I am no novice when it comes to all the forms of spiritual discipline that Richard Forester outlined decades ago in his Celebration of Discipline. But, the way I see pop spirituality going these days, it’s a useless exercise in vanity.
“Nothing is New under the Sun” – Ecclesiastes 1.9
Now, I’ve experimented and mastered a whole lot more of the techniques and special methods than Forester Discusses or promotes. Right now, there is a fad of Contemplative prayer, before that it was the Jesus Prayer (Hesychasm in Greek), and ever since the people of Israel returned from Babylon there were trends in Fasting and ideas of separation from the culture akin to Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option.
This is not an Anti- article. This is a “reality check” piece
The obvious pitfalls of all pop spirituality.
Ok, maybe obvious is the wrong word.
No one else seems to be pointing anything out here as wrong from any position other than “Spiritual Disciplines are dangerous” type stuff.
But there’s a lot to go wrong, some of it is just not understanding the tools:
If you focus to much on the physical and trying to quite the mind, you end up with psychosomatic side effects akin to the elation of Eastern meditation. You can “feel” all sorts of things you induce in yourself (and in the case of “energy balls” the things are even contagious!). Go the other way, and you use imagination/ your ideas to have God speak to you… the downside never being mentioned, you’re basically making God your imagination.
The Jesus prayer?
You’ll get good at not eating, so for many it’s a waste of time. When Zachariah asked God about it, he got a no-nonsense answer:
“When you eat… do you eat to me?” (Zach 7:6) Are you just living normal life with the right mindset? If not, then what good would saying no to God’s blessings do you?
The example of the Nazirites
I would be stacking the deck if I at least didn’t mention the counter-case:
The Nazirites were people who made special oaths to the lord to abstain from things, and when the oath was done they made a peace offering (Numbers 6:1). For Christians, the issue is that Jesus already represent a fulfilled peace offering and a better Nazirite oath than one could undertake (Liberally the entire Book of Hebrews).
It’s hard post resurrection to see any of this brought forward. And there’s some reason not to think this overturn the pitfalls, or the latter statements about such things
But there is a danger in pop-spirituality of two kinds
Of this World
Paul brings forward Zachariah’s sentiment, stating there is a danger of using this kind of spirituality to stay of this world:
why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations,
“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”?
All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence (Col 2:20b-23 NIV)
Of the wrong spirit
Even the old testament is sensitive to the need to get the “basics” right. To which Jesus’ complaint of tithing mint and dill but missing the major points (Matt 23:23/ Luke 11:42) is just a restatement:
Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Isiah 58:5-6)
Just some of the nonsense I see going on…
- Lent – this is a tradition that often runs right against the spirit of the Isaiah and Zachariah passages I brought in above. It becomes a sort of New Year’s tradition where there is a focus on giving up some perceived vice or excess. It would be far better served by ADDING a focus on justice or working on correcting the heart where it goes astray. For many, the act of stopping smoking, drinking, etc. has very little effect on anything deeper in their world.
- Lecto-Divina – I’m all for reading scripture. Yet this is mostly a way to spiritualize what we already bring into the passage.
- Fasting in general – like I said. For most they save what they would have spent on lunch, get a feeling they are “spiritual” now, and still walk by the hungry, etc. Even a child can critique, why not give the money you save on lunch to charity so your hunger achieves something?
- Asking for God’s voice directly – There’s this whole section in John 14 about having to go to the Son to get to the father, and still other places where Jesus warns not to jump the gate (John 10:9). It also scrapes the whole trinitarian understanding of prayer
- Prayer/ Worship lose their transformative aspects – God doesn’t “need” your prayers/ praise, yet you do. But so many think they are passive and have no effect on a believer. In reality, they sanctify you and help you participate in the depths of who God is “Love” (1 John 4:8). His relationship to the Son is love and back and forth, etc. when we Love God his very Love is drawing us into him… chew on that for a while against ideas that worship is empty. Who would dare say in the face of this missing church is okay? Or that the church is just a missional organization?
And on it goes.
I read an article the other day that taught me a new apt term for this kind of thing:“Spiritual Pornography” (I don’t endorse the author views/ I just stumbled on it and gave it a cursory glance) that sums a lot of this up.
There is always a desire to get a quick fix for the spiritual impulse without any of the depth of taking the time to build a real relationship and work on the difficult issues akin to a relationship in marriage.
Pop spirituality is in the end empty, but it tells you that it’s not.
One must always remember it is the path of piety that leads to heresy. God is one, so reject Jesus, etc. the mechanism of false doctrine is rarely sacrilege.
Jesus doesn’t mince words on the danger of a life lead with Pop Spirituality:
Many will say to Me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?”
And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.” (Matt 7:22-3 RSV)
Can these pop Spirituality methods fit a healthy spirituality?
Like I said, this is not an anti- article. In fact, I’ve put up guides for such things on my website.
My main concern however is that these things are like exercises. It doesn’t do you much good to be the world’s “best at an exercise,” but rather to translate the strength, endurance, and such to the actual sport.
And there is a level were exercise cannot teach you specific skills that come from “actually playing” the game.
Christians are called to love, to reject the world, and to follow cross at the very start of the season. It’s the fundamentals that are the hardest to build, and the easiest to fake by way of strength or speed.
The Pharisee’s were all in perfect shape, but they had no sense of how to run the actual race.
Don’t be that guy.