Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Review - "Sabbath Time" (Tilden Edwards)

AUTHOR: Tilden Edwards
PUBLISHER: Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1992.

Sabbath Time: Understanding and Practice for Contemporary Christians
This book essentially argues for a recovery of a rhythm of Sabbath awareness, to enhance both contemplation (rest) and action (through ministry). It is an intentional living out of  labor and love, of rest and work; and of achieving and escaping. Written in 5 parts, Edwards guides the reader through the historical contexts of Sabbath keeping (Part I); contemporary struggles with understanding of the Sabbath (Part II); Practical aspects of Sabbath Keeping (Part III); extending Sabbath keeping beyond the weekly observances into a life-style rhythm (Part IV); and concluding with a short exhortation toward linking living and loving (Part V).

Edwards prefaces the book by lamenting:
"The Christian sabbath, as a practice of receptive time that both balances and permeates our active time, has not had comprehensive, serious attention in mainstream Christian thought and practice for a long time. It has suffered from an image of legalism, repression, and quietism, together with a general neglect of its history and potential as a foundational spiritual discipline of the Christian life." (8)

He masterfully expands the ancient texts on Sabbath for modern understanding. For example, he uses the Hebrew Scriptures to highlight four aspects of Sabbath: 1) as 'Day of Rest'; 2) as 'Commemoration of Liberty'; 3) as 'Sign of Covenant'; and 4) as a 'Sign of Hope' (19-21). He then goes on to explains how the Sabbath gets eroded over time, and fires a salvo at four culprits called 'corrosive factors' (35).

  1. American pluralism;
  2. Individualism;
  3. Changing views of time;
  4. Devaluation of the contemplative.
He makes a damning statement on contemporary churches:
"Churches aid the destruction of the sabbath when they misunderstand or ignore its dimension of authentic rest and effectively turns it into another busy day of work." (72)

While harsh on the institution, Edwards is gentle by being open to circumstances each individual person face. This is most evident in his careful laying out of challenges in the modern society. Individual circumstances such as different states of life, cultures, ages, different rhythms, etc need to be carefully considered before applying any rigid methodology.

His section on what to do on a Sunday is most enlightening. Starting from a Saturday of preparation, candle-lighting evening, to a morning-afternoon-evening breakdown of activities to do on a Sunday. Whatever variations of sabbath-keeping the reader makes, two elements are crucial.
"Always, though, it will include two dimensions: first, a negative one of a different space, set aside from the usual demands of the human producer. This freed up space then allows and needs a positive dimension, wherein the space is filled with the personal presence of the Sabbath Queen and Lord, and all they bring of authentic rest, joy, connectedness, and intimacy." (134)
Edwards concludes the book rather hastily, making me wonder if its abruptness is due to external pressures. Publishing deadlines?

My Comments
One critique I have is Edwards's uncritical use of the phrase 'Christian Sabbath.' While he makes brief mentions of 'Sunday' as pagan, and Sabbath as Jewish, by putting them together, the phrase at best looks like a convenient transfer of calling Sunday a modern Sabbath for Christians, at worse, an oxymoron. Maybe it is better to call sabbath a sabbath, without needing to call it 'Christian.' That said, there are many quotable phrases in the book. Edwards seems very fond of using four observations.

  • Four Sabbath Intents: [rest, commendation of liberation, covenant sign, hope sign]
  • Four erosions of Sabbath understanding: [pluralism, individualism, time changes, devaluing contemplation]
  • Four Sources in understanding Sabbath Rest: ['Jewish tradition, Puritan obedience, contemplative heritage, and the play of children.']; (53)
  • Four Different Individual circumstances: ['different states of life, different cultures, different life stages, different rhythms.'] (98)
  • Four-part way to celebrate the Sabbath day: [Saturday evening; Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, and Sunday evening.]

This gem deserves to be on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the Jewish Sabbath. Edwards has contributed a very readable book that does not sacrifice breadth of coverage. At the same time, the author is able to maintain credibility with a reasonable amount of scholastic references. Laypersons will find this book easy to read.

p/s: I didn't manage to get my hands on the updated version (published 2002). Perhaps, the newer version addresses some of my critiques.

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