It will be unfortunate, yet not surprising, if Fasting, the newest book by Scot McKnight and newest installment in Thomas Nelson’s Ancient Practices series does not sell well. Not suprising – because American evangelicals have shown little appetite for the practice of fasting. Unfortunate – because Scot’s new book is one of the best treatments of this subject to find its way onto Christian bookshelves.
Not too long ago, a seminary friend questioned my desire to fast during the season of Lent. When I asked him why he was opposed to the Lenten practice, he pointed to its lack of prescription in the New Testament as well as the possibility to take such fasting to extremes. My response? “I don’t think that evangelicals are suffering right now from too much fasting.”
Scot McKnight claims that one of the reasons why we have neglected this ancient discipline is due to an unhealthy view of the body. Philosophically, we grativate toward dualism, which would have us view spiritual disciplines as just that – spiritual. We then miss the biblical view of embodied spirituality – a living out in the body that which one desires and yearns for in the spirit.
For Scot, “fasting is the natural inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” (xx). Therefore, we are wrong to see fasting as a manipulative tool that guarantees results. It is instead a response.
Fasting is a comprehensive and helpful book. I enjoyed Scot’s honesty in describing his struggles with fasting (even as he was writing this book!). The distinctions he makes between normal fasting, absolute fasting and partial fasts (where we abstain from certain kinds of food or certain activities and things) help to clarify what it is that we are doing when we fast.
The greatest strength of the book is Scot’s picture of fasting as a response, never an instrumental practice in which we try to receive something. We go without food because of what has taken place in our hearts.
The book lays out the different ways that fasting serves a response. It can be an expression of repentance, a response to a moment in which we feel we must earnestly seek God, a response to grief (Scot sees grief as the thread that connects all the various fasting practices). Fasting can sometimes be a response to our need for spiritual discipline, a response to our corporate life together, even a response to poverty and injustice.
Again and again, Scot drives the point home: we do not fast to get something. We fast as a response. And if we receive something after or during the fast, it is because God has used the yearning in our heart (expressed through the fast) in order to grace us with more of his presence.
I thoroughly enjoyed the historical anecdotes contained in this book. Scot uses examples throughout church history, and points to people from all spectrums of Christianity. He is not afraid to critique traditions or misguided intentions with the Bible. Though he appreciates the different streams of the church, he does not appreciate them uncritically. He constantly points us back to the Bible. Even men like Francis of Assisi and Dallas Willard are evaluated, appreciated, and critiqued in light of Scripture.
As I came to the end of this book, I could not help but feel challenged and convicted as I considered the apathy often evident in my Christian life. Am I risky enough or take on some of the practices in this book?
Do I respond with a heavy heart to my sinfulness in a way that would take away my appetite?
How much do I truly feel when it comes to motives for grief in this world?
Fasting comes highly recommended. It is a comprehensive treatment of the subject written in terms any layperson can understand. But let me warn you. God may do a work in your life that will then lead you to respond by fasting!