Recently my family moved house, and as is the case when you own a great many books, one of the many laborious processes involved is that of packing, and then unpacking, all of your books. This is not the first time we have moved (in fact, in 11 years of marriage we have now lived in five different homes), and that means that there are books in my library that I have packed five times and unpacked five times. Some of those books I have never yet read.
One such volume was a little book with a colorful cover called, St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail, written by one Edward Hays, a Catholic priest. I had kept it in hopes of reading it because of its colorful cover, which features a large red dragon. I had assumed, these many years, that the book was a version of St. George’s story. With this recent move, after so many moves, after travelling with me thousands of miles, I finally decided to read it. My oh my, was I in for a surprise.
First of all, the book has, apart from its title, almost nothing whatsoever to do with the legend of St. George. But I was ready to forgive this as I read through the first few pages, because in its place was a novel and alluring presentation: St. George presents itself as the weekly journal of a man who goes on pilgrimage in his backyard. Each week he spends a Saturday in his garage in solitude, where he is visited by a dragon who tells him stories. The journal entries, and the stories (22 of them), are the book. But what began as a promising premise quickly soured, because the spirituality that Hays presented in the book can hardly be called Christian at all. In fact, it was such a mishmash that I feel compelled to invent a new word to describe it—spiritualishism. Spiritualishism is a good word for this because it is difficult to pronounce. Go ahead and roll it around in your mouth for a minute or so, and you’ll see what I mean—that transition from “al” to “ish” to “ism” is a little challenging. And trying to pronounce the word approximates the difficulty of defining the goofy spirituality present in Hays’s book—concepts and ideas are mashed together, key elements are discernable and appear good (“spiritual” things are good, right?), but are clouded by extra letters and awkward combinations. In the end, the bad clouded out the good and I wished I hadn’t carried the book with me over thousands of miles and multiple moves. The only good, I suppose, is that I get to write about it now.
In the event, then, that you encounter a similar book, let me offer you the following six signs that you are reading a book of spiritualishism.
Sign #1: The Book is Story-Based rather than Scripture-Based.
Far be it from me to suggest that all books of spirituality should be exposition or declarations of truth—Jesus himself taught in parables!—but we must be especially on our guard when we read stories. Why? Because stories have power to slip past our defenses—something C.S. Lewis once referred to as the “watchful dragons” of the mind. But inasmuch as story, when it is grounded in orthodoxy, is highly beneficial and powerful, when it is not grounded in orthodoxy it is to that same degree wicked and harmful. Books of spiritualishism utilize the power of story because it can slip past our defenses, as it were; when we hear stories we become slightly less critical. But the danger is that of the Trojan horse—the outside looks wondrous, but the inside is full of treacherous, murderous Greeks. For our part we must be spiritually watchful and mindful of what we read.
To do this, the Christian who reads in the area of Spirituality must have a solid baseline in Scripture through which to evaluate and interpret the stories he or she is reading. Otherwise, the reader will be at the mercy of the whims of capricious and unwise authors. Furthermore, the Christian who wishes to grow spiritually through reading must also have as his or her first text the Scriptures, and only augment that base reading with secondary literature. The literature of Spirituality is a bad foundation for a spiritual life.
To some, I fear, this criticism will immediately fall on deaf ears. “But I like stories,” such a person exclaims, “and they are so much easier to follow than the Scriptures.” Truly, such a person is listening only for what he wants to hear, and his spirituality will be shaped accordingly—it might be spiritual, but it will not be Christian.
Sign #2: There is an Intentional Bending of Theological Norms.
It is a hallmark of spiritualishism literature that its authors intentionally provoke theological norms as a way to shake up the acolyte’s understanding. Break the cage, it reasons, and you can free the bird within. Orthodox thinking is typically seen as the cage, binding the liberation of the soul through its rigid claim to authority. Orthodoxy, in other words, is seen as the enemy of spirituality.
For example, in quite a number of Hay’s parables he revisits the creation story and recasts God the Father as, well, God the Mother. She dances, sings, flits to and fro over creation, and in one such story, on the sixth day labors and gives birth to Adam. This is a provocative bending of theological norms, to say the least, and it is one which we ought to consider carefully. In fact, we ought to consider it in light of Proverbs 23:10, which says, “Do not move the ancient boundary stones.” Why should we be commanded to maintain ancient boundaries? First of all, because someone put it there for a reason; second, because to move the stone is to steal from someone else’s property. Let us be clear: it is God who placed the boundary of His own identity—placed it specifically against the mother-goddess cults of the ancient world. We are not to think that we are born of God, or Mother Earth, or any such combination, because God reveals Himself to be radically separate from creation, radically different from all the other ancient religions, and in the process reveals His people to be a different kind of creature in the world.
But the truth is this: orthodoxy is like the bones on which faith is built. It is complete foolishness to intentionally break the bones of faith and then instruct the acolyte to run. By contrast, all true spirituality always strengthens the bones of faith; it never weakens them.
Sign #3: Alternative Spiritualities are Placed on Equal Footing with the Gospel.
One of the unofficial mottoes of my university was the phrase, “All Truth is God’s Truth.” I liked the motto then, and still like it now. It takes as axiomatic that there is only one truth, and that all truth I might encounter, if it is going to attain to the property of “truth” must necessarily be in accordance with the Truth as revealed in God. By extension, this means that if a thing is true, then its truth is in accordance with the God of Truth.
