This summer I introduced an occasional feature I call “Throwback Thursday.” This is where I find a blog post from the past–raiding either my own vault or someone else’s–and throw it back out into the digital world. This might be an idea or book that is now relevant again, or a concept I’d like to think about more, or even “an oldie but a goodie” that I think needs a bit of spin time.
I thought about this post when I was rereading C.S. Lewis’ essay, “On the Reading of Old Books.” This classic piece began as a foreword to Sr. Penelope‘s translation of St Athanasius’ The Incarnation of the Word of
God. I have been thinking about the ways that Lewis resisted and took up culture, and one thing he encourages is that we read old books in order to have another worldview crash with our own. Though I’ve read this a few times, I had never coded this note from Lewis’ own life:
“I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.”
I saw that and thought of this longish post from a few years ago, where I admit my struggle with so-called “devotional” books and how I feel energized by academic and theological work. If you change “pipe” for “coffee” in the above quote, I quite agree with Lewis. I hope this post sets some people free and starts the school year off well.
The phrase, “doing your devotions,” still gives me the shivers. Early in my spiritual journey, my well-meaning leaders tried to instill a little religion in me. I was the Christian equivalent of Huckleberry Finn when it came to disciplines that shape spiritual growth. My early mentors recommended I do a “devotion,” and gave me these little devotion books. They had names like 15 Minutes for God! and Devotions for a Young Man.
I don’t want to knock sincere believers who are just trying to shape young adults. I, like Huck, needed a little civilizin’. But the devotion books like Time with Jesus for Those in a Hurry and Life-changing Stories of Spiritual Heroes were filled with trite tear-jerking stories or heart-warming tales augmented by an asinine question or two and a little prayer to finish things off. Honestly, I found more inspiration in the Chicken Soup for the Soul stories I read in line waiting to buy toothbrushes and avocados.
But the problem wasn’t the books, even those named The 30 Second Devotional or Prayers for Power.
The problem was me.
For years I struggled to do these devotions. I just couldn’t set aside the time or find the motivation. Instead of mortaring in the bricks of my faith and knowledge and service with a life of praying and listening and waiting, guilt became my mortar. It wasn’t long before the foundation was beginning to crumble.
Going to Bible College actually made my spiritual life worse.
Part of it was the sheer limitations of time and energy. I worked full-time through college, on top of the rigours of a university curriculum and, from time to time, dates with a gal I very much wanted to become my wife. Finding space to do devotions between textbooks and time-clocks was a challenge.
I have to admit that the pale devotional books weren’t very inviting in times like these. It is hard to look at books named Little Tastes of the Almighty or Christian Thoughts for Commuters and feel like they will make any difference at all.
It wasn’t all bad. I was developing the amateur’s version of a Brother Lawrence style prayer practice in the normal of life. At work I would volunteer for the lonely jobs where I could slip away into a silent pattern of prayer. And I was good at reading the Bible—usually in large, greedy chunks in binges rather than a healthy daily diet. That’s still true of me in some ways. But I was missing both the nourishment and the formation of the great spiritual expressions.
And all this time the spines of Richard Foster books frowned at me from my bedside table.
At college, the professors would occasionally remind us to do our “devotions” outside of the reading for class. We were reading literature, history, and educational materials, as well as theology and biblical studies. Their concern was that we would harden ourselves into the difficult material that we “have to read” and miss the kind of reading that can excite and nourish us. I think the expectation was that we will have spent time in prayer and reading before class began at 8:30—a time one professor referred to as the “sweet hour of prayer.” Most days I slid into my desk, hardly awake, barely dressed, still smelling of the pizza restaurant where I worked until 4am and unsure whether it was “Systematic Theology” or “Models of Christian Leadership.”
You already know that I wasn’t doing my devotions regularly. Usually, the professor’s prayer to start the class was my first one of the day. So there was guilt—blurry-eyed, but real.
But there was another problem: I actually liked the things they made us read, the difficult books, the long boring textbooks. By contrast, I didn’t like Nifty Nutrients for Needy Christians or Soulful Stories for Spiritual Strength or 10 Minutes to a Better Prayer Life. Instead, I liked books with titles like Systematic Theology, Christian History in the West, A Commentary on Ezekiel’s Visions, and The Hermeneutics of Modern Dispensationalism.
It’s not that I didn’t think these books were boring. They sure were, though there are some diamonds in the rough. It’s just that these books said something. It was often a horrifying something, or a disagreeable something, or a something that made my head swim. But these books got my head pounding and my heart racing.
