A Heated Debate over Daily Devotions

51VZSkf4noL._SX365_BO1,204,203,200_I have written two books on ritual, both about what’s going on with rites in the Bible and in the church (the academic book and the book for normal people). That doesn’t make me an expert, but it means that this is not just another “hot take.” The things I said below caused many people some distress. I’m still working to figure out exactly why that is the case. The bottom line, many people have a daily devotional ritual that they trust, but cannot root it clearly in Scripture (which doesn’t forcefully emphasize the kinds of daily devotionals many Evangelicals practice). I think the Mortification of Spin podcast with Dr. Carl Trueman and Aimee Byrd seemed to catch my concerns about daily devotions on their episode dedicated to my post.

Believe it or not, the following short description started a “Twitter-storm”:

This week, I have asked Dr. Dru Johnson if he would share his thoughts with us. Dr. Johnson later clarified what he wrote below, which you can find here. I think a lot of what he says there is really good too. 

1. How do you spend your devotional time with the Lord? 

Because I live in the NYC area I walk a lot. I spend much of that time praying. I don’t have a scheduled “quiet time” with God and never have. I have private times (e.g., on the subway, on the street, in my office, etc.) where I’ll talk through things with God and also let my mind wander, which I think is a crucial practice. I also reflect on where my mind went when it wandered—did I whine to God, thank Him, petition Him, etc.?

I don’t read Scripture daily. I tell my students, “Gulp, don’t sip Scripture!” I tend to read entire books or major portions in a sitting. I re-read the same book several times (in the Hebrew or Greek if I’ve got the time and don’t want to make it very far). I will sometime go for a week without reading Scripture at all. I think this is important to practice time away from Scripture and return for deep reading/wrestling with what God is saying through His prophets.

I also do not prescribe daily devotionals for my students, most of whom are not literate in the biblical literature. Outside of the “read the Torah and Gospels over three months” kind of plans, I’m not sure these daily “devos” help them. The idea of studying a single passage for 10 minutes every morning and then trying to wring meaning out of it seems absurd unless you already have a good working knowledge of how that passage fits into the whole scheme of Scripture. Can you imagine reading East of Eden a few paragraphs a day? It would neuter the majesty of the text, making it incomprehensible.

I would much rather we grapple with understanding the whole story of Scripture primarily while wrestling with the parts secondarily. I’m sure some kind of daily devotional could do that, but it’s not what I’ve seen practiced. Even if you do the daily devotional, it still needs to be supplemented with deep gulps of texts. Most of what I’ve seen practiced is devotionals that lean toward a psychology sessions with God. Just like counseling, it’s sometimes well needed, but rarely should it be habituated in perpetuity.

The only regular (daily) reading I have done is the monthly Psalms liturgy. [BTW, it just so happens that my forthcoming book Human Rites deals with much of this topic of ritualizing our own practices.]

2. How do you practically seek to deepen your love for Christ?

Serving others. I try to serve my wife and kids practically, though I often struggle there. Sometimes, serving them means keeping my crankiness under control, learning to become interested in what they’re interested in, or cleaning the house. I try to serve my students by praying with them, counseling with them, having them to our house for dinner, and the likes.

The chief thing that makes our family love the church happens on Wednesday nights. Our church in downtown Newark, NJ invites in children from pre-K to 6th grade. We send a bus out in the neighborhood and get the kids out of the housing projects for an evening. We feed them, show them the God we know, and manage the chaos of 100+ unruly kids. We love it. It has hewn and shaped my theology as much as anything else I’ve ever done.

This was my attempt to correct some (un)intentional misunderstandings:

I only write this response to clarify and because I think it’s important for us to root our ritual lives in Scripture’s guidance. This means assessing and reforming the extra-Biblical rituals that we all embody daily that were handed down from traditions—most of them good, but some turned for ill.

After posting it on his blog, quite a few folks on social media forthrightly rejected what they took to be an unstated assumption of mine: daily devotions don’t ever work for anyone. This is despite the fact that I implicitly supported the idea that, when done correctly, daily devotionals seem obviously important. I also suggested two different forms of daily Scripture reading in the piece. The Twitter response came swiftly, if too swiftly:

  • One local pastor advised my students to not listen to me (that was a bit surprising).
  • A Baptist professor told me that it’s not good advice for anyone at any age.
  • A colleague of mine said that, although I did admit to doing and suggesting daily devotionals, I essentially “buried the lede.” (this comment was fair, helpful, and correct)
  • A professional writer stated that I was teaching a “false dichotomy” and that I taught that we should “abandon daily short-form devotionals.” (I challenged him to point to where I taught such abandonment)
  • Another anonymous tweeter surmised, “Johnson purposely and regularly avoids the Word of God.”
  • Despite the above, the overwhelming public and private responses to the piece were positive.

