Book Reviews

Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton

Sacred Rhythms by Ruth Haley Barton, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006; pp. 191, hardback, $17.00

Sacred Rhythms is a typical book published by the Formatio wing of InterVarsity Press.  Formatio books are dedicated to promotion of ancient mystical practices, largely from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Quaker traditions, under the banner of “spiritual formation.”  Barton’s book could serve as a primer to this mystical world which was largely unknown to most evangelicals until the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Disciplines in the mid-1970s.

The opening quote by Elizabeth Dreyer maps out the direction for the rest of the book: 

One can begin one’s (spiritual) quest by attending to the desires of the heart, both personal and communal.  The Spirit is revealed in our genuine hopes for ourselves and for the world.  How brightly burns the flame of desire for a love affair with God, other people, the world?  Do we know that to desire and seek God is a choice that is always available to us?

Here we can discern threads that will be woven together throughout the volume:  First, it is the desires of our heart that determine our spiritual direction, not the revealed Word of God.  The words “desire” and “longing” are sprinkled generously throughout, literally hundreds of times, and as often as a dozen times per page.  This foundational premise is the fundamental, overarching flaw in the mystical approach to the Christian life.  The reader might recall God’s indictment of the people of Israel who “did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25) and Jeremiah’s warning, “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jere 17:9).  Barton’s response to such critiques would be that by following the spiritual disciplines she prescribes we will meet the Holy Spirit in our hearts who will then reveal to us the will of God, totally apart from Scripture.

The opening quote also speaks of having a “love affair with God” (see pp. 32, 50, 66).  This is common language found in mystical literature which teaches a romanticized, even erotic relationship with the Lord.

Barton develops her understanding of spiritual formation from what she calls Christian tradition (pp. 14, 22, 32, 37, 53, 54, 72-72, 74, 95-96, 101-103, 111, 135).  By this she is not referencing biblical tradition, or instruction, but that which is found in Roman Catholic mysticism and ritual.  She draws heavily from the classical mystics such as Meister Eckhart (p. 19), M. Basil Pennington (p. 43), the desert fathers (p. 53), Henri Nouwen (p. 66), Teilhard de Chardin (p. 120), Thomas Kelly (p. 121), Thomas Merton (pp. 129, 162), St. Benedict (p. 147), as well as modern mystics such as Dallas Willard (p. 117) and Richard Foster (p. 187).

From this polluted pool of resources Barton draws a number of spiritual disciplines that promises to lead the reader into spiritual formation.  These include:

• Solitude (pp. 29-44). Solitude is defined as both a longing for God leading to an “unmediated” experience with God (p. 32) (known as “union” in classical mysticism) and the longing to find ourselves (p. 53).

• Lectio Divina (pp. 45-61).  Lectio Divina which is a non-cognitive form of Scripture reading in which God supposedly speaks to us directly in the present moment (pp. 54-55).

• Contemplative prayer (pp. 62-77). In contemplative prayer words are superfluous (p. 62); as a matter of fact it is communion with God beyond words (p. 68).  Rather than a time of communicating to God our desires, petitions or worship, it is a time of listening as the Holy Spirit speaks to us (Rom 8:26-27) (p. 70).  It is a prayer of self-emptying, for emptiness is the prerequisite for receiving (p. 69).

• Discernment (pp. 110-129).  Discernment is not the ability to make wise choices or distinguish between true and false teachings; it is hearing the word of God subjectively using especially Ignatius of Loyola’s spiritual exercises (p. 111).  In “time we develop an intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose in any given moment.  We become familiar with God’s voice—the tone, quality and content” (p. 111).

• Sabbath (pp. 130-146).  Missing the point that the sabbath in Scripture was the sign of God’s covenant with Israel, Barton promotes a day per week in which we do “whatever delights you and replenishes you” (p. 142) (emphasis hers).  As she recommends various sabbath activities she offers not a single verse of Scripture to back up her recommendations.  While regular periods of rest are wise and necessary her understanding of the sabbath does not draw from a biblical base.  Of course none of Barton’s spiritual disciplines are in the Bible and the majority of Scripture she attempts to use is either out of context, twisted from its obvious meaning, or distorted to teach what was never intended.  Some examples:

o p. 41 – Exodus 14:13-14
o p. 70 – Romans 8:26-27
o p. 86 – Deuteronomy 30:14
o pp. 98-101 – Psalm 139:19-22
o p. 114 – Deuteronomy 30:19-20
o p. 116 – Romans 12:1-2
o p. 170 – John 10:18

Sacred Rhythms serves as an excellent example of where the spiritual formation movement is attempting to take the evangelical church, which is back into Roman Catholic mystical experiences and practice because the movement does not emerge from the Scriptures.  It does not form biblical disciples of Christ and is ultimately destructive.