I believe Alexander Shaia may have written a book which will change the way people look at the gospels entirely, and I’m not just talking about Christians. The gospels, Shaia posits, are not to be taken literally but rather they create a “Great Map of Transformation” universally relevant, regardless of background or viewpoint, even to those claiming no faith at all. I found this book well written, terrifically researched, full of scholarship and thought-provoking, innovative ideas. In fact, dare I say, it has utterly altered my own perception of the gospels, and the way in which I will approach them. Shaia has made them personal and applicable to my own spiritual journey.
Each of the gospels, Shaia suggests, ask a specific question. The question of Matthew is: How do we face change? The question of Mark is: How do we move through suffering? The question of John is: How do we receive joy? and the final question, asked in Luke, is: How do we mature in service?
Four stages, four gospels. We surrender, we struggle and endure, comprehension finally dawns, and then we gradually learn the practices that make our understanding or our discovery repeatable, consistent, and real — and then we bring our works and our words to each other.
Shaia is a psychologist, spiritual director, educator and a fine writer. He was born in Birmingham, Alabama, to a Lebanese Maronite family. He is the founder of the Blue Door Retreat in Santa Fe, New Mexico (the doors, I assume, on the cover). It was during his educational years at Notre Dame that he “learned about the ancient four-gospel reading cycle that had been rediscovered by the scholars of the church and just restored to use in Sunday worship.” He goes on to say, “I was so taken by the idea that the early church had had a beautiful and systematic design for all four gospels that I determined to pray them that way myself on a weekly basis. And I have done so, from that day forward.” Although he graduated from Notre Dame and subsequently entered the seminary to be a priest, he found “this long-anticipated plan did not work at all. The spiritual home in which I found myself failed to nurture my spirit as expected. I sought expansiveness and joy, yet found instead an institution training people to become narrow and lifeless, threatening to lose the deep resonance of centuries.” And so he left, “shamed and bereft” and started over again. He found a position on the staff of a Catholic parish. There he helped implement the church’s restoration of the ancient rite of Christian baptism, which he saw — based on his anthropological studies — as a “four fold rite of initiation and maturation.” He also trained with the Swiss Jungian analyst Dora Kalff, herself a devout Christian and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist meditation. He became a clinical practitioner, using the “Sandplay” technique developed by Kalff.
During this period he noticed that the outer story told by the images used in ‘sandplay’ matched the inner story experienced by the client, and the pattern was invariably fourfold and sequential, regardless of background or culture, and without conscious awareness of the client. He concluded the same four-path existed in the practice of psychology as in the baptism rites, here in a contemporary, cross-cultural setting.
This set him off on a long investigation of the great myths and epics of ancient literature, involving “the summons,” “overcoming obstacles,” “receiving the boon” and “returning to community.”
At last, he turned his considerable curiosity, intuition and intelligence to the Gospels.
He realized, upon examination, the following:
“…each gospel was organized around a different metaphorical landscape. Matthew, writing after the Great Temple of Jerusalem had fallen, uses the metaphors of mountain and rock and stone. Mark, directing his gospel to Christians under the sentence of death, uses the metaphor of wilderness and Jewish historical equivalents for wilderness — deserts and bodies of water. John’s gospel, likely written as a study for baptism, uses the metaphor of the garden, often explicitly the Garden of Eden. The Gospel of Luke, written to burgeoning communities of new Christians throughout the Mediterranean, has a core metaphor that is less apparent — the road: everything in Luke happens between places.”
How interesting! Shaia structures the book into eight chapters, much like a journey, in fact. He tells us the story of how he came to his thesis. He prepares readers to take the journey. We climb the mountain of Matthew. We cross Mark’s stormy sea. We rest in John’s garden. We walk Luke’s road. We ponder what Shaia calls, “The Eight Essential and Continuing Practices of the Fourth Path.” We meditate on the paradigms and promises.
For each of the gospel chapters, Shaia opens with a contextual essay. These essays are so valuable to any serious study of the gospels that they are worth the price of the book alone. All the writing is clear, accessible, even occasionally poetic, but these essays are particular gems. He then takes us through the text, noting symbols and metaphors. He also notes the differences between the gospels, the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies, reconciling them in the light of the author’s intention — what was the author trying to tell his audience about the spiritual place in which they found themselves? — and applying the various messages to contemporary readers. I found Shaia’s thoughts around the varying resurrection accounts particularly illuminating. More than once I found myself with an aha! moment — Yes, of course, why didn’t I see that before? Experience has taught me that that sort of recognition signals a deep truth.
Shaia has almost given us a retreat-in-a-book. He includes prayers for each of the four steps of the journey, and questions to ask ourselves, and meditations. There are so many ways to use this book! Okay, I think the title is dreadful — bringing to mind a lot of very bad pseudo-religious ‘secret’ books, but I hope you won’t hold that, or the odd bit of probably-marketing-department-inspired hyperbole (particularly in the first chapter), against it. It’s a fine book with what, for me at least, is an utterly new perspective. It deserves a wide readership. Read it, and then tell me what you think. I’d love to know.