Category Archives: Book review

Reflections on “All About Love”

I’ve been thinking lately about the chapter in All About Love where bell hooks turns to thoughts on death. I didn’t expect the connection between love and death, and it ended up being one of my favored sections. She writes that in the modern world we avoid death more easily than in the past, but we are just as obsessed with it. We read and watch news about death; we allow our lives and choices to be guided by the fear of death or harm. We attempt to protect ourselves from early death by avoiding all kinds of risks and sanitizing our entire lives, but all this focus on avoiding death doesn’t prepare us to be ready for death. hooks writes, “Love is the only force that allows us to hold one another close beyond the grave. That is why knowing how to love each other is also a way of knowing how to die.” It’s love that moves us beyond inhibition and regret and gives us peace in the end for the lives that we lived. Love today prepares us for death tomorrow. Grieving what is lost is the final manifestation of love. hooks quotes many Christian writers to shape her thoughts on love, including Parker Palmer, Henri Nouwen, and Thomas Merton, but her conclusions are far from the perspective of love in the church I experienced.

I was raised in a Christian community that talked about death all the time, but the relationship between death and love that I grew up with was inverted in comparison to the descriptions in All About Love. Love wasn’t what prepared us for death; it was death that prepared us to love. We were asked first to “die to ourselves,” to become “an empty vessel” for God to fill up, to make ourselves a “pleasing sacrifice” to God. Once we were ready, it was His love through us that we were to share with the world. At that point we would be capable of love that only comes from God. Where did “I” go after this sacrifice was made? I existed somewhere inside myself, restrained by the gospel. I was told to deny my “self” because it would only lead me astray. In addition to being the gateway to love and life on earth, we viewed death as the gateway to the eternal life that we are all preparing ourselves for. Life today was “just the introduction,” “just the preview, and “a poor reflection” of the life we were meant to be living so it was ok if we experienced this life as suffering, that was preferable and expected, really. Physical death signified freedom from the pain and suffering of “this life” into a perfect afterlife that we were really created for. I think this worldview is possibly why for many years I had a weird obsession with the idea of dying young—maybe because the life of suffering I was being called to seemed so exhausting. At the same time, I was told repeatedly that we were the ones living life to the fullest, we were the ones filled with love and joy. If you weren’t feeling that way you just had to believe it.

In the Bible, the idea of love was so often intertwined with the idea of sacrifice and suffering that the two were essentially synonymous. Love as sacrifice and suffering often involved death (in the case of Jesus and others) which always sort of led me back to the desire for the afterlife, not at all with the sense of love for this life or love for others the way hooks writes about it, but in a sense of longing for the better life that was being promised to me. If I was living to the fullest, why was I so anxious for Jesus to return and bring it to an end?

In contract to this perspective of love as a sacrifice, hooks believes that the true foundation of love is honesty. Without honesty, the heart and soul connection involved in loving someone would simple not be possible. hooks has a very strong conviction that before we can experience a true connection with someone, we have to start by being honest with them. She writes specifically that men are taught from an early age that dishonesty is power and that withholding emotion is strength. This partially explains why men may be less capable of love or prepared for love. Lies often allow us to believe what we want to believe about ourselves and others. In this sense, “Lies may make people feel better, but they do not help them to know love.” We must unlearn this view of honesty in order to experience intimacy, to experience love.

This idea of love requiring honesty seems obvious, but it is not at all the understanding of love that I learned early on. While reading this book I started to wonder if dishonesty is actually central to the Christian faith. It’s not just that Christians can sometimes seem fake, for instance, when they pretend to be happy, but they are obviously not. It’s that Christianity encourages people to believe they are happy when they are not, to reframe trauma and hardship as opportunities for spiritual growth, to maintain optimism in a situation when reality has obviously moved on.

