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Review: Streams of Living Water (Richard Foster)

A Mature Spiritual Life

Book Review: Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (HarperSanFrancisco: 1998).

Richard J. Foster has offered the church an exquisite gift in his new book Streams of Living Water. In this ambitious project, he examines six major traditions of spirituality in Christianity: contemplative (prayer-filled life), holiness (virtuous life), charismatic (Spirit-empowered life), social justice (the compassionate life), evangelical (Word-centered life), and incarnational (sacramental life).

The book begins by viewing these streams of spiritual life through the prism of Jesus’ life. Foster expresses how Jesus is the “divine paradigm” for our quest to know God more fully. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Foster paints a masterful portrait of Jesus, based on the gospels, that allows us to see how each of these six spiritual traditions is rooted in the teaching and life experience of Jesus Christ.

Once Foster persuades us that Jesus is the source of each tradition, he devotes a chapter to each of the six traditions. Each chapter follows a similar format. First we are provided with an outline of the history of the particular tradition in a list of 30 or so notable figures and six significant movements. Then the chapter narrates the story of someone from church history that exemplifies this tradition. This is followed by two more stories of people-a biblical personage and a contemporary individual-who model the tradition.

The people chosen to illustrate a particular tradition are sometimes surprising and always delightful. As someone raised in the holiness tradition, I was surprised (and delighted) to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s story through this lens. As a person committed to the social justice tradition, I found it illuminating to read the story of St. Francis from the perspective of the charismatic tradition.

After Foster has captivated us with engaging stories of people who serve as models, he provides a strong description of the tradition, with a discussion of its major strengths and “potential perils.” This nicely complements and greatly enhances the narrative sections. He closes each chapter with ideas for practicing the spirituality of that particular tradition and then issues a call for us to pursue it.

FOSTER DOES SUCH a wonderful job of making each tradition appealing that it is hard to lobby for one spiritual tradition as more important or essential than is another. This, of course, is one of his motives in writing this book. Foster is intent on convincing us that we need to be grounded in each of the traditions. Throughout the book he finds ways to tie the traditions together and demonstrate how they need to be operating simultaneously in our lives. According to Foster, our spiritual walk is at its strongest when we are being nurtured by all six traditions.

Streams of Living Water is supplemented with two extensive appendices, co-written with Lynda L. Graybeal. (They could easily be a second book.) The first appendix, “Critical Turning Points in Church History,” places the six traditions of spirituality within the context of the 2,000-year history of the church. The second appendix offers synopses of the many individuals and movements that Foster lists at the beginning of each of his chapters on the traditions. Foster warns that some readers will protest that their favorite person or movement is not listed. I must register my protest at the absence of Howard Thurman. Beyond this, though, I find little for which to critique this book negatively.

In addition to the wonderful spiritual refreshment, Streams of Living Water can serve as a powerful resource for the ministry of reconciliation in the church. The choice of people whose life journeys are highlighted partially explains its power. Foster notes how the modern charismatic movement’s birth, through the ministry of William Seymour at the Azusa Street revival, was more about how “the color line was overcome” than glossolalia. He later details how Billy Graham struggled to address the issue of race and Dorothy Day sought to build community among the poor.

Yet the ministry of reconciliation is enriched in more ways than just lifting up life stories of exemplary Christian leaders. Streams of Living Water offers a way to think about reconciliation at a very deep level through the weaving together of spiritual traditions and practices. As Richard Foster writes: “God is bringing together streams of life that have been isolated from one another for a very long time.” If we can discover unity at the very source of how we nurture and care for our souls, then a strong foundation can be laid to support the building of relational bridges in the human family.

This well-written and immensely appealing book needs to be read by every individual who is committed to reaching maturity in her or his spiritual life.

CURTISS DeYOUNG is the president of Twin Cities Urban Reconciliation Network (TURN) in Minneapolis.

Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. Richard Foster. HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.



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