Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Ancient Path by John Michael Talbot

I need to make a confession: Before reading John Michael Talbot's (JMT) The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today, I knew very little about the man.  Sure, I knew about him and had heard some of his music before, mostly through his collaboration with Christian recording artist Micheal Card.  I think I had also seen him on TV from time to time.  Overall, however, I knew very little about his life, background, or ministry work.  I tried not to read any descriptions of this book either, before actually receiving a review copy from Image.  In the end, I just wanted to read about JMT in his own words.  I am very glad I did, since I thoroughly enjoyed The Ancient Path.  If you have ever been interested in learning more about the man, this is the book for you.  However, this isn't simply an autobiography.  JMT, along with well-known Catholic writer and speaker Mike Aquilina, weave the autobiographical moments within the context of JMT's discovery of the early Church Fathers.  One might be tempted to think this would produce an uneven work, but I can assure you that it is both entertaining and informative.  

Two chapters, in particular, stood out to me.  In chapter 4, JMT writes about how he was first introduced to the Church Fathers via St. Francis of Assisi.  His attraction to St. Francis led him to search out how this great saint had been formed, which led him to the Desert Fathers of Egypt and the other early Church Fathers.  JMT quickly realized that this tradition went even further back through the New Testament into the Old Testament as well. His life within Protestant Christianity was of course well-formed in the Scriptures, but he began to see the role that tradition plays in the life of the all Christians, even if some denominations don't formally accept it.  JMT goes on to describe how he discovered the Apostolic Fathers, most notably that very early document The Didache.  He comes to realize that the Catholic Church "is the same Church I encountered in the works of the Apostolic Fathers (64)."  "The Church, in fact, was the ordinary means of salvation established by Jesus, and it applied salvation by means of the sacramental mysteries, also established by Jesus (63-64)."  JMT begins to see this most clearly in The Didache.  A book which is concerned with both the morals and the worship of the early Christian community.  Some have dated this document to the late first century, which means it could have been written around the same time as some of the later books of the New Testament.  

In a very beautiful way, JMT points out that The Didache's emphasis on morals and worship are really directed to relationship.  He explains: "Arguably, it's not primarily about morals.  It's about relationship with Jesus--relationship in a way that unites his followers in tangible ways: in lifestyle, leadership, and worship.  Christian morality flows from that relationship with Jesus, leads back to him, and causes that relationship to grow stronger through real personal and communal holiness (65)."    So often we get caught up in the rules, particularly in the area of morality, without really understanding the point.  I teach high school kids theology every day, and one of the biggest challenges is in assisting them to see the Church's moral theology as being rooted in relationship with Christ.  This relationship is then initiated and nourished by the Sacraments, most importantly Baptism and the Eucharist.  As JMT points out, our relationship is never only personal, but, as clearly seen in The Didache, it contains a necessary communal dimension.  It also presents salvation, and the Christian life, "not as a matter of a moment, but as a way of life (67)."  All of this helped him open his eyes to seeing the connection between early Church and the Catholic Church.  It is that same Church that continues to provide those gifts of salvation: "In Baptism and the Eucharist, we know true communion with God in all his glory....in our spirit, we know union with his Spirit (72)." 

Chapter 5, which is concerned with community, was also a joy to read as well.  JMT is now ready to push forward in his new Catholic life with rapid speed, but he is tempered by his spiritual director Fr. Martin, who had agreed to take him on.  Fr. Martin rightly saw that there needed to be healing in JMT's life. While at this point in time, JMT had left his rock n' roll lifestyle, he still needed to heal wounds from his failing marriage.  Over time it became clear that the marriage was not going to be healed, so Fr. Martin led him through the annulment process.  JMT reminds his readers that "God did not design the human family to be broken, but we break it by our sin (78)."  He then writes about that "painful year" awaiting the judgement of the Church.  Many have gone through this process, which can be a very difficult, isolating process.  I have experienced this in my own life, feeling much the same way JMT when he writes "I wanted to be like the good kings of the Old Testament.  I intended to do penance so that the effect of my sins would not be visited upon future generations (78)."  However, in that "painful year" of "unbearable isolation" as one waits to hear back from the local Tribunal, many feelings cross your mind and heart.  In my case, once I received the positive ruling granting the annulment, I began to realize how much I had relied on the Lord during that year.  I also received comfort from the parish community of which I was a part.  Reading through this difficult time for JMT reminded me of my own experiences and the important healing I needed to go through.  