In thinking about this, I realized for the first time that honesty is not listed in the Ten Commandments, the Fruit of the Spirit, the Great Commission, or the Greatest Commandment. There are verses about honesty, but they aren’t really the most famous and even those are not referring to personal honesty. Sometimes they are referring to honest business practices (accurate scales) and other times when the Bible uses the word “truth” it is referring to Christian doctrine and faith, not one’s personal truth, what someone thinks or feels. It often feels like personal truth is supposed to be replaced with a higher “Truth” so honesty in the Biblical sense is the act of speaking Christian doctrine. Personal experiences are always framed through that doctrine. This connects to the idea of dying to ourselves and being “reborn.” Being totally honest (for instance, admitting that you dislike someone) might be seen as giving too much attention to our “old, sinful selves” whereas “Truth” is focusing on our new, transformed, reborn selves. Even the commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” is not a direct admonition to be honest about your personal experience or life, but seems specifically related to the act of slander, of harming someone’s reputation, or of not representing God well to someone else.

We’re so convinced that we have been transformed that we believe we are being honest when we represent ourselves in ways that don’t reflect what we are feeling or thinking on the inside because we convince ourselves those thoughts and feelings are not who we are any more. Those thoughts and feelings are our “old self” clinging on to power inside ourselves and we need to ignore (actually, kill) those old selves and focus on God and the person that we are being transformed into – that is our True self.

While putting this post together it really started to sink in how exhausting it all is. And the end result is people who do not trust themselves, know themselves, or know each other and, hooks would say, do not know love. After taking a step back, I have been able to view this “die to yourself and become a new creation” mentality more simply as deception. Who are we serving well by deceiving ourselves and others that we don’t think what we are thinking, feel what we are feeling, want what we are wanting? And encouraging young people at very formative stages of life to do the same?

When we primarily share ourselves and our stories in the form of confession, prayer requests and apologies, we are saying that we regret who we are, we are afraid of ourselves, we are skeptical of ourselves, we want to believe that we are not ourselves. Our only hope is in becoming something new. Nothing about this view of life encourages simple, true, obvious honestly. It is actively working in the opposite direction.

While Hooks writes that many who are dying regret not loving more and not being more fully honest, I was always raised to believe my only regret would be not witnessing to more people, not doing more to share the good news of the gospel. The true way to love people, I was taught, was to tell them about Jesus and let God’s love shine through me. Fortunately, it’s possible to know what people actually regret when they’re dying and it’s much closer to hooks’ perspective. Over the last decade or so, Bonnie Ware has been collecting and sharing reflections of people who are dying and has summarized her collection into five regrets:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

Honesty, love, and death. I keep coming back to this simple, aspirational progression. It could take years for us to shift our understanding of love, but it just makes sense, it feels obvious. In the end, it will have been worth it.

Thoughts on The Spirit of the Disciplines

I finally took the time to update my personal bookshelf page. The first book I read after college was The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. This book came to me by way of a yearlong internship with a Christian tutoring and mentoring non-profit.

I have a new appreciation for this book in retrospect. I have a fuller understanding of the need for self-control as I take on more responsibilities. I see that self-control also limits exploitation, preserves relationships, and enhances experiences (as opposed to overindulgence deadening them). I understand that our habits and character are shaped by daily decisions and that our integrity is tested by stress, power, and fear. I appreciate that this book attempts to be more practical and specific than just spiritual. In the instance of solitude, it’s so eye-opening to consider the spiritual discipline in this current era of hyper and constant connection. Our solitude has been taken from us more completely than he could have ever imagined. How much more so then do we require it.

While looking back, I also have a more coherent critique of his message. I read this book already having a sense of my body as primarily an instrument of spiritual discipline. I can’t say I enjoyed it obviously, but I did sometimes feel superior because of it. In retrospect, I shocked by how often I beat myself up for not being a good enough Christian. It’s possible that this book fed something in me that was already a little over developed. I wasn’t coming to this book as a proud hedonist, but as someone already distrustful of themselves and attempting to discipline their own heart and mind.

