“I read the Good Book every day. Every day. It really helps to center me, you know, relax me and help me get closer to God. Best part of my day.”
As a student of religion and as someone who has worked with and been a part of faith communities for over three decades, I am generally very open minded when it comes to religious expression and faith practices. I find the nuances positively delightful – the way a Muslim blesses their newborn for example, or the way a Jewish community celebrates when a teenager becomes an adult. Most of these discoveries make me happy. When I hear a Buddhist speak of finding “little enlightenments” in their day or with their children, it feels like a private joy. When I drive past a local church and see a stream of elderly adults going to confession, I smile. But some practices within Evangelicalism make no sense. They are hardly spiritual practices at all; I find myself confused and frustrated by the cheapness with which some individuals handle their religious experience.
Wars have been fought over religion, decades and centuries spent polishing a ritual. Religious disciplines, the rituals infused with meaning connect believers across centuries and ground us. They remind us of our infinite smallness in the universe. They infuse our religious beliefs with significance, meaning, and substance.
Or we “do” devotionals.
Christian devotional literature (also called devotionals or “Christian living” literature) is religious writing that is neither doctrinal nor theological, drafted for individuals to read for their personal edification and spiritual formation. Theologian Karl Holl suggested that devotional literature came into full development at the time of Pietism during the second half of the 17th century. George Thomas Kurian, in The Encyclopedia of Christian Literature, Volume 1 expands on this.
After the Bible, Christian devotional literature has provided the most popular and instructive kind of reading and guidance for believers. Most broadly considered, Christian devotional literature may be thought to encompass any inscribed verbal artifact employed to stimulate the production, sustenance, and direction of the unique interior Christian self, whether solely in relation to the divine or including also service to fellow believers, neighbor, and/or world.
Restated, devotions are short inspirational readings, dealing with the self and one’s relation to God and humanity, for the betterment of the “interior self.”
Typically, this involves a platitude or aphorism passed off as religious truth. Subsequently, whenever someone shares what they have “learned” from “doing” devotions, when they share something they believe to be profound that they found within the privacy of a short reflection on how to better themselves, I have to withhold my disgust. No other spiritual practice is as masturbatory.
I was recently approached by someone who inexplicably felt the need to confess his religiosity by assuring me he read “the Good Book” every morning. With not a little bit of self-satisfaction, he proceeded to tell me he felt that was enough and ask why other religions don’t have a robust devotional practice. “I don’t understand why all these terrorists don’t do the same thing, you know? Read some devotionals. Maybe they would calm down. I’m very happy with just doing my devotions. I read the Good Book every day. Every day. It really helps to center me, you know? Relax me and help me get closer to God. It’s the best part of my day.”
I engaged with him and shared that devotionals had never been a spiritual exercise that worked for me. Before I could ask whether he was aware of or practiced other disciples, he interjected that he thought people who studied religion, like me, were wasting their time. “I’ve been thinking and I just don’t know why you studied religion. It seems like such a waste of time, you know, to study all that when all religions are really the same. Buddhism and the Muslims? They’re really the same, did you know that?”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
I’m still laughing, weeks later.
Eric McKiddle writing about youth culture and Evangelicalism notes,
In my years in youth ministry, I’ve seen unhelpful and even harmful methods of trying to make Scripture relevant. Book publishers make Bibles look like magazines, youth workers preach a hipster Jesus, and parents confuse their child’s involvement in a fun youth group for a growing relationship with God. Yet in our efforts to make Scripture more entertaining, we actually confirm suspicions that it is in fact boring and irrelevant.
This is probably one of the silent killers of religion in the world right now: the suicide of well intentioned devotees who try to make their religion marketable. Religion isn’t cool enough for them. It’s too strange. Too offensive. Religion is intentionally and inherently “otherworldly,” too out of step with humanity’s natural inclinations. When it does not offend, as McKiddle says, it is, “in fact boring and irrelevant.” Believers, in an effort to homogenize the extremities, seemingly feel a need to soften the edges and focus on the lowest common denominators, to cosmetically alter it so those curious edges don’t make them feel embarrassed. The thing is, whenever religion gets too chummy with pop culture, it might look beautiful or cute but it gets even weirder. Instead of something that is countercultural, acculturated religion becomes awkward and inauthentic.
In parallel, it’s a lot like putting food in a blender. Sure, once it has been pureed, anyone can eat it. It doesn’t “offend” our teeth. Babies, the elderly, and anyone between can slurp to their heart’s content. And maybe it’s even tasty! But once you mush it down and add sour cream and water, so it’s not so spicy, not so salty, it begins to take on new qualities never intended by the cook. Religion is never as strange as it is when it becomes stripped of context and diluted for the purposes of stimulating the “Christian interior.”
