I realize this is an older book, and that it has been reviewed by hundreds of others. I had to write a review of it for a seminary class I’m taking and I thought perhaps some of my readers might appreciate another point of view. I have to be honest, I didn’t get much out of the book. The best chapter, The Discipline of Submission, should have been the first chapter and it was this chapter that gave me the most insight. There were too many unresolved questions for me in this book and the theology was also suspect as you’ll see in my review. Thanks to everyone who visited me while I was gone this week. I had a great 2 and half days in Cincy and in class. I can’t wait to go back in November. Wednesday, the day I left for Cincy, was my best blog day ever as far as page views are concerned. I can’t believe how this blog has grown over the last couple of months. Thanks again, I do appreciate your hits and replies.
October 18, 2007
Foster, Richard. Celebration of Discipline. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1998.
The book Celebration of Discipline raises a very important question perhaps without even intending to or without even being completely ‘aware’ that it is doing so. The question is this: Why do we do these things? We could phrase this question a hundred ways, perhaps, specifying what the ‘these things’ is: Why do we pray? Why do we fast? Why do we meditate? The author’s intent is summed up in his answer to these questions: “The classical Disciplines of the spiritual life call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm. They urge us to be the answer to a hollow world.” (n1) While I agree that such a notion is true at some level, I disagree that this can be substantiated from a broad sweep of Scripture. (And I could probably make a pretty good case that ‘we’ are not the ‘answer’ the hollow world needs, but that is another essay.) That is, I don’t happen to agree that we pray or fast or study merely, or at all, to get in touch with the ‘spiritual realm’ especially if that spiritual realm is some cavern deep within the human psyche. John the Revelator found himself in touch with the spiritual realm once: “On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet…” (Revelation 1:10). It was precisely because he was in the Spirit that he found himself in touch with that realm.
So why do we pray? Why do we fast? Frankly, I’m not really sure after reading this book. Foster says on page 2, “Recent converts—for that matter people who have not yet turned their lives over to Jesus Christ—should practice them.” This led me to question what the point of these exercises actually is, then? If there is nothing decidedly or necessarily Christian about them to begin with, then exactly what ‘inner cavern’ of what ‘spiritual realm’ might such a person be seeking? I agree with Foster that ours is a world with a prevailing “materialistic base” (2), but I have sincere doubts about what he means by a person having the “ability to reach beyond the physical realm” (2). In my opinion, such reaching can be dangerous—even with a profoundly Christian worldview. (Space concerns obviously prevent a full-blown exploration of the dangers.)
Foster differed from Willard in a very key respect. Willard focused a lot on what he called ‘effort.’ He said on more than one occasion that “grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” Thus he used most of his space detailing how few Christians make a sincere effort to externalize obedience to Christ in all things. Foster, on the other hand, takes a somewhat different approach while not altogether denying the effort of the person practicing these disciplines. He wrote, “When we despair of gaining inner transformation through human powers of will and determination, we are open to a wonderful new realization: inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours. The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.” (n 2) He goes on, again in somewhat stark contrast to Willard, to write that “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving His grace. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.” (n 3) Willard says grace enables us to make the effort; Foster says we make the effort to receive grace. KC Moser wrote, “Man does not believe merely in order to obey, but he obeys as an embodiment of his faith.” (n 4) Such it is with prayer, fasting, etc. To some extent, Foster’s idea is nearly not even Christian.
I had three main issues with this book aside from the aforementioned points. The first is, like Willard, Foster engages in no long, detailed exegetical study of Scripture. He, like Willard, approaches Scripture using the Rick Warren method of study: Quote only portions of verses, quote long verses out of context, quote dubious paraphrases of Scripture that ‘say what the author needs it to say.’ I think Scripture needs to be handled differently and, frankly, with more reverence. Foster’s approach to Scripture can essentially make Scripture say anything he wants it to say, and make it mean anything he wants it to mean. When it is all said and done, it ‘fits,’ ‘sounds good,’ and ‘makes the point.’ Scripture does not exist to justify us, but God. When we approach Scripture as a manual for making better people, I think we miss the point. On many occasions, Foster clearly misses the point.
