One of the best ways we can grasp the idea of an incar­na­tion­al lifestyle” is to look at peo­ple in the past who have blazed the trail ahead of us and have shared their jour­ney with us. I list for your growth and read­ing select­ed indi­vid­u­als, along with some of their writ­ings, that are shin­ing examples. 

John Wool­man

John Wool­man is, for me, per­haps the most stel­lar exam­ple of how this way of liv­ing actu­al­ly works. Oth­ers have felt the same. Charles Lamb intones, The only Amer­i­can book I ever read twice was the Jour­nal of Wool­man.… Get the writ­ings of John Wool­man by heart.” Emer­son agreed — I find more wis­dom in these pages than in any oth­er book writ­ten since the days of the apostles.” 

Why would an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Quak­er tai­lor, busi­ness­man, and min­is­ter of Christ engen­der such com­ments? Find out for your­self by read­ing The Jour­nal and Major Essays of John Wool­man. I rec­om­mend the Phillips P. Moul­ton edition.

Russ­ian Authors

Those who wove their Chris­tian­i­ty through­out a lit­er­ary life are many and var­ied. For nov­el­ists we can do no bet­ter than turn to the Rus­sians, in par­tic­u­lar, Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky, Leo Tol­stoy, and in our day Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Pun­ish­ment and The Broth­ers Kara­ma­zov are philo­soph­i­cal detec­tive sto­ries in which both the mur­der­er and the mean­ing of life are simul­ta­ne­ous­ly pur­sued. His nov­el The Idiot gives us an engag­ing Christ-fig­ure in Prince Mishkin (you see, the For­rest Gump char­ac­ter is noth­ing new) and asks the pen­e­trat­ing ques­tion of all who blithe­ly con­form to con­tem­po­rary soci­etal norms, Who is the real idiot?” 

Tol­stoy is known for War and Peace and Anna Karen­i­na in which he engages us in the great strug­gles of human souls from war to peace and love — love between men and women, love of coun­try, and supreme­ly Chris­t­ian love. But I must admit I am not as intrigued with Tol­stoy as a writer as I am with him as a tor­tured, strug­gling soul him­self. And I am touched by his sup­port of a small Russ­ian sect, the Dukhobors, whom I had brief con­tact with as a col­lege student. 

Solzhen­it­syn ranks with the oth­er two both as a lit­er­ary fig­ure and for the way he inte­grates his Chris­t­ian wit­ness into the very warp and woof of who he is and what he writes. One Day in the Life of Ivan Deniso­vich, Can­cer Ward, and The Gulag Arch­i­pel­ago will star­tle you, dis­turb you, and deep­en you.

Dorothy Say­ers

I like Dorothy Say­ers for the way she could with equal ease write mas­ter­ful detec­tive fic­tion and pow­er­ful Chris­t­ian apolo­get­ics in her plays and essays. Her detec­tive sto­ries with their ama­teur detec­tive Lord Peter Wim­sey are rat­ed by those who know about these things (I’m not qual­i­fied) as among the clas­sics of the genre, being out­stand­ing for their well-researched back­grounds, dis­tin­guished style, obser­vant char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, and inge­nious plot­ting. Her play The Man Born To Be King and essays — Towards a Chris­t­ian Aes­thet­ic” and The Mind of the Mak­er” — are all worth care­ful attention.

Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach

When we turn to music, there sim­ply is no bet­ter exam­ple of incar­na­tion­al liv­ing than Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach. Arguably the great­est com­pos­er ever, Bach wrote over three hun­dred can­tatas which include five com­plete cycles in the Luther­an Church year. He wrote music of all kinds, and in each case he dis­crete­ly indi­cat­ed his depen­dence upon God. At the begin­ning of each work he would jot the let­ters J. J. (Jesu Juva, Jesus Help) or I. N. J. (In Nomine Jesu, In the Name of Jesus). At the end of each piece he often wrote S. D. G. (Solo Deo Glo­ria, To the Glo­ry of God Alone). At the bot­tom of his Lit­tle Organ Book he wrote For the glo­ry of the most high God alone. And for my neigh­bor to learn from.” 

For lis­ten­ing plea­sure the Mass in B Minor, St. Matthew’s Pas­sion, the Christ­mas Ora­to­rio, and a vari­ety of the Can­tatas are good places to begin. (John Rutter’s ren­di­tions are excel­lent.) For read­ing enjoy­ment you might con­sid­er Albert Schweitzer’s J. S. Bach and his Bach’s Com­plete Organ Works. Or you might want to look at Bach Among the The­olo­gians by Jaroslav Pelikan.

