Humans have always been more comfortable with terra firma, which we can feel beneath our feet, than aqua, that substance, definitely not firma covering almost 71% of the surface of the earth. So pervasive is this aqua outside and inside of us - up to 60% of our bodies, 70% of our brains, and 90% of our lungs – from the beginnings of time it has been an object of awe and fear.
“Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water…,” our response to that chilling line from the movie Jaws, has less to do, I suspect, with great white sharks than with lingering primeval fears about what lies beneath the surface of aqua. Little wonder that it has been at the center of so many religious rites. At the same time, its ordinariness in the same human eyes has resulted in abuse on a scale that gives new meaning to concept “endangered”.
“Imagine!” That’s the human function that the author most wants the reader of The Holiness of Water to exercise. Imagine the words “water,” “holiness,” and “baptism” as bubbles floating in the air of traditional theological, historical, and scientific discourse. And then imagine the bubbles bursting, with the new meanings exploding unfettered into human understanding.
That’s what Jim Campbell, my colleague in Alaska for many years, gives us in his new book. Never again will I use any of the three words without being reminded that they are vessels for cargoes far more precious than my mind ever conceived. This book is not a scientific treatise on water, but it could be. It is not an historical and theological exposition of a Christian sacrament, but it offers insights into Christian history that I suspect will leave readers asking, “Why didn’t I see that before?”
No, The Holiness of Water is the work of an artist, plumbing the depths of nature and human rite as only an artist, who is also a pastor, can. Through Jim’s eyes and his life with water, he gently peels away the layers of meaning convinced that the more we come to know about water the more we will be led into the mysteries of God. I think he succeeds.
Unlike any treatments of water or baptism I encountered as a theological educator or pastor, The Holiness of Water reminds me of my favorite movie, Babette’s Feast. This Danish film about the preparation of a French meal in an austere religious community can be appreciated by persons with vastly different interests and backgrounds because of its artistic excellence at multiple levels: music, preparation of food, the human condition, and cinematography. I imagine that the artistic excellence at multiple non-competing levels in Jim’s narrative will enable persons of religious and non-religious orientations to relish what they find.
Henri Nouwen once told two seminary students who had signed up for his course that they should schedule nothing following because they would need time immediately after to process what they heard in his class. Maybe the students were slow; maybe the teacher had an inflated ego; or maybe the teacher was right. While The Holiness of Water may be quickly read, I suggest that you don’t. After each chapter, take time to see yourself in the story. As if in a gallery or natural history museum standing before a work that compels your gaze, pause and allow your imagination free reign.
The book was released by Sunbury Press last week. It is available from Sunbury Press and from Amazon in paper. Expect it to be available from Barnes and Noble soon. Electronic versions (Kindle and Nook) should also be available.
I hope you'll get the book and see where your imagination takes you.