These books meant something. All that books like Healing Halitosis of the Heart and Warm Snuggly Stories for a Spiritual Fireside did was empty the Amazon of its trees and empty the heads of evangelicals. I remain concerned about the clearcutting of both.
I actually went to do a Masters in New Testament Studies at Regent College as research for a novel I was working on (and never finished). Sometime in the first year I had come to realize that there were other folks who actually liked the old, hard, boring books. There were lots, actually—and not just professors, but nurses and lawyers and bricklayers that occupied the desks nearest me. They walk among us, these lovers of ideas, with nothing to warn us of their strangeness except the dim outline of a weathered book in their purse or pocket.
It was somewhere in those first few months of study—study for which I was woefully unprepared—that I realized something about myself. I discovered that I not only liked the boring books, but I was enriched by them. The feeding of the brain was, for me, nourishment of the soul. The separation of head and heart that was made early in my formation—the distinction between the academic and the devotional—wasn’t helping. Indeed, it is these old books that were finally filling up in me the place that the devotional books were meant to fill. What The Hipster’s Guide to Daily Prayer couldn’t do, Luther’s Preface to Romans could–even if I only understood a little of it.
I suspect it was the same for most of my professors, that they found deep spiritual fulfillment from their daily reading of the great minds, though I don’t know for sure. But I have been able to support and grow this geeky spiritual discipline, so that intellectual growth for me is a part of soulcraft.
And I don’t mean in just the warm writings or even the theological stuff. I did my masters in the Christian roots of antisemitism—going to the hardest, most horrifying stories of faith-abuse that I could find. I was tired at the end of that project, but I was fed too. I worked with the new atheists for five years, and was able to speak benediction as I read arguments against God and faith. The closest thing I’ve ever had to a “daily devotion” was reading Darwin’s Origins of the Species each night before going to sleep. It is a moving, worship-full book, though it is believed by some to have undercut all religious stories.
My spiritual partners, then, have been not only St. Augustine, Anne Lamott, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Miroslav Volf, but also Christopher Hitchens, Simone de Beauvoir, Dylan Thomas, and Bart Ehrman. Lately, I’ve found that Albert Camus, Margaret Atwood, Hans Küng, and Stephen King have slid into the pew beside me. I’m not sure how they feel about that! It’s true that I find Marilynne Robinson more uplifting to read than Richard Dawkins, for it is both more beautiful and more deeply rooted in truth. But I find Philip Pullman at his best as spiritually energizing as C.S. Lewis and John Milton—the men he is trying to both emulate and undercut.
For C.S. Lewis, the liturgy was important because in it
“we are therefore called upon to carry on a critical and a devotional activity at the same moment: two things hardly compatible” (1952 letter).
Not for me. For me, worship is abandonment. But in my reading and learning I am carrying on the seemingly incompatible task of combining the critical and the devotional. I suspect Lewis, who found devotional books unhelpful and read theology for enrichment, was similar, though I don’t want to press my story upon his.
For you, the ideal pattern for shaping spiritual life may be different than mine. You may even find great joy and help in books like Daily Prayers for Life in the Fast Lane or Second Helpings of Spiritual Feasts! If so, whatever you do, don’t change your pattern by what I’ve said. You are blessed, so be a blessing to others.
But for those few who are discovering their inner nerd, it could be that the division between head and heart isn’t helping. Perhaps there is a way to integrate spiritual and intellectual nourishment.
And for those of you, nerd or not, who struggle with guilt or frustration about the failure of your devotional life, I want to offer a little hope. Yes, like me, you are the problem. But that’s the point of Christian spirituality: It isn’t about you. It isn’t about me. It is God who grows good things in us. I think that “Chicken Soup for the Soul” church culture is lame, but I also think the “Habits of the Highly Effective Christian” culture is damaging. What is driving this daily devotion culture? I wonder if it has more to do with emptying the Amazon and filling Christian bookstores than it does with rooting a generation in the long, deep story of Christ in the world.
In any case, be free. Christ did not die on the cross so that you could read the Bible in a year or finish off 365 Days to a Spiritualer You! in 120 days. And think of the millions of believers who have gone before—and the tens of millions today—who cannot read, or who spend every waking moment trying to find a little food for an empty table. Your “daily devotion” guilt may well be less a product of the Holy Spirit and more a product of a culture addicted to efficiency and comfort—a culture that salivates over systems and snappy book titles.
So, my friends, be free of commercialized commitment and systematized spirituality. Be free of guilt and see what a great world is there for you to explore. Embrace the nerd–or the artist, or the builder, or the comforter hidden inside you–and see what for you is the best way to be open to the Spirit growing you in your faith.
Note: The names of devotional books have been changed to protect the identities of the authors.