However, I can also see how the statement might be twisted for unjust ends. It’s all a matter of perspective. On the one hand, I can position myself in the centre of Christian spirituality and with an attitude of grace, humility, and eagerness for more of God, search the world for the glimpses of His glory spread throughout creation. Or, alternatively, I can attempt to place myself in a kind of neutral position, and then claim that all truths are equal and of equal value. From Position 1, I can stand in Christianity and read the Bhagavad Gita, a book of Hopi spirituality, the Koran, and the Tao Te Ching—each one is a source Hays references—and I can read each with varying degrees of reward and benefit. After all, if there is truth within those books (and I believe there is), then the truth must accord with the One Truth in God. However, because the Christian conviction of the Truth is central to my thinking and beliefs, those truths will be seen and measured in light of the truth as revealed in Christ. He is the Fact against which all other facts are measured.
By contrast, in Position 2 I attempt to stand outside all truth and equate each one as an equal partner in the approach to Truth. This, to my understanding, is what Hays has done in his book, flattening the claims of Christianity and exalting the claims of other spiritualities through images, quotes, and other methods. The problem is that in order to do this a person must abdicate her belief in truth as one. Quite simply, if Jesus tells the truth when he says that “I am the way, the truth, and the life”—that he is truth, in the flesh, and doesn’t just claim to know about it—then alternative claims to spirituality are immediately given a second-tier status. Either Christ is the Truth, or he has lied, in which case he cannot be the truth. Christianity holds, because of its founder, an all-or-nothing position on Truth. To exalt alternative spiritualities is to compromise on Christ’s claims about Himself.
Sign #4: There is Intentional Altering or Avoidance of Inconveniences in the Scriptures.
The literature of Spirituality has become, unfortunately, a haven for Christians uncomfortable with, well, Christianity. And Christianity—let no one deceive you!—is a profoundly uncomfortable religion. One of the things that the authors of books of spiritualishism can do is either avoid or alter those uncomfortable elements in actual Christianity.
For example, Hays retells Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, and to be fair, it is one of the best stories in the book. The rich man gets a name, Nineveh, and he is given the special opportunity to come back from the dead and speak to his brothers. The catch is that he is only given four words to say. So Nineveh studies the scriptures from within Hell (forgetting his torment for the time while he does this) and settles on some words from Amos, “Woe to the complacent.” Then he goes to brother after brother, uttering his warning, and none of them listen to him. Back in Hell, Nineveh grieves that they did not listen.
All this is an interesting idea, but what we get next is troubling, because from Heaven Nineveh hears the sound of construction, and Lazarus is building a bridge from Heaven to Hell. He then comes to Nineveh and offers a hand; because Nineveh had thought of others instead of himself, he would be allowed to come to Heaven. Thus endeth the parable.
Now, as a first matter of course, let us consider the wisdom of significantly altering one of the teaching parables of Jesus. Remember, this is Jesus—Lord of Life, Master Teacher, Final Authority and Judge of All the Earth. When he told the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, one of the clear (and essential) points was the business of how Lazarus had received bad in life, and the Rich Man had received good, and that the Rich Man’s willful ignoring of Lazarus was one of the conditions for his eternal judgment. The warning (to the complacent, we might add) was that eternity was forever, and that this life determines the outcome of our eternities.
Why remove the sting of the parable? Let’s face it—Hell is uncomfortable, a clear and consequential extension of the singular truth of Jesus Christ. Let me spell this out plainly: if Jesus is the truth, and Jesus teaches about Hell, then Hell must be real. But the reality of Hell stands inconveniently in the way of the equalized spirituality which spiritualishism demands, and so the literature edits, omits, and alters these (and other) doctrines to taste.
Sign #5: The Process of Christian Sanctification is Cast in the Terms of Enlightenment.
The climax of St. George and the Dragon and the Quest for the Holy Grail comes when George, our protagonist, finally divests himself of everything, gazes into the mirror that reflects his true self, and discovers that he has become the Holy Grail! Emptying himself of self created the conditions for him to reach enlightenment! And all he had to do was spend Saturdays in his garage!
The problem is that this vision of enlightenment, or escape, or special knowledge (ahem, gnosis), has little to do with Christian sanctification. There is nothing of Christ being formed in the believer, growing into the image of God as revealed in Christ, of the fruit of the Spirit, or any such factors. Instead there is the appeal of special knowledge that has the power to liberate the individual from the constraints of the self. The reason an individual is encouraged to read, or learn from, or study alternative spiritualities, is for clues into this process of enlightenment. The problem, once again, is that it simply isn’t Christian.
Sign #6: You Do Not Finish the Book with a Conviction of the Uniqueness of God in Christ Jesus.
Books of spiritualishism may make you feel good. They may appeal to your heart. They may tug the strings of your spiritual self. They may expose you to new and exotic ways of thinking about the spiritual life. But they do not as a rule expose you to a clearer, more glorious, more convicting vision of the Lord Jesus Christ. What you get instead is a mishmash of the author’s impressions, likes, and dislikes. But you get very little Jesus.
That, in fact, is Christian spirituality: encounter with the Risen Christ that transforms the individual. And when the Christian reads for spiritual growth, he or she is reading for just such an encounter. Reading to see more of Christ, to experience more of Christ, to know more of Christ, and above all to be formed in the inner man more and more into the likeness of Christ.
The irony of true Christian Spirituality is that it can be formed apart from books of explicit spirituality. If All Truth is God’s Truth, then I might discover and be transformed by that truth in any or all of my reading—be it a book of mathematics or one of political philosophy, one of biography or of science fiction. The key question is this: am I reading for spirituality, or for more of Christ? Only one type of reading has the potential to make me truly spiritual.