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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.

Hardin, Leslie T. The Spirituality of Paul: Partnering with the Spirit in Everyday Life. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 192 pp. Hb; $16.99. Link to Kregel

Leslie Hardin is a contributor to the Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care and wrote The Spirituality of Jesus for Kregel (2009). Like his previous book Hardin does not write a book on practice spiritual disciplines, but rather a series of short reflections on what Paul thinks is key to spirituality. Although this is not a “how to” guide for spiritual life, readers will be encouraged as they reflect on what Paul says about these topics. For Hardin, Pauline spirituality is a “practical partnership with the Spirit,” an expression of the Spirit of God already at work in the life of the believer (17).

Spirituality of Paul, HardinIn the introductory chapter, Hardin discusses Paul’s sometimes controversial commands to “imitate me.” Hardin expresses a common frustration with Paul’s somewhat arrogant view that he is worthy of imitation, especially in matters of spiritual discipline. After all, Paul seems opinionated and angry, perhaps even demanding of his congregations. Why imitate Paul, when Peter and John are original disciples of Jesus? In fact, why imitate Paul when we ought to be imitating Jesus? Like Randolph and O’Brien recent Paul Behaving Badly, Hardin wants to read Paul’s letters in order to answer some of these objections while focusing on the “shape” of Paul’s spirituality.

Hardin discusses ten themes in Paul: Scripture, prayer, disciple-making, proclamation, worship, holiness, spiritual gifts, edification and suffering. Some of these are certainly within the sphere of spirituality, but several are in the category of imitation. Disciple-making, for example, is not usually included in a list of spiritual disciplines. However, as Hardin explains, Paul’s missionary method intentionally sought out individuals to develop into disciples who were told to go and find others to disciple. This process of discipleship hands down tradition from Jesus to Paul, to Paul’s disciples and then to their disciples. Hardin’s discussion of spiritual gifts is good and approaches a potentially contentious issue with wisdom, but it does not always speak to the topic of “spirituality in Paul.”

Hardin discusses the shape of Pauline spirituality in his final chapter. First, Paul was faithful to Scripture. According to Hardin, Paul saw Scripture as a tutor leading to godliness through Christ. Second, Paul was an imitator of Jesus (1 Cor 1:11). Although he encouraged his disciples to imitate him, his eyes were fixed on Jesus. This is not a lame “year of living like Jesus,” but rather living out the lifestyle of Jesus in a way which impacts the world. Third, living life as an imitator of Jesus is, for Paul, a life of freedom. Hardin is clear imitating Jesus is not living exactly like Jesus in every single detail, but embracing the freed from guilt one has as a child of God. Fourth, imitating Paul as he imitates Jesus should result in glorifying Jesus. Paul sees glorifying Jesus as the goal of everything Paul says in his letters. Fifth, Paul’s spirituality is committed to unity. It is undeniable Paul desires his churches to be unified both in doctrine and practice. Finally, Hardin points out the basis of any talk of the spiritual of Paul is his emphasis on the activity of the Holy Spirit.

There are a few things missing in the book. For example, Hardin has consciously avoided interacting with any of the classics of spiritual discipline. Although the focus on Paul might have limit the use of some of these classics, I would have expected some interaction with Rodney Reeves’s Spirituality According to Paul (InterVarsity, 2011). It is also remarkable (or refreshing depending on your perspective) that a book on the spiritual of Paul does not use the work cruciform. In fact, there are only one or two citations of Michael Gorman in this book. Gorman’s Becoming the Gospel is likely too recent to have had an influence on Hardin, but certainly his previous books merit more than a brief citation (Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross, Eerdmans 2001 and Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology, Eerdmans 2009).

Conclusion. Despite this reservations, Spiritual of Paul is a good introduction to the several key areas of discipleship in the Pauline letters. Hardin’s style is inviting and will be appreciated by both layperson and scholar. The book would be ideal for a small group Bible study.

NB: 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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