When you read the meatier books, it’s ok to not understand all of it? I’m afraid of just taking a nugget of truth or quote out of context without understanding an author’s intent or whole meaning of the chapter or book. That’s why I’ve hesitated to even start. I’m a “if it can’t be done well, then why bother?” type of person. I agree, those devo books seem trite and I did use a lot of them. It’s time to wrestle with some heavier stuff. Have you heard of “Devotional Classics?” It’s supposed to be excerpts from some of these deep thinkers from the past. I haven’t tried it yet. It’s put together by Richard Foster and Janes Smith. Great throwback Thursday post abd very insightful to me. Thanks!
Goodness, yes. If I understand everything I’m likely to set down the book. I only read deeply this way of people that are smarter than me and can teach me something.
It’s like lapreading with kids. You know they don’t understand all the words, but they trust you as reader and they trust the book and they get the general feeling of it. Adults, unfortunately, lose that trust. While we don’t want to always be confused, if something doesn’t click the first time we need to just keep reading.
“Devo Classics” might be a great way in.
I have been grateful for the year’s worth of little ‘nuggets of truth or quotes out of context’ put together by Charles Williams in The New Christian Year (which I read through daily a couple different years). Tom Wills has a blog putting it online, with source index, too – and a note that it’s on Facebook, as well:
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Thanks for the share, David.
Yep, what works for some doesn’t work for others. It’s why there simply isn’t a one size fits all “theology” for Christendom 🙂
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“To the extent that one makes intentional acts into objects, he loses sight of their objects” [Viktor E Frankl]
I think I get your point: reading devotionally always will fail when the goal is doing devotions.
Not necessarily. I think he is also saying …
… that if devotional reading is what God (the Object) wants you to do at that point in time, even if you make it your goal (it won’t matter), it will succeed because it is what God wants you to do then, that’s why it will succeed.
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When e-mail was relatively new (in the early 1990a) I kept encountering people who wanted to send me “devotionals”, and I kept trying to avoid meeting such people online. I wanted to meet people who would argue about theology with me, which was stimulating, whereas devotionals were soporific. The only devotional books I liked and used were old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic ones. They had some meat.
I spent most of those early online days research cults, so I made whole trainloads of people that were less than stimulating intellectually, though exciting in other ways!
Re “…the ways that Lewis resisted and took up culture, and one thing he encourages is that we read old books in order to have another worldview crash with our own” …
Thanks for this post with the very honest “but the problem was me”, but it seems that to me that with attempting to “erase the division between head and heart” you might be taking up two cultures as well, trying to bridge the great divide that has been growing for centuries, or find some middle ground between them – the scientific (head) and the creative/emotive (heart). There seems soo much to say about it, way too much for a comment, so here some thoughts from a book edited by Charles Huttar “Imagination and the Spirit” I just started reading:
Charles Holmes in “Language, Symbol and Truth” give a good overview of how those cultures developed their own languages – scientific / creative.
And some quotes from Huttar’s Introduction: “The operations of the human mind are manifold. It works by thought, sense and image, faith, passion. Denying any of these, a mind in incomplete” ….. but in 18th century theology there was no longer any room for imagination “as it could sour too easily into escapist fantasy to be trusted”, wherefore “Prof Kilby accused the fundamentalist ethos he was familiar with, with imaginal poverty”
In many churches the reaction to that fundamentalism is the emphasis on experience-based faith and Richard Foster has been very influential – here a link to an essay by Tim Keller on the dangers of his thinking in the book ‘Celebration of Discipline”: http://www.newcalvinist.com/keller-richard-foster/ with a quote “There is no doubt that Richard Foster’s book has helped to saturate the church with mystical contemplative prayer and New Age ideas”.
Gardening gave me a good lesson and example: most plants thrive with roots surrounded with rich nourishing soil with loads of organic matter (some need poor soil), but with air around their roots they will wither, after a visit from moles leaving their roots hanging in space. Mystical devotion and focus on ‘experiential’ faith gives way too much air around my roots, so I am also very much for doctrinal books of substance and for reading old books!
For me imagination is key to finding that middle ground between the two cultures and I liked these quotes from Karl Persson in https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2016/11/24/hungering/
“Not in the sense that I could simply open an old book and there discover a single overarching answer. But rather in the sense that the encounter with old books allowed me to imagine in ways I couldn’t before.
The critical imagination I developed from reading old books kept Christ and Scripture from collapsing into the one-dimensional uselessness so often found in modern interpretive contexts.”
And as last thought: it is odd that those 10-steps help books to stimulate emotive experiential faith, seem to stem from the technical scientific approach.
