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."
McKnight's point isn't that he needs to cut back on carbs and head to the gym. His problem, he says, is not will power. His problem, he says, is that like many post-Enlightenment Protestant Christians, he has given little thought to his body's participation in discipline, worship, grieving, and repenting, and thereby has missed out on half the spiritual empathy of earthly existence.
More Than Will Power
This might be the finest feature of McKnight's book: he diminishes the role of will power in fasting, directing our attention instead to fasting's natural place in responsive spiritual living. To graph this idea, he offers a table—A á B á C—wherein A equals a sacred moment, B equals fasting, and C equals a result, be it forgiveness, hope, answers, or health. Often, he says, our approach to fasting is instrumental. We engage a fast (B) with a view toward results (C). McKnight reverses the direction of this table, suggesting that his study of biblical fasting shows that persons in Scripture fasted (B) in response to a divine encounter (A). "They were in B because of the grievous sacredness of A," McKnight says. Sometimes the fast yielded a result, but that was completely incidental to the spiritual pause that told their bodies this was a time to forgo food.
But here's where McKnight makes some big assumptions about his audience. He assumes that we are comfortable with undefined pauses and that we regularly grieve. Really, grievous is such a loaded word in McKnight's portrayal of fasting that I wonder why he doesn't reflect on it more. In his chapter titled "Fasting as Body Calendar," McKnight does give attention to the fact that evangelicals have largely done away with traditional Wednesday fasts, Friday fasts, and Lenten fasts because we "consider it something Catholics do … [and] we have been saved from such rituals." He uses this observation to counter that these fasts are not legalistic rituals but living reminders of our corporate identity in a story that centers on the Cross as much as it centers on the Resurrection.
But what's true about the liturgical calendar is only meant to reflect what's true about human existence: that we are seeds continually going into the ground to die so that our true identity in Christ might be born. Readers whose practical theology bypasses the uncomfortable passage of this waiting or this death, favoring instead a triumphant resolution or remedial approach to the problem, might not have a category for fasting as a natural bodily companion in the Christian life.
Or do we? McKnight's one-word title gives us the benefit of the doubt. Western Christianity is sated, he seems to suggest; perhaps we are positioned to welcome a grievous cutting back. McKnight calls on the witness of Scripture, church tradition, and such contemporary voices as John Piper to recommend this bodily engagement as a spiritual aid that can restore us.
Marcy Hintz, a staff member at Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, works in the advancement office at Wheaton College.
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