After Baptism: Shaping the Christian Life.
P. Burgess. Louisville:
The hard work of living as a Christian comes after baptism. In churches practicing the baptism of infants, parents can expect some intense assistance in preparing for the ritual, but less help at applying its demands afterward. Parents who take seriously their responsibility of passing on the faith to another generation welcome the direction their local church gives. But absent that, many of them rely on a mixture of their faith, the wisdom of their own parents, the influence of the culture, and the everyday practical judgments that issue from the struggle between the values they hold and lifeís ever-greater demands to make it through another day. Shaping the Christian life is hard work.
Offering to help is John P. Burgess, the James Henry Snowden Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. With experience as a theologian, writer, lecturer and Presbyterian pastor, Burgess has authored an eminently readable book filled with spiritual wisdom and practical insight. His introduction pitches the book for parents of young children, but the result is a book that will benefit anyone longing to live a meaningful Christian life. Burgessís premise is that baptism sets us on a spiritual journey, but the journey continuously needs direction. He proves to be an amiable, helpful guide.
Not completely evident from the table of contents, the overall structure of the book is a meditation on the Ten Commandments. His six chapters open with a preamble on the meaning of baptism and close with a paean to the eucharist. The second chapter gives an overview of the Commandments, and chapters 3, 4 and 5 are devoted respectively to the Commandments on keeping the Sabbath, honoring parents, and proscribing murder. Each chapter contains personal narratives, allusions to scripture, spiritual advice, and reflections on baptism. Apart from a couple paragraphs in which he offers his cautiously worded support for legalized abortion (pp. 100-101), there is little in this book that Christians of various denominations will not all embrace.
The weakness of the book lies in its coherence. If the point is to show how rereading the Ten Commandments helps shape the Christian life, one would expect an evenhanded treatment of all ten. But only three are covered at length. The first chapter includes an informed section on the spirituality of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but it feels more like a digression than a germ that continually expands the idea that the Commandments each shape the Christian life. Some of the attempts to root the book in baptismal imagery miss the opportunity to explore more deeply the texts, words and symbols of the rite of baptism. The title of the book led this reviewer to expect more mystagogical content. The Commandments are most helpful for leading the Christian life, but their relationship to the liturgy of baptism is not always obvious. Indeed, in the early history of the catechumenate, the Commandments probably served more as prebaptismal formation. Still, their potential for inspiring a faithful Christian life after baptism cannot be overstated.
Burgess has written a book that can be recommended to parents of young Christian children, newly baptized adult Christians, and even those who for many decades have been shouldering the hard work of shaping their Christian life.
St. Munchin Church
This article first appeared in Worship 80/1 (January 2006):77-79.