Book Review: Just Spirituality

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.


Bonhoeffer’s Double Standards

I’m finally working through Bonhoeffer’s Discipleship, which has been a long time coming. It’s the last book I need to read for the course I took in January, Reading Bonhoeffer, but I feel like it should have been one of the first Bonhoeffer books I read. It’s certainly one of the more accessible of his writings, though that doesn’t mean that it isn’t difficult. Perhaps challenging is the better word.

In Bonhoeffer’s day, German Lutherans had (apparently) been enjoying Luther’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone for a long time, to the point where grace had become an assumption, and thus had little power in people’s lives. Bonhoeffer starts his book by talking about “cheap grace” and “costly grace.” He holds that costly grace, or real grace, comes as a result of obedience in faith. Faith cannot be separated from obedience. Faith and obedience are a sort of chicken-and-egg situation: do you obey because you believe, or do you believe because you obey? Ultimately, the answer is both, which can be hard to get your head around. In obeying, you show that you believe at the same time that you learn to believe.

This discussion of cheap and costly grace has helped me tremendously to understand Luther. Living hundreds of years later and never having actually read Luther, all I know of his thought comes through a massive game of Telephone, distorted by time and retelling. I know mostly about the abuse of the doctrine, but Bonhoeffer put Luther in perspective for me.

Luther was a penitent monk who had given up everything to follow Jesus (Monks aren’t exactly known for their wealth and worldly ways), had trained for years in spiritual disciplines, and then realized that he was saved by God’s gift to him, which he received in faith. None of his training or renunciation of the world, none of what he gave up to be a disciple, was what actually saved him. It was just Jesus, from the start. Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone is not a renunciation of works – he’d probably do it all again – but rather a strong recognition that works in themselves will not save anyone. Even the most pious works can be done with self-serving attitudes or purposes, but even right purposes and attitudes are evidence of Christ working in us and not something that we ourselves can be credited with.

Does this mean that works, even if good, are not necessary? Not at all; as has already been said, faith cannot be separated from obedience. It was only after Luther had gone through all of those acts of obedience in faith that he could properly recognize that faith was all that was required. His life of obedience had been the soil in which faith grew (a notion that still provides the foundation for the Catholic doctrine of grace, in which we grow in grace by works of obedience that make us into people capable of receiving more grace from God). Luther, as a veteran disciple of Christ, was able to say truly and with full force that salvation is by grace through faith, and that works themselves are of no value to salvation; the same phrase coming out of the mouth of a new or lukewarm disciple is not true in the same sense, if at all. Luther’s grace was costly, coming after toil and sacrifice; but assuming grace as a principle and eschewing works altogether is cheap grace, or not grace at all. I see this as somewhat of a double standard, but a good one.

In chapter 3 Bonhoeffer talks about “simple obedience,” and again I see a double standard here. He uses the example of the rich young ruler who asks Jesus what he must do to be saved. By asking this question, Bonhoeffer points out, the young man is actually trying to avoid the question: he knows the law and has followed it all his life. He’s looking for something more. Bonhoeffer says he’s looking for a way to avoid the question, to turn a commandment into a philosophical question to be discussed rather than obeyed. I was always under the impression that he was just insecure and wanted guidance. In either case, Jesus turns him back to simple commands that should be obeyed just as simply. Sell everything you own and give the money to the poor, then come and follow me.

We have a way of interpreting Jesus’ commands in an inward, spiritual way, that doesn’t actually require us to simply obey him. We don’t really need to sell everything we have and give it to the poor in order to follow him, we just need to hold our possessions so lightly that they have no hold over us, so that we could hypothetically sell them and give all our money away. Rather than actually doing so, it might actually seem better to hold on to our money and things so that we can remain in this state of hypothetical “obedience.” Our method of “obeying” can thus often mean doing the exact opposite because of our insistence on reinterpreting the command. Bonhoeffer points out that if we obeyed our parents this way, or obeyed the authorities this way, we’d be in serious trouble.

Again, there is a double standard here. We don’t all need to give our money away, and we don’t all need to take a vow of poverty. Doing so might even be a type of self-righteousness, or legalism, or some other negative thing. There are other commands in the New Testament that talk about holding our possessions lightly. But once again, it’s easy for some people to “obey” Jesus in this paradoxical sense, obeying spiritually but not actually. Bonhoeffer holds that this is cheap grace, claiming to obey but actually being disobedient. Those who have actually obeyed Jesus simply, though, and followed him, are capable of obeying spiritually. It’s one thing for a long time disciple who has been practising simple obedience for some time to talk about and practise obeying the spiritual intent of Jesus’ literal commands; it’s quite another for a less mature disciple to use it as an excuse to avoid Jesus’ straightforward commands.

The key to it all is formation: obeying Jesus in faith makes us into the type of people who have enough faith to obey.