August 12, 2020

Sundays with Michael Spencer: September 27, 2015


Every time I feel like I have lost my way in the Christian life, I find myself back looking at monasticism, and the lessons I learned in two decades of reading Thomas Merton.

I’m not attracted to Catholicism, but I am very much attracted to the tradition of self-conscious, disciplined spiritual formation into a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is a great failing of our side of the church.

As much as we Protestants talk about being shaped by the Bible alone, most evangelicals are thoroughly formed and shaped by the communities where the Bible is handled, taught and practiced according to a “rule” or accepted authority, and by the media that supports and communicates the values of that community.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most appealing and positive aspects of Catholicism that it is self-conscious about its “rules” and authorities for spiritual formation. (Rule as in “way,” as in The Rule of Benedict.) It surely must be humorous to knowledgeable catholics to look at the various sects, denominations and varieties of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, all claiming to “just read the Bible.”

For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:

1) Southern Baptist fundamentalism
2) Evangelical Calvinism
3) Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

All of these communities could be characterized as shaping the spiritualities of believers according to largely unwritten rules and authorities.

The closest thing you get to self-conscious spiritual formation among most evangelicals: Jabez, PDL, or an evangelism course. Or a cruise.

It’s occurred to me that at least two of these streams have done much to shape me in the belief that pursuing polemic argument is a primary expression of discipleship. I have been affected by this kind of spiritual “rule,” and when I step away from it, the effects are very obvious.

Lots of time is taken up in finding error, pointing out error, justifying the seriousness of the error (even if it is in a non-essential area), and responding to the error with the proper arrangement of Biblical material.

It’s amazing how many Christians conceive of almost the entirety of discipleship in terms of argumentation. This is seen in the pastoral models they choose, the books/blogs they write and the spiritual activities they value most (debate and classroom lecture.)

These largely unarticulated forms of spiritual formation can be seen in what is not important. I note with interest that one simply cannot say enough bad about most kinds of contemplative prayer, and any sort of silence among many of the reformed particularly. Any kind of intentional approach to spiritual formation, and any kind of intentional approach to discipleship (Dallas Willard, for example) is undertaken amidst a barrage of criticism. If the imagination is mentioned, all fire alarms are pulled and a search for Oprah Winfrey ensues.

Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

The “fully formed” Christian in these traditions is not a person of silence, but of much talking, talking and more talking. Worship is lecture, a rally, or an emotion-centered event. The primary encounter with the Bible is exposition and lecture. Correcting theological error, moral error and ecclesiastical error is the main business of the church.

In other forms of evangelicalism spiritual formation is done under the guise of church growth and using ones “gifts” to grow the church. Or perhaps in the cause of righteous, upright living in the culture war. Again, the kinds of prayer, worship, community life and worship that are generated by these priorities are obvious to most observers, but largely invisible to the participants.

In all the years I was reading Merton’s spiritual direction writings, I can’t recall anything I would call polemic of any kind. He simply didn’t waste his life arguing with others. He read scripture constantly, but as the stuff of prayer, liturgy and meditation, not as the raw material for debate. He went through the “political years” when he was critical of his church for not living up to his standards of peacemaking and justice, but in the end it was the ancient life, the deep life of monastic rhythms that sustained Merton and made him a man and a monk. He worked on himself for a lifetime. Some will say because he didn’t believe in the reformation doctrine of justification. Perhaps. Maybe, however, the path of personal spiritual formation isn’t as instant, passive or automatic as we’ve been told.

I’m not holding Merton up as an ideal. Far from it. I’m simply saying that when one’s spirituality is formed by the pronouncements of pastors who are constantly chasing church growth, the culture war or the latest challenge to Calvinism, you are going to get one result, and when you go back to the sources, find the value of the ancient paths of formation, value silence, read, meditate, contemplate and seek to grow in love, you will get another result.

I can’t help but think there is an “internet Christian” spirituality as well. Formed by reading blogs. Expressing itself in writing. Concerned with all the perceptions of reality that run rampant on the net. I’m sure this isn’t a good thing either.

Spiritual formation happens in the real world. It’s not just reading, but it’s discussion and asking questions of those further down the road. It’s having leaders who are humble before the Word, and not leaders who take the word and become the pictures of arrogance. It’s seeing your sin in the light of holiness, not excusing your sin in the light of the latest crisis.

Much evangelical spirituality has become like fantasy baseball. We have our own league, our own team, our own statistics, our own insulated world in which all of this matters. We can give great speeches and write long posts (and I am the chief of sinners here) on what doesn’t matter much at all. These days, we don’t all get our 15 minutes of fame, but we can all worship a pastor, go to a winning church, opine on a blog, imagine our arguments are significant in the world.

Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.

Here’s where I have come out on this:

Get the devotional books out. The old ones.

Read Peterson, and Nouwen, and Groeshel, and Bonhoeffer and Whitney. With a group of others who care about the same things.

Turn it all off for a couple of hours every day.

Find the silence.

Chew up, meditate over, digest the scriptures.

Repent of living in the community of unaware evangelicals who devalue spirituality and overvalue polemic, argument and debate.

Look for the sins that grow in this mess, and root them up.


  1. Turn it all off for a couple of hours every day.

    I’ll be fortunate if today, and many days, I can find a couple of minutes during which I can “turn it all off”. Lol.

    • The truth is that much of the time I spend here at iMonk should be spent in prayer, meditation, facing my deficiencies honestly before myself and God, attending prayerfully to my wife and our household and all the other particularities of my life, and “turn”ing “it all off.” Sadly, I’ve turned iMonk into yet another means of avoiding the difficult but necessary work.

      • Then again, Robert, essays like this one from Michael help us to identify what is good and important, namely Jesus.

