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Review: Alexander Shaia, The Hidden Power of the Gospels

Alexander Shaia (with Michelle Gaugy), The Hidden Power of the Gospels: Four Questions, Four Paths, One Journey, Harper One, 2010.

Now here’s an interesting ‘take’ on the Gospels. Shaia’s approach doesn’t win the approval of some (most?) New Testament scholars. But the names of the people whose endorsements appear on the back cover (Brian McLaren, Alan Jones, Phyllis Tickle et. al.) are a commentary on the burgeoning cross-pollination between the Bible and contemporary spirituality in the Western church.

The blurb on the flyleaf says Shaia claims to be ‘unearthing undiscovered truth that’s been dormant for over one thousand years… Combining ancient Christian traditions, anthropology, and modern psychology, he reveals what has been in front of our eyes for two thousand years: that each of the gospels is centered on a different core metaphor, and each focuses on a vital spiritual question…’

Briefly: Matthew’s agenda is about facing change. Mark: how do we move through suffering? John is about ‘receiving joy’. And Luke asks the practical question ‘How do we mature in service?’ Shaia’s thesis: these questions comprise the ‘quadratos’ journey, and form the outline of ancient catecheses. They’re a spiritual/psychological map, a recurring fourfold cycle stretching across time, place, and cultures, describing a Christian’s life in any era.

Why do we have four gospels, when there were over 50 floating around during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE? Perhaps it’s related to the four parts of the great epics of ancient literature: hearing the summons, enduring the obstacles, receiving the boon, returning to the community. We can also be guided by M Scott Peck and his four stages of community formation – pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, genuine community. Or Matthew Fox’s paths of religious progression (in Original Blessing) – Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa, Via Transformativa. Cf. also the seven stages of the spiritual journey described in Teresa of Avila’s Spiritual Castle, Buddha’s four noble truths, Hinduism’s epic accounts, etc. Common themes in all of these: Inquiry — Trial– Enlarged comprehension/wholeness/ — bringing knowledge back to the community.

Shaia also cites other ‘discoveries’ employing ‘fourness’: in Physics, ‘Life’s Universal Scaling Laws’; the four dimensions of the Labyrinth; the four weeks of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises; Henri Nouwen’s Inner Voice of Love’s progress through four paths, etc.

Essentially, the ‘Journey of Quadratos’ is a journey of both head and heart. The four gospels are stories about Jesus, but also how communities experience a living participation in Christ.

Matthew was circulating after the fall of Jerusalem. Metaphors: mountains, rocks, stones. Mark, written to Christians under sentence of death, has a dominant metaphor of wilderness. John, written as a study-guide for baptismal candidates, employs garden (Eden?) metaphors. Luke with its ‘on the road/between places’ metaphor (‘be the change you desire’)  was written for the burgeoning Mediterranean communities.  According to Shaia these universal paths towards spiritual maturity were how the four gospels were read until the 7th century.

Its 370 pages are replete with invitations to stop and consider… Like these:

:: Ever wondered what’s behind Nelson Mandela’s unfailing ability to smile?

:: The temptations in Matthew [are about] ‘saying no to illusions’ (pleasure, avoidance of suffering, catering to the ego-mind by being above others, as a king). Matthew’s wisdom: the good life is to be ‘poor in spirit’ – serving with humility rather than seeking power, applause; avoiding the temptation to follow ‘what we have heard said’ by significant others: ‘do this, avoid that’.

:: Eleven of the disciples address Jesus as Lord; for Judas Jesus is ‘rabbi’. (Judas’s suicide contains for us the deep lesson that forgiveness is always available).

:: All four gospels describe Jesus’ trial (the colours of his robe vary in each, reflecting each gospel’s core message).

:: AA’s 4th step encourages us to make a ‘searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves’, baring our souls humbly before another human being… This is what happens in true ‘Spiritual Direction’: Mark’s mentor was Peter, who’d ‘traveled the path’ and thus became a trusted guide.

:: NT scholar Raymond Brown says John is a manual to prepare people for baptism (note the references to water).