Secondly, there was the place Foster began. If Foster had begun his book with the chapter, “The Discipline of Submission” (easily the best chapter in the book) instead of “The Discipline of Meditation,” he would have found a more welcome audience in me. Foster spends considerable space in “The Disciplines of Meditation” defending his version of meditation against the charge that it is merely Eastern TM with the adjective ‘Christian’ in front of it. Yet when I was finished reading the chapter, I was thoroughly unconvinced. One small example. He writes, “We simply must become convinced of the importance of thinking and experiencing in images.” (n 5) But in Scripture, the Biblical characters and authors do exactly the opposite: They meditate solely on God’s Word (see Psalm 1, 119). I also had great difficulty with his ideas of looking back on the body while the self “rose up through the clouds” (27). Foster’s version of meditation, I think, is fraught with great danger. And in beginning at this point, he immediately lost me.
The final issue is that I just could not really figure out why these disciplines are to be practiced. Then, ironically in the ‘The Discipline of Submission’ chapter I think was the best, he wrote this, “The disciplines in themselves are of no value whatever. They have value only as a means of setting us before God so that He can give us the liberation we seek. The liberation is the end; the disciplines are merely the means. They are not the answer; they only lead us to the Answer.” (n 6) However, even though he spends a significant amount of space talking about Jesus’ “cross-life”, he spends too little time talking about Jesus’ “cross-death.” I do not believe the Scripture justifies the idea that praying, fasting, and meditation set us before God so we can be liberated. Where is the cross? Didn’t Jesus say “the truth shall set you free”? And, furthermore, if anyone can practice these things (as he said on page 2) does this mean a person, even someone not submitted to Jesus Christ, can be ‘liberated’ by God merely by praying, fasting, serving, and submitting? Again, I have to ask: “Where is the cross at work in all this liberating.” But doesn’t he give it away by titling his first chapter, “The Spiritual Disciplines: Door to Liberation”? I thought we were liberated by the Cross work of Jesus.
Scripture exhorts us to be perfect (Matthew 5:48), holy (1 Peter 1:16), and pure (1 Timothy 5:22). We are to renew our minds (Romans 12:1-2) even while we are constantly being renewed (Colossians 3:9-10; 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). We are to pray (Matthew 6; Ephesians 6). Jesus expected us to fast (Matthew 6, Matthew 9:14-15). But why do we do these things? Eugene Peterson wrote in The Jesus Way that “[t]he prevailing ways and means curricula in which we are all immersed in North America are designed to help us get ahead in whatever field of work we find ourselves: sales and marketing, politics, business, church, school and university, construction, manufacturing, farming, laboratory, hospital, home, playground, sports.” (n 7) If we are doing these things to ‘get ahead’ then they are not being practiced for very good reasons at all and Peterson is convinced that these purely pragmatic ways will fail miserably and ultimately “weaken and enervate the community of the baptized.” (n 8 ) Like Willard’s book, Foster often led me to believe that his mere means (5) are little more than a vaguely spiritual, not specifically Christian, way to get ahead. “We can determine if we are praying aright if the requests come to pass.” (n 9)
I think we hope for answers to prayer, but I don’t think the answers are the reason to pray. We pray in expectation of Jesus’ return. What if he never answers the prayer at all? Does this mean that our prayer posture is incorrect? When we pray it is not simply a matter of ‘getting it right.’ Prayer is a matter of fighting, standing, expectation, hope, and faith. In other words, we pray from a position in Christ not for a position. Foster’s work is helpful in that it points out for the reader that importance practicing such disciplines, but I came away thinking, often, that the disciplines were an end in themselves. If Jesus sets us free, and we are free indeed, these disciplines will not need to be done in order to place ourselves before God. Instead they will be done from a context of Joy and Thanksgiving and Faith for what we have already received from Him.
1 Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, 1
2 Foster, 5
3 Foster, 6
4 KC Moser, The Gist of Romans, (Delight, Arkansas: Gospel Light Publishing Company, 1957), 43
5 Foster, 22
6 Foster, 96
7 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 3
8 Peterson, 3
9 Foster, 34