Book review: How The Bible Actually Works by Peter Enns

y450-274 “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”

This is a common trope heard in evangelical circles, but it’s light years away from that simple, as Peter Enns explains in his new book, How the Bible Actually Works:
In Which I Explain How An Ancient, Ambiguous, and Diverse Book Leads Us to Wisdom Rather Than Answers – and Why That’s Great News (which I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of courtesy Harper Collins Canada).

His central argument is that God is not a helicopter parent and the Bible is neither an instruction manual nor a rule book; instead, it’s a a powerful learning tool that nurtures our spiritual growth by refusing to provide us with easy answers but instead forces us to seek and use wisdom.

The Bible itself is an embodiment of wisdom at work. Its ambiguity, antiquity and diversity dictates certain noticeable and intentional shifts as you move from Genesis to Revelation. That’s because each text was written at a specific time for a particular audience and in order to communicate something unique within that context, resulting in certain tweaks – big and small – as people grew in their understanding of who God is and the nature of his relationship with creation.

Through the pages of the book, Enns offers example after example of how the biblical writers exercised wisdom and made additions to or removed bits from previous pieces of scripture, showing us that the aim of the Bible is not to give definitive answers, but to discern what it means to live God’s way for our time; “thus the Bible, rather than closing down the future, sets us on a journey of relying on God’s presence to discover it.”

The Bible says a lot of things, many of which contradict each other, raise troubling questions about God, and appear to give answers to pressing questions that weren’t meant to be applied in 2019.

Wisdom, therefore, is needed not only to read the Bible, but also to continue on with the very biblical tradition of questioning, debating, and working out of the life of faith that its pages point us to.

It’s all far from settled, and that’s the point.

This is one in a long line of books about the Bible, but the best I’ve read in recent years, along with Rob Bell’s What Is The Bible? Do check it out when it becomes available on Feb. 19.

The new cynics

This is a post that I originally wrote in March 2010, but that I have revised and re-posted as part of the Rally to Restore Unity hosted by Rachel Held Evans.

The new cynics: From critical thinking to positive action

All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism – it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.
– Conan O’Brien

As I look back upon my 20s (now five months 8 years into my 30s), I would have to say that those ten years were defined, in part, by the practice of critical thinking. Whereas my teens years were all about going with the flow in so many ways, my four years at a Christian university (followed by six years of marriage, more school, moving / travelling around & becoming a Dad) introduced me to different ways of thinking and looking at the world. Nothing was taken at face value any longer; everything began to be questioned and looked at from different angles.

In many ways, I believe that this was a good skill to develop. It allowed us (for I believe that I speak on behalf of many of my peers) to begin to truly wrap our minds around what it means to be a decent person, to consider the reality of grave injustices many face on a daily basis, and to uncover fresh ways of helping make an increasingly messy world a better place.

In short, a new hope that things do not have to be the way that they are is springing up and taking over because of a refusal to merely go with the flow.

While this has been happening, however, something less grand has been bubbling beneath the surface and has, at times, become the more dominant sentiment.

cyn·i·cism An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.

What I have found in my own experience is that the more I have engaged in the process of critical thinking, the more I have come to expect and accept the negative. What I mean by that is that it has become so easy to sit back and criticize that which I deem to be not up to whatever standard I have created for the world around me.

Critical thinking has, at times, morphed into critical living, whereby something is always wrong with anything and everything that does not jive with my new way of thinking, and this has come to affect my attitudes and actions.

For example, I have experienced a very long period of time wherein I could not sit through a church service without coming out with a list of several negative points. Rather than coming to the house of God to worship and join together in community with fellow believers, I would sit there and stew over this theological point or how the worship was being led etc. I couldn’t even step foot inside a Christian bookstore because I simply could not stomach some of the titles being sold as, well … ‘Christian.’ (Yes, I too have been guilty of judging books before having actually read them.)

