This review was written by Tia Gray – the Music Director of the Church I serve at.
John Jefferson Davis is a professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has published in both theological and scientific journals. This book may be on meditation, but it is written for the theological scholar, not the lay person; the first three fourths of the book are spent in theological discussion of a highly scholarly type, and his footnoted, erudite writing style is not readily accessible to the lay person. I could only chuckle when, on page 94, he states, “…this is a book on meditation, not a treatise on epistemology directed to academic philosophers…”.
That said, if you can persevere through the professorial apologetics, and you are armed with a working knowledge of words like hermeneutics, logopneumatic, teleology, and soteriology, there are many fascinating concepts to be gleaned. And Davis states that a deep knowledge of the bible and Christian theology is essential ‘background information’ for true understanding of the nature of the Trinitarian God, which will lead us to a richer communion with God when we meditate on Scripture.
Christians who are wary of incorporating Eastern meditation practices should be aware that there is a rich history of Protestant biblical meditation, especially by the Puritan fathers in the 1600s. Davis states that in the Puritan view, without meditation, “preaching won’t benefit us, our prayers won’t be effective, and we will be unable to defend the truth.” He assures the reader that in Christian meditation, the goal is to be filled with the Holy Spirit during meditation on Scripture, as opposed to the Eastern practice of ‘emptying oneself’ during meditation.
I was fascinated by a snippet Davis includes from a study by the Center for Biblical Engagement in Lincoln, Nebraska: the study found that those who read the Bible at least four times a week were less likely to engage in behaviors such as gambling, pornography, alcohol abuse and extramarital affairs. “Time spent in the Word correlates with an individual’s spiritual growth.”
The basic point Davis strives to make is that we approach meditation on Scripture from a very real understanding of 3 foundational truths:
- Trinitarian theology
- Inaugurated eschatology
- Union with Christ
Union with Christ: God’s plan from before creation, promised by Christ during his earthly ministry, and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit during Pentecost. It is not achieved only by saints, but is accessible to every Christian, and it is accessible now, while we still live on earth, not only in heaven. This was Paul’s understanding when he spoke of being ‘in Christ’, or ‘seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.”
Davis is a strong believer in John’s doctrine of ‘realized escatology,’ which he calls inaugurated eschatology: (the doctrine that we are currently living in the’ end times’). We should be more fully alive to the fact that since Christ’s resurrection we have been living in the end times; Paul states in Ephesians 2:6 that we are already in heaven, that we have ‘experiential access to the new creation.’ He meant this literally 2000 years ago, and it is still true today: the new Jerusalem already exists and we have already arrived in it. As Davis quotes from N. T. Wright: It is not we who go to heaven; it is heaven that comes down to earth.
The Trinity: Davis feels that this vital aspect of Christianity had fallen into unimportance in previous years and is now experiencing a ‘renaissance’ in a broad spectrum of the church: Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. The Trinitarian God is inherently relational, and we were created to be inherently relational, not only with God but with each other. Our very salvation is a call, through Christ’s redemption and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, to be invited into the Trinitarian circle of love, joy and peace.
As Christians, we must approach the Scriptures as part of our personal identity: the stories of the bible are stories of our family: part of our genealogical narrative. The words of our ancestor, brother and savior, Jesus, inform us (give us knowledge of God), form us (change us into faithful disciples,) and transform us (open us up to the indwelling of the Spirit, which brings us into true communion with God).
Davis also points out that according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Q. What is the chief end of man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” And if glorifying and enjoying God is the main purpose for which you were created, then worship and biblical meditation are high priorities, not something you might get to if you have a few spare moments.
In Chapter 7, when we finally begin to discuss actual meditation techniques and processes, Davis uses and adapts the meditation process of M. Basil Pennington, a Trappist monk at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. This brief section gives a good outline for how to approach biblical meditation in a prayerful, open way, pointing out how important it is to be open to the insights that might come as you read and reread a portion of Scripture, and to be thankful and joyful for the time spent in communion with Christ. He also cautions that even if we might not feel as if God has been present during this time of meditation and study, he is there even when we do not feel his presence. Davis also suggests that we continue, throughout our day, to call to mind the insights received during our meditation, so that our lives may be suffused with spiritual growth. In this way our spiritual journey can become part of our personal identity, and begin to affect how we perceive and react to the world and those around us–and how they perceive and react to us.
Davis briefly discusses three levels of meditation: beginning, intermediate (or whole brain), and worldview. In discussing beginning meditation, he mostly concentrates on keeping the mind focused through the use of centering prayer, since distraction and loss of focus is a universal problem with beginning meditators. In whole brain meditation, he discusses engaging both the right brain (visual) and the left brain (linguistic) by pairing bible passages that discuss concepts with passages that give us a visual reference for that concept, in much the same way Jesus used parables about seed, coins, and lamps as concrete, visual symbols of spiritual truths. Davis’ worldview meditation is probably the most enriching, as he suggests meditating on cycles of Scripture using five ‘practices of right comprehension’: our view of God, our view of reality, our view of ourselves, our view of the purpose of human life, and our view of worship. Approaching scripture through the lens of these viewpoints keeps one focused on the ‘big picture’ of how we live a Christian life.
The chapter on actual meditation techniques is of course the most readily accessible to those truly interested in getting started on bible meditation, and the paired scriptural passages he uses as examples and suggestions are a wonderful introduction to the depth of insight that can be obtained using these thoughtful methods. A lay person might begin—and end– with this chapter. Anyone seeking a deeper knowledge of the foundation of our faith should struggle through the first 6 chapters, dictionary in hand; it will, ultimately, be worth the effort.