With the rise of interest in spiritual renewal in evangelical circles over the past two decades, there has also arisen, from various quarters, a suspicion of spiritually renewing practices. A criticism sometimes raised is that spiritual formation authors promote a highly subjective, careless approach to the reading of Scripture. No doubt, there are approaches to the Christian spiritual life that are innocently misguided and subtly self-serving. This seems to occur most frequently when: (1) one gives greater authority to personal experience than to Scripture; (2) one disregards the historical context of and important exegetical features of a text, and (3) when one fails to submit their readings to the wisdom of other mature Christians.
It is the judgment of this reviewer that this book sufficiently dispels the fear of mishandling Scripture in personal devotion. The authors have not only succeeded in providing a helpful overview of the ancient practice of “lectio divina” (Latin for “divine reading”), but they also impart a practical wisdom for reading Scripture in a vitally formative way. It is true that the ancient practice of lectio divina is vulnerable to misuse–as any spiritual practice can be. Thankfully, Wilhoit and Howard are able guides in directing readers toward a biblically robust and Spirit-empowered use of lectio. The authors are aware of the importance of careful interpretation, but also note that accurate interpretation of text may in fact obscure, even quench what the Holy Spirit might accomplish with a text. Especially appreciated is the authors’ sensitivity to the role that prior understandings or control beliefs play in reading texts. That said, I believe that a fitting use for this book might be in a hermeneutics class, as a complementary aid to sound exegesis. The study questions and suggestions for each chapter are a helpful feature, and necessary for getting the most out of the book.
A wonderful summary paragraph captures the gist of the practice: “Lectio divina, or devotional reading, engages the human dimension with the Word and the Spirit of God. We bring ourselves to the text: eyes, questions, circumstances, heart–all of us. We watch as we read, noticing how the reading process is shaped by the Spirit. We allow the Scripture to soak into us and reprogram our heart, changing the very concerns and ideas that control our beliefs and feelings. Through this process, our ordinary questions, our cultural biases, our personal fears and our controlling operating systems are placed at the disposal of God’s Spirit through the text. And through the same process, our mind is renewed and our heart is transformed” (58-59).
By way of minor critique, I wished that the authors had explained where Benedict of Nursia (480-547) obtained his understanding of “contemplation.” The metaphysical assumptions undergirding Christian contemplation require, in my mind at least, some brief explanation. Especially is this the case for Christians who may not be aware of how cultural currents have influenced Christian spiritual practices. Contemplative spirituality is too often misunderstood by evangelicals, and, consequently, falsely caricatured. Explaining what contemplation is and isn’t might allay the anxieties of those who are apprehensive about this practice.
I was also expecting a bit more discussion on the communal practice of lectio divina. Lectio can have fruitful results in a communal setting, especially when guided by a spiritually mature and biblically-literate leader (or leaders). For the most part, Wilhoit and Howard focus on how this practice might look as an individual participates in it. In fairness to the authors, they leave considerable room for how the practice can be applied: “We are not purists who think there is one best way to pull this off. You may want to consider the elements of lectio to be ingredients that you can experiment with in order to concoct the best recipe for you and your situation” (139). Along these lines, we must not forget that millennials, Xers, and even baby boomers might be more inclined to listen to Scripture on their smartphones, tablets, and iPods than to read a bound, paper and ink Bible!
Readers will readily observe that the book makes reference to different voices outside the evangelical Christian tradition (e.g. Gregory the Great, Gregory Palamas, Ignatius of Loyola, Madame Guyon, Thomas Keating, Thomas Merton, to mention a few). As this reviewer sees it, Wilhoit and Howard, are attempting to discern truth wherever they find it. Their goal is to mine the spiritual wisdom of the church throughout the centuries. Without an integrative frame of mind and an earnest dependency upon the Holy Spirit, readers of this book will likely be bothered by the presence of non-evangelical authors. An integrationist frame of thinking holds true not only in the reading of this book, but for any work on the history and practices of Christian spirituality.
In compact fashion, this book describes how the church in its earliest centuries understood a spiritual approach to reading Scripture. The book also provides practical ways to use lectio divina today. In short, Discovering Lectio Divina is an excellent guidebook for understanding a long-overlooked approach to reading the Word of God.