"Bringing Jesus to the Desert" talked about prominent men and women from the third to sixth centuries who lived in the deserts of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt with the hope that doing so would allow them to grow closer in likeness to Christ. The book was full of color pictures of the desert, monasteries, paintings of saints, and more.
The author started by mentioning places in the Bible where people lived in the desert and how it impacted them, and then he moved into a description of the early monastic movement. He described what drew people to the monk lifestyle in early centuries, what they believed, and what their goals were in going to deserted places and living in certain ways (such as a hermit, in a communal monastery, and even on a pillar).
He then described the lives of several monks, their teachings, how their experiences in the desert helps us better understand Biblical narratives & teachings, how their lives and teachings influenced early Christianity, and what we can learn from them. He covered the lives of Anthony of Egypt (chapter 2), Makarios of Egypt (chapter 3), Pachomius (chapter 4), Melania the Younger (chapter 5), John the Little, Moses the Ethiopian, and Simeon the Stylite (chapter 6).
I found this brief overview of these people's lives interesting, and it made me curious to learn more about them. I gained some insights about the early monastic movement and what they believed. Overall, I'd recommend this book to those interested in learning more about early church history.
I received this book as an eGalley from the publisher through netGalley.
Bradley Nassif is a Lebanese-American whose grandfather immigrated to America from Lebanon a century ago. Thus, Nassif brings a cultural connection with Middle Eastern Christianity that most U.S. evangelicals lack, and he wants to share the riches of this tradition that he knows so intimately. In this book, he focuses on the early Christian monastic tradition, from the third to the sixth century. This short volume is essentially an attempt to help evangelical Christians appreciate the Christian monastic tradition – it might have been entitled “Bringing Evangelicals to the Desert.”
Nassif begins his tour with a brief introduction to the place of the desert in early Christianity, as well as to the people who began to populate the desert. Rich illustrations give glimpses of the stark scenery, photographs of various artifacts, and a sampling of icons of famous desert saints. Peppering his discourse with biblical citations, Nassif presents his defense of the monastic way of life in general, before proceeding with his treatments of individual figures.
The next chapter introduces Anthony of Egypt, giving a biography of this monastic pioneer. After recounting several anecdotes about the famous hermit, Nassif translates his account into three lessons that contemporary Christians can learn from Anthony. First, we must be transformed by God “into the image and likeness of Jesus Christ” (49). Second, we must have our minds renewed by God, through “the hard work of holiness” (50). And finally – and perhaps surprising to hear, coming from a hermit – we must love our neighbor.
We then move on to Abba Makarios of Egypt, many of whose sayings are preserved in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Nassif passes on several delightful and edifying anecdotes about Makarios, as well as numerous shorter sayings. For example, Makarios warns, “If we keep remembering the wrongs which men have done to us, we destroy the power of the remembrance of God” (65). Makarios urges the brothers to meditate on Scriptures, to look to God for help, and to pray short prayers like, “Lord, help!” or “Lord, have mercy!” (60).
From these famous solitary men, we then turn to Pachomius, a key figure in the development of coenobitic or communal monasticism. Pachomius is described as someone who called others to meet God in the desert, just as Jacob, Moses, David, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Jesus had. Nassif then moves from description to exhortation, as he calls evangelical Christians to continue to “[rediscover] the ancient practice of spiritual direction” (87). Nassif draws on his Lebanese-American background to illustrate the value of respecting one’s spiritual elders. He closes the chapter by pointing out the importance of Bible memorization in the Pachomian community, and he urges contemporary Christians to follow suit.
The fifth chapter describes the influence of Melania the Younger on Christian monasticism, showing that there was no male monopoly on spiritual practices in the ancient world. With regard to the modern world, Nassif suggests that “there is every reason for us to follow Melania’s example by encouraging women to pursue their gifts as spiritual guides and theological mentors” (106). This chapter may receive mixed reviews in some evangelical circles, but it is faithful to the biblical record of holy women gifted by God.
Finally, Nassif devotes a chapter to “Colorful Characters,” focusing his attention on John the Little, Moses the Ethiopian, and Simeon the Stylite. With the former two figures, Nassif draws on the few but fascinating accounts in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Simeon, however, has left more of a literary record, and Nassif explores the radical nature of this man who stood on top of a fifty-foot pillar for some thirty-six years! Could there be a need, he asks, for more countercultural voices in our day?
Nassif closes by summarizing the contents of his book briefly, and by then encouraging his readers to visit an Arab Orthodox or Coptic church to experience the ancient liturgical rites of the Eastern church. Most of us will not live anywhere near such a church, but we can still appreciate the lessons of these saints of old. There is a rich monastic tradition that evangelicals have long regarded with suspicion, but Nassif demonstrates the value of a more generous view. For bringing the riches of the desert to us, he is to be warmly thanked.
This book would form a great seven-week book study for small groups, and it could also play a role in an undergraduate course on Christian spirituality.