Every so often, about twenty years or so, the church remembers her roots. She decides that maybe those so called “legalistic” practices performed in the medieval era had some merit. We waffle between legalism and liberation twisting back and forth from one emphasis to another. Naturally, these ideas are worth reiterating an new and unique ways. And so an industry of writing about spiritual disciplines is created.
When that pattern of waxing and waining on spiritual practices clashes with a cultural shift, we occasionally make decent progress in growing closer to God. That’s what the “Ancient Practices Series” is all about. It’s a series on the supposed 7 ancient disciplines, plus an introduction (the practices being those used by Christians, Jews, and Muslims). Utilizing mostly postmodern or emerging voices, Phyllis Tickle has organized an incredible but approachable library on things Christians do. Since it is written by postmoderns to postmoderns, this series emphasizes existential learning rather than systematic or doctrinal focus.
The last book on the series, “The Sacred Journey” by Charles Foster is much like the others. Difficult enough to contend with, it begins with the phrase “you won’t agree with everything in this book”. Unlike most reviewers, who think every book worth reading is one with which they will completely agree, I find his approach fascinating. It truly is a book with which the reader must wrestle. Sometimes you feel as though you have him pinned, only to find that Foster has already planned his counter move, obliterating your argument about his current point. I walk away from this book with a greater appreciation of the spiritual discipline called “pilgrimage”.
Another common complaint is that this book is not practicable enough. Reviewers tend to either say “I could never do that”, or “he’s talking about our day to day prayer lives. In fact, the book discusses a specific body approach to Christianity. The primary problem Foster has with modern Christianity is that we take the body out of it. We settle for Gnosticism (that is the belief that the body is evil). Practicing disciplines involves our body in spiritual matters. In this sense, Foster’s book stands firmly next to McKnight’s “Fasting” (also a part of the series, and my favorite of the group).
The best part of the book is that reading through it is a sort of journey on its own. As Christians, Foster writes, the difference in pilgrimage is that we focus on the journey rather than the destination. Certainly a contention for most of Evangelical Christianity. I agree wholeheartedly with this point.
While the biblical interpretation is somewhat dubious (Foster sees wandering in every episode of the Bible and argues it is the foundation of human nature and what makes us fundamentally different from animals), Foster’s use of personal experience, and exhortation to “just do it already” compel the reader to find ways to become a pilgrim. I know this reader will start this practice as soon as he can. Full of grace and truth, this book is not a treatise, not a journal, but somewhere in between (which makes it similar to the book in the series on fixed hour prayer “in constant prayer” by benson). By being an existential work rather than a purely theoretical or practical one, Foster blends the genres of devotional and academic literature.
Certainly I disagree with much in the book, but it definitely deserves to be read by many. Don’t read it if you want answers. Don’t read it if you expect to agree with everything. Don’t read it to figure out “how to do pilgrimage”. Like the rest of the books in this series, read it on its own merits. Anyone interested in spiritual disciplines can learn with this book.
I was often not a fan of his biblical explication, nor his inclusion of Buddhist and Hindu examples (which simply didn’t make sense to my western mind). I was a fan of his tone and humility. Consider this book, and when you open the cover, become a pilgrim, seeking to grow closer to God by sharing Foster’s story. Like a close friend, you will want to punch him in the face a time or two. Like a close friend, he will swing back.
5 of 5 stars for elegant prose, good arguments, conversational tone, and applicable challenge.
Full disclosure: i received this book as a part of Thomas Nelson’s Booksneeze program. They tickle my literary nose with free books, I blow out a review within a month. it does not have to be a clean, clear review and can be as green and gunky as I like. Take that FTC