And I don’t think I am alone. Look around, and you can see this propensity to point out the negative just about anywhere these days, particularly in the world of my generation of ‘Christians.’ And while it is good to question, I am coming to realize that I have been missing out on a lot lately. My first inclination has become to pick at things, and as a result, I have, in many ways, been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I do believe that followers of Jesus are called to think differently about the world, to speak out against injustice and to be a Church that lives according to his Way. I believe that this involves thinking critically and calling into question traditional modes of … well, just about everything.

However, I also believe that we do a disservice to that mandate by focusing too much on that which is wrong with the world, often mainly among ourselves and with a view to demonstrating to others that we are the ones that really and truly ‘get it.’

I believe that followers of Jesus should be quicker to point out that which is good in the world, to seek out and illuminate the subtle glimpses of the kingdom that rise up among us, and to be united in our pursuit to show the world that this different Way is a movement defined more by positive action than negative banter.

Which brings me to Conan the prophet. Cynicism – constantly focusing on the negative – has gotten me nowhere, and will do the same for all of us. In truth, I have missed out on a lot because of my propensity to point out the negative. My desire is to be kinder, more loving, and quicker to embrace that which is good around me. While I do think it’s important to think critically and not take things at face value, I also believe that the challenge of embracing and creating a better world is far more rewarding than constantly pointing out the negative and picking at each other.

Be kind. Work hard. Seek, embrace and create some good in this messed up world. Maybe, just maybe, we can all (mercifully) come to see that we don’t have all the answers, that our way is not always best, and, in so doing, open ourselves up to be blown away by goodness at work within us, among and all around us.

Life notes: The importance of keeping a journal

I’ve been keeping up with the practice of writing in a journal off and on since high school. Not to age myself, but it’s been almost 20 years since graduation, so that’s a lot of ink spilled.

My early journals were full of heartache and late-teenage angst, lamenting patterns of sin and wondering if I’d ever find a girl who loves me. There are whole journals in my bedside table that outline why the answer was going to remain “no.”

Now, as a husband (I did it!), a father of 3 boys, a keeper of a full-time job with freelance writing gigs on the side, and someone who’s involved in various other things in our community (softball, volunteering through church), I use those pages to keep track of what’s really going on in my life and how I feel about it all.

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I try to bring my journal around with me wherever I go, just to be able to make note of some thoughts on different aspects of life; it’s not only a space to express my thoughts, feelings, anxieties, success and failure as I try to sort through it all, but also a reference to look back on and see how things have worked out.

And while I do use my journal to write down some thoughts on current life events, what makes this practice so worthwhile for me is having one place where I can jot down quotes from and notes on books that I am currently reading, the verse of the day from my Bible app, funny things the boys say, writing ideas, memorable lines or scenes from movies / TV, musical lyrics that make an impression – anything worth noting, really.

If you don’t journal, I would highly recommend it. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

Re-post: The matter of opinions

I’m hoping to use this space for less formulaic and more creative writing, hearkening back to my blogging days of old. To stimulate that side of my brain, I’m going to occasionally post some old goodies I come across. Here’s one from 2011, originally posted on Tumblr. 

  • o-pin-ion (noun) 1. a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty. 2. a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.
  • fact (noun) 1. something that actually exists; reality; truth. 2.something known to exist or to have happened.

In the second of a developing series of tweetfessions, I expressed tonight that sometimes I have trouble distinguishing between the above two concepts, ie: there are times when, in attempting to share an opinion, I express it as fact.

Instead of sharing a personal belief or judgment that cannot be proved with absolute certainty, I make statements of fact that, in my mind, are true and cannot be argued against.

The potential outcome of this is twofold: a) one can come across as a bit of an asshole a know-it-all, and b) one runs the risk of ostracizing those who may not share the same opinion.

Allow me to give an example.

