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.
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.