A book review (sort of—more a glimpse of my own experience with this book).
Leo Tolstoy: “Everybody thinks of changing humanity and nobody thinks of changing himself.”
For me, the book didn’t start well. Firstly, there was the cover, which reminded me of a hairy bubble-bath with a planet in the background. “Never buy a book where the author’s name is bigger than the title” is a warning which I have pretty much ignored over the years, yet it still rings in my head. I have no idea who Richard Foster is, and probably he’s a very nice bloke, but the artistic writing of his name with flying birds made me wonder.
I opened the book, none the wiser for the cover but hoping to discover the link between hairy bubble-baths and flocks of birds and the celebration of discipline.
I met the Foreword, which turned out to be an advertisement for the book which I had already bought, so it felt unnecessary. I didn’t read further than the third paragraph.
Then there were the Acknowledgements. Strange positioning. They were dated, showing that the book has been republished many times. Perhaps that explains the large author name, perhaps this is a name that people-who-know-more-than-me look for. The 1978 Acknowledgement mentioned his children. The 1988 Acknowledgement mentioned his wife, who he said the book was dedicated to. This made me smile—images of irritated wife complaining that she had held fort while he dedicated himself to writing and only the kids got a mention. (I searched, but there was no dedication page, so maybe he changed his mind by the current edition.) The 1998 Acknowledgement was about his friend Bess, who had died. There were encouraging words about death and how it feels, and I began to have hope that this book would be worth reading after all, if only because he quotes both C.S. Lewis and Charles Wesley, who are eminently worth quoting (in my opinion).
The first chapter was very different. Foster stops writing about himself (and his abundant successes) and focusses on how a person can improve. He says that mere will-power is not enough, we can never force ourselves to be righteous, all the debris of selfishness bubbles back up. Righteousness is a gift, but Foster writes that this does not mean we have nothing to do. He quotes Dietrich Bonhoeffer, saying: “Grace is free, but it is not cheap.” Foster describes spiritual growth as being like a seed that is planted, ready to develop; he believes that Disciplines are a means for that development to take place. We cannot earn righteousness, we can only receive it, but we can put ourselves in a place whereby we are ready to receive. Foster warns against making laws, saying: “Once we have made a law, we have an ‘externalism’ by which we judge who is measuring up and who is not.” This rings true, I struggle with churches who seem to primarily want to apply rules to others and who have “a passion to set others straight.” (It is something I was guilty of myself, in the past.)
At this point, I wasn’t sure whether Foster was going to introduce a regime of ‘works’ disguised under the name of ‘discipline,’ but I was interested enough to want to read more. The chapter finished with suggested Bible readings for each day (which I ignored) and questions for discussion—so I guess this would be a good book for a group to study.
Foster makes many points that made me pause. Things like that the well-known text in Romans: “I stand at the door and knock…” was originally written for Christians, not non-believers. It isn’t suggesting non-believers should let God in, it’s showing that Christians have shut him out. Foster argues that we should include meditation as a discipline in our lives. Not the airy-fairy-mystical centring on self, but the conscious decision to centre internally on God.
I did meet a hiccup in the third chapter, about prayer. I agreed with some (but not all) of his views, but then he used ‘sexual deviation’ as an example of something to be prayed about. His definition of this was anything that differed to his own understanding that sex was only right if between one man and one woman. This irritated me intensely, especially in light of his earlier comments about externalism/law/judging others. I understand that this is his view, and I understand why he has formed this view—based on his reading of the Bible, in the same way that some people believe that black people were created to serve white people, and some believe that women have a unique role to support but never lead, and so on—all based on clearly written passages in the Bible. I am always furious when I read Christians stating their viewpoint as fact when they happily contextualise other teaching in the Bible and it is rarely in relation to themselves but rather their interpretation of what God is teaching other people.
At this point I was ready to use the book as kindling. However, I was perhaps over-reacting, and I remembered the saying: “A wise man learns more from the fool than the fool learns from the wise man.” Foster may not be a fool, and certainly wisdom is something I can only aspire to, but the principle holds true. I continued reading in the hope that I would learn something worth learning. The other chapters covered many valuable subjects, such as: Meditation, Fasting, Solitude, Service, Confession and Worship to name a few. It is tempting to give details of each chapter, but then this becomes a precis rather than a review, so I will stop and let you read it for yourself. Brace yourself to disagree with some views, and try to glean the gold that’s hidden behind the words.