I am not a fan of the show ‘Big Bang Theory.’ I have tried to watch it on several occasions, but have it to be quite boring and unfunny, causing me to change to channel before making it through an entire episode. I have been known to state in no uncertain terms that the show stinks, and that it is not worth watching. At the same time, however, the reality is that this is a wildly popular show, and for a multitude of reasons that are inexplicable to me, there are many people who would say that it is quite hilarious.

In saying that it unequivocally sucks, I come across as some sort of TV expert (which I’m not), and open up the possibility for those who genuinely enjoy the show to feel somewhat attacked or shamed for doing so (which is crazy).

Something that I am learning more and more is the value of staying quiet; not all opinions need to be shared, and it’s quite alright to be quietly confident in and comfortable with the things I like and/or believe while allowing others to enjoy and openly express their opinions on something, even if I do not hold the same view.

This translates not only in matters of taste (movies, TV, music, sports teams etc.), but also when it comes to more personal beliefs that people hold as well.

And while there certainly are times when certain statements and beliefs need to be wrestled with and questioned, I need not only to be open to having my opinions questioned, but to lovingly allow others to hold their opinions without always feeling the need to argue against them.

Because at the end of the day, when it comes to the matter of opinions, sometimes it just doesn’t matter all that much.

Re-post: Those small, transcendent moments

I’m hoping to use this space for less formulaic and more creative writing, hearkening back to my blogging days of old. To stimulate that side of my brain, I’m going to occasionally post some old goodies I come across. Here’s one from 2010, originally posted on Tumblr. 

In life, there are these transcendent moments where everything seems right with the world.

Lauren and I experienced such a moment a couple weeks ago.

Our good friend Chris Lewis had been over for supper, and we were in the process of cleaning up and getting ready to call it a night. Our son Will had been changed and fed, and was also winding it down in preparation for a few hours of sleep.

I was holding him (outwards, as is his preference), and Mommy walked over, drew in very close, and started to talk to him, presumably looking for some sort of cooing response, as he had been doing in increasing measure and volume in recent weeks.

What we got instead was something far more amazing.

From the bottom of his toes and out of his sweet little mouth sprang this big old belly laugh, the first of its kind from our awesome (then) 10 week old. And as Lauren kept talking, he kept laughing, and within seconds, we were all laughing, all three of us without any cares in the world. (I’m pretty sure both parents had tears in our eyes as well).

I can honestly say that are few moments of comparison in my 30 years in which I have experienced such pure and unbridled joy.

That’s parenting for you, I guess. As much as nothing can prepare you for the constant feeding, changing and the (hopefully) occasional bouts of fussiness, it’s also true that nothing can prepare you for the first time that you hear your kid laugh away.

2018 Book List

As per tradition, here’s a list of books I read during the past year. My favourites are in bold, extra points for the italicized one.

2018 Reading List

  1. Nathan Coulter by Wendell Berry
  2. A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry
  3. The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  4. Own The Moment by Carl Lentz
  5. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
  6. An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
  8. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
  9. Paul by N.T Wright
  10. The Two Towers: The Treason of Isengard by  J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Memory of Old Jack by Wendell Berry
  12. Grateful by Diana Butler Bass
  13. The Lifters by Dave Eggers
  14. Robin by Dave Itzkoff
  15. Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman
  16. The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen by Lisa Gungor
  17. Us Against You by Fredrick Backman
  18. Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved by Kate Bowler
  19. The Devil In White City by Erik Larson
  20. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
  21. Eager to Love by Richard Rohr
  22. A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle, Author of A Wrinkle in Time by Sarah Arthur
  23. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  24. The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron Niequist
  25. Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held Evans
  26. Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
  27. You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers
  28. My Struggle: Book One by Karl Ove Knausgard
  29. A New Harmony by John Philip Newell
  30. God Over Good by Luke Norsworthy
  31. Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  32. Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde
  33. Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
  34. Remembering by Wendell Berry
  35. I Declare War by Levi Lusko
  36. Faith For This Moment by Rick McKinley
  37. All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  38. God Has A Name by John Mark Comer

The Importance of Community

Here it is – the final chapter of my Aberdeen dissertation. Thanks to anyone who’s read any part of it.

