Featured Reviews, VOLUME 5

Brother John of Taizé – Friends in Christ [Feature Review]

Brother John of Taize - Friends in ChristThe Sacrament of Friendship

A Review of

Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church

Brother John of Taizé

Paperback: Orbis Books, 2012.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Caitlin Michelle Desjardins

 

For two months this summer I traveled through Francophone Europe, and while I didn’t spend time at Taizé, the ecumenical, monastic community that attracts hundreds of thousands of young pilgrims each summer, I did spend 7 weeks with their sister community in Switzerland, Grandchamp. Wherever I was in Europe, whether at Grandchamp or in Paris or Geneva, mention Taizé and people have stories to tell. Stories of finding God and community in the Church of the Resurrection on the hill of Taizé; stories of international meetings of young people that form as a way to extend the ecumenical experience of being at the community itself, stories of looking into founder Brother Roger’s eyes and finding great grace there. Upon returning to the U.S., I continued to ask about people’s experiences and knowledge of Taizé and was surprised by the difference in responses. In the US, it seems, Taizé, for most people, isn’t so much a place but a worship style. “Taizé services” are popular forms of contemplative worship that incorporate the repeated chants created at Taizé as an accessible form of worship for the thousands of multi-lingual pilgrims that flocked to prayer services. I met a number of people here in the U.S. that knew of, had experienced and enjoyed Taizé services and didn’t know that Taizé is a real place, a monastery none-the-less, and couldn’t articulate the heart of the Taizé vision. That vision has little to do with worship styles, actually Brother Roger distinctly hoped not to create a new worship style, but instead focused on bringing together people of very different traditions, fostering Bible study and shared communion and opening the way for a new, truly ecumenical vision of the Church. There are certainly communities, congregations and people in the U.S. who understand and work towards this vision of Taizé, but my experience on the whole has been that in Europe Taizé is a vision and a place and in the U.S. Taizé is largely a type of worship.

 

Brother John of Taizé, an American raised in Philadelphia, joined the Taizé community in 1974. He spend most of his time at Taizé giving Bible instruction and leading conversations among the young pilgrims that have gathered there for weeklong meetings. He has also become known as an accessible theological writer, opening up the Scriptures for those outside of Taizé as well as those who have traveled there. Friends in Christ: Paths To a New Understanding of Church is his most recent book. The book, at 174 approachable pages, is an excellent introduction both to the larger vision of Taizé and to the concept of friendship as a way to understand both our relationship with God and the structure of God’s Church.

 

The strongest parts of the book were its theological elucidation of this concept of friendship and what it might offer to the Church today. I have long pondered friendship as a powerful metaphor for life in Christ and in Community. My travels this summer, supported by the Fund for Theological Education, were one long exploration of the theological theme of friendship, yet even after much reading and international conversation, this book offered a variety of new perspectives and explanations that I found insightful and valuable. Brother John opens the book by exploring what appears to be a basic question: what is Christianity? After a variety of explorations, he settles on the idea that Christianity is best understood as a life in common. “Jesus does not call to a new religion, but to life,” he quotes. As a new life one distinctive of Christianity is the call it places on followers to share their life, in radical ways, with other Christians. This basic idea led to Brother Roger’s oft-quoted maxim that Taizé is meant to be a “parable of community.” Indeed, as Brother John gets to later in the book, all Christians lives should contain numerous parables that point toward “what the kingdom of God is like.”

 

Understanding our relationship with God and Jesus Christ as one of friendship does pose some questions about how the nature of God’s divinity and our humanity lends itself to the equality friendship implies, Brother John doesn’t shy away from these questions, focusing on Jesus’ words and the incarnation itself as pathways towards understanding. Not unexpectedly, Jesus words in John 15:13-15 are central to Brother John’s argument: “No longer have I called you servants….but I have called you friends.” This understanding of the human relationship to Christ, God’s fullest revelation, is far-reaching, even revolutionary. Combined with a robust theology of incarnation that includes the claim that God means to be in mutual relationship with us, Brother John addressed my questions without suggesting that his interpretation is ultimate.

 

While Brother John relies heavily on the metaphor of friendship, at no point does it feel like he is insisting that friendship somehow become the way we understand our relationship to God and the Church. He offers friendship as a constructive and Biblical way, one of many perhaps, to draw out our thinking and is particularly astute at extracting how a rich understanding of friendship might revitalize our lives as Christians in community and rejuvenate Christian witness. His closing chapter, “I call you Friends”, teases out potential implications of this thick theology of friendship. These implications certainly didn’t strike me as surprising, implications such as hospitality, reaching beyond borders, and striving for Church unity, and yet with deeper thought I recognize that in my own life and congregation we have a long way to go before truly realizing even these most obvious implications of friendships. Brother John’s suggestions, then, became fruitful and worth seriously considering bringing before my community.

 

“Friends in Christ”, and the chapter before it, that offer ‘practical’ suggestions are hugely drawn from Brother John’s life and experience at Taizé. One whole chapter outlines the history and communal, shared life and vision of Taizé while “I call you Friends” attempts to offer hope for transplanting the best of life at Taizé into the life of non-monastic communities and congregations. Personally, I found the chapter dedicated to life at Taizé to be the least satisfying, as it repeated simply the basics of the life and vision there that I already felt familiar with. For a newcomer to Taizé as a place, instead of a worship style, this introduction would be welcome and informative. For someone who enjoys reading books out of Taizé, has visited or is familiar with the community and vision, this aspect of Friends in Christ will offer nothing new.

 


 

Friends in Christ: Paths to a New Understanding of Church is an excellent, easy-to-read book that offers much for the pastor, lay-person and general reader alike. I could even imagine it being an excellent resource for youth groups or other small groups. It certainly will bear the most fruit when read in a community open to deep discussion and implementation of the more profound ideas of this book. Friends in Christ comes highly recommended for those interested in an introduction to the Taizé community or planning a visit there, as well.

As Brother John points out, even the Torah calls us to love God and our neighbor. After reading this book, I understood both the radicalness of this and the gift of it in new ways. Friendship, indeed, is a kind of sacrament and I am grateful to participate in friendship both with my Creator and community.

——-

Caitlin Michelle Desjardins is a student in Theology at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. She enjoys all forms of the written and spoken word and drinks copious amounts of tea.



KEEP UP WITH ALL
THE LATEST BOOK NEWS!

Enter your email below to sign up for our weekly digest & choose a free ebook
from the four pictured ------> 

 
DOWNLOAD NOW

C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


One Comment

  1. Very well written review. Thank you.