Reading Report – 2018

Packing up 2018 and getting ready for 2019 –

This past year turned out to be quite a journey for the ol’ Freightdawg. The Smith family moved back to Colorado (yea!) but virtually simultaneously we discovered that my wife’s cancer returned (major yuck!). So, amidst all the relocating and multiple extended trips for therapy, I have not had the kind of time for reading that I usually do. So, for 2018 that meant a total of 5,672 pages of books read, a huge drop-off from my typical year.

But, on the other hand, that limited number of books read (a total of 17) allowed me to get a better picture of the kinds of books I am typically reading. 2018 was interesting – fully a quarter of the books I read were related in some form or fashion to the book of Revelation (two commentaries and two books related to apocalyptic literature). Another quarter of my reading was related to spirituality and spiritual disciplines. You would think I would be better at maintaining my spiritual life, but, you would be wrong.

In the “no surprise here” category, three books on my completed list related to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Last year I completed the entire 16 volume set of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (English edition), so in 2018 I only read books related to Bonhoeffer.

The other books I read in 2018 were a hodgepodge of academic type books. I very rarely ever read fiction (some would say that is a huge omission, but I have a hard enough time buying good non-fiction books. I don’t know how to begin to find good fiction books).

Maybe I should add that a huge accomplishment I completed in 2018 was to take my Revised Standard Version, my New Revised Standard Version, and my English Standard Version copies of the Bible and begin marking them in various colors to help me track various themes and critical texts. That took quite a bit of time, but I learned some interesting things about translation issues even within one single family of translations (the three translations are really closely related). I may go through another translation or two with the same process. In 2019 that would be the NKJV and, if I add another one, would be the Common English Bible.

Already on tap for 2019 are three books I did not get to in 2018, and if all goes according to plan I will be able to provide reviews of those books in the coming months.

If any of my readers have suggestions for good theological books, please pass them along to me. I have the strange belief that if I am not learning something, then I am going backwards. I do not like going backwards! If any of my suggestions prove to be beneficial to you, let me know that as well. It would be nice to know that I have helped a fellow traveler out along the way.

Let us purpose to ascend higher by climbing lower in 2019!

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.