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Phillips, Susan S. The Cultivated Life: From Ceaseless Striving to Receiving Joy. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 256 pp;, Pb. $17.00  Link to IVP

The Cultivated Life

Susan Phillips begins her book on spiritual disciplines with a description of life as a circus. Most readers will appreciate this metaphor for overly busy lives bombarded with noise from both American culture and American evangelical culture. Rather than leaving the circus entirely and living a monastic, contemplative life, Phillips intends this book to be a series of suggestions for practices which might open our hearts to God in the midst of the circus-like culture in which we find ourselves (29). Some of these are familiar (silence, Sabbath) but others are not the usual spiritual disciplines found in these sorts of books (friendship, listening). She tries to avoid the language of discipline (which “sounds severe,” 136),

Phillips’s metaphor in this book agricultural. If the goal of the Christian life is to bear fruit, then it is necessary to cultivate that fruit. Like real fruit, this takes time and discipline. This is a biblical metaphor; she begins with Hebrews 6:7 and uses Jesus’s metaphor of the vine from John 15, but she resists the temptation to use Paul’s list of the Fruit of the Spirit as a model. For Phillips, spiritual growth is participatory, one must recognize the need for growth and choose to cultivate their spiritual life. Although she does not make this point, it is entirely possible people who are busy serving in their churches or participating in emotionally moving worship services are not actually cultivating their spiritual life or bearing the kinds of fruit described in Scripture. This book is designed to move people from keeping busy to real spiritual life.

The book has five pairs of chapters on particular disciplines. Phillips begins each chapter with Scripture and a personal illustration to introduce the topic which is briefly discussed. Phillips uses other biblical texts and a wide variety of other literary examples to flesh out her point (Karl Rahner to T. S. Eliot to characters from Les Mis). She often concludes with an illustration of the discipline from a cross-cultural perspective.

Her first pair of topics is refreshment and listening. She argues listening (to other, to God) cultivate both virtue and a deeper relationship with God. Similarly, her second pair of topics explore “stopping” and Sabbath. Sometimes slowing down and listening to God is not enough, we need to come to a complete stop and be silent from all activity in order to cultivate a spiritual life. In fact, stopping may require a period of fallowness: just as fields are left fallow for a season in order to be fruitful, so to the Christian ought to take a short time of rest, even a pilgrimage in order to develop a fruit-bearing life. This naturally leads to the idea of Sabbath. Although Phillips does not advocate for a legalistic Sabbath, she sees the value of devoting a day to slow, even silent listening to God.

In her third pair of chapters, Phillips discusses her view of cultivating attention and praying with Scripture. She draws on recent developments in mindfulness as “relief from the circus,” although she is clear spiritual cultivation requires faith-based attention. Rather the typical mindfulness practices common in pop culture (adult coloring books, etc.), Phillips suggests praying Scripture as a method for focusing attention on God and “watering the soul”

Fourth, she uses cultivation of attachment as a foundation for discussing spiritual direction. One must be attached to God if they expect to develop and grow spiritually (once again, coming out of the circus). Once oriented toward the right goal (God), a person is able to be directed through quiet reflection and prayerful attention to Scripture.

Fifth, Phillips has two chapters on friendship. In many books on spiritual discipline these chapters might concern mentors or accountability partners. But Phillips sees these relationships as more intimate friendships between people who spur one another on to cultivation of spiritual disciplines.

The final two chapters of the book concern how to grow spiritual by “enriching the soil.” The goal of cultivation of a spiritual life ought to be some tangible result, just as the cultivation of a tree is some fruit. Christians are, for Phillips, “walking trees” (202) and need to be enriched with things like joy and exaltation. Once again, a typical spiritual growth book may have used Bible study and prayer (along with other classic disciplines).

Each chapter includes a few questions for reflection. These might make good journaling prompts or discussions questions for a small group devoted to studying spiritual disciplines. The chapters are quite brief so that a weekly small group might discuss their way through the book. One possible criticism some will have of this book is the occasional lack of Scriptural warrant for some suggested practices. In some chapters the point is well made, but grounded in experience and contemporary literature rather than New Testament spirituality. For some readers, this might be a refreshing change from the usual sorts of things included in books in the spiritual growth and development category.

 

NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Pettit, Paul and R.Todd Mangum. Blessed Are the Balanced: A Seminarian’s Guide to Following Jesus in the Academy.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2014. 137 pp. Pb; $14.99. Link to Kregel.

This is a short guide to maintaining a spiritual life in Seminary. There is nothing here on research skills, how to write seminary level papers or tips on memorizing Greek and Hebrew vocabulary. Pettit and Mangum’s focus is entirely on helping a new seminary student not only maintain spiritual fervor while studying at the graduate level, but also grow as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

BalancedFirst, Pettit and Mangum discuss Christian Maturity as a balance between the head and the heart. Here the authors draw a contrast between higher education and spiritual life. They use Psalm 26:2 as a model, “Examine me, O Lord, and try me; test my mind and my heart.” I think they overplay the meaning of heart (לֵב, lev) as “emotions” in contrast to the head (כִּלְיָה, kilyah) as “motives or understanding, the mind” (31). The nouns appear in in parallel lines of poetry and were not intended to refer to distinct elements of human life. The noun כִּלְיָה refers to the inner parts of a sacrificial animal (Exod 29:13) probably the kidneys (Job 16:13, Lam 3:13). The word refers to deep, inner emotions (Ps 73:21). The noun לֵב refers to virtually the same thing, including emotions and inclinations, even determination and courage. While I agree there is a need for balancing the “heart and the head,” to appeal to these particular Hebrew words seems to go beyond the evidence. I think their point is good, although the way they make the argument is flawed. (Ironically, the fact I make this point might well indicate I am an arrogant seminary graduate who needs to balance my heart and head better!)