Full disclosure: I wanted to give Devotional Religion a fair shake for many years. I dated a Devotional Religion girl for a few years there and tried to get on board with her, to read a reading each day, reflect and meditate on it throughout the day, and compare notes with her before bedtime. The whole package – Christian music, Max Lucado library and cute Bible verses stitched into pillows. I feel I had a vested interest for a brief period is making sure Devotional Religion was afforded an opportunity in my life, to find a way to support others who practiced it. But cute turns of phrases which are now perfect for social media simply were not enough to address the world I lived in – the trauma and uncertainty which inspires and is often the catalyst for a strong and coherent religion. Christianity was born from Roman persecution, Judaism in rejection of Egypt’s expansive military might. Buddhism begins with the First Noble Truth, the sobering acceptance that suffering exists in the world and that we are helpless. Even Scientology, founded during the Atomic Age when nuclear holocaust was a daily concern, speaks of the cosmos at war and what an individual can do, each day, to confront the challenges of life as we find it.
Religions thrive on depression and devastation, on the sobering embrace of difficulty. They never grow during times of comfort or ease because that is not how ideas work, necessity being the mother of ingenuity. It is only when an idea must adapt that those who believe in an idea are tested and challenged to grow, to reapply that idea in a new context, or to discard the idea entirely. The same is true of economics. As the world has seen since the financial collapse of 2008, a theory looks good and makes sense when it is modeled among intellectuals, but it is when that theory is put to the test by reality and the real forces upon which the theory resides that world is able to understand whether their ideas and assumptions are strong enough to hold nations together.
This is why I am against Devotional Religion. Is fails when we need it most, inspires ignorance and spiritual weakness we don’t, and is perennially adapted to “sound good” to sells trinkets.
Earlier this year, Max Lucado denounced Donald Trump’s campaign for the American presidency. Lucado’s entire ministry has been build on reductionism – in fact, his denomination, the Church of Christ, is known for removing musical instruments from worship services, known for keeping things as simple and nonconfrontational as possible. For this branch of Christendom, baptism is the primary mark of salvation (not, say, living according to Christian principles or ethics). Questioning the validity of someone’s “witness” is discouraged and handled passively when circumstances demand it. Lucado’s books are perfect for devotionals and “daily living” because his statements aren’t even scriptural, theological, or challenging. Lucado’s works are passive, his style rife with metaphors.
A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.
You change your life by changing your heart.
Lower your expectations of earth. This isn’t heaven, so don’t expect it to be.
These vague aspirations are the “principles” that Lucado trades in and which have made him a profitable author and mechandiser. There’s nothing to challenge the believer to think for themselves, to use discretion and discernment, or to soberly investigate the claims of a politician who promises peace and prosperity with no plan for diplomacy. When Lucado finally denounced Donald Trump, he said he was surprised when he “had my own church members come up and criticize me.”
This surprised him.
He continued, “I [asked] them, do you not see a disconnect here? And it’s almost like the ends justify the means in their mind.”
The most surprising part of this is that Lucado was genuinely surprised. Apparently, this was the first time he had ever taken a stand on an important issue and, because he had never uttered a confrontational or challenging thing from behind a pulpit during his ministry or in his books, his congregation was offended. He had groomed them to disconnect from the world at church, to forget it entirely. It offended his congregation to be reminded that there were real issues in the world that needed their attention. Further, as a pastor, he had groomed the congregation of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio to believe that the ends do justify the means. No other lesson had ever been presented to them except a God who made decisions with the end in sight, never the means by which that end was accomplished. Details were never important. And now that he spoke of details, of decisions and consequences, people were offended.
And he was surprised.
When he waded into talk of the election and spoke about character and responsibility of politics (something he claims to have never done before), it was a shock to his congregation because they had been taught to believe that scripture, Christian living, and politics were far removed from one another. There was no connection for Oak Hills. Lucado, by raising issues from scripture, had offended the church. His design, displayed on every website connected to his name, commercializes scripture – it’s not supposed to affect a Christian’s life. It’s supposed to facilitate consumerism. Scripture was supposed to make them comfortable, to make life easy and predictable. Scripture, for Lucado and all other Devotionalists like him, is only for consumption – and a strict diet of optimistic uncomplicated consumption at that.
