These two books by Peter Atkins fit into the burgeoning genre of foundational guidebooks for those who are just beginning to take their spiritual lives seriously. Atkins, a retired Anglican bishop from Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Polynesia, writes out of a deep rooting in the Christian tradition and a lifetime of experience in pastoral ministry. These books are probably not the ones to give to someone eager for spiritual fireworks, but in a gentler manner they offer the spiritually hungry a square meal of Christian wisdom.
In Soul Time, Atkins covers typical topics such as basic guidelines for practicing prayer; the fruitful use of scripture; how to open up our God image; and ways to deal with such painful realities as life crises, inner fears, sin, and the felt absence of God. He also offers chapters on worship, intercession, and thanksgiving that very nicely bring these "pious practices" alive for ordinary people today. A final chapter discusses the value of having a spiritual director. Each of the twelve chapters provides a clarifying background discussion that is both theologically and psychologically well grounded, and also some very specific practical exercises, guidelines, and prayers. The tone is warm and relational, but never condescending; like the wise pastor that he no doubt is, Atkins conveys deep respect for each person's ability and responsibility to make his or her own way in the spiritual life.
Soul Care names its agenda as guidelines for providing pastoral care for oneself and/or for others in ten types of situations that every Christian faces. The choice of situations is both comprehensive and creative. Each chapter title begins with "Looking After Yourself In" and then continues: "The Routines of Life"; "Times of Decision Making"; "Despondent Moments"; "Celebration Time"; New Responsibilities"; Times of Disability"; "Leisure Activities"; "The Search for Truth"; "Action for Justice"; and "The Face of Death." Though at times the advice given seems to be simple common sense, this must be kept in the perspective that in times of struggle or crisis, "common sense" may be exactly what one most needs to hear.
A valuable dimension of Atkins' approach is that while being tenderly sensitive to the individual person's emotional and psychological needs, he never lets the reader lose sight of the fact that the individual is situated in personal relationships, in communities, and in a larger society to which he or she is responsible. He is particularly good in demonstrating how concern and action for social justice is an integral part of every Christian life. Yet he avoids the common trap of laying this agenda on so thick that ordinary folk, preoccupied with the busyness of family, job, and keeping their psychic balance, cannot see how it applies to themselves.
Another strength is Atkins' awareness of the significance of cultural differences. No doubt being a bishop in the multicultural world of Aotearoa and Polynesia required the development of this kind of sensitivity, and skills in helping others to learn it as well. Soul Time includes a whole chapter on the impact of culture and gender on our way of imaging and relating to God. In Soul Care a similar awareness is diffused throughout, appearing in many contexts where people's sense of self, ways of relating to one another, rituals, and so on are shaped by the various levels of culture. This is a much-needed awareness, and unfortunately still quite rare in books dealing with the spiritual life.
These books are not fundamentally oriented to use in academic courses, although in some cases they might be offered as supplementary texts or as examples of resources for pastoral use. They would serve well, however, in church adult education courses or programs, particularly where the education level is moderately high (i.e., many participants are college graduates). They also could have a valued place on the pastoral minister's shelf, offering a fast review or a quick suggestion for how to respond to many of the kinds of issues that arise in pastoral and spiritual ministry today. Finally, one might simply want to give them as gifts or recommend them to some of the "seekers" that knock on one's door more and more frequently these days. In this context, they would be particularly appropriate for those who already have a basic rooting in the Christian tradition, but are wondering how to help it blossom into fullness of life.