I have mix feelings about Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries by Gerald Sittser. On the one hand, it’s very well written and goes to great length to explain some of the major traditions from the history of the Church. On the other hand, it didn’t go deep enough to put many of these disciplines into practices. It was very wide but sometimes very shallow. Even more concerning, I felt like some of the traditions were “all bad.” What I mean by “all bad” is that I didn’t feel like a couple of the traditions were redeemable and would have been better off left out of this devotional survey of Church history.
For example, I didn’t find the chapter on icons and saints to be as helpful as it could have been. Spiritual heroes are great and we find them in the Bible, so my objection isn’t there. What I found unnecessary was how in-depth the author went into iconography. Biographies are great because they give us practical examples of what it looks like to live for Christ, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the adoration that icons received. To be fair, the author remains very impartial in his discussions, but I feel like he sacrificed discernment for the sake of neutrality. Simply by virtue of including iconography, he has provided an implicit endorsement of its use. The book is marketed and even self-described as a book that will take us into some of the valuable things from our past we’ve forgotten and should recover. For this reason, if something was included in the book, it was implicitly endorsed. I disagreed with some of the “old ways” that were endorsed.
That being said, I do agree with the book’s central anthem: “There is more. So much more!” It’s easy in a world dominated by the latest Tweet to develop an attention span and cultural/historical perspective like that of a fruit fly. I definitely feel as though the 2,000 year history of the Church is an oft untapped gold mine of examples, testimonies, and lessons that we can learn from. As I mentioned in my review of Thirsting for God, I plan on making it a routine to dig deeper into the rich history we’re all a part of. That being said, I plan on doing so with great discernment so I can “swallow the meat and spit out the bones” as a dear friend of mine has put it.
I think my favorite two chapters of the book were the chapter on the martyrs and the chapter on the Reformation. As Gerald L. Sittser put it, “The martyrs’ fate might not be ours. But their faith and conviction must be” (pg. 48). Sittser makes the assertion several times throughout the book, and I agree, that our lukewarm, self-help Gospel needs to be replaced with an authentic, self-denying faith that seeks to make Christ king of all facets of life. And I feel like the best way to do that is through the method of the Reformers: “returning to one central message [in our preaching and teaching]—Jesus Christ is the very Word of God who came to reveal God and make us right with God” (230). I hope that my faith will be like that of the martyrs and my teaching will be like that of the Reformers.
In the end, I probably would not recommend this book to a young, undiscerning Christian. Nor would I recommend it in its entirety to a mature Christian. Instead, I would likely recommend about half of the chapters while suggesting someone skip the other half. Bottom line, I would only recommend this book to people who are very discerning and who really want to learn about the history of the church in a devotional manner.