Two new books came in recently that are not just how to deepen one’s relationship with God or how to practice the spiritual life. These two are about how to know, really, whether what we think or feel about God is true, and whether one is making proper headway in one’s journey “deeper in and farther along” (as Lewis put it.) These are fairly serious books, so may not be for everyone, but are for anyone who is fluent in this literature, experienced in these habits, or involved in spiritual director or pastoring or teaching others, they are very, very important.
First is the most serious work Dallas Willard has done to date (well, excepting his professional scholarly work as a philosopher.) Knowing Christ Today Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne; $24.99.) It is a thorny debate, actually, about the nature of truth—can we really know spiritual things? (What are spiritual things, really? If religious truths are real—as Christians insist—than why do we have this sort of dichtomy in our language? Is there a split between “facts” and “values”? Others have addressed this helpufully (Leslie Newbegin, for instance, in his brief but potent Foolishness to the Greeks, or Nancy Pearcy in her worldview opus Total Truth.) To see Willard “focusing like a laser beam” (as Foster puts it) “on the issue of moral knowledge as a legitimate source for understanding reality” is extraordinary. How many books on Christ-likeness and formation carry endorsements by eminent sociologists, as this one does, with the rave blurb from Boston University’s Peter Berger? Do you recall the Bible verse “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge”? This lucid account of the issues of what true knowledge is, and how that helps us gauge our growth into Christ-likeness, give an excellent lay of the land to how we can regain faith-based knowing, authentic insight, and confident spirituality. This one is worth working through slowly, pondering and underlining as you go.
Seasons of the Soul: Stages of Spiritual Development Bruce Demarest (IVP) $16.00 This is another book that is less about how to grow as a Christian, but how to measure or discern the maturity and adequacy of this growth. And how to learn to appreciate the new levels and stages and ages of the trek. Some of us have read and appreciated the developmental research done by James Fowler et al. A bit too influenced by Piaget’s rationalism, perhaps, and a bit too academic, that school of thought has influenced Christian educators, but hasn’t caught on for ordinary folks as a helpful tool for self examination or aiding formation. Stages and ages are useful, but haven’t necessarily helped us be more aware of understandable ups and downs on the journey with God, or more comfortable in our spiritual stages. This new book fills a real need and looks to be just spectacular. It uses the structure of Walter Brueggemann’s seminal assessment of the Psalms, namely, that there is orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. Demarest calls it “initial orientation” (the first stage of putting our faith in Christ), “painful disorientation” (which is the season of experiencing struggles, doubts, and the dark night sort of loss of God’s presence), and the phase of coming to subsequent deeper faith, which he calls “joyful reorientation.” Are they three simple chronological stages? Cycles or phases? How can our deepest relationship with God and our devotional life help us as we suffer?
Demarest, of Denver Seminary, has a very helpful appendix summarizing other authors who have used the journey as a metaphor for spiritual maturity, from the desert fathers, the medieval mystics, to contemporaries such as Evelyn Underhill to M. Scott Peck. Throughout the book, Dr. Demarest proves himself fluent in the widest readings; what a delight to see the Syrian fourth century Pseudo-Macarius quoted next to 20th century CM&A preacher A.W. Tozer; to see Elizabeth O’Connor cited next to John Owen. Like I said, it may not be for everyone, but there are many Hearts & Minds readers who would benefit from this slower, deeper sort of reading, which actually is delightfully written and really quite amazing. Seasons of the Soul will help you, and equip you to help others. Highly recommended.
A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life: Welcoming the Soul and
Weaving Community in a Wounded World Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass) $19.95; DVD included This is not particularly academic or dense, but for those who are used to primarily evangelical piety, this blend of spirituality and psychology, community and pain, may be bracing. Parker, of course, is a beloved writer, a clear and kind thinker, old friend of Henri Nouwen, and contemporary philosopher of education. We stock all of his stuff (and his very first, Promise of Paradox, was re-issued this year in a lovely hand-sized hardcover.) This new paperback edition of Hidden Wholeness includes two new features. Circles of Trust is a DVD containing interviews with Parker Palmer and footage from retreats he facilitated for the Center for Courage & Renewal. Bringing the Book to Life is a reader’s and leader’s guide to exploring the book’s themes. (The discussion guide particularly connects the DVD and the book, drawing on the insights and practices of “circles of trust.”) As it says on the back, “Together, these features gives readers new ways to internalize the themes of A Hidden Wholeness and share with others this approach to sustaining identity and integrity in all the venues of our lives.”
If one wants to delve into these thoughtful areas, deep spirituality and classic convictions, habits and practices, and learn the broad teachings of the church universal, you may want to pick up as a life-long reference what may be the best collection of essays and articles in a large textbook format, The Brazos Introduction to Christian Spirituality edited by Evan B. Howard (Brazos) $39.99. At 500 large pages, this is a treasure trove, interdisciplinary and ecumenical. There are chapter outlines and objectives, sidebars, focus boxes, charts, pictures (and even cartoons) a useful glossary, chapter summaries, questions for consideration and very helpful “looking further” resource lists. If one wants to know what a relationship with God looks like for Christians, and is willing to hear the perspectives of the breadth of Christian spirituality, this comprehensive volume is a must.
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