Willard writes that as we begin to understand ourselves as sinful (he calls the self “the old person”) we are to “disassociate ourselves with him or her.” Reading this a decade later, I thought this was an astonishing bit of advice considering the context of trauma and dissociative disorders. It reminded me of a time I was talking to my therapist about a semi-traumatic moment years ago where I sort of sat in stunned silence. He asked me if I thought I had disassociated. I said I didn’t think so, but that I couldn’t quite describe why I was so stunned. In retrospect, I had the realization that what had really happened is that I had associated rather than disassociated. I had actually been pulled into the moment in a way that was too vulnerable to bear for someone who had been trained to be divorced from it.

Thinking from the lens of power, the spiritual disciplines promise a higher level of spiritual maturity and integrity in exchange for relinquishing control of one’s own body. Behavior is modified according to external priorities rather than internal desires. One’s own thoughts and feelings are often considered a threat to the higher calling and higher purpose of our lives. You can say that the individual has chosen to relinquish this control out of free will and undeniable love, but the threats inherent to the faith such as eternal death, being publicly shamed, and excommunication mean that to some extent these decisions are also being made under duress. If you believe in the proposition, there really is no choice. At the same time, there are undeniable benefits to living a life of discipline and if this is what it takes to achieve that discipline then for many it will have been worth it. In a world that is chaotic, Willard suggests a framework that one can stand up under while they bring order to their lives.

I think that Dallas Willard would be disappointed to see how the faith has become an instrument of political power in recent years. On the other hand, coming from a Quaker background I’m surprised to see his opinion of the faith as apolitical considering the Quakers longstanding work to end slavery. It’s hard to know whether the Quakers were acting “out of their faith” vs. using their faith to pursue their own goals in the abolitionist movement. Even within ourselves, we are often clueless to our motives. Additionally, he presents the disciplines in a “battle ready” sort of way that sets the individual in opposition to our society in a way that may make them feel like they have been left out. Is it possible to love others if you are constantly defending yourself against them?

Willard hoped that this book would allow individuals to shape their lives to align with their faith through simple, daily habits. I so appreciate his wisdom and insight. He understands that we can be held back by our weaknesses and that spiritual disciplines are a way for us to ground ourselves, protect ourselves, and minimize self-destructive choices. Unfortunately, at the time, I read the book through the negative inner monologue of “never enough.” It isn’t that the ideas of discipline or restraint necessarily inspire self-condemnation, but as we consider spiritual formation, especially for younger people, we may want to also encourage people to trust themselves and listen to themselves.

That it isn’t all just a “haunted abyss” beneath the surface.

Some quotes that I underlined at the time:

“A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being—mind and body.”

“Some even believe that by such imitation they have really become saints and prophets, and are unable to acknowledge that they are still children and face the painful fact that they must start at the beginning and go through the middle.”

“Yet, I must do one of the other. Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no middle.”

“And a thoughtless or uninformed theology grips and guides our life with just as great a force as does a thoughtful and informed one.”

“And so it was, more than anything else, the religious seriousness the spiritual disciplines injected into the whole of our lives that made them attractive.”

“More than anyplace else it originates from failure to recognize the part our body plays in our spiritual life—and this is, of course, where the disciplines enter the discussion.”

“They cannot do so because we tend to think of the body and its functions as only a hindrance to our spiritual calling.”

“Once we forsake or cloud this meaning of “salvation” (or “redemption” or “regeneration”) and substitute for it mere atonement or mere forgiveness of sins, we’ll never be able to achieve a coherent return to concrete human existence.”

“The sober truth is that we are made of dust, even if we do aspire to the heavens.”

“The locus or depository of this necessary power is the is the human body. This explains, in theological terms, why we have a body at all. That body is our primary area of power, freedom and—therefore—responsibility.”

“The small reservoir of independent powers that was resident in their bodies continued to function as it does in “living beings” generally, but the connection to God through which those powers would have been properly ordered and fulfilled was broken.”

“But the essence and aim of spirituality is not to correct social and political injustices. That will be its effect—though never exactly in ways we imagine as we come to it with our preexisting political concerns. That is not its use, and all thought of using it violates its nature.”

“The fact that a long course of experience is needed for the transformation is not set aside when we are touched by the new life from above.”

