Book review of Streams of Living Water by Richard J. Foster

streams of living waterA mature faith

One of the marks of a mature faith is that it is sufficiently secure to explore other Christian traditions and discover in them good which they can incorporate into their life without losing their roots in the essentials of faith in Christ. One of the early steps we can take to hop out of our wells and widen our appreciation of the larger body of Christ is to read this interesting book. It is substantial without being too academic. It will give you food for thought, and stimulate desire for holistic growth.

General content and development

The author identifies six traditions from the various movements in church history and categorizes them according to their unique emphasis in faith and practice. They are the contemplative, the holiness, the charismatic, social justice, the evangelical, and the incarnational. He argues that the essence of these major traditions find their embodiment in the person of Jesus, and since we are called to follow Him, these traditions and practices are to be nurtured in the life of the believer and the church. He unpacks each tradition by using 3 persons as illustrations: a historical figure; a Bible character; and a contemporary person. The he describes the tradition and lists its strengths and perils and suggest practical applications.

One example of how he develops his subject is the charismatic tradition where he first uses St Francis of Assisi as the historical figure that epitomizes this stream; and then St Paul the apostle as the biblical example of the charismatic; and finally, James Seymour, the leader in the Azusa Street outpouring, as a contemporary example. Next he shows how the tradition is supported by scripture. Moving from this base, he lists charismatic strengths, one of which is empowering to serve; and a list of perils, one of which is rejecting the rational and intellectual. Finally he gives practical suggestions of how to be more open to follow the promptings of the Spirit.

Debatable choices and Third World absence

Naturally it is debatable who would be the best candidate to represent each stream. For example, the use of St Francis to illustrate the charismatic tradition could just as well, or even better represent the social justice tradition. Dietrich Bonhoeffer could be a candidate for social justice instead of holiness. I would have thought someone like bishop Oscar Romero should not be left out of the book completely. He should at least appear in the list of notable figures and significant movements in appendix B. Sadly sterling Asian men of God like Watchman Nee, John Sung, Bakht Singh and Wang Ming Dao were conspicuously absent.

The book does not sufficiently argue the how and why he arrived at the six traditions and not one less, or one more? Could there have been an additional tradition that did not make the list and why not. It would have been enlightening and more convincing if the reader had some access to the arguments, even if only in an appendix.

An incomplete end?

The conclusion was too abrupt. He could have debated about whether the Bible posits an ideal of every Christian having all these six traditions in full mature expression, or whether what is seen of the six traditions, and in Jesus is meant to be expressed not through the individual, but through the corporate or community expression of the Body of Christ, whether in its local expression, or in the universal expression. It would have been good for the author to identify the contemporary situation: are all streams represented in today’s church? Which denomination is displaying which tradition best? And discuss if what God intended is actually having different members or “tribes” of his worldwide church displaying these streams in varying strengths so that together they present the fullness and the ideal.

A good and important read

However what I like about the book are many. This book has broadened my perspective and understanding. The natural tendency is to be entrenched in our own tradition and to denigrate those of others. Reading this has deepened my appreciation of the richness of the faith that the Lord of history has deposited into the life of the church over centuries, a treasure not to be despised.

Another asset is how the author shows that the various strands are inter-related to each other. Out of a rich contemplative life would flow a life of holiness and the charismata of the Holy Spirit. Logically too such a person would have power to be and to live compassionately. Justice and compassion cannot go without the evangelical witness of the Gospel message. And all these traditions must be embodied in people who live ordinary everyday lives and this is the incarnational tradition. What a joyful dance the inter-relationships point to!

richard j fosterRichard J Foster is a well known author of best selling books like “Celebration of Discipline”, “Prayer” and other books on spirituality and spiritual disciplines. The tradition that nourished him is the social justice tradition of the Quakers. There are Quakers of the more liberal sort, and those that are very evangelical, and he belongs to the latter.

This is also one book where I read all the appendices. The summary of church history from the lens of the six traditions and the list of notable persons and movements in history was a different approach I liked. And though they were not as exhaustive as I would prefer it to be with respect to Asian and African representation, they helped to strengthen the author’s thesis. I have benefited much from reading this book and will explore further its proper application to life.

Spirituality and faith formation at AGST

New eyes

So far the courses I have attended covered discipleship, building formative faith communities and this time round, “Spirituality and Faith Development”. Hands touched my eyes, and I find myself learning to cope with strange light and blurred images, and a new way of seeing how learning can take place more effectively in church. It is stimulating to view the same things from a new framework, and to have clarified in books, lectures, discussions and journal articles, insights and patterns you have sensed but could not give precise shape to. It is uncomfortable too, because you see methodology and philosophy in the church that does not maximize learning, but will require great energy to modify.

Dr George Capaque facilitating discussion

Different Christian traditions and spiritualities

Dr. George Capaque, the Dean of Discipleship Training Center was our main lecturer together with Dr Allan Harkness, the Director of Education programs in Asia Graduate School of Theology. There were eight of us in the group from four countries: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines.  We were introduced to the different traditions and spiritualities of the church and to the ways our faith is formed and developed, always with an eye to how we can incorporate what we have learned to benefit our respective contexts.

Though academic there was thought put in the program to integrate elements that would impact the heart and behavior. While we examined the six traditions expounded in Richard Foster’s “Streams of Living Water”, we took it down from the cognitive domain to let it work in our hearts and hands. We used the workbook for the first hour of each day to actually discuss where we are personally with respect to each tradition and how we will weave it into our actions through specific applications. The sharing were times of openness, fellowship and mutual encouragement.

Carlos making a point

break out groups

learning by sharing

Ladeq expressing her view

I’m liking it

Besides exploring the contemplative, evangelical, social justice, charismatic, holiness and incarnational traditions, we also examined the nature and contributions of the pietist spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, and John Wesley’s teachings. We looked at how different types of personalities have preferred spiritual pathways, the spiritual disciplines, different types of prayer and how to develop a personal rule of life.

Dr Allan HarknessDr Allan lead us through stimulating discussions on various theories and several paradigms of how faith develops. Some of the stuff here includes John Westerhoff’s styles of faith, James Fowler stages of faith, and Hagberg and Guelich’s Stages in the life of faith. These are interesting stuff that I will need to process and synthesize and reflect in the context of my ministry situation.

The papers we have to do are geared towards our own growth in spirituality and faith, and that of the community we serve and Ee Yiung and Kenny at EAST officefind ourselves in. They press us into integrating the insights and new learnings into our life and ministry context. This is anytime better than doing purely theoretical stuff that does not result in real change in attitude and behavior. True knowing involves life transformation.

Meeting friends

In such courses, we do make new acquaintances occasionally, and when we meet in an intensive 7 days schedule, inevitably friendship grows, and we even discover new things and meet old friends. A new aquantance shared with me theology outside the classroompersonal anecdotes about the late Anthony Yeo that really moved me, and I said to myself, I must write at least a blog post about this great man, even though a book is more appropriate. Another pleasant bonus was meeting Ee Yiung, a member I baptized 21 years ago in the East Coast Park and with whom I keep in touch via….what else but Facebook. It was heartening to see that she has found her place in God’s economy and enjoyed the work she did for East Asia School of Theology, the Campus Crusade’s training center.