Review: Tables in the Wilderness

1377378_10151890918255772_120076408_n-1Preston Yancey, Tables in the Wilderness: A Memoir of God Found, Lost, and Found Again. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014, 240 pp., £12.99/$19.99 cloth.

This book’s back cover bio begins: “Preston Yancey is a lifelong Texan-raised Southern Baptist who fell in love with reading saints, crossing himself, and high church spirituality.”

This is, in many ways, nothing new.

Robert Webber wrote Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church in 1985.  Since then, we’ve seen the same story told in a variety of books, Colleen Carroll’s sociological take in The New Faithful: Why Young Adults are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy (2003), for instance.  Or more recently, a spate of titles in the CBA market: Mark Galli’s Beyond Smells and Bells: The Wonder and Power of Christian Liturgy (2008), Todd D. Hunter’s The Accidental Anglican: The Surprising Appeal of the Liturgical Church (2010) and Robert L. Plummer’s (ed.) Journeys of Faith: Evangelicalism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Catholicism and Anglicanism (2012) to name but three examples. Less well known, perhaps, but no less relevant here are two volumes of essays from Cross and Thompson, eds., Baptist Sacramentalism (2003) and Baptist Sacramentalism 2 (2009), and then more recently still, Melanie C. Ross’s Evangelical versus Liturgical?: Defying a Dichotomy (2014).

We might also remember those stories unwritten. Austin Farrer’s father was a Baptist minister. Raised Baptist, Farrer later converted to Anglicanism. My own background is similar. The child of Baptist missionaries, I attended a Baptist college and two Baptist seminaries. In the second of those two seminaries, I took a class with the Revd Dr Michael Van Horn, an Evangelical Covenant Church pastor with liturgical leanings.[1] He’s the one that introduced me to liturgical worship and prayer, guiding me to resources like The Divine Hours (3 vol.) and Venite. And it was in his home in Redford, near Detroit, that my wife and I spent an evening chatting with Lauren Winner (after which I read Girl Meets GodMudhouse Sabbath, and all the rest). Van Horn’s sometime North Park colleague Scott McKnight, like Van Horn an alum of Grand Rapids Baptist College, is yet another example.

I could go on, but suffice to say that converting to Anglicanism, or at least considering the possibility of doing so, is, it seems, an evangelical rite of passage, and writing/reading books about it, an evangelical pastime.

Like I said, this book is nothing new. But what’s so great about being new? Increasingly, I’m convinced that what we need is the same-old. But unlike Basquiat’s SAMO, this same-old is the good news. And I’m here reminded of a recent radio interview with Stanley Hauerwas. When Al Mohler asked Hauerwas, “where is evangelicalism going?” Hauerwas responded:

I think evangelicalism is destined to die of its own success and it will go the way of mainstream Protestantism because there’s just—it depends far too much on charismatic pastors, and charisma will only take you so far. Evangelicalism is constantly under the burden of re-inventing the wheel and you just get tired. For example, I’m a big advocate of Morning Prayer. I love Morning Prayer. We do the same thing every morning. We don’t have to make it up. We know we’re going to say these prayers. We know we’re going to join in reading of the psalm. We’re going to have these Scripture readings. I mean, there’s much to be said for Christianity as repetition and I think evangelicalism doesn’t have enough repetition in a way that will form Christians to survive in a world that constantly tempts us to always think we have to do something new.[2]

Christianity as repetition. Now that’s interesting. And insofar as Yancey’s Tables in the Wilderness reminds us that we need not do something new, I wholeheartedly recommend it to college-age readers wrestling with their tradition. All this being said, I can’t help but think of the closing paragraphs of C.S. Lewis’s “Preface” to Mere Christianity where he reminds his readers that “it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.”[3] Those paragraphs describe how one might wait, and Yancey’s book is an extended variation on the theme.

Review by Christopher R. Brewer


[1] Van Horn is well-known in the denomination for  having been fired from what was then Grand Rapids Baptist College for “suggesting in writing the possibility that there was no physical heaven or hell, that perdition consisted of alienation from God.” (“Van Horn, Michael A[llen],” in Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, rev. and ex., Randall Balmer [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2004], 709.)
[2] “Nearing the End: A Conversation with Theologian Stanley Hauerwas,” Thinking in Public. Online: http://www.albertmohler.com/?p=31352, accessed 28 July 2014.
[3] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Collins, 1942), xv.

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5 Comments

  • Jim Watkins says:

    I appreciate the context, but what about the text? Any thoughts on the book itself? Any quotes, other than the back cover, that you could share that might entice me to read the book? I would love to hear any further thoughts that you may have on Preston’s book.

    • Preston Yancey says:

      As would I, Jim.

      • Christopher R. Brewer says:

        Preston, apologies for not responding to your post as well, but it didn’t appear until after I had published my response to Jim. That said, there were sections of the book with which I identified, particularly the bits in the first chapter about prayer books, and the buying of books in general.

        In writing the review, however, I didn’t feel that I could approach the book in the same way as I might approach an academic monograph (i.e., summary and critique). To do so would have been to do violence to the text/genre, or so it seemed to me. The beauty of the book is that it’s in your voice, and apart from quoting large sections of text, or compiling a list of favorite phrases, I wasn’t sure how to go about reviewing it other than to situate it in the literature, and so that’s what I did. In doing so, it wasn’t my intention to silence, but, again, to situate the text. Like discussing an artist in relation to a school, it seemed fitting to discuss your book in relation to what I took to be related books. Readers who have enjoyed those books might also enjoy yours. Frankly, that’s why I read your book. It seemed like others that I had read (Webber meets Winner), and so I thought I might enjoy yours as well. That’s not to say that your book is in every way the same as the others. It is, after all, a memoir. And as a memoir, it’s personal, and thus different. But different isn’t new. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thus the bit from Hauerwas. Like Hauerwas, you seem to find comfort in old rhythms, and I’m right there with you.

        If anything, I would have liked to have heard more about the resources within your own tradition, thus the two books I mentioned on Baptist Sacramentalism. Those seem like they’d be right up your alley. Have you come across them? If so, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts. And this isn’t meant as a criticism so much as an invitation to conversation.

        In addition to that, I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on the section from Lewis I mentioned. I thought it a very appropriate comparison, particularly given his reference to food (and the natural connection to tables). It’s frankly one of my favorite sections in the book, one with which I identify, and, I thought, you might as well. It was, in other words, no small compliment.

        All this being said, and after reading your Facebook comment yesterday (“Noticing I don’t fit the usual evangelical-turned-liturgical narrative. I’m glad that’s where I started. There’s a lot of good in it.”), I’d like to invite you to write a response post in the spirit of conversation. If you were still in St Andrews, we could grab a cup of coffee. Separated by a sea, we’re left with technology, but I’d still like to hear your thoughts on the above two points, points which I thought clear in the review, but if they were not I trust they are now. All best, Chris

    • Christopher R. Brewer says:

      Jim, thanks for your comment. In quoting from the back cover I realize that some readers might think that I’ve failed to do justice to the text itself, and perhaps that is so. But from my perspective, that sentence captures the essence of the book, and so provides a convenient jumping-off point for what is, to my mind, the more/most interesting part of the conversation, and that, it seems, has everything to do with the book itself.

      • Jim Watkins says:

        I have no problem with quoting back covers when they are appropriate. I was asking for some more information and engagement with his book. I don’t own it (yet) and I am curious what it is about.

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