Practical Faith & Active Love: Meditations on the Epistle of James (Joel W. Huffstetler) -- A Review


PRACTICAL FAITH & ACTIVE LOVE: Meditations on the Epistle of James. By Joel W. Huffstetler. Foreword by Carl R. Holladay. Berkeley, CA: Apocryphile Press, 2021. Xviii + 108 pages.

                The New Testament book of James has at times had a bad reputation. Luther called it an Epistle of Straw that failed to preach Christ. In other words, James isn’t as inclined to put all of his eggs in the justification by grace through faith basket. He wants to leave room for action on our part. Now, there is a difference in message and tone between the Letter of James and the Pauline letters, but I don't think they are as far apart in their views as some have suggested. As for those of us who preach, James is full of useful and provocative messages. I hear a lot about the desire for relevant Bible teaching. Well, if you want relevant Bible teaching you will find it here in the Letter of James. It may not be completely to your liking. After all, James steps on a lot of toes with his word about the tongue and the word about showing partiality to the wealthy. In my opinion, it is a book that speaks to our age. For those of us who are lectionary preachers (Revised Common Lectionary), Pentecost Season in Year B offers several opportunities to engage with James. The message is relevant because it is rooted in the Wisdom tradition and offers deeply practical teaching, with an ethical/moral focus.

                Having preached from and taught James over the years, I have always found it challenging but appropriate to the moment. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. One who has found James to be worth exploring is the Rev. Joel Huffstetler, an Episcopal priest who serves as the Rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland, Tennessee. He has served churches in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Canton, North Carolina before taking up this call. He is also the author or editor of twelve previous books.

                Huffstetler turned to the Letter of James during the summer of 2020, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. In these early months of the Pandemic gathering for worship was difficult if not impossible (as remains true at the moment I wrote this review). It was during this period that Huffstetler, while in-person gatherings were inappropriate, offered a series of Noonday Prayer services that were live-streamed on Facebook. The book incorporates fifteen meditations that cover the entirety of the letter. He then gathered these reflections together and published them with Apocryphile Press under the title Practical Faith & Active Love.

                The title is appropriate as it sums up the message of James: Practical Faith and Active Love. While this is not a commentary on James, Huffstetler does provide the reader with a helpful overview of the book, with each meditation drawing deeply from leading commentaries on James. As the title hints, he emphasizes the practical and pastoral aspects of the letter. Throughout the book, as we might expect, the pandemic is always front and center in his mind. He makes numerous references to it, which is appropriate considering that it was the pandemic that gave impetus to the reflections and thus to the book.

                While the pandemic was a primary impetus to the series, it wasn’t the only concern on Huffstetler’s mind as he moved through James. He notes in the final meditation that during the time that he was sharing these messages, the nation experienced the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (a black man killed by vigilantes) and George Floyd (a black man killed by a police officer). These and other cultural moments were taking place during this period of fifteen weeks that he was sharing the messages. He writes that reflecting on James did not serve as an escape from these realities. Instead, "this deep dive into James is meant as a way into reality, a substantive means of addressing head-on this time of uncertainty that we are in, and the social and cultural challenges that are squarely before us." (p. 91). This is reason enough to read James in conversation with this helpful companion. To do this would invite one to take a deep dive into the text.

                Since James is a relevant text for our times, Huffstetler's brief book (only 92 pages of text) serves as a helpful introduction to a book that deserves greater attention. While James focuses on the moral aspect of the faith, in Huffstetler's hands it never becomes moralistic. I recommend reading James in the company of this collection of reflections that takes us through the book and puts it in a unique context of a pandemic. While I did not know of the press before receiving the book, I am grateful to have received a review copy of the Practical Faith & Active Love so I could share a word about it with my readers.


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