New? Life Transforming? Bible-Reading?

Among the huge pile of sludge fiction I took with me on holiday this year, were 2 or 3 books I wouldn't be embarrassed being seen to be reading by anyone who actually knows me. One was this offering by Richard Foster, chosen by our church book group as their summer reading.

However, whilst I am not one to judge a book by its cover, two things annoyed me with this book before I opened it. First was the fact that the author's name is printed bigger than the title. This, to me, speaks of the alarming trend in Christian literature, as in the rest of contemporary literary culture, to treat respected authors as brand names to be exploited to the full, resulting in some very poor books being released under such brands. This feeling was further enhanced when I noticed that this particular book was written 'with' Kathryn A. Helmers, although to notice this you had to look very carefully as her name is less than a 12th the size of Foster's and in a much lighter type, indicative, I suppose of her relative reputation and selling power, if not her contribution to the final product. (Indeed I notice in the picture of the book which I have posted here, her name does not appear at all.)
The second thing that irked me, however, was the sub-title, which was in a bolder type than the title itself: 'A life-transforming new approach to Bible reading'. Clearly I am not the intended audience for such hyperbole, because my thran approach to such a claim normally would be to run a million miles rather than buy the book, much less read it. Others whom I respect, however, had highly recommended it, and our church book group had chosen it for our summer reading, so I overcame my annoyance at the front cover and delved in to the pages within.
What I discovered there, however was not accurately reflected in the sub-title.
It is not entirely, or indeed primarily an approach to Bible reading, but rather Foster returning again to his main area of expertise, that of spiritual disciplines, but this time using Bible reading as the through line to understand the other disciplines . He did something similar with his book 'Prayer' some years ago, using the discipline of the title as the lens through which to view the other ones. I suppose his publishers must rub their hands in glee at the thought of a whole string of books in which Foster uses each of the disciplines he originally celebrated to help understand the others. However, there may be a law of diminishing returns in such an endeavour, as readers get weary of the repetition, especially now that he has already used the two more readily undestood disciplines of prayer and Bible reading.
The claim that he offers a new approach to Bible reading is also nonsense. What he does do is offer to a readership that has never heard of it before (because it has not had an STL-backed big brand author endorsing it previously), the centuries-old appoach of lectio divina. This ancient monastic approach to scripture has been very much in vogue over the past few decades thanks to writers like Nouwen and Merton. But Foster is to those two as Primark is to Versace and Chanel, making their thinking more easily accessible to the person in the pew if not the street, and that is no bad thing. He does not fall into the trap of some other populist theological writers of trying to offer, as the sub-title seems to suggest he does, a ready-made programme for reading the Bible more effectively. In fact he sensibly warns against programmatic approaches to spiritual development.

He makes a passing reference to the so-called 'Wesleyan-Quadrilateral', first referred to by Albert Outler in the 1960s, to describe the role of scripture, tradition, reason and experience in the thinking of John Wesley. However, Foster, like many others before him (and who could blame him as a Quaker when so many Methodists have made the same mistake), forgets that Outler referred to this quadrilateral in contrast to the Anglican triangle, or three-legged stool that Wesley grew up with, of scripture, tradition and reason. The role of personal experience (particularly experience of the Holy Spirit) was vital in John Wesley's understanding of how we comprehend the will of God. But Outler was not suggesting that Wesley saw the four axes of the quadrilateral as equal. Rather that tradition, reason and experience are 3 windows which shed light on the key revelation of God's will in scripture. Foster never states this explicitly in the book with regard to Outler's Wesleyan-Quadrilateral, although it is implicit to his own entire approach to scripture. Also implicit to that approach, though only sketchily outlined is viewing all of scripture through the lens of the life, teaching, death resurrection of Christ.
I was pleased to see, that he warns against the intensely individualistic reading of scripture which has become more prevalent since the advent of printing, and achieving its zenith (or nadir depending on your attitude) in evangelicalism. The community that God has placed us in with its inherited tradition as well as its collective experience and reason is vital to a true reading, or hearing of scripture.
He does include a beginners guide to the various categories of literature within scripture, and this was one of the few areas where, I believe, he gets things wrong. In dealing with the Old Testament scriptures he tends to follow the schemata beloved of old style Sunday schools of Law, History, Wisdom and Prophecy. Instead I would argue that we should learn from the categorisation employed within Jewish tradition of Law (1st 5 books), Prophets (Judges-2nd Kings, and what we recognise as prophets, ie. Isaiah-Malachi) and Writings (ie. everything else). This places all the theological reflection of the Old Testament within the context of story, if not history as we know it, and offers an interesting parallel between the Old and New Testaments of Law//Gospels (and perhaps Acts), Prophecy//Letters (with both more interested in forthtelling in response to contemporary problems than foretelling future event) and Writings // Revelation and perhaps James (both of which owe a great deal to the Old Testament Wisdom tradition).
But that's just my opinion, and I'm not a big brand author and am never likely to be. However, my other frustration with the book is where, in his concluding section on the key principle grace whole sections referring to Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Babette's feast might well have been direct quotes in their entirety from the magnum opus of that other big brand writer Philip Yancey. Whilst "What's So Amazing About Grace?" is almost seminal on the subject now, Foster should at least have acknowledged that he was covering the same ground, if not, preferably, finding alternative illustrations. There remains the possibility that he hasn't actually read Yancey's book (I once was nearly kicked out of university for plagiarism because I unwittingly used a similar extended metaphor to one used by the great Richard Dawkins in a TV documentary, when describing the process of recprocal altruism... so it can happen to anyone), but I doubt it.
However, all that said, if any of us were to take this book seriously then the sub-title is at least right in that it is potentially life changing.
I'll let you know how it goes.
ps. Apologies to those on facebook who have me as a friend... This 'review' will pop up as a note by me as well as having appeared some time ago in a truncated form as a review on Living Social... Life is too short for me to post significantly different reviews in 2 different places.


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