4.3 Discipleship in community

To answer the call to discipleship is to place oneself within the great tradition of the calling forth of alternative communities that are to embody the Way of Jesus and his kingdom come in the midst of day-to-day life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – using the phrase ‘new humanity’ in lieu of discipleship language – places a communal imperative on the process of following Jesus with this statement: “No one can become a new human being except by being within the church, that is, through the body of Christ. Whoever seeks to become a new human being individually cannot succeed. To become a new human being means to come into the church, to become a member of Christ’s body.”1 For Bonhoeffer, those called out by Jesus – the Word of God in bodily form – can “no longer remain hidden; they [are to be] the light which has to shine, the city on a hill which is bound to be seen.”2 Camp puts it this way: “We are called to be a people walking in faithful discipleship to the way of Christ, and thereby to be the salt and light the rebellious world so desperately needs.”3 In order for that light to shine most effectively, individual beams of light must become concentrated collectives intent on embodying the teachings and example of Jesus within the context of day-to-day life.

To be a disciple, therefore, is to become an active participant in “the way, the body of Christ, people of God, and a plethora of images that denote the social reality of being Christian and what it means to be a distinctive people formed by the narrative of God.”4 For Hauerwas, to be able to take the first steps of obedience and to embody a way of living that runs counter to the dominant powers of the day “requires nothing less than an alternative story and society in which the self can find a home.”5 The community of disciples is to be a group of people through whom “the stories of Israel and Jesus are told, enacted and heard”; through this ongoing process of hearing, telling and enacting, “the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.”6

For followers of Jesus, Hauerwas argues, “there is literally nothing more important we can do.”7 The entire concept of discipleship, then, “exists only by God’s calling of people”, and furthermore, “it is only through such a people that the world can know that our God is one who wills nothing else than our good.”8 In short, the world as it is meant to be is only truly known “through the practices and habits of a community constituted by a truthful story.”9 This is the role of disciples in the present world – to constitute a widespread community that embodies the teachings, example and practices of Jesus wherever they are, and in so doing, demonstrates to the world that a different way of living is possible according to the biblical story of discipleship.

Communities of disciples are to engage in the theological and embodied process of recovering a different way of seeing and living in the world that God has created. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it:

Theology’s recovery of a scriptural imagination must come from a relationship with Scripture that is mediated … by a faith community whose practices are ordered to the transformation of humans according to the world imagined by Scripture – a world, faith asserts, which expresses the mind of God.10

Communities of disciples are to examine the biblical story of discipleship as one that imagines a different way of living in the world, “and by imagining it, reveals it, and by revealing it, enables it to be brought into being within this physical space humans share with each other.”11

It is here that discipleship becomes distinct from the current popular notions of modern Christianity. The church, as a community of disciples, is to take seriously “the double movement of withdrawal from culture [and] increasingly see itself as a community which knows that its Lord is different from the lord of culture, its loyalties and values very different from the dominant consciousness of our culture.”12 Moreover, the church is to “live the life referred to in John’s description of Jesus’ followers as in the world, but ‘not of the world,’ grounded not in the world but in God.”13

Ultimately, the task of communities of disciples is “not to make the gospel credible to the world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”14 In other words, discipleship involves becoming a part of a community that shows to the world that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, one that requires active obedience fueled by the adoption of personally and socially transformative practices and habits.

