Imitation of Christ: New Reading of an Old Book
- Friday, February 18, 2011
Though critical of the world, Thomas is not critical of education. The evidence for this is not what he says (i.e., he critiques knowledge for the sake of impressing others) but rather how he says it. Each chapter is rife with scriptural allusions rather than outright quotations. He even quotes classical sources like Seneca.
Books one and two are full of practical and straightforward advice for spiritual growth. For example, Thomas has no patience with the vanities of this world (including things as simple as self-praise), and asserts that spiritual progress is possible here on earth. Thomas admonishes, "by working a little now, you will find great rest later" (p. 30). Such work includes patiently enduring suffering, which is crucial to spiritual progress. That patience includes putting up with others' faults -- a practice equally appropriate in a medieval monastery or a modern business office.
Books three and four take a new tone. Instead of practical advice, these books offer an exchange of intimate words between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Sometimes these exchanges read like a worshipful prayer and response, and other times the content reads like a simple dialogue.
Like many classics, the Imitation deserves re-reading. That might explain why so many translations are prevalent, ranging from an inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition paperback to hardbound gift editions, or evenThe Imitation of Christ for Children -- and these publishers include secular, evangelical, and Roman Catholic publishing houses.
With so many translations on the market, the primary critical question becomes "what does Creasy offer that is new?" Creasy's translation method attempts to recreate for modern readers what an "informed reader" of the 15th century would have experienced (xi). He argues that the medieval reader would have been steeped, like Thomas, in both scripture and classical sources. Thus, ideas from Thomas' text would provoke ideas from other significant sources readers would know. Because modern readers lack Thomas' literary context, Creasy's goal is both lofty and admirable. Creasy's success will be determined by the experience of individual readers.
To help readers recognize such allusions, Creasy provided an eight page list of scriptural references and allusions. Thomas does not quote chapter and verse references, yet his meditations are full of scriptural allusions. One thing about allusions -- they may or may not be accurate, as there are multiple passages of scripture with similar themes. Creasy admits as much. For example, the end of 1.1 reminded me of Galatians 1:10, which was not on Creasy's list.
This list also includes apocryphal books, which reminds readers of the book's original context -- Roman Catholic spirituality. Some Evangelicals will be uncomfortable with this influence from apocryphal work. My response: that Thomas was influenced by apocryphal writings should not discredit his work any more than being influenced by Max Lucado should discredit the local pastor's Sunday sermon.
Creasy's introduction also discusses Lectio Divini. Lectio Divini is a slow reading style that includes reading, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. According to Guigo II, Lectio Divni allows readers to "taste and see that the Lord is good" (Psalm 34:8), by encouraging them to savor each morsel of scripture, experiencing the scripture at every level possible. Advice on Lectio Divini reminds readers that even in an age obsessed with speed reading, the Imitation should be read slowly.
For readers who are uneasy with possible relativism from Creasy's emphasis on devotional readings that emphasize a reader's personal response, Creasy also discusses how to guard against inappropriate Lectio Divini readings. He explains that medieval monks knew both scripture and The Fathers. I suggest an equivalent for Evangelicals: know both scripture and our scholar-pastors (like John Piper).
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