Bringing Jesus to the Desert
Brad Nassif “Bringing Jesus to the Desert” (Ancient Context, Ancient Faith) [Zondervan, 2012]
“Through the third to sixth centuries, great Christian men and women colonized the deserts of Palestine, Syria and Egypt, shaping the church through their examples of faith and devotion. History now knows them as the Desert Fathers and Mothers and their lives display an unswerving commitment to the love of Christ sorely needed in today’s world. Bradley Nassif tells the story of how the deserts of the Holy Land forged a holy people and a lasting legacy of faith. As part of the Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series, Middle Eastern lands, culture and history directly undergird this exploration of ancient spirituality. Surveying the lives of Anthony of Egypt, Pachomius, Melania and others, Nassif demonstrates how the wilderness experiences chronicled in Scripture guided the practice of Christian faith in biblical lands. Bringing Jesus to the Desert can help pastors, Bible students and lay learners trace God’s work in the past and draw on the power of God in the desert places of their own lives.”
“Written by Bradley Nassif “Bringing Jesus to the Desert” is part history, part memoir, part survey of the richness, diversity, and depth of the Eastern Church as it found its way into the desert. When reading Paul’s letters for example we see a very urban type of Christianity as Christians lived in major cities like Rome, Jerusalem, Damascus, Corinth, and Athens. However, with the rise of Constantine the Great and the increasing political influence of the Emperor Christians began moving further and further into the desert and created little communities in Egypt, Syria, Jordan, among others.
Nassif is a graduate of Fordham University and is currently a professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago, IL. Nassif is also a practicing Orthodox Christian as well which also enlightens and enlivens the current volume.
This book is rich with colorful photographs of monasteries, churches, monks, priests, ancient manuscripts, as well as a photo or two of his family. The saying goes that a picture tells 1,000 words and that is true. Nassif weaves his own family narrative into the larger story of the spread of Eastern Christianity. His family has roots in the Middle East so he has the wealth of knowledge when it comes to the culture, religion, and society of the time. There are pictures of his beloved Sitti, or grandmother as well as of his uncle and other family members. It reminds me of Paul’s emphasis on the Church as the body of Christ. We tend to think of that metaphor in terms of its larger context but in Nassif’s case it is real, each member of his or her family influenced him in big and small ways, especially regarding his faith formation and upbringing.
Bringing Jesus to the Desert includes six chapters:
Holy Land, Holy People
Anthony of Egypt
Makarios of Egypt
Colorful Characters: John the Little, Moses the Ethiopian, and Simeon the Stylite
While reading this book I was grateful for Nassif’s work. There are many scholarly texts on each of the people mentioned above as well as thick tomes about desert spirituality as it is commonly called but very few basic, easy to read, entry level books for the average person. Who would read this book? Probably a non-Orthodox Christian who wants to learn more about the first few centuries of Christianity after Jesus or even an Orthodox Christian who might want to learn more about his or her faith.”
“Interest in desert spirituality continues to grow, with more people getting dissatisfied with contemporary offerings. New age spirituality, motivational talks, and all kinds of technological advancement are still deficient when it comes to plain, down to earth spirituality. There is much to be learnt from the desert fathers of old. Even as many modern folks tend to see old stuff being old-fashioned and backward, when compared to all the scientific prowess and technological advancements of late, wisdom proves to be something that science and technology badly lacked, and sorely needed. In this book, Bradley Nassif brings together a few of the more prominent desert fathers. The main conviction of the author is that there is much profound truths to be learned from these desert monks that can be applied to modern life. Instead of giving us raw primary sources, Nassif compiles them and categorizes them conveniently for modern eyes and ears.
Like the short pithy sayings of the desert fathers of old, Nassif compiles this book into a relatively brief 144 pages long offering. One can easily expand the book with lots of commentaries, illustrations, and sayings, but the point of the brevity is that wisdom does not need multiple words of sophistication. It simply requires a simple and willing heart. This is what truth often comes across. Truth that begins with recognizing how the desert fathers and desert mothers intentionally flee from the ways of the world to seek God purely, without being entangled by the cares of the world. The desert offers such a retreat and solace from the world. The desert becomes a new form of “Holy Land” for a holy people of God, seeking to live more fully and more holy for God. More specifically, it is about a group of people seeking union with God. In fact, the new desert community created a new form of church that is different from the institutional church then during the fourth century in a post-Constantine era. Like Moses driven to the wilderness after killing an Egyptian, Makarios was falsely accused of something he did not do, which I elaborated later in great detail about how faithful God is in absolving him. There are stories of spiritual discernment, of the practice of the Christian virtues of humility, patience, kindness, and endurance of all kinds of suffering. The latter case is most pronounced when Nassif deals with the group of desert fathers called the Stylites. Simeon of Stylite practices a very radical form of discipleship, inflicting physical pain on himself as a form of extreme penance.
Then there is Pachomius who helps to banish any notion of monks being solely a solitary and hermit life. While Anthony is a 1st century hermit, this 12th Century saint builds up a new community called the cenobitic community, where monks come together to share, to work, and to live together. The establishment of the world renowned Benedictine movement in the Western Church owes largely to the work of Pachomius.
Not all the monks are male. Thankfully, Nassif inserts a desert mother called Melania. In a largely patriachal Arab culture, it is hard for women to rise up the ranks of religion and spirituality. This highly regarded 4th century nun is both a wise giver and a Bible lover. Known for her family wealth by the powers then, she is most known by her wisdom and deep knowledge of the Bible in religious counsel. Melania’s life is a classic testimony of learning voluntary poverty and generous philanthropy.
Like the Jewish culture, these desert fathers are well known for their stories and wisdom associated with them. They are people who obeyed Scriptures to the letter. They lived out as close as possible the prescriptions in the Bible. In doing so, their years of hard pursuit of God and the strict disciplines have turned them into spiritual guides, counselors, and wise men for the rest of the society then. Nassif makes various references to both the ancient desert monks as well as modern writers such as Darrell Johnson. This explicit reference is for the benefit of the reader who are unfamiliar with the names.
Beginning with the Anthony of Egypt, also called the Patriarch of the Desert, Nassif gives a brief biography of this humble man, and tells of how one life can impact thousands of people, even today. Both the Western and Eastern flavours of Church look to Anthony with much respect. Then there is Makarios of Egypt who is a major player in making Sketis the “Heart Land” of Egypt in the fifth century.
This book will inspire modern readers that the way forward in the future involves a lot of learning from the past. Not only that, the quality of spirituality is deep and wise. Though the teachings are simple, there are profound. Modern believers who want to grow can take a leaf from the wise experiences and teachings of the desert spirituality. I warmly commend this book to anyone seeking to start a journey through desert spirituality. After all, in our land of technological advancement and scientific progress, there is a deep hunger for something more basic: Food for the heart. The desert is a rich buffet full of wise teachings. Learn from them. Thanks Nassif!”
Bradley Nassif (PhD, Fordham University) is a professor of Biblical & Theological Studies at North Park University, Chicago, IL. He is the co-editor of “The Philokalia: Exploring a Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality” and general editor of “New Perspectives on Historical Theology: Essays in Memory of John Meyendorff”.
For an interview with Dr Nassif about the book on Ancient Faith Radio, see: http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/features/bringing_jesus_to_the_desert