The second chapter contrasts learning about God with living for God. The authors make the excellent point that good doctrine and training does not make a good leader. Having an M.Div does not automatically qualify someone for a pastorate. Seminary can breed a kind of arrogance which seriously hinders the effectiveness of a young pastor. I appreciate Pettit and Mangum’s honesty in describing seminaries as “ideological entities.” Most seminaries exist to serve a denomination and it is possible someone can come out of a seminary with the idea they are the ones with all the answers. Most people “in the pew” are not particularly interested in the things Seminary professors get excited about. (How many sermons to you hear on the New Perspective on Paul or the current state of the Documentary Hypothesis?) The training is important, but so too is real world experience serving people where they are at.

Third, Pettit and Mangum develop their “head and the heart” and argue for the practice of spiritual discipline for the Seminarian. They list some 22 spiritual disciplines as well as 14 academic disciplines that are essential if a person is to succeed in Seminary. Most of these are obvious (prayer, devotions, meditation, fasting, worship, etc.), although I was happy to see practices like retreat and secrecy listed as spiritual disciplines. So too the academic disciplines are somewhat obvious (attend class, do good research, respect your teachers), but there were a few items on the list I thought were excellent suggestions most people do not consider. For example, eating right and exercising is a good academic discipline. Most students do not see a connection between classroom performance and their diet, but professors who are cursed with after-lunch lectures know how a fast-food lunch affects the brain of the learner! I was happy to see “citation” as an academic discipline, since plagiarism is a major problem in graduate school, even in seminaries. Citing a source properly is not only honest, it will save the student work later when they develop their work further. (Nothing is more embarrassing than discovering something you thought you “wrote” was actually something you learned and failed to cite properly!)

The fourth chapter warns the potential seminarian of “spiritual frostbite.” Here they have in mind the old joke (usually told by old pastors): “When I was in cemetery, oh, I mean seminary….” It is very easy for one’s spiritual life to wither and die while intensely studying Scripture in seminary! Pettit and Mangum suggest the seminary study clarify their motives (why are they in school in the first place) and work hard at spiritual disciplines. They warn against the sort of critical spirit common among graduate students, looking down on teachers they consider beneath them. While they do not give any real examples of this, think of how Rick Warren or Mark Driscoll is vilified among the “intellectual elite” (including myself). It is very easy for someone who does not like the New Perspective to mock N. T. Wright (he lived in a castle, bah!)

One of the best antidotes for arrogance and pride is humble service. Chapter five therefore focuses on service as a part of graduate studies. Most seminaries have strong service components as part of their programs, so it is possible a seminarian thinks of themselves as “serving the church.” But there is something healthy about serving in ways that humble – an M.Div student teaching the JrHigh AWANA group might be just the thing to keep one’s pride in check. (I did this in seminary, and it was indeed humbling!) While a person might be qualified to preach to thousands on Sunday morning, maybe it is necessary to serve by being a camp counselor, or playing games with the youth group.

Last, Pettit and Mangum discuss the need for the seminarian to work hard at preserving relationships with family and friends. When I first picked up this book, I expected it to have a major section on preserving one’s marriage while pursuing a seminary degree. Many seminaries see this as a major issue and have programs to help the spouse of a potential pastor cope with their support role (usually far more than “how to be a good pastor’s wife” is needed!) There is less in this chapter on marriage than I expected, however. Pettit and Mangum encourage the seminarian to develop quality friendships in order to balance education and social needs, for accountability and personal encouragement.

Conclusion. This is a very positive book that encourages someone entering seminary to consciously dedicate themselves to spiritual growth during their years of preparation for ministry. I think there is room for an additional chapter that is “less positive,” perhaps some warnings away from behaviors which can deaden spiritual life. I expected to see something about managing one’s time and avoiding things like excessive video gaming. I have known far too many students with a great deal of potential who failed courses due to video game addiction. Inappropriate use of the Internet seems to be another obvious problem missing here. Despite it being an obvious problem, it seems young men especially need to be warned about internet porn (although this is mentioned on page 38, the topic is not developed beyond a few lines). Since the book is about personal spiritual development, there is nothing in the book about managing finances during grad school. Most married seminary students know the struggle of working full-time in order to pay for classes, books, and living expenses. Being a married couple studying for ministry puts enormous strain on a marriage and finances is usually one of the major flash-points in a marriage.

This is still useful book, the kind of book a church might give to a person heading off to a Bible College or Seminary to prepare for ministry.

 

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

 

 

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