Explore more spiritual practices

- Practices for Lent


by Scot McKnight

Reviewed by Jana Riess

Fasting by Scot McKnightIt’s summer!  Fire up the grill, put on some burgers and kabobs, and then . . . don’t eat a bite.

Wait, what’s wrong with this picture?

The carefree days of summer are not traditionally associated with deep spiritual growth or introspection, which some of us connect to Advent and Lent.  But a new spirituality book can help us see that spiritual formation is an ongoing process, even in the dog days of summer.

Scot McKnight’s Fasting, part of the Ancient Practices series edited by Phyllis Tickle, incisively cuts through much of the fluffy thinking that surrounds Christian fasting. The book expends a good deal of ink teaching readers what fasting is not: it’s not a means to manipulate God into doing our will, nor is it a way to punish or subjugate the body. McKnight writes:

Fasting along with our prayer requests is not some kind of magic bullet to ensure the answer we want. … We fast because a condition arises—what we are calling the sacred moment—that leads us to desire something deeply.  We fast because our plea is so intense that in the midst of our sacred desire eating seems sacrilegious. 

How many people fast because they believe they can get something from it, either something as tangible as an answer to a prayer (a new job, a miraculous healing) or, perhaps more nobly, a deepened spiritual growth?  (Just to be clear, I’ve been in both of those categories at one time or another.)  McKnight’s contribution is to challenge the whole “if A, then B” paradigm of fasting, calling Christians not to practice “instrumental fasting”—i.e., fasting with the idea of God as Santa Claus who will reward us if we’re really, really good and don’t eat all the cookies.

Instead, McKnight proposes a model of fasting as a holy and natural response to God’s power.  He explores how different people in the Bible chose to fast when confronted with God’s supremacy (Moses), their own sin (David), the prospect of their conversion (Saul/Paul), or grief (Hannah).  The earliest Christians fasted before baptism and the Eucharist, during Lent, and (ack!) every Wednesday and Friday.  And while they did grow closer to God through fasting, that was not necessarily the goal of their fasting, which arose instead as a natural reaction to divine awe.

I’m not fully persuaded that fasting doesn’t sometimes “work” in the utilitarian way McKnight laments, having seen too many answers to fasting-prayer to dismiss it as a mere coincidence.  I also think that fasting is a difficult enough discipline that many people would be hard pressed to undertake it without the hope of some tangible benefit—a tendency that McKnight himself engages in toward  the latter half of the book, when he discusses fasting as a way to stand in solidarity with the poor.  It’s clear he believes strongly in that particular advantage of fasting. 

But his overall point is not about results so much as motivation, and with that, he had me at hello.  This will stand for some time as one of the most provocative books on the spiritual practice of fasting.  Even if it doesn’t persuade neophytes to attempt fasting for the first time, it will certainly do much to clarify the thoughts and reasoning of many who already fast.  I count myself in that camp.  I will be thinking about and referring back to this book for a long time.

Copyright © 2009 Jana Riess

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