Monday, 31 December 2012

Review: Journey to the Kingdom

An Insider's Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church

If you buy this book hoping for an explanation of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, you will not be disappointed. In a style that is fresh and approachable, Fr. Vassilios takes the reader through every step of the Liturgy, explaining in detail their primary themes, their meaning and purpose. However, I have to disagree with the author when he writes that “this book could be regarded as a form of liturgical catechism.” It should be regarded as a form of catechism, for that is precisely what it really is. Already by the third chapter, the reader has been provided with a concise and wonderfully clear exposition of Orthodox Triadology, Christology, and the incarnational theology behind icons (the major themes of the 7 Ecumenical Councils), as well as the role of the laity and bishop in forming the Church’s catholicity, among other things. An overview of Church history is obviously beyond the scope of this work, but that aside it is as complete a catechism as any other. What makes this book so much more engaging than other catechisms or introductions to the Orthodox Church, though, is that, being structured around the Divine Liturgy, it is connected to something dynamic and tangible, to sights and sounds, ‘smells and bells’. It thereby avoids the theoretical abstractions and dry formalities that put so many people off the study of theology. This book is theology in action. Fr. Vassilios presents the teachings of the Church in a way any reader can relate to, and shows us that they are not irrelevant philosophies contained in dusty old books, but are deeply practical and meaningful to every Christian. Through the prayers and structure of the Liturgy, he also brings out the major themes of Christian spiritual life – love, humility, sin, repentance, etc. – presenting the timeless wisdom  of Orthodox spirituality in a way that, once again, is engaging and relatable. His explanation of the traditional Orthodox understanding of ‘temptation’ – a word most of us probably think we know the meaning of - in his chapter on the Lord’s Prayer, for example, is one many will probably find surprising and refreshing.

Furthermore, one of the things that have always irked me about many introductions to the Orthodox Church is that what these books and articles really concern are the obvious differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism and/or Protestantism – veneration of icons, intercession of the Mother of God and the saints, conciliarity vs. papacy, etc. – rather than what Orthodoxy actually is: a living and personal relationship with Jesus Christ. While Fr. Vassilios addresses all those issues, this book, by approaching the Orthodox Church through its worship, shows you Orthodoxy on its own terms, rather than in comparison to something else. It is therefore much more balanced than many other works, never allowing itself to be sidetracked by exotic peculiarities and lose sight of the ‘one thing needful’. In a time when people are increasingly unaffiliated with any kind of Christian confession, this is very important indeed.

Those who are already familiar with Fr. Vassilios’ essays and articles will know that he has a talent for presenting difficult and complex subjects in a way that is simple, but not simplistic. This book is no exception. Everything he writes is expressed in a way that is clear, straight forward and easy to understand, but without any sense of ‘dumbing down’. Each of the 20 chapters is short – around 10 pages – which makes it easy to get through without feeling tired, and makes it particularly well suited for use in catechism classes. A good way to get the most out of the book would be to sit down with the text of the Divine Liturgy and read the relevant sections after each chapter. I also really liked the use of caption boxes to explain words and concepts mentioned in the text, rather than relegating them to the forbidding realm of bulky footnotes. The beautifully drawn treasure map on p.7 provides the reader with a wonderfully original way of learning and remembering the structure of the Liturgy, while the photographs that accompany each chapter will be particularly helpful for inquirers who have yet to attend an Orthodox service.

In short, this is an excellent book, equally suited to inquirers and lifelong Orthodox Christians, and one I have already recommended to several people belonging to both those categories.

For more information, sample pages, and other reviews, please see the entry.

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