Book of the Week: Practices of Love by Kyle David Bennett
Book Two: Practices of Love by Kyle David Bennett
Genre: Spiritual Formation
Kyle Bennett's first book, Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, is a welcome addition to that genre of "spiritual formation" that includes the likes of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard. And yet, Bennett's book is something completely different. Bennett's main purpose is to remind us of what he calls the "horizontal" dimension of spiritual disciplines. Christians are called to love God and love neighbor. Many works, Bennett notes, do a great job of attending to the vertical dimension, or the God-human relationship; few, however, attend to this second horizontal dimension. When that happens, spiritual disciplines become a privatized affair between us and God. Even worse, we become addicted to these practices because we come to expect God to meet us in them. We attempt to control God by telling him when, where, and how to meet us.
For Bennett, reconsidering the purpose of spiritual disciplines in terms of their horizontal purpose restores them to their proper place in the Christian life. Isaiah 58 is a focal passage for Bennett:
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.
Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
... Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
You cannot seek God and ignore your neighbor, Bennett argues. Spiritual disciplines are not means by which Christians should seek to escape the world; instead, they are means by which Christians ought to engage the world.
Over the course Practices of Love, Bennett treats the seven practices of simplicity, meditation, fasting, solitude, silence, service, and sabbath-keeping. Each chapter-length treatment is a bit formulaic; however, the formula works its purpose.
Each chapter begins with an anecdote before introducing the spiritual practice under discussion and the particular type of formation that this practice should effect in the life of a Christian. Then, Bennett identifies two "malformed" versions of the practice that are common in most peoples' lives. These malformations occur from failing to take the horizontal dimension of the spiritual discipline seriously. This allows Bennett, then, to reintroduce the spiritual discipline in a new light, with greater focus on the horizontal importance of said practice. Every chapter ends with a section called "Side Step" that begins with a prayer and then lists possible practices that the reader can use to reorient their spiritual lives towards love of neighbor.
A brief example: the seventh chapter is on service. Instead of thinking about service projects, mission trips, or volunteer work–the staples of American Evangelical missions–Bennett turns instead to the workplace. The malformations of service to neighbor highlighted in this chapter are being negligent in your work and being competitive with your co-workers. First, loving your neighbor in the context of service looks like being a good co-worker. Workers who neglect their duties at work don't serve their neighbors because they end up forcing their co-workers to compensate for their selfishness. Second, while contests and challenges have the ability to spur one another on to excellence, the moment competition is introduced into the equation, co-workers are no longer teammates and now competitors. This type of opposition forces us to put ourselves first. For Bennett, we should seek collaborative work, and even when work is necessarily competitive, we can serve our co-workers and ourselves by focusing on doing our work well instead of doing it "better than." In the side step section, Bennett suggests that you can prepare for the work day by thinking intentionally about your co-workers on your commute to work.
What I appreciate about Practices of Love is the distinct emphasis on redirecting spiritual disciplines towards the purpose of love of neighbor. As Bennett alludes, this move is heavily influenced by Kierkegaard's Works of Love. But in the background of Kierkegaard's work is Luther's The Freedom of a Christian. And that is really the theological significance of Bennett's argument, I think. There is often an antithesis drawn between virtue ethics and the pursuit of sanctification as something Wesleyan and Catholic and a Protestant/Lutheran conception of justification by grace through faith alone. Here, I think we see at least one clear example of what the use of spiritual disciplines in the pursuit of holiness might look like in a Lutheran perspective. We do not do these things to justify ourselves before God or to improve our relationship with God. On these terms, we are free from the need to justify ourselves. We do these things, instead, in order to best serve our neighbors. Disciplining ourselves makes us more capable to love our neighbors, which is the means by which we love God.
Review: Great for small groups, college students and discipleship with youth.