“All his most sincere and good intentions, even though specifically alerted by Jesus’ prediction and warning of a few hours earlier, were not able to withstand the automatic tendencies ingrained in his flesh and activated by his circumstances.”

“In an important sense to be explained, a person is his or her body.”

“‘Spiritual people do not play.’ That is the usual view. For one thing, they are too serious ever to play. It is a test of their spirituality that they never let up from their special spiritual activities…And while spiritual people can have joy, they probably should stay away from just plain pleasure. While it is not in itself bad, it might ensnare them. Or so we seem to think.”

“The true effect of the Fall was to lead us to trust in the flesh alone, to “not see fit to acknowledge God any longer” (Rom. 1:28) because we now suppose (like mother Eve) that, since there is now God to be counted on in our lives, we must take things into our own hands.”

“But such thinking is far from the truth. It’s an illusion created in part by our own conviction that our unrestrained natural impulse is in itself a good thing and that we have an unquestionable right to fulfill our natural impulses so long as “no one gets hurt.”

“But his words are really guideposts to direct us in our personal struggle to over come the evil that reigns in our world.”

“So we bring the “old person” before our minds and, with resolute consciousness, we disassociate ourselves from him or her.”

“If we refuse to practice, it is not God’s grace that fails when a crisis comes, but our own nature. When the crisis comes, we ask God to help us, but He cannot if we have not made out nature our ally.”

“If for any reason we are not fully exercising and enjoying the right to “freedom” and “happiness” as popularly conceived, then we automatically assume that something is somewhere wrong.”

“Somehow, the fact that ‘mortification’self-denial, the disciplining of one’s natural impulseshappens to be central teaching of the New Testament is conveniently ignored.”

“In the Reformed branches of Protestantism, with John Calvin as the chief inspiration, discipline became identified with something that the church exerts over its members to keep them in line.”

“The Greek philosophers from the Sophists through Philo and Epictetus included ascetic practices in their views of all proper human education or development.”

“Asceticism rightly understood is so far from the “mystical” as to be just good sense about life and, ultimately, about spiritual life.”

“One of the greatest deceptions in the practice of the Christian religion is the idea that all that really matters is our internal feelings, ideas, beliefs, and intentions.”

“Solitude frees us, actually. This above all explains its primacy and priority among the disciplines.”

“[Solitude] opens out to us the unknown abyss that we all carry within us … [and] discloses the fact that these abysses are haunted.”

“How rarely are we ever truly listened to, and how deep is our need to be heard.”

“Roughly speaking, the disciplines of abstinence counteract tendencies to sins of commission, and the disciplines of engagement counteract tendencies to sins of omission.”

“Condemnation and guilt over mere possession has no part in scriptural faith and is, in the end, only a barrier to the right use of the riches of the earth.”

“He even suggests that ‘true, scriptural Christianity has a tendency, in the process of time, to undermine and destroy itself.’ It begets diligence and frugality, which in turn make one rich.”

“We do not have to own things to love them, trust them, even serve them.”

“So to assume the responsibility for the right use and guidance of possessions through ownership is far more of a discipline of the spirit than poverty itself.”

“One way to gain such understanding is to experience the life of the poor in some further measurethough we must never give in to the temptation to act as if we are poor when we are not.”

“Fear and wrath mingle to form the automatic, overt response of the ‘normal, decent human being’ to any person or event that threatens his or her security, status, or satisfaction.”

“Almost all evil deeds and intents are begun with the thought that they can be hidden by deceit.”

“The highest education, as well as the strictest doctrinal views and religious practice, often leave untouched the heart of darkness from which the demons come to perch upon the lacerated back of humankind.:

“It will not be by force, but by the power of truth presented in overwhelming love. Our inability to conceive of it other than by force merely testifies to our obsession with human means for controlling other people.”

“The local assembly, for its part, can then become an academy where people throng from the surrounding community to learn how to live.”

“Faith grows from the experience of acting on plans and discovering God to be acting with us.”