Since I did not state my support for daily Scripture reading clearly enough in the piece, let me state what I believe about daily devotionals and the rituals of Scripture reading:

  • In addition to or aside from daily reading, I advocated deep dives into Scripture. Basically, if you’re not literate and not reading daily, I’d rather have you reading big chunks and going away for a few days and then returning. I had to do this when I became a Christian at 20 years old and read Scripture for the very first time. The daily reading plans that were advocated to me actually left me more confused. Additionally, much of the biblical texts were written in order to be heard in large swaths. It’s part of their design (see early church practices below).
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  • I do want MORE people to read MORE Scripture, MORE often than most do, and MORE carefully. This comes from my pastoral role, but also what I want professionally. From my syllabus: “This course teaches students to listen to what the Hebrew biblical authors actually said and to inspire a life-long pursuit of listening to the diverse literature of the Tanakh (i.e., Old Testament or Hebrew Bible).” My current projects focus on helping scholars, the church, and even non-Christians to read more Scripture.
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  • I was NOT referring to ALL daily devotional strategies. As I defined it in the original post, the kinds of daily devotionals that I’m suggesting we reassess are the ones that limit themselves to a small passage or even a verse per day and then attempt find some significance for the individual out of it. Hence, the lectionary, the daily office, and other like methods were not in the scope of my comments.
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  • I WAS referring mostly to folks who are NOT biblically literate, specifically my students. The post specifically speaks to my personal interactions with my students and what I prescribe in light of those relationships. It was not generic counsel to all, and that’s pretty clear in the post. In the original post I advocate two daily reading programs that I think are the best for these folks—Torah + Gospels/Acts daily reading and Psalms daily reading—until basic literacy can be achieved in order to move into the histories, prophets, and epistles.
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  • I was NOT referring to those who are biblically literate. As I distinguished in the original post, there are different reading rituals that I would prescribe for those who are biblical literate (i.e., those who understand how most of the parts of Scripture fit into the whole). For them, daily devotionals of brief passages can be fantastically rich.

I’ve had the God-given luxury to study and write about biblical rituals for years now. I’ve even written a monograph and a popular book on the biblical theology of rituals. Even then, through pushback on social media, I also learned a few things that were really good for me to be aware of:

  • Some people think ritualized daily Bible reading is essential to a proper Christian life. However, it wasn’t clear that people had derived this conviction from Scripture itself. No one has yet explained to me how the masses (majority?) of Christians and Hebrews throughout history—who did not have daily access to the Torah/Gospels—had rich, meaningful, or proper “Christian” lives. I even had a few people suggest that Psalm 1’s “flourishing man” was evidence for the practice of daily reading. However, I’m not sure that Psalm 1 is referring to any such thing. The average Israelite’s access to the Torah over most of the Iron Age might have come through weekly Torah readings (at the very most). Meditating on torah (i.e., instruction) day and night, from the logic of the Torah itself, seems to mean mulling over and practicing the justice, mercy, and stranger-love taught across variegated texts of the Old Testament.
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    After the close of the Hebrew Bible, some Jewish communities will take up the practice of memorizing Torah portions, but to attribute that memorization ritual to the normative life of Israel is at least anachronistic and extrapolating from the extremes at the most. In Scripture, Israel is commanded to memorize a song in Deuteronomy 32 and commanded to “remember” by doing the torah: singing, writing, slaying, reaping, building, adjudicating, etc. (Ryan O’Dowd’s Deuteronomy work is particularly brilliant on this front). Jesus invokes a similar sentiment in his “remember me” moment, not by reading, but by eating: “Do this in remembrance of me.” This to say, a rich life with God must have excluded daily Scripture reading for most Hebrews and Christians for much (most?) of history. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we should replicate their experience, but it certainly says something about how we should think about the reading rituals that we (the church) are innovating.
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  • Some people haven’t thought about what life was like for Christians before we all had the Bible as a book. The early church certainly did read the Scriptures when they gathered. Obvious examples from Acts 2 and Paul (cf. Col 4:6; 1 Thess 5:27; 1 Tim 4:6; etc.) indicate that when the church gathered (presumably weekly), they read Scripture together. Justin Martyr famously described the second-century church, “All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles (i.e., the Gospels) or the writings of the prophets are read as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things” (1 Apology 67). In other words, they heard it read togetherweekly, and in large chunks. Presumably, they went home for the week and Psalm-1-like meditated on that instruction of God that they heard day and night.
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  • Some folks think that daily Bible reading is clearly instructed in Scripture. Again, citing Psalm 1, they presumed that every Israelite household in the Levant and/or every gentile believer in Rome had a personal copy of the biblical texts to read each morning. Some even paired the biblical command of daily reading with quiet times in the morning. But, of course, ancient folks didn’t have personal copies and we don’t have evidence of memorization except in later periods. Within Scripture, no instruction to memorize existed, except Deut 32. [I will only note what is obvious from Mark’s telling of Jesus’ morning “devo”: Jesus came out of the village in the morning to pray, but the reason he states for his morning routine is instrumental, “Let us go on to the next towns . . . that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38–39).]
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  • Some folks haven’t considered a circumstance in which daily devotions could (potentially) be more harmful than helpful. I assume that they could have some view of the Word of God that allows for it to be read or recited almost Qu’ran-like for its blessing on the reader. Hopefully, that’s NOT what’s funding this seemingly fideistic trust in daily Bible reading (that’s a caricature of the worst version of it). Nevertheless, I encounter students every semester who have done daily devotionals for their entire life and then struggle to understand the most basic and repeated principles across the Torah or Gospels. It’s as if the individualistically-focused and isolated reading form of devotional—which not all of them are—crippled them from seeing glaringly obvious patterns in Scripture. This is not my assessment, but what students themselves report to me.
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  • I think daily devotional reading is an improvised ritual. That does not make it “unbiblical”. Weddings are improvised rituals (i.e., there are no instructions for weddings in Scripture), and we improvise them regardless. But notice that we make them covenant-esque ceremonies without making actual covenants (i.e., in the West, we don’t follow the ANE form of covenant making: no curses are sworn, for instance). We feel free to improvise, as with prayer, fasting, tithing, Sabbath-keeping, and other rites that aren’t given clear instruction in Scripture. I believe this improvisation is both unavoidable, but also means that the rituals we prescribe can be unsafe, disdained by God himself. See my chapter, “Practicing Safe Ritual Improvisation” in Human Rites if you want to hear more on this.