The rest of chapter 5 deals with how JMT begins forming his Franciscan community of lay men and women, both single and married.  In doing so, he looks to the early writers on monasticism, most notably John Chrysostom, Saint Basil the Great, John Cassian, and Benedict of Nursia.  Captivated by Benedict's Rule, JMT begins to build a small hermitage and becomes a Third Order Franciscan.  Looking back on how things came together so quickly, he remarks: "Perhaps I should have been more afraid than I was.  But I had seen, along the ancient path, that God is not afraid of new ventures (90)."  I am grateful for these words, and also grateful that the Lord was not afraid to journey with me into new ventures.      

There is, of course, so much more to this book.  I heartily recommend The Ancient Path to anyone who is interested in the topics of conversion or the Church Fathers.  I would even go as far as to say that if you are a bit intimidated by reading the Church Fathers, this book could serve as a primer or introduction to them.  However, the soul of this book is the life of John Michael Talbot, a man who has sought the Lord both in times of joy and difficulty.  Thank you to Image for providing me with a review copy.  For more information about this wonderful book, including an interview with John Michael Talbot, please head on over to the Image website where you can read an excerpt of The Ancient Path.  Thank you to Katie, at Image, for including me in the blog tour.  

JOHN MICHAEL TALBOT, the author of 27 books including the best selling Troubadour for the Lord and The Lessons of St. Francis, is one of the pioneering fathers of Contemporary Christian music with multi-platinum sales. He has received, among many other honors, Dove Awards and Grammy nominations. He tours constantly inspiring the faith of Christians of all denominations through inspirational preaching, lectures and sacred music. In 2014, Talbot premiered a new inspirational TV series on The Church Channel (TBN) called “All Things Are Possible” reaching a global audience in the hundreds of millions.


owen swain said...


Thanks for the review. I'm in a buy no book zone now or I would consider getting this. Let me tell you an anecdotal story instead.

Interesting unimportant factoid: in 1979 I was a wet behind the ears new Christian. I was, then as now, a huge music lover. Someone told me there was "Christian this music" and "Christian that music". I had no idea.

Walked into the suggested "Christian bookstore", all new to me. There was a small record section. There was no way to sample music and I saw all kinds of artists I did not recognize at all except one, Bob Dylan. What? He's a Christian? I loved Dylan's work. Slow Train Comin'. Bought it. Next to it in the "new" bin was an dark looking album with a really big silver wine cup-like looking thing, pieces of some sort of round flat bread, fat juicy grapes and resting behind a guitar. The title was "The Lord's Supper". Well, I knew what that was but it had a track listing with titles that I had no frame of reference for, like Creed I, Creed II, Lamb of God (I knew who that was), Communion Song (really, there was one specific one?) and some things I knew from my local get-saved church like, Holy, Holy, Holy and The Lord's Prayer. Some guy named John Michael Talbot who looked quite a lot like Jesus himself, or someone who'd missed the turn off for Woodstock. Never heard of him but I had enough cash for two LPs so I decided to get it.

I have no idea what I expected but it wasn't what I expected. Even so, I was instantly drawn to it. I learned that album inside out. Found myself wishing we had something like this in my get-saved church. I had no idea that I was singing portions of the Mass. I had no idea what a Mass was. Not for years, decades, well after 18 of them as a Protestant minister. I know, right?

Forgot all about JMT until about a year so so after we entered the Church and I was working in a mom n pop Christian retail store. In a discount CD bin there it was. Full circle.

From the first year I "got-saved" had God been gently wooing me to his historic Church, his ancient path?

Russ NY said...

This book looks good. I have Aquilina's A Year with the Fathers and like it very much.