In a world of all-you-can-eat buffets of entertainment, the ability to limit and curate one’s life has become difficult, if not nearly impossible. We’ve been conditioned to believe that with unlimited options comes unlimited freedom. Limitless choices, however, lead to constant wandering and endless fatigue.
Numerous studies demonstrate a correlation between social-media consumption and negative effects on mental and emotional health. Justin Earley—a mergers and acquisitions lawyer in Richmond, Virginia—has experience with this correlation, and I suspect many of us do as well. We feel pulled in a million different directions and are tempted to forsake mental, emotional, and spiritual health for the sake of producing or achieving more. Hence, Earley’s The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction is both timely and welcomed.
The book is divided into two parts. The first offers a short explanation of a “rule of life,” both historically and practically. Earley then proposes eight habits—four daily and four weekly that make up The Common Rule. The daily habits include kneeling prayer three times a day, one meal with others, one hour with your phone off, and Scripture reading before unlocking your phone. These habits are tailor-made for our technologically crowded and media-saturated culture.
Earley leans heavily on thinkers like James K. A. Smith and Andy Crouch to inform the spiritual importance of habit formation. This is evident as he refers to habits as “liturgies.” For example, when he prescribes kneeling prayer, he means we should get on our knees at least three times each day. For those who may smart at the idea of kneeling because it feels too high-church, Earley reminds us that the physicality of this habit relates to its spiritual foundation; it communicates dependence on the Lord, rather than on our work or abilities. Kneeling is more than a prayer preference; it’s an act of recognizing that Jesus is Lord and we are not.
Earley’s weekly habits build on the daily habits. The weekly habits include one hour of conversation with a friend, curating one’s media to four hours, fasting from something for 24 hours, and having an established Sabbath rest. The emphasis on the weekly habits, just as with the daily ones, is to cultivate a life focused on God and others.
Habits form us more than we form them. The modern world is a machine of a thousand invisible habits, forming us into anxious, busy, and depressed people. We yearn for the freedom and peace of the gospel, but remain addicted to our technology, shackled by our screens, and exhausted by our routines. But because our habits are the water we swim in, they are almost invisible to us. What can we do about it? The answer to our contemporary chaos is to practice a rule of life that aligns our habits to our beliefs. The Common Rule offers four daily and four weekly habits, designed to help us create new routines and transform frazzled days into lives of love for God and neighbo
Earley never promises that The Common Rule will produce a “balanced” life. Our experience affords us no such illusions. Rather, he urges us on to greater levels of freedom—to love God and others. In the regular turbulence of life, The Common Rule seeks to keep us anchored to what is most important—to keep the main thing the main thing.
For all the book’s practical benefits, and there are many, my one concern is that the gospel foundation seems more assumed than explicit. Except for introductory quotes and occasional reflections, deeper biblical and theological reflection is minimal. Such thinness is the book’s greatest weakness, and it could unintentionally lead some readers toward the desert of legalism rather than the oasis of Jesus.
Earley reminds us of the “true story” that should inform every believer’s life, and he relieves the tension for readers who fail in the disciplines, likening failures to pottery with “cracks inlaid with the gold of grace” (166). He concludes the book affirming that Jesus should be the “life we want . . . the life given for us . . . the one redeeming ours” (167). But Earley’s whole enterprise would be strengthened if the golden thread of the gospel had been more explicit throughout. Those who wish to use this book in churches, classrooms, and small groups should consider providing the necessary gospel buttress to support the book’s more practical benefits.
Earley rightly puts his finger on the spiritual pulse of (specifically) American culture and provides a spot-on diagnosis. We are tired, burned-out, and brain-fried. We are habitual creatures, and Earley wants to give us habits that bring life rather than deplete it. In an age when we’re encouraged to gratify our needs first and to build our brand or platform, Earley steps in to redirect us toward a more life-giving and soul-gratifying path.
The unique value of this book is that it’s significantly other-focused. Perhaps the most radical thing Christians can do in our world is to rest, open our homes, put down our devices, and recognize the person across from us. To those ensnared by the false “freedom” of technology, media, and productivity, Earley shines brilliant light on how our culture subtly places these shackles on us. Ministers and lay readers alike, take notice. Burnout is coming if you don’t find rest in Christ. To that end, The Common Rule offers a better way—a heart made alive, in Christian community, empowered by the Spirit, and guided by the Word.