Takeaway: Spiritual practices are not magic bullets.
Over the past few years I have become a disciple of spiritual practices. I have a spiritual director. I regularly use the Book of Common Prayer. I really do think that the eucharist and baptism should be central to worship. This makes me the target audience of Lauren Winner’s new book, the Dangers of Christian Practice.
The rough thesis is that spiritual practices, while good, have weaknesses that need to be paid attention to. Just like the church is made up of human beings that are sinful and make every church community less than perfect, good practices that are commanded by God and advocated throughout history also have some weaknesses.
The easiest illustration and the best chapters is about prayer. Keziah Goodwin Hopkins Brevard is the main illustration. She is a 57 year old widowed owner of two plantations and over 200 slaves. She left extensive journals both of her thoughts and of her prayers as fodder for Winner’s discussion.
As Winner recounts, Brevard prays for pliant slaves, she prays for the death of slaves that lie to her, she prays that Heaven will have a separate location for abolitionists and slaves away from her. (Note the political and rhetorical implications of a separate heaven.) She prays to be a good master and for a heart open to God.
Winner notes that the subjects of our prayers have long been a concern for Christians. Aquinas and others cited have thought and written about praying for things that are sinful or out of distorted desires. But the very nature of prayer is part of the problem. It is not just intercessory prayer, but teaching prayer to others and how public prayer is often not solely directed at God. Prayer can easily become gossip, self justifying or deluded. But even out of bad prayer, there can be good aspects.
Winner gives illustrations of the anthologies of prayer that line her shelves. None of them are anthologies of bad or self seeking prayers that could help us understand how our own prayers may be come bad or self seeking. Instead prayer is presented and taught as an almost universal good.
The other two practices discussed in the Dangers of Christian Practice are the problems of the eucharist being held in too high of a value (the illustration is riots causes by accused desecration of the host) and the problems of antisemitism and supersessionism, and baptism and the problems of the privatization of baptism through private christening ceremonies that were held in the home in the 19th and early 20th century as well as the way that baptism can alienate the subject from their family or community as well as drawing them into the family of Christ.
This is a very brief overview. There are lots of side tracks as well as a good introduction to the concept and a concluding chapter that challenges the ideas of spiritual practices especially as it has arisen out of post-liberal theology.
The ideas behind Dangers of Christian Practice are very helpful. One that in someways could be an article or a much larger book and still be helpful. I was very skeptical about the concept of the book and probably would not have picked it up without reading James KA Smith’s very positive review at Christian Century. However, despite my skepticism, I this was well worth reading and a good reminder to not place too much weight or responsibility on any aspect of discipleship, moral formation, or model of church.
All models of church and modes of discipleship have weaknesses. All can be corrupted and tainted. But as Winner rightly notes in the last chapter, they are what we have. Because they are not perfect does not mean that we should abandon them completely. Winner is not advocating that. Instead she is advocating more humility and understanding of the practices so that we can minimize the harm that misusing spiritual practices can bring.
The main weakness of the Dangers of Christian Practice is a weakness of lack. I do not like to focus about on what the author did not write about, but I think that it at least deserves mentioning here. Many people that are skeptical about Christian practices as a good point to either the Catholic church or the US Episcopal church as examples of how the Christian practices are not enough. I think proponents of Christian practice as well as Winner would agree that Christian spiritual practices are not enough. Winner’s lack of focus on the broader liturgy I think is a significant hole in the book. I suspect that she does not view the broader liturgy as a simple spiritual practice but something larger. However, that liturgy is what more evangelical advocates like James KA Smith and others are most centrally pointing to as an essential part of spiritual formation.
I have heard several compare the liturgy to a lattice (Glenn Packiaham on Twitter is where I most recently remember this metaphor.) Roughly, the liturgy is the lattice that allows the plant to grow. The focus is the plant (the relationship with God). The lattice by itself does not grow the plant. But the lattice give the plant room to grow and be healthy. Climbing roses can grow on the ground. But they won’t really be as healthy on the ground as they will on the lattice. And climbing roses on the lattice can still be sick. The lattice doesn’t guarantee health, just allows for it.
I think the Catholic church in particular has relied on the liturgy, and especially post Vatican II not paid enough attention to real catechesis and discipleship. Liturgy, if not built on understanding, becomes magic. Catholics like Robert Barron and others I think really do understand this. Francis George and others started a movement to evangelize the church with the gospel. Essentially saying that there are many in the Catholic church that haven’t actually heard and understood the real content of the gospel. (Robert Barron cited a stat that says that if former Catholics were a denomination by themselves, they would be the third largest denomination in the country, after Catholics and Southern Baptists). However, the problem of catechesis is not simply a problem for liturgical churches. Although there are real problems with the survey, the Lifeway research project showed that many Evangelicals believe in historic heresies.
I do think that by focusing on just three practices, and ones that Protestants would pay attention to and targeting Post-Liberal Protestants instead of having a broader audience, I think Winner narrowed the book more than necessary. However, the questions and the methods she is using for those three, can be used more broadly. It is why I think in some ways this would have made a really good long article that focused on just the Prayer chapter, or it would have made a good much longer book that included liturgy and a number of other spiritual practices.
I listened to the Dangers of Christian Practice on audiobook. It was not my favorite narration, but it was acceptable. I kept checking my player because it felt like it was running slightly too fast. Like maybe the narrator read it too slow, and the editor sped the narration up slightly digitally by cutting some of the pauses and space between the words. But for me, it was far cheaper on audiobook than on kindle or hardcover.
A Facebook friend left this quote in response to a discussion about this book in a private Facebook. It is well worth sharing:
“What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger. Our profit from scriptural reading in no way equals the damage we cause ourselves by showing contempt for a brother. We must practice fasting, vigils, withdrawal, and the meditation of Scripture as activities which are subordinate to our main objective, purity of heart, that is to say, love, and we must never disturb this principal virtue for the sake of those others. If this virtue remains whole and unharmed within us nothing can injure us, not even if we are forced to omit any of those other subordinate virtues. Nor will it be of any use to have practiced all these latter if there is missing in us that principal objective for the sake of which all else is undertaken.” St. John Cassian