Disciples, therefore, are to constitute a widespread community that take up physical space but without a necessarily fixed address; this community is to have a “very real impact on the life of the world” in that it “gains space for Christ.”15 As Brueggemann qualifies it, “the call to community is not to join an institution or to sign a pledge card; it is rather to sign on for a different narrative account of reality, one that is in profound contrast to the dominant account of reality into which we are all summarily inducted.”16

To be this kind of community means, “embodying God’s intentions for the world as revealed in Christ”; it is to embody a “new social order, the new-world-on-the-way.”17 This is ultimately accomplished by “having the patience amid the injustice and violence in the world to care for the widow, the poor and the orphan.”18 In this way, Willard asserts, “God’s promise to Abraham – that in him and in his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed – is carried forward to its realization.”19 N.T. Wright, while reflecting on the Gospel of Mark, articulates the implications of what it means for the church as a community of disciples to gain space for Christ and his kingdom in the world today: it is “to abandon its imperialistic dreams on the one hand, and its passive non-involvement on the other, and to become for the world what Jesus was for the world. This is what discipleship, following Jesus, really means.”20

4.4 Concluding Remarks

If practical theology is a process of critical and theological reflection that is undertaken ‘for the sake of developing practices that faithfully reflect the actions and character of the triune God, as God has revealed God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,’ then surely a recovery of the true nature of discipleship must be seen as an essential element of that process.

Disciples of Jesus, therefore, are to demonstrate to the world that to believe in Jesus is to understand that his message of good news is rooted within the present realities of life, and that to follow him requires a visible shift away from the dominant social, and cultural and political powers and into the world as imagined and revealed in Scripture and shaped by the teachings, example and practices of Jesus.

From this basis, those who respond to the call to discipleship by turning from the old to the new and taking tangible steps of obedience according to ‘the Way’ of Jesus, and who form communities whose practices and habits bear witness to the reality that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, will be better equipped to ensure and enable faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in and for the world

1 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 219.

2 Ibid., 226.

3 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 108.

4 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

5 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

6 Ibid., 372.

7 Ibid., 374.

8 Ibid., 373.

9 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and the Mentally Handicapped: A Continuing Challenge to the Imagination,” in Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology, ed. John Swinton (Binghamton: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2004) 56.

10 Luke Timothy Johnson, “Imagining the World Scripture Imagines,” in Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (April, 1998), 171.

11 Ibid., 172.

12 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision. Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), 195.

13 Ibid., 195.

14 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 24.

15 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 236.

16 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship,” 95.

17 Ibid., 115.

18 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” 375.

19 Willard, The Great Omission, xiii.

20 N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1994), 40.

3 versions of the same story (w/ sountrack from David Bazan)

From Matthew

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about [d]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, [e] because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us“).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

From Luke

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

From John

In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God,  and the Word was God.

He existed in the beginning with God.

God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him.

The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone.

The light shines in the darkness,  and the darkness can never extinguish it.

God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.

He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.

They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

Merry Christmas from the McLaren family!

Breaking the status quo takes practice

Read first – Simple obedience: Taking a first step

4.2 The role of spiritual practices in discipleship

While it has been argued that to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow his teachings and example, one must be careful not to focus exclusively on that which pertains to the Jesus’ ethics and in so doing ignore the fundamental role of spiritual habits and practices throughout his life and ministry.

As Dallas Willard notes, “if we take note of and follow Jesus in what he did when he was not ministering or teaching, we will find ourselves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was ‘on the spot’”.[1] If one is to take seriously the example of Jesus, one cannot neglect the fact that Jesus was regularly engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, practices which led into transformative, missional encounters with those in need.

In order to remain in a posture of readiness from which the disciple can hear and respond to the call to follow Jesus, it is important to adopt these – and other – practices and habits which have been developed over time by those who have sought to reorient their lives according to the Way of Jesus. For, as Brueggemann asserts, “discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices.”[2]

These practices have been defined as “things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world,” and can include such things as “honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping Sabbath, discernment, testimony, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and singing our lives to God.”[3] These – and other – practices are to be “constituent elements in a way of life that becomes incarnate when human beings live in the light of and in response to God’s gift of life abundant.”[4] They are rooted “in a world created and sustained by a just and merciful God, who is now in the midst of reconciling this world through Christ. (They) address needs that are basic to human existence as such, and they do so in ways that reflect God’s purposes for humankind.”[5] Finally, when disciples engage in such practices, they “are taking part in God’s work of creation and new creation and thereby growing into a deeper knowledge of God and of creation.”[6] These practices are therefore fundamental aspects of discipleship in that they reorient one’s day-to-day life so that they become more in tune with the divine-human conversation and God’s intended purposes for that which he has created. Through these practices, disciples reverberate the redemptive and loving work of God and offer to the world a clearer picture of the rhythm and beauty that is the Way of Jesus.