Susan­na Wesley

One more exam­ple of incar­na­tion­al liv­ing will have to suf­fice — Susan­na Wes­ley. Here was a bril­liant woman (she learned Greek, Latin, and French in her teens) who devot­ed her­self to home and fam­i­ly — she had nine­teen chil­dren. The whole house­hold life moved as if to a timetable under Susanna’s lead­er­ship. She pro­vid­ed week­ly one-on-one time with each child; Thurs­day after­noon was the appoint­ed hour for time with her son John who was des­tined to found and lead the great Methodist move­ment that has so pro­found­ly influ­enced the whole of Chris­t­ian history. 

Anoth­er son, Charles, was to become the cel­e­brat­ed hymn writer that gave Methodists — indeed the whole Chris­t­ian world — a wealth of hymns and songs. And it was Susan­nah that pro­vid­ed them with the intel­lec­tu­al devel­op­ment and spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­pline nec­es­sary for their great work. 

To learn more about Susan­na, I sug­gest W. L. Doughty’s The Prayers of Susan­na Wes­ley, Susan­na Wes­ley by Arnold A. Dal­limore, and Susan­na Wes­ley: God’s Cat­a­lyst for Revival by Don­ald L. Kline.

And Many Others…

Space hin­ders my con­tin­u­ing. I could just as quick­ly writ­ten about Michelan­ge­lo and Chaucer and Rem­brandt and T. S. Eliot and Sir Isaac New­ton and Samuel John­son and William Wilbur­force and so many oth­ers. These ster­ling exam­ples of how to incar­nate Chris­t­ian wit­ness into all walks of life are pow­er­ful­ly instruc­tive as we seek to be faith­ful to Christ where we live day by day

Going Deep­er

We fea­ture in this issue two hard-to-find books that we believe need to be brought to the atten­tion of the read­ing pub­lic — both deal­ing with aspects of incar­na­tion­al living.”

The first—The Reflec­tive Exec­u­tive: A Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty of Busi­ness and Enter­prise—is writ­ten by one of our Ren­o­varé team mem­bers, Emi­lie Grif­fin. Mov­ing beyond reli­gious dress­ing over the mar­ket­place, she delves into the soul of busi­ness and enter­prise: To restruc­ture the mar­ket­place accord­ing to God’s design for us is more than a mat­ter of Bibles on desk­tops and times set aside for prayer dur­ing the busi­ness day. Although these signs of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty are worth­while, they are still no more than ran­dom leaves of grass crop­ping up through the cracks of Wall Street.”

It is a joy to hear Griffin’s own sto­ries devel­op­ing adver­tis­ing cam­paigns for com­pa­nies like ALCOA Alu­minum and Ivory Soap; equal­ly enjoy­able are the sto­ries she tells of J. C. Pen­ney, S. W. Gra­ham, and oth­ers. Most of all I am encour­aged by her call for a kind of entre­pre­neur­ial, even a cor­po­rate, poet­ics” which can envi­sion how com­merce might make the world bet­ter instead of worse, might lift the yoke of oppres­sion and break the bonds, if not of polit­i­cal, then at least of eco­nom­ic enslavement.”

Arthur O. Roberts is a for­mer phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor of mine, and he kind­ly invit­ed me to write the Fore­word to his new book, Mes­sen­gers of God: The Sen­su­ous Side of Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Dr. Roberts sees the sens­es as the of mes­sen­gers of God” espe­cial­ly when rea­son inter­ro­gates the sens­es.” By sens­es” he is refer­ring lit­er­al­ly to our hear­ing and see­ing and smelling and tast­ing and touch­ing. Per­haps few of us have thought of these every­day expe­ri­ences as hav­ing much to do with spir­i­tu­al life. But Arthur Roberts seems them as cru­cial. A prac­ti­cal spir­i­tu­al­i­ty,” he writes, acknowl­edges that God is in the com­mu­ni­ca­tions loop made pos­si­ble by our senses.”

With the skill of one at home in the con­trast­ing worlds of sci­ence and poet­ry, he has tak­en mass­es of tech­ni­cal data about the sens­es and makes them under­stand­able to us, even sig­nif­i­cant. We are indeed fear­ful­ly and won­der­ful­ly made.”

Arthur Roberts invites us into a way of liv­ing that is world affirm­ing and life giv­ing. It is a way that involves the intel­li­gent inter­ro­ga­tion of the sens­es acknowl­edged as the mes­sen­gers of God, with appro­pri­ate dis­ci­plines to fol­low. A spir­i­tu­al life can be a sen­so­ry life, but it need not be a vain and extrav­a­gant one.” This is a way of liv­ing worth our best efforts. Mes­sen­gers of God will help chart our course.

Originally published July 1996

Join the 2020-21 Renovaré Book Club

An inten­tion­al way to read for trans­for­ma­tion. Cur­rent­ly under­way and runs through May 2021.

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