Spiritual Occupation: a book review

The Occupy movement offers criticism of business as usual from the Left. The past few weeks the Tea Party flexed its considerable political clout in bringing the leader of the free world to an absolute standstill. Two years ago the Occupy movement were poised to do the same. Now the movement seems to have all but petered out. Many wonder if there is still an Occupy movement.

Enter Adam Bucko and Matthew Fox. Both these men are activists, authors and advocates of contemplative spirituality.  They would both describe themselves as Christians, but the spirituality they advocate for in Occupy Spirituality is much broader than their own religious heritage.  Fox is a former Dominican turned Episcopalian most noted for his Creation Spirituality (a pantheistic Christian mysticism which emphasizes Original Blessing over Original Sin).  Bucko is a  Polish born anarchist and activist who works with homeless youth. Both men  are excited by the younger generation’s stand against economic and political injustice.

Occupy Spirituality is a dialogue between these two thinkers. Because the tone of the book is conversational, its organization is broadly circular. Nevertheless there are broad themes covered in each chapter.  In chapter one, Fox and Bucko argue that it is time to replace ‘the God of Religion’ with the ‘God of Life,’ meaning a spirituality that is more personal than institutional (institutional means bad). They lift the phrase from a quotation of Howard Thurman’s (the African American theologian and civil rights activist). From there, their discussion covers new avenues of spirituality, their personal histories, the meaning of vocation, spiritual practices, intergenerational wisdom, and new communities and the New Monasticism. Bucko and Fox also pepper their prose with quotations from co-conspirators and fellow activists.

There was something compelling about the Occupy Movement. Institutions, business and politics have hurt people, especially poor people. Economic injustice is a reality in our country and in our world.  People who stand at the margins and take a prophetic stance against power structures remind us of our interconnection and help lead us to strive for the common good.  While occupiers  may be dismissed as ‘lazy opportunists’ or ‘naive idealists,’ there is a part of their message that we need take to heart: Capitalism is not a benevolent force.   So I was interested in hearing what Fox and Bucko had to say about economic injustice and what to do about it.

They certainly affirm that economic injustice is bad and that we should oppose it.  But they weren’t as interested in speaking about practical solutions and approaches. Their attention was mostly turned to what spiritualities nurture activists in their fight.  Personally I was not enamored with their approach. I call it, ‘lowest common denominator spirituality.’  Christ ceases to be God in human flesh and becomes instead a ‘Christ Consciousness’ on the same level as a Buddhist awakening.  Fox and Bucko draw on the Christian mystical tradition, and a good many other world religions to frame their thoughts on spirituality Certainly I think you can gain some insights from their discussion but I find this nebulous, ill-defined \spirituality’ which underpins all religions a little bit boring and unhelpful.  Jesus speaks to the realm of injustice precisely because he laid down the rights of Godhood to experience suffering and injustice at the hands of the powers of his day.  Fox and Bucko’s version of spirituality might be personally nurturing, but I think it soft peddles the gifts of a distinctly Christian spirituality to stand against injustice.

This is illustrated by their appropriation of  MLK and Thurman to provide the spiritual underpinnings of their movement. This is hardly surprising. MLK and Thurman were at the center of the Civil Rights movement and fought against segregation and racial injustice.  But Fox and Bucko’s clipped quotations  and brief references don’t do justice to the legacy of these men.  The ‘God of Life’ versus ‘the God of Religion’ reference comes from Thurman’s The Luminous Web. Thurman spends the greater part of that essay urging Christians to recover the message of love at the core of Jesus’ teaching. MLK’s beloved community did the same. Yes, both of these theologians urged universal brotherhood and have broad ecumenical appeal.  But there is an emphasis in the writings of both men on the life and teachings of Jesus. Bucko and Fox rob King and Thurman of their Christological content and turn ‘the God of Life’ into mere subjective spirituality (i.e. what is personally meaningful, life giving and helpful). Subjective experiences are important, but not what Thurman and King were talking about.

So I was somewhat disappointed with this book. I give it two stars but I think this book would be of interest to those curious about the occupy phenomenon.

Thank you to SpeakEasy for providing me a copy of this book.


Answering the Contemplative Call: a book review

In many ways I’m a failed mystic. I am too extroverted to not feel threatened by silence and solitude. I’m too undisciplined to make contemplative prayer a daily routine. Even my other spiritual-routines (i.e. Bible reading, intercessory prayer, book reviews, etc.) are things that I feel I need to vary fairly often because I get bored and listless with mundane practices. Don’t get me wrong, I want to be a better pray-er and have depth in my spiritual life; I want to know God better and be filled up with the Spirit’s presence. I know dailiness is the way to do it, but I tend to try on different spiritual practices the way my kids try on temporary tattoos.

Answering the Contemplative Call: First Steps on the Mystical Path by Carl McColman

Carl McColman has written a book for people like me, who feel the call to the contemplative life but have had too many false starts to really make a go of it.  In Answering the Contemplative Callhe invites his readers into a life of prayer shaped by the Christian mystics. He does occasionally refer to other faith traditions and religious mystics, but in the main, remains Christocentric in his mystical theology.  His pages are littered with references to everyone from the Desert Fathers, Meister Eckhart, The Spanish Carmelites (Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross), English Mystics (Julian of Norwich, the Cloud of Unknowing author, Walter Hilton), Evelyn Underhill, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, etc. C.S. Lewis is also referenced a lot because McColman is a Christian and quoting Lewis is what we Christians do.

