BARRY L. CALLEN, ed. The Holy River of God: Currents and Contributions of the Wesleyan Holiness Stream of Christianity. Aldersgate Press, 2016. Pp. 252. $14.99 (US)
I like to think that most good ideas occur while talking and eating with friends, perhaps with a few notes jotted down on a napkin to keep the idea fresh until you find it a few days later in your pocket while doing laundry. In 2002, a group of colleagues gathered for breakfast and out of that conversation came the foundation of the Wesleyan Holiness Connection (WHC), a collection of scholars, pastors, and denominations who share a passion for Wesleyan Holiness. This edited book is in many ways their story.
The Barry Callen edited volume traces the story of the WHC, as well as provides a broad overview of the Wesleyan Holiness “river.” With a broad sampling of contributors, The Holy River of God touches on the general theological background of this movement, reviews different ways its streams have organized themselves, looks at the work and history of WHC, and provides several relevant WHC documents on current issues facing the Church. This is all done remarkably well and concisely. The amount of information contained is delightful and if nothing else, the book provides a great source for an overview of the holiness movement within the broader Church. For example, if someone asked you the difference between a Free Methodist and a United Methodist, this book would be able to give you all the information you need to make a definitive statement. As a United Methodist pastor, I always knew that we were connected to a great number of other denominations; it was fun to see those ties all laid out in one easily accessible place.
The overview tone of the book is not without depth. In one chapter, Don Thorsen and Kirsten Oh provide an excellent survey of John Wesley’s holiness theology. It is a referenced and thorough account of Wesley’s thinking and teaching, and would provide great refresher reading or serve as an introduction for someone new to this strand of the Christian tradition. This type of writing persists throughout the book.
The strength of the compilation is also the place where I was left wanting more. Roughly one quarter of the book is dedicated to 13 different denominations. An inquisitive reader is left somewhat unsatisfied, especially if they are encountering the Wesleyan stream for the first time. A detailed bibliography or suggested additional resources would have been a wonderful addition to the book.
One of the most interesting organizations described in the book is the WHC President’s Network. This loosely affiliated group of college presidents has found a way to connect and support each other in the midst of the challenges of modern higher education, using their historical holiness roots as the basis for the connection. Five different school presidents provide reflections of how this network has impacted their work. While reading this section, one comment grabbed my attention and cut to the core of what I experienced as a failure of my undergraduate time. Jim J. Adams, President of Life Pacific College, states, “The Wesleyan Holiness Connection shares my concern for the spiritual health and wellness of students and the professionals who serve them and has effectively opened channels of communication, compassion, and caring. . . “ (178). I attended a small private United Methodist college and although there was evident concern for my physical and scholastic wellbeing, my spiritual health never seemed to be a concern. There were resources available if I initiated the process, but I do not recall any encouragement to do so. This became even more evident as I participated in a seminary setting several years later that required in-depth spiritual engagement as an ongoing process of their degree program. Encouragement to engage in such an intentional way during my undergraduate program would have been valuable. As I read President Adams’ statement, I yearned for more information about what that looked like at his institution and the others documented in the book, but it was not evident. Once again the overview sparked my interest; I would have greatly welcomed a place to turn for additional details.
The book closes with five documents that the WHC has published concerning several important issues the Church is facing today, including women in ministry, human trafficking, and human sexuality. It is obvious that much care and thought has been given to each of the topics. Each comes from a certain perspective, yet all are worth the time to read and reflect upon. Their inclusion provides a nice closure for the book and shows continuity in connecting the theology of the holiness stream to the current practices of the WHC.
Callen has put together a good collection of materials that anyone new to Wesleyan theology would find interesting and those well steeped would find as a great resource to have on their bookshelf.
Author: Adam Blagg
Adam Blagg is pastor of Otterbein United Methodist Church in Harrisonburg, VA, and a graduate of Eastern Mennonite Seminary. He and his wife Christy along with four children make their home in Harrisonburg.