Thanks for these thoughts, Hannah. I agree that this Great Divorce of reason and imagination is generations long, and endemic cultural problem of our heritage. In this, Tolkien and Lewis and others are where I turned to help address it. I appreciate the suggestions of books and thinkers how are trying to bring these things together. It will be a long journey for me, though I don’t feel anxiety.
On Richard Foster, I’m not in love with the Gospel Coalition, partly because of a phrase like “new age ideas.” I’m not sure what that means in apposition to “mystical contemplative prayer,” which is old and rooted and varied and Christian. “New Age” is just a shortcut for “spiritual things I’m uncomfortable with but have had a moment of popularity, probably in the ’80s.” Disciples change and move and grow and find new ways of being, and I’m okay with that. Have people never read the Psalms? I would like evangelicals to increase their experiential basis for faith, and if Foster is a tool for that, great. It didn’t help me when I was young, but has since. (Same thing on technical or scientific approaches: if it works and it does go against the grain of scripture, I’m okay) In the end, all devotional practice takes up the self as object only temporarily in order to frame the self for crucifixion with Christ, for death of self. In the end, not only does my self no longer become object, but in the mystical tradition I no longer become subject. I am simply not that advanced spiritually to even know what that’s like!
I have never heard of that Gospel Coalition, and only have chapter 2 of “Celebration …” and in Dutch, but it seems to me that Foster there is exactly doing that, abusing biblical content to promote a spiritual message. He begins with a survey of Biblical texts (ao from the psalms) on meditation of God’s commandments … but then makes a switch from listening to God’s word, to our experiences and feelings eg “the emotional and spiritual space in us, the inner sanctity of our heart ….” and seems to place those biblical texts under abstract dogmatic terms – that message is very similar to ‘new age’ thinking!
He also quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as saying that he meditates because he is a christian, but then it seems very likely that he would be contemplating God’s word and not his inner space …
A friend with Russian orthodox roots and understanding of that spirituality is also very wary of the current ‘devotional practises’ – calls them ‘sitting on pink clouds’ – it is as you say, ‘in that mystical tradition the I no longer become subject …’
And ‘being calm and grace-full’ is for me no guarantee for the truthfulness / biblical content of that person’s message – to also mention some biblical texts: wolves in sheep clothes, and our calling to test teachings?
To nuance the last bit – Foster apparently did write a good book on Church History, and he may not have made that switch in the 2nd chapter with the intention to mislead his readers, rather having been misled himself and not aware of doing so; it did come across that way though.
I don’t know the books references, really, and can’t critically assess it. But there are other options than misleading, such as misunderstanding, right? Or overreading the text. But if the question is attention to the state of our heart, I think there is biblical warrant in that. If the question is looking to the heart for guidance of life… well, maybe not so much.
Ah, did “the spines of those Richard Foster books really only frown at you from your bedside table”? Four copies of “Celebration …” I am pretty sure that I didn’t overread or misunderstand the text of Ch.2 and its frowning gives me no wish to get the book and read the rest of it ;-))
Oh, I meant the opposite! Foster misunderstood or overread, not you.
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“There is no doubt that Richard Foster’s book has helped to saturate the church with mystical contemplative prayer and New Age ideas”. – “Contemplative prayer” is not “new age”, although the new age has always tried to use it because the spiritual dimension is the easiest to abuse. “Spiritual Formation (or sanctification/discipleship) is not an optional, “may-or-may-not” add-on to the gift of eternal life (justification). Rather it is the path/way/journey (Isa 35:8) of (abundant) Life from above that a “justified” life naturally takes – how else would you “seek first the Kingdom of God” [Matt 6:33] after you have received the gift of eternal life (justification)?.
Religion is the imitation of “sanctification/discipleship” being attempted prior to “justification”.
“It does not seem seriously likely that contemporary spiritualities—from new age to revived paganism to secularism—can hope successfully to challenge Christian spiritual formation, at its historical best, as the premier way of fostering a life to be prized among human beings, much less one pleasing before God who examines the heart.” [Dallas Willard]
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Thanks Patrick, I largely feel the same (though I’m not a pusher of Foster).
I am no pusher of Foster either but he was Willard’s pastor when Willard was young and I know many people, after reading Foster’s bestseller, when they see the word “discipline” relate it to “effort” or “earning” rather than, as Willard would put it – an apprentices attitude of “obedient wisdom”.
Yes, they have. There perhaps needs to be a long chapter about grace in the preface. But someone told me (was it Eugene Peterson?) that when they met Foster personally they were surprised by how calm and grace-full he was.
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