional orthodoxy distinguishes it among the many monastic orders that have adopted secular agendas during the past several decades. The Eastern Province—focussed at St. Mary’s Convent in Peekskill, New York—has a medical ministry through the St. Mary’s Healthcare System, a retreat ministry to guests at the convent itself, and of course a powerful and valuable ministry of intercessory prayer for the Church and the world.
Living the Christian Story is a readable, short, and interesting look at the living Christian tradition. Rooted in a respect for the past, with orthodox content and contemporary examples, it deserves a wide readership.
Richard J. Mammana, Jr., is a student at Columbia University, where he plans to complete undergraduate studies before entering seminary with the goal of becoming an Anglican priest.