John Michael Talbot, with Mike Aquilina. The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today. New York: Image, 2015. See here to buy the book.
John Michael Talbot is a Christian musician who became a Catholic. In The Ancient Path, Talbot tells some of his own story and talks about the church fathers.
Talbot covers a range of topics: the importance of having spiritual fathers, the sacraments, the Catholic hope that humans can become like God (deification), fasting, how one church father used a short Jesus prayer to keep his congregants from falling into heresy, Mariology, charity and asceticism, God’s gift of the physical world, church tradition, and the use of music by the church fathers and their opponents.
There are many parts of the book that strike me as an apologetic for Catholicism. There were times when I wondered why Talbot considered certain aspects of Catholicism to be important, in terms of their practical value to human beings, and Talbot did not really cover that. He believed in those aspects because he thought that they were true and went back to the apostles (though, occasionally, he offers a messier view of Christian history).
Sometimes, however, Talbot offers practical reasons for certain doctrines or practices, and he makes interesting points in so doing. He argued that the Eucharist and charity go together, since both stress physicality. He also said that some of the church fathers fasted to prepare themselves to be committed to Christ even in tough times, when they may have to choose between Christ and eating.
I was also interested to learn from this book that the desert fathers practiced charity for the poor and sick. Some Protestants stereotype monastics as people who escape the world and do not have a redemptive effect on it, but that is not the case.
While Talbot denies that his work is an academic introduction to the church fathers, it can be useful to people with an academic interest or to students, for Talbot offers documented quotes from the fathers, recommends secondary sources in the notes, and even has a helpful timeline of events in church history.
My favorite passage in the book is on pages 189-190. Talbot has just talked about Mary’s pervasive presence throughout the New Testament, and he looks retrospectively at his time in the Jesus Movement: “Maybe it was so quiet, and I—-at least in my Jesus Movement phase—-was always ready with an argument backed up by twenty proof texts. While I was reaching into God’s Word for artillery and ammunition, I missed her quiet but constant virginal presence.” That is the beautiful passage. The ironic thing is that, even in this book, Talbot seems to be in argument mode, and I wished that he spent more time expressing why he found certain Catholic doctrines to be important, inspiring, and beautiful, not just true. Still, he did do that occasionally, and his book is a useful resource on the church fathers.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.