Cannon, Mae Elise. Just Spirituality. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2013. 208 pages.
In Just Spirituality, Mae Cannon undergirds our efforts toward social justice with the essential practices and spiritual disciplines that give those efforts a solid foundation and longevity. In an age when activism is cool, this is a necessary and welcome approach!My own experience with the book is perhaps the opposite of what was intended. I was immediately drawn to the book because, while I tend to be passionate about issues of justice, I struggle with spiritual disciplines. While Cannon seems to want to enhance our activism through spirituality, I found myself more interested and engaged in spirituality because of its connection to activism.
In the book, Cannon profiles seven famous Christian leaders of the 20th century, pairing each of them with a particular spiritual practice that enhanced their ministry, and then comparing them to a contemporary Christian leader. This approach has strengths and weaknesses.
The weakness is that there is far too much material to be covered in a short chapter, making the connection between the particular practice and the person’s biography seem vague and overly simplistic: we know that Mother Theresa practiced many spiritual disciplines, and it isn’t clear that silence stood out or influenced her work any more than any of the others. Cannon acknowledges this by discussing the spiritual life of the subjects of her book more widely, but that de-emphasizes the particular practices that she means to emphasize. The connection between the historical and the contemporary subjects also seems quite thin at points for the same reason. Ultimately, Cannon is summarizing a person’s life, ministry, theology, and spiritual practices on a handful of pages, making it come across as a teaser, and perhaps a bit shallow.
The strength of Cannon’s approach is that it serves as an accessible entry point into the lives and stories of people of faith, both exalted heroes and everyday saints. It’s one thing to point to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prayer life as exemplary, but it’s quite another to compare myself to him! Cannon’s inclusion of contemporary examples makes such practices seem much more accessible and realistic, and serve to remind us that it was Bonhoeffer’s practice of spiritual disciplines that made him a saint, not his saintliness that made him able to practice spiritual disciplines.
I appreciate Cannon’s variety: while I was very familiar with Bonhoeffer’s story, and generally familiar with Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, I had only vague notions of Oscar Romero’s story, had only heard the name of Watchman Nee, and had never heard of Fairuz at all. These seven heroes come from all over the world (no two from the same global region), and all served in different movements and conflicts. Amidst their differences their similarities stand out all the more, as they are all defined by their spiritual discipline and commitment to care for others.
On the other hand, Cannon’s contemporary examples seem to come from a much narrower field. I appreciate that they were all examples that she has a personal connection with, but at times it almost seems like a commercial for Willow Creek. Her writing style was somewhat repetitive; at 208 pages it’s hardly a long book, but it could have been shorter. This style made reading more than one chapter at once a bit of a trial, but the content of the book is much better digested one meal at a time: read one chapter per day, or better, one per week, and then try out the practices recommended at the end of each chapter. I found that doing so gave me a sense of practicing the discipline with the person. I intend to revisit the chapters, one at a time, and make a more concerted effort to implement the disciplines described.
Ultimately, this book works best as an introduction, a teaser, into both the lives of these important Christian figures and the disciplines they practiced. It’s an excellent book to read in a small group setting, where each chapter can be discussed and elaborated upon and other sources can be brought into the discussion. Disciplines are usually more difficult to practice alone (particularly the discipline of community!), so a small group setting would be a perfect place to explore these disciplines and integrate them into your life.
Overall I give it a B. For what it is, it’s quite good; for what it could be, it’s disappointingly short and simplistic. Read it with friends.