Book Review – Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us,  revised and expanded, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 332 pages.

It seems that there is a renewed interest in learning about and practicing “spiritual disciplines” today. That is a good thing – as a people we can never draw too close to God or have too strong of a spiritual appetite. How one goes about learning about the spiritual disciplines can possibly be problematic, however, and that is where a certain amount of discernment is critical in measuring this expanding field of Christian literature.

To be brief to the point of possible obscurity: spiritual disciplines are simply those practices which draw us closer to God. That’s it – there is no magic, no smoke and mirrors, no incantations or potions. Christians have been practicing these disciplines for millennia, most times probably not even thinking that what they were doing was a “spiritual discipline.” Practices such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, meditation – all of these (and many, many more) are all spiritual disciplines. This is not rocket science, and no special amount of knowledge is required.

However, as with any discipline (music, painting, playing a sport, etc) it is always beneficial to learn from others who have progressed further in that discipline than we have. So, purchasing and reading books about the spiritual disciplines is not a bad thing – with one very important caveat: in evaluating books on the spiritual disciplines, it is critical to keep in mind whether the goal is to draw closer to God, or to have a better feeling about the attempt to draw closer to God!

I will illustrate that last sentence with a quote from my father. When I was a little boy I read just about everything I could about fishing for trout – especially fly fishing. Somewhat amused by my earnest endeavor, my father (who was an artist in the skill of understatement) wryly said to me one time, “Paul, I don’t think I have ever seen one trout that has read that book on how to catch trout.” His point was that there are a staggering number of books written about how to catch fish – most of which are written to catch the eye of the fisherman and to create income for the author.

Which brings me to this book on the spiritual disciplines by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Actually, this edition is a revised and updated edition, and I had previously owned her first edition, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious how she could revise and expand it. To her credit the earlier work is largely unchanged, to her discredit she added some sections that, in my most humble opinion, have moved her book from “moving closer to God” to “feeling really good about acting super spiritual.”

Calhoun arranges her book (this one as well as the last) to follow the acronym W.O.R.S.H.I.P. That is she begins with a section on “Worship” proper, then moves on to “Open Myself to God,” “Relinquish the False Self,” “Share My Life With Others,” “Hear God’s Word,” “Incarnate the Love of Christ,” and finally “Pray.” Within each of these sections there are some instructions, observations, and practices that are real gems. And, within a number of the sections there are some practices that I believe are designed more to “catch the fisherman” than to catch the fish.

Whether she is self-conscious about the accusation of being “new agey” and that her practices might be considered more far-eastern than Christian, she repeats in a number of locations that what she is describing goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. This might be true – but just because a practice is old does not make it true or correct or a path to draw closer to God. Living in caves and sitting on poles are also ancient practices – but thankfully we have learned that sitting on poles was not necessarily a healthy practice for spiritual development. So, I genuinely question her emphasis on iconography for example, and her section of “labyrinth” prayer, which has the smell of manufacturing emotions rather than deepening the well of spirituality.

That is simply my reaction, however, and in this field of Christian literature there is a broad, almost indescribably broad, measure of what is healthy and what is not. I tend to be very conservative, and so as I read this literature my mind goes to the question, “is this practice taught or illustrated in Scripture” far more than “does this practice make me feel good.”

I do not want to cast too negative a pall on the book – her section on “Relinquishing the Self” is very good – and there are far more good sections and practices than questionable ones all throughout the book. From my own perspective, the original Handbook was much better, but that opinion and a couple of dollars will buy you a cup of coffee just about anywhere you go.

Bottom line, one qualified thumb up – but let the reader beware. I don’t think God has read many books on how to draw close to him either. After all, he wrote the best one on the market.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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