        Michael wrote, “[Merton] simply didn’t waste his life arguing with others. He read scripture constantly, but as the stuff of prayer, liturgy and meditation, not as the raw material for debate.”

        I confess that a lot of my bible reading in the last couple of years has been as raw material—to collect data, to establish an argument against those around me who I think are taking the church down a wrong turn. Reading the bible in that manner can be exhausting, not refreshing. Prayer and contemplation is better than polemic.

        Can’t we have prayer, meditation, wife and household and iMonk? Maybe if we stop reading the bible as raw material for argument (not saying that that’s your hangup, but it’s part of mine…).

        • Ted, Thanks for the great observation and putting into words what I have been feeling. The smug satisfaction we get when we can refute an article or a comment from someone. What takes over is just misplaced ego and a false puffing up of ourselves. It would be so refreshing to see all replies for one week be positive. What I mean is that we would all say one positive thing from the topic at hand that we read. That we could be supportive and complementing to each other. Sadly the truth is that as Robert says, we use Imonk to avoid the real work we should be doing. Maybe the Internet itself is a great way avoid what we should be doing. Contemplation,reading scripture, being with family and friends, cultivating silence and being with others in community. I don’t have the answer but your reply certainly hit a nerve in me.

        • I like your take on Bible reading, too, Ted.

          My “devotions” (aka “reading the Bible”) took on a whole new exciting aspect (aka “I WANTED to read”) when I began approaching it with these thoughts:

          1) If it’s supposed to be Good News, read it as if it’s Good News.
          2) Reading and re-reading the same section over and over again until I found the nugget of wisdom that God wanted me to have. This patient approach made Bible-reading less about “I must get a chapter in a day” and more about “There’s something in here that God has for me.” I’ve spent many days and sometimes a week re-reading fifteen verses.
          3) Asking myself, “What is Jesus trying to tell me about himself here?” (This includes OT.)
          4) Asking myself, “What does Jesus appear to be unafraid of here?” (This meditation has come about because I firmly believe Jesus wants us to live without fear.)
          5) Making sure I’m reading out of one of the four gospels FREQUENTLY.

        • Indeed, the iMonk community is a form of church, and because I think the gathering of saints is important, I think I’d argue that coming here is almost like going to church. I think that, for the most part, we learn more about Jesus when we come here with an open mind.

        • I guess, Ted, that it’s a matter of balance. I will cop to not being good at finding anything remotely resembling balance in my life; that’s a personal problem, not generally applicable to everyone here at iMonk, although perhaps to some.

          I have learned important things from the posts and discussions at iM. I’ve learned to think more clearly about my own Christian faith, and I’ve changed my mind about a few significant matters as a result of discussions that have occurred here. And some of the silly back and forth has just been fun. Good stuff, the serious and whimsical

          But I’ve also engaged in pointless and sterile arguments that left bad feelings. And I’ve gorged my ego on positive feedback to well-received comments that I’ve made, without actually doing anything substantive in my life on the basis of the observations I’ve articulated; there is something disturbingly illusory in this, and something addictive, too. This is where my balance get thrown way off. This is where I need to be very careful. This is a problem.

          • I agree about the addictive behavior concern. It’s a problem I’ve noticed in myself on a few other blogs I follow, not so much on this one. iMonk is remarkably positive and informative, keeping me up on church trends, past and present. Michael Spencer set a good course and Chaplain Mike is a great successor.

            Also agree about avoiding pointless arguments, part of the topic of Michael’s post about Thomas Merton—timely because of the Pope’s mention of Merton (future “Saint” Thomas Merton???).

  2. “The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away . . . . . .
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune”

  3. Sad to say, I’ve probably learned more from here and the Internet community of which Imonk is a part than I’ve learned in the churches I’ve attended. I remember very few sermons that have impacted my thinking or my life but can reel off several essays here and on other blogs that have done so. I’m not sure what that says–about me or the churches I’ve attended. I suppose, like Michael wrote, that I’m more “Internet Christian” than any other denomination and that’s probably not an entirely good thing though not all negative, either. The discussion on eschatology this week is a case in point; sound, hopeful and, above all Jesus shaped teaching on this subject. I just don’t see or hear of that in many churches.

    • Ditto, and amen. It makes me wish more pastors and leaders in churches were plugged into iMonk and other streams so they could turn and nourish their congregations, rather than regurgitating decades old seminary study or doing whatever each week to raise the tithing members and scare the ones who are there.

    • +1. I’m right there next to you in the Internet Monk pew. Preach on IM staff!

  4. Excellent post and memories associated with it, as always.

    This jumped out to me:

    For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:
    1) Southern Baptist fundamentalism
    2) Evangelical Calvinism
    3) Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

    I know Michael struggled and ultimately chose to stay in these streams, along with trips into Catholicism alongside his wife (hi Denise!). In my experience, tho, these are largely just labels for larger things. I’ve found the exact same thinking and thoughts, just of subtle flavors, in Missouri-Synods, PCAs, SGMs, 9Marks, Acts 29, CCs, whatever.

    I’m told there are things outside this. I’m going to keep looking for them. Because if those three are the only options, and if everything else is just different intensities of flavors of the same, there’s no point in ever going back. It’s all the same.

    • This is a big reason we have stayed at our church–I’m not sure where to go. As you say, most are different iterations of the same ‘ol same ‘ol. Why leave if you don’t know where you’re going? Having said that, I suppose that is sometimes what walking by faith is all about. Of course, “knowing where we’re going” is mostly an illusion; at best, we can choose our path, hopefully wisely, but what lies along it is a mystery known only to God.

      I don’t know–I’m tired and confused. The only thing I’m sure of is, as someone else quoted this from Barth the other day, “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.”