A hallmark of Devotional Religion is that it removes religion from the world, creates a hybrid with optimism, and dilutes it to an aphorism. Timeless truths exist in a vacuum, doled to the dutiful through devotionals. Systematic thought and allowances for setbacks are dismissed as a lack of faith, creating a loop that the believer must fill with more optimistic ideation or “faith.” Hungry souls, weak and ravenous for spiritual nourishment and timeless truths, are virtually guaranteed to return because they become dependent on the drug-induced state of euphoria that comes with denying reality and only allowing optimistic, trite statements to guide them. And of course, regular tithes and consumption of profitable goods, like Lucado’s books, more devotionals, and colorful tokens of their faith. The vague and unread “The Good Book” speaks to all matters of life, but it is a life disconnected, dreamily out of touch. One is encouraged to engage with merely one idea per day as a way of coping with life. At best, a devotion is like a vitamin. It is either a slurry of truth watered down for popular consumption or a potent, distilled aphorism. It is not a healthy substitute for a religious “meal.”
In principle, I see why this approach to religion is so popular. I even agree with staples. Optimism is good. Ideas can be complicated. Theology can be complex, taking years or even a lifetime to grasp and begin embodying. Engaging with one idea a day and intentionally using that idea in your daily engagements sounds like an excellent idea. Were it to build upon itself each day throughout the week or follow a lectionary, those would be ideas that I could generally support. After all, when an individual attends counseling, they are asked to think of events in new ways and to approach the next week or month with a new insight. They are asked to grow in an intentional, measurable way. Setbacks will come, but a goal is always in sight. In yoga, the devotee is encouraged to focus on different parts of the body and life to “yoke” them together. In meditation, the same holds true – your mantra can help guide you into a state of mental cohesion. Isolation of ideas one from another, as many popular devotionals tend to do, creates a weak and divided piecemeal of understanding incapable of accomplishing union within the believer.
All of these disparate parts make sense though and, let me very clear, are good things in themselves that I support as part of a robust spiritual life. However, they do not constitute the whole of their practice. Yoga is not about thinking alone. Meditation is not about humming alone. Mental health is not about changing an idea alone. My very best friends – whose lives I know intimately – and I have found ourselves crying on the yoga mat as we became overwhelmed with memories as things began to come together through physical action for us, as the movement of the body began to “yoke” with the mind and heart. Meditation also begins and ends with a separation and return to the daily life; the practice of a daily meditation with each day uncoupled from the next – as devotionals and devotionalism tend to do – is scary and deeply out of touch with the human experience. This is why I have such a strong dislike for devotions – they offer a simple and brief spiritual practice, they focus on the individual, they are done in isolation, and they rarely follow a sequential movement towards a spiritual goal. Devotionals do not and cannot build a strong spirituality.
And so it was that when my friend approached me to tell me he read “The Good Book” every day, I asked him what book that was exactly. The Bible? The Kama Sutra? The Bhagavad Gita? Quran?
Why must we be ashamed of our spiritual journey or to own our disciplines? As a Christian, I have never been ashamed to read the Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the blue book of Alcoholics Anonymous, or the Bible. I take pride in each of these, knowing that with every text there is a tradition, with every tradition beauty, with every beauty strength. Each are good books, but I have never attempted to soften their edges or whisper their names, though I may have been a visitor to the worlds they offered.
“Good Book? What’s that?” Appalled, my friend physically recoiled from me. “Oh no! The Blue Book! You know, like Alcoholics Anonymous?” I pressed him some more, asking whether he had ever had a problem with alcohol. “No,” he said, “I don’t drink. And I’m not even sure people really can get addicted anyway. I just like the devotionals.”
Without dissecting this too much, I feel it is important to say that Alcoholics Anonymous and similar support groups are amazing. I’ve attended several different groups over the years, specifically AA, NA, CoDA, and groups for Sexual Addiction. I believe each of these groups are absolutely essential for some, highly and strongly recommended for many, and encouraged for everyone else. The very fabric of these support groups is to help the individual address the circumstances of their life and become the best version of themselves. It is not recreational cherry-picking. “Just reading them for the devotionals” is deeply offensive to the work those members have invested in bettering their lives. No good thing ever comes easily. I would be deeply offended to know someone could buy a Blue Book online, attend no meetings, deny that addiction is an epidemic in America, and just read “for the devotionals” as though that were the only important part of the process. In fact, I question why someone would even want to participate in this kind of “support” alone. That’s not what support groups, recovery groups, or religious services are for. That’s not what “Good Books” are for.
Which is why, I suppose, devotional religion is so popular – you can be intellectually lazy, never have to be accountable, and are empower to give yourself a nice pat of smug self-satisfaction each morning. You did your part and can creep up to friends and workmates to get a gold star sticker, I Did A Thing. You never have to address the rough edges of either religion or the daily life because, when things get difficult, you don’t have to find guidance by way of a cohesive belief system – you just have to think back to the guiding thought of the day.