The book is organized into three sections. In the first section, McColman discusses what it means to recognize ‘the contemplative call.’  In part two he gives advice on how we can prepare for the journey into contemplative prayer. In the last section he paints a picture of what first steps into contemplation may look like.

There is a lot about this book that I really liked. For one thing, I appreciate where McColman roots his insights in the Christian tradition. He delves into the major Christian texts of contemplative theology and commends them to readers. He doesn’t pretend that he says all that needs to be said about mysticism but points his readers towards some pretty great books. Yet he is also not afraid to criticize these masters for their sexism, neo-platonism, or bad theology. A deep experience of God does not entail that an author gets everything right and McColman calls people out.

Also I appreciated the balance he brings. While he explores briefly both the cataphatic and apophatic tradition, he doesn’t pit them against each other or  try to suggest one is more holy or deeper than the other. He commends both. Similarly he also commends the practice of corporate worship to wanna-be-mystics who want to simply get away from people and spend time by their introverted selves in contemplation. McColman rightly points out that that will not do because for Christians  to thrive and grow, private practice is not enough. We are formed in community. A third way where I find McColman balanced in his presentation, is he is careful to guard us from where mysticism can become escapism. By grounding his practice of contemplation in Christ, he keeps the focus of this work Incarnational and warns against spiritualities which attempt to escape embodiment.

I also loved that his description of mysticism/contemplation includes both kenosis and theosis. Kenosis refers in theology to Christ’s self-emptying (as described in Philippians 2). McColman suggests that contemplation similarly calls us to empty ourselves so that we may have a fresh infilling of the Holy Spirit. Theosis describes the movement in the spiritual life where we are gradually transformed into the image of God and partake in his likeness. This is where contemplation (and the Christian life in general) ought to lead. McColman recognizes this. Kenosis and Theosis describe two important aspects of the Spiritual life. They are not in opposition but dovetail nicely.

All this being said, I remain suspicious of aspects of contemplative practice. I have no real qualms against centering prayer, silence and solitude, but my faith has been shaped by the Evangelical commitment to the Bible and the life of Christ. Where these practices (centering prayer et al.i) may be fruitful, I am wary of where they have been divorced from historic commitments of Christian belief. McColman is a religious ecumenist (as I hope am I) but I wonder if his mystical vision, in places, has lost some of it’s particular Christian shape and character (though clearly not all).

This is an introductory text so McColman does not try to say everything that needs to be said.  I did find that this book made me hunger to enter deeper into my practice of prayer and I appreciated a number of insights I found here.  I give it four out five stars.

I recieved this book for purpose of review via Speakeasy and have given you my honest opinions. Thank you for listening to me.



Bless Your Blessed Socks Off!: a book review

“Watch Your Language!”

These are words we say when we hear  our kids swear or when we hear adults swear in front of our kids. Yet we shouldn’t just watch that the occasional curse doesn’t pass our lips. We should watch our words to make sure they are a blessing to others.

Joseph Cavanaugh has written The Language of Blessing to help  us realize our own gifts and talents and to teach us how to speak words of blessing to others.  As a sought after speaker, ministry leader, life coach and  he encourages readers to discover who God made them to be. The talents, strengths and passions that God gave us reveal what we are made for. As we begin to learn our shape, we also are freed to  bless those around us. Cavanaugh shares vulnerably of his own experience of growing up with an authoritarian father who did not know how to bless his children.  As an adult he works with New Life Ministries helping others discover God’s unique blessing for their life.

The Language of Blessing: Discover your own gifts and talents . . .Learn how to pour them out to bless others by Joseph Cavanaugh III

There are three parts to The Language of Blessing. In part one Cavanaugh describes what the language of blessing is.  A blessing is: words of affirmation which solidify identity and give purpose to a person, enabling us to become all that we are meant to be. Parents and friends may speak the language of blessing to us, but ultimately our blessing is a gift from God.

Part two describes the barriers to blessing in our life. These include seeing ourselves as average (because of one-size-fits-all approaches to education and development), the cycle of false identity,  self-centeredness, and parenting styles which are either too domineering or permissive.

Part three is where Cavanaugh puts it  all together and describes what it means to speak the language of blessing. Those who have received a blessing and live confidently in it are self-aware and non-anxious. This frees them up to affirm others, see their God-given-potential and respond with gratitude.

When I read books like this I have two questions: (1)What insights can I learn from this book? (2)  Is this just another positive thinking self-help book? I am happy to report that there was little said by Cavanaugh that I am wary of. He synthesizes much of the literature on leadership, strength building and parenting. He offers sound advice and aims at getting readers to understand where they have been personally blessed; yet his ultimate aim is that when we are secure in who we are in Christ, we will begin to speak blessing into those around us.

So this book is helpful for vocational discernment. There is sound advice  and good insight here. Cavanaugh draws generously on Smalley and Trent’s The Blessing, Tom Rath’s Strength Finders, Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve, and even Malcom Gladwell’s The Outliers.  These are not ‘new insights’ but Cavanaugh says them sell and synthesizes them helpfully. Of course Cavanaugh’s convictions are also rooted in personal experience and his experience as a life coach and conference speaker.   What I appreciated about Cavanaugh’s approach was how careful he was to ground his approach biblically. This allows him to affirm the individual and their worth without succumbing to self-centered narcissism. I give this book three stars:★★★☆☆

Thank you to Tyndale Momentum for providing me a copy of this book through the Tyndale Blog Network. I was asked to write an honest review.