A Feature Review of
Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers & Mothers
Review by Jamie A. Hughes
In high school and college, I spent many long summer days on a field, instrument in hand, learning drill with my fellow marching band members. And because I’ve lived my entire life in the American South, believe me when I say this wasn’t easy. Summers here are a kind of hot and humid that leave you feeling like you’re being punished for something. At Valdosta State University (my alma mater) we practiced on the lawn in front of West Hall—no more than fifty yards from the school’s iconic fountain. On the most sweltering afternoons, it took every ounce of resolve I possessed not to run straight for it and jump in fully clothed.
I’ve felt much the same desperate longing when it comes to church these days. I know there is much kindness, grace, and beauty to be found in the Christian faith, but more often than not, I’ve left a service feeling utterly parched and desperate. It’s as if there’s some vast disconnect between what the church (in my case, white and Western) calls the life of faith and what was offered in the first century.
From the first pages of Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers & Mothers, it’s obvious that Andrew Arndt has experienced this same overwhelming desire for something that satisfies. But rather than go forward in search of some fresh take on faith, Arndt turns his attention (and ours) to the past, specifically to the writings of the desert fathers and mothers.
“Their words and the examples of their lives can put us in touch, once again with the radical way of Jesus Christ,” he writes, “which is the only hope not only for our own lives, but for the life of the church and of our society.” It’s tempting to label his words as mere histrionics, but it becomes more difficult to do so with each passing day because, well, *gestures broadly at everything*. Thankfully, with this book, Arndt offers an alternative to our existentially empty lives, a way to transform the wasteland both within and around us into “a place of deepening, abundance, spiritual vitality, and even cultural renewal.”
The work is divided into three sections beginning with a focus on the individual and his or her relationship with God. In the second, Arndt discusses our relationships with others in community, and in the third, he looks more deeply at our relationships with the world at large. In each (which are all neatly broken into a trio of chapters), Arndt uses a framework of what he calls “desert spirituality” to illustrate how each component is “rooted in the way of Jesus” and how it can “help us live more humanely in an increasingly inhumane world.”
The inner-to-outer structure is a wise choice for arranging this work because it allows readers to start by examining and reorienting their own hearts. I truly enjoyed the first three chapters; there was some real meat on their bones. Each reminded me that without understanding the soul work our faith requires, we cannot do what comes next. “The goal of desert spirituality is one thing: love,” he writes. “And if you miss that, you miss the whole thing.” But that love isn’t cultivated simply to benefit the individual. It is meant to bring about healing and wholeness for many, for every person who comes into our orbit. And Arndt makes the goal clear: “A loving, tender heart toward others—that’s what we’re trying to cultivate. If we don’t have that, nothing else matters.
The key to the first section is getting alone with God in silence and allowing him to do the transformative work that only he can. However, our faith is a communal one, meant to be lived out with others as we all grow in Christlikeness. As much as we might want to in our isolated and highly individualistic age, we simply cannot make it alone. This is something the early church and the desert fathers and mothers understood, but somewhere along the way, we forgot it in the mainstream (and again I must say white) church. We lost sight of the fact that, “Salvation…is the maturing of the entire community of faith as the body of Christ in the world, until finally, at the end of all things, we together arrive at the fullness of Christ.”
We need community as much as we need silence and solitude, but Arndt argues, we need a particular type—and that’s the thing I’ve been longing for all my life: “We need wise, thoughtful, deep, honest community,” he says. “Community that can hold the emerging faith of young adults, the many difficulties associated with marriage and family and work, the doubts and questions of the saints as they arise and as they (often) become more pronounced over the years—without hitting the panic button. Community that offers an open heart, a listening ear, and wise counsel (where called for).” A church that does these things and does them well would be truly irresistible. A church like that has the ability to change things, to share a form of desert spirituality with the wider world through our words, our work, and our radical generosity. Yes to every word of that, brother. Count me in.
There are many books like Arndt’s out there, works that explore what it means to be a Christian in the world today. But rather than simply speak in generalities and gauzy platitudes, he goes back to the things we have neglected and shows how the answers to our yearnings have been there all along.
Whenever I’ve studied the lives and writings of the desert monastics in the past, they felt a world away from me. Their holiness seemed impossible. This wasn’t true, of course, but no matter what I told myself, I felt outmatched and unworthy. Thankfully, Arndt makes them seem approachable and within reach in Streams in the Wasteland. When I closed it, I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I was at peace. I knew there was a path to travel and that I wasn’t alone on the journey. Others have gone before me, and their words are a walking stick rather than a cudgel.
Jamie A. Hughes
Jamie A. Hughes is a writer/editor living in Atlanta, Georgia with her husband, two sons, and a trio of needy cats. She has written for Christianity Today, The Bitter Southerner, CT Women, Comment Magazine, Ink & Letters, Fathom Magazine, The Perennial Gen, You Are Here Stories, and Restoration Living. You can read more of her writing at tousledapostle.com and follow her on Twitter at @tousledapostle.