The challenge for the disciple is that these practices are, in Brueggemann’s words, “not very exciting or immediately productive”; but, “like the acquiring of any new competence, [these practices] require such regimen, not unlike the learning of a new language by practicing the paradigm of verbs, not unlike the learning of piano by practicing the scales … not unlike every intentional habit that makes new dimensions of life possible.”[7] As John Swinton helpfully articulates, “by constantly employing them in our day-to-day experiences, by picking ourselves up when we fail to achieve them, and by persevering when they appear pointless, practices become habits.”[8]

As a result, these practices begin to define “the natural way that a person will respond to a particular situations”; therefore, “when engaged in regularly, Christian practices cease to become things that we simply do; instead, they become vitals aspects of who we are.”[9]  Whereas Jesus’ spiritual practices, teachings and mission flowed out who he was and is as both truly human and truly divine, followers of Jesus, through the process of engaging in these practices, can “increasingly become on the inside exactly what we are on the outside, where actions and moods and attitudes visibly play over our body, alive in its social context.”[10] In short, these practices, over time, “make following the master-teacher possible and sustainable.”[11]

Discipleship, therefore, “entails a) a resolve to follow a leader who himself has costly habits, b) in order to engage in disciplines that disentangle us from ways in which we are schooled and narcotized into new habits that break old vicious cycles among us, drawing us into intimacy with this calling God.”[12]

In order to follow Jesus, one cannot continue living in accordance with the status quo; tangible steps of obedience that move the disciple out of old and into new ways of living must be taken, and these steps are shaped by fundamental practices that develop within us a posture of readiness from which the call to follow Jesus can be answered in meaningful ways.

It is important, however, to frame the importance of spiritual practices and habits as not solely individual endeavors for the sake of personal transformation, and in so doing reinforce the mistake of individualizing one’s belief in Jesus and the salvific ‘benefits’ thereof. This is not to suggest that one’s salvation is tied into their ability to successfully engage in Christian practices.

Willard qualifies it in this way: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”[13] To engage in these practices is to put in the necessary effort to be engaged in the process “of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God now, as he himself did.”[14] A link must be made, therefore, between more reflective and personal practices and those that Brueggemann refers to as “neighbor practices”[15], ones that demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

“Engagement in alterity is accomplished through daily, concrete neighborly practices of self-giving generosity, respect and affirmation”[16]; this is what it means to live in the Kingdom in the here and now, as Jesus did. Practices such as generosity, service, compassion and forgiveness are, according to Brueggemann, “profoundly countercultural in a society that is deeply lacking in the elemental ingredients of common humanness” and “amount to a deep challenge to dominant assumptions in our culture.”[17] Therefore, “to become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.”[18]

A follower of Jesus must be aware of the fact that discipleship involves active participation in the present realities of the world; the adoption of spiritual practices and habits must not be undertaken solely with a view to personal transformation, but rather with a keen sense of the call to embody a different way of living, within the context of community and for the sake of the other.

[1] Ibid., 30.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship: The God Who Calls, The God Who Sends,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 107.

[3] Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 18, 19.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[8] John Swinton, Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 84.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), 15.

[11] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[12] Ibid., 95.

[13] Willard, The Great Omission, 61.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108.

[16] Walter Brueggemann, “Vision For a New Church and a New Century, Part II: Holiness Becomes Generosity,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 192.

[17] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108-109

[18] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community,” Christian Century 108, no. 27 (1991), 884.