I hope you’ll join me in discussion, because when it comes to analyzing a book like Utmost, many minds are undoubtedly better than one. It’s a book intended for private use, but the lessons from which the readings are drawn—Oswald Chambers’s lectures and sermons—were intended for public consumption and discussion. There is such a richness, a denseness, to its readings, which are like compressed theological treatises—little wisdom bombs, as my grandmother used to say— full of philosophical and literary references; full of historical markers that place them solidly in Oswald’s time, rather than ours. As I discovered while working on my book, My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, you could fill an entire chapter trying to grapple with a single entry, and still not have reached the bottom.
That’s a large part of what I love about Utmost: it has a quality shared by many great books—something outside and ineffable, something that won’t give way no matter how you prod at it. Having tried for years to apply criticism to it, I can report that it defies the critic, that it is a book for the believer. And yet, it also invites criticism; it is a deeply intellectual book, suffused with philosophy and poetry and fantasy literature and all the other genres Oswald loved.
I’ll be bringing in some of these outside sources as I blog, pulling in books from Oswald’s library, which I (figuratively) visited over the course of my research. I dove into his Bible, into the works of the Scottish fantasist George MacDonald, the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, the writing of Nietzsche and Darwin and Bishop Berkeley. I read Scottish Highland fairytales, of the kind his mother used to tell him. I read apocalyptic schemes for the end of the world and the Holiness doctrine, as it was espoused by John Wesley. I read and read and read, and everywhere I saw the seeds of Utmost.
At some point, I began to fear that, having learned so much about it, the book might begin to lose its mystery for me. Oswald himself—like so many of the faithful before and after him—knew how reason could challenge faith, how it could drain the color from the world. But he also knew that reason and faith (and fancy) could work together. He knew how to write between the two, and beyond them.
In the end, my appreciation of Utmost was only enriched by what I’d learned. It was as if I’d been looking at a tapestry from afar, and had been admitted into the atelier, to examine each vibrant thread as it was woven into the cloth.
And a beautiful cloth it is! Oswald Chambers’s understanding of Christianity and Evangelicalism is, as you’ll discover, something unique: rooted at once in the ancient and the new, in the intellect and the soul. I understand him as an artist—he started out as a painter and poet—one who eventually turned his energy to the art of Christian living. Twenty years after I first started reading him, I’m still constantly surprised by his wisdom, and I hope that you—whether you’re a newcomer to Utmost or a longtime devotee—will be, too.