:: Chartres Cathedral is the first example of Gothic architecture, where neither light nor dark overtake the other. Most of John’s story happens in Jerusalem (‘shalom’ is said when greeting or departing – again, the unity of opposites).

:: When experiencing baptism in the early church, the candidate was grabbed around the chest from behind and jerked backwards: such a startled response is meant to trigger the experience of ‘near death’.

:: In John all of the Marys weep.

:: We are not bodies with a spirit but spiritual beings with the experience of a body. The resurrected body is not undamaged (a detail only in John).

:: Most of the horrors on our planet occur because of our complicity in terms of silence and non-action.

:: Jesus was ‘about 30’. Note that the average life-expectancy in Palestine then was in the 30s, so Jesus was a seasoned, mature elder. His followers were ‘disciples’ (learners), and ‘apostles’ (sent out).

:: Only Luke has the ‘cup after supper’ (the ‘cup of Elijah’ – the cup of compassion, named after the prophet who fed a Sidonian woman, ie. a non-Jew. The Good Samaritan also broke all the rules of the tribe).

:: Jesus’ prayer ‘Father forgive them; they don’t know what they’re doing’ isn’t in the earliest manuscripts: it’s a model for reacting to persecution by Roman and other authorities.

:: Expand into risk: when we opt out of our growth as individuals we begin to wither, and become rigid, narrow, timid, fanatical, depressed.

:: Build the new Jeru-shalom… learning to ‘live together as brothers or we’ll perish together as fools’.

:: Our deepest question – ‘what will I do if no-one loves me?’ – is answered only by faith: I am ‘in union’ with God forever, never abandoned. In this vision there are no outsiders, and the idea of ‘us versus them’ becomes unnecessary, even a bit silly.

:: Summary: The four gospels, read together, are a universal guide to spiritual transformation. Quadratos addresses the real stuff of day to day existence. ‘Decision is a risk rooted in the courage of being free’ (Tillich).


Shaia has read widely, across the Christian theological spectrum, and across religious divides. The 12 pages of bibliography include names like John Dominic Crossan and the Dalai Lama, John A. Sandford and Pope John XXIII, Richard Rohr and Rumi, M. Scott Peck and St Augustine…

I’ve now read it twice, and my spiritual director uses Shaia’s paradigm in his teaching and practice. It’s full of earthy and spiritual wisdom and I would commend it highly.

PS. Received this in an email from Dr. Shaia:

‘Deep thanks for your kind words.
‘I wonder if you have heard that a new edition is to be published very soon – and from Mosaic Press in Melbourne.  See title below. This new edition comes with worldwide distribution except North America (Harper has rights there.)  Release is this Sept/Oct.  This edition has significant changes in the opening of the book – including an entirely new chapter, “The Keys” – with five concepts that when held together provide a basis for this new lens on the Gospel.  And the Foreword is by Bishop Marc Andrus – Episcopal/Anglican Bishop of California, USA. ‘
Update August 9 2013: Enjoyed an hour’s devotional reading of Alexander’s revised ms. chapter 1 this morning.More? Visit these:
Youtube: (‘It makes sense: you’ve given the Gospels back to me’) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1YPLAxABuOoMore video/audio here: http://www.alexanderjshaia.com/multimedia/

HarperCollins’ chapter headings, excerpts etc. http://www.harpercollins.com/browseinside/index.aspx?isbn13=9780061898013

An interesting comment, accusing Shaia of being a ‘Marcionist’ (he has little or nothing to say about the OT), and injecting too many ‘New Age’ concepts into his writing – http://forums.catholic.com/showthread.php?t=462861

A review which reckons ‘The Hidden Power of the Gospels is more self-help than theology’ – http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-hidden-power-of/

Good brief summary here – http://www.nationalcathedral.org/events/SF20100221.shtml ; Podcast – http://www.nationalcathedral.org/mp3s/sf20100221.mp3

He’s a keen Facebooker – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alexander-J-Shaia/42219044986

Quadratos webpage – http://www.quadratos.com/


Rowland Croucher


August 2013.


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