The Beauty of Fasting
Fasting: The Ancient Practices
Here's the thing about fasting: You don't eat. The discipline is as humble and as ponderous as that, which is why, I suspect, we are oddly moved to do it. Scot McKnight's one-word title—Fasting (Thomas Nelson)—honors what is sacred; he adorns the word no more.
But for being such a straightforward discipline, our reason for practicing it still begs an explanation. What's really accomplished when we fast? Wouldn't it be better just to pray? Isn't it best to do all things, including eating, in moderation, so that we will have strength to serve? Who is going to be hurt if we don't fast? And who's going to be helped if we do? Isn't fasting an extreme ascetic practice made irrelevant by modern enlightened faith?
These are the questions that play around in my subconscious thought about 10 days into Lent. McKnight—a religious studies professor at North Park University, prolific blogger, and author of, among other books, The Jesus Creed—does not dismiss them, nor does he think so lowly of me as to assume these questions are no more than a front. He knows I don't need an apologetic for fasting as much as I need some pastoral reflection on an abstention I already crave.
"Fasting is a person's whole-body, natural response to life's sacred moments," he explains in the book's introduction. It's the "body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true." Drawing from the example of the psalmist, McKnight points out that David's sadness was not "fully bloomed" until the body—clothed in sackcloth, and fasting—was involved. Turning forward to the prophet Isaiah, McKnight notes that far from being inwardly directed and pious, fasting is also the angry response to feckless greed: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice … to share your food with the hungry?" (Isa. 58:6–7).
Both examples highlight the strength of McKnight's appeal—which is also the appeal of Thomas Nelson's Ancient Practices Series, of which this book is a part. The supposition of the series is that we are hungry for the forsaken practices of the ancient church because we are hungry for our lost selves. How did the ancient church keep daily vigil with Christ before the empire of words and commerce began to out-shout the flesh? Do their practices hark back to an expression of the scriptural witness that we have lost? Who are we before Christ when the shopping mall closes down and the factory does too? These are the questions that lie at the heart of fasting.
McKnight uses some creative wordplay to engage these questions. "Fasting as Body Talk," he titles Chapter Two; "Fasting as Body Turning" Chapter Three; "Fasting as Body Plea" Chapter Four; and so on down the line. If the titles seem a bit gimmicky, at least their point is clear: The spiritual exercise of fasting presumes that we commune with God through our bodies. McKnight, responding to some classroom conversations he's had with students at North Park, thinks we have some catching up to do on this. But rather than make an example out of his students, he takes a jab at himself: "I think of my body as a wallflower but tend to act like it's a cornucopia, which means I'm overweight and don't care enough about it to do something radical like making a major lifestyle change."