Things I learned about posting essays on Twitter:

  • It’s almost impossible to look past the language of the tweet to the language of the essay. In psychology, they call this “framing effects”. When I posted the blog link, I Tweeted “Where I shoot down (kinda’) daily devotional reading for most (not all) young adults.” To me, this seemed dead obvious that one should NOT read the post as “Where I ACTUALLY shoot down daily devotional reading for ALL young adults.” In my mind, that tweet was revealing some of what was in the blog post, but also parenthetically framing it—tipping people off that it’s not as bad as it sounds. Many people read it as if the parenthetical caveats didn’t exist. Perception is reality. Mea culpa. As far as I can tell, some folks also reacted solely to that Tweet and not much in the blog post. Vestra culpa. [Point of fact: I got zero negative reactions on Facebook where I framed the blog post differently: “Where I poo poo on daily Scripture reading devotionals for many (not all) young adults. I think there are better ways to read Scripture.”]
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  • In Twitter-land, the default reading tactic appears to be “always assuming mutually exclusive dichotomies.” I kind of knew this one, but had never felt the full brunt of it. I don’t think it’s a particularly helpful or charitable way to read someone, but it’s not necessarily immoral. Now that I’m woke to it, I would have written a response that clearly identified my inclusive and exclusive statements. In case it’s not now obvious, I most always think daily and deeper readings should be practiced together (but sometimes not, on the rare occasion and for a purpose).
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  • In Twitter land, if you say “sometimes”, people might read “all the time.” I said that I “sometime [sic] go for a week without reading Scripture.” At least three intelligent people read “sometime” as “regularly” or even “goes weeks without reading”, which means it was poor communication on my part. FYI—I was referring to when I might’ve gone a week apart from Scripture once or twice over the course of an entire year.
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  • When what was read becomes reality, what I said doesn’t matter. Honestly, I didn’t think anyone would read my responses on some blog that I hadn’t heard of. But, how people read the words tells me about the work I still need to do in communicating more effectively. For instance, what would you think of my view of daily devotions according to this:

I would much rather we grapple with understanding the whole story of Scripture primarily while wrestling with the parts secondarily. I’m sure some kind of daily devotional could do that, but . . . the daily devotional . . . still needs to be supplemented with deep gulps of texts.”

The ellipses here cut out what I wasn’t focused on saying throughout the piece, but it’s those little parts in the ellipses that caused some readers to stumble:

“I would much rather we grapple with understanding the whole story of Scripture primarily while wrestling with the parts secondarily. I’m sure some kind of daily devotional could do that, but it’s not what I’ve seen practiced. Even if you do the daily devotional, it still needs to be supplemented with deep gulps of texts.”

I was assuming that daily devotional readers should continue to and/or add to and/or shake up their habits for the sake of healthy relationship with Scripture.

[These two essays appeared separately on spoiledmilks.com]

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One comment

  1. Pingback: A Heated Debate over Daily Devotions | Dru Johnson | The Commons

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