Scot McKnight’s volume on fasting is part of the eight book series edited by Phyllis Tickle, The Ancient Practices. I have reviewed a number of these volumes (Tithing, Sacred Meal, and Sacred Journey) and, overall, found the series very grounded, balanced, and insightful. While the previous copies I have received were bound in hardcover, this copy is paperback, and it appears each volume is being released in paperback (meaning some bargain prices on the earlier editions are available on Amazon).
McKnight approaches fasting through the dual lenses of scripture and historical tradition, drawing on a wide range of sources (Old and New Testament, early Christian writings including the Shepherd of Hermas and the Didache, and the writings of a number of church fathers and reformers). Central to the book’s understanding of the disciple is that fasting (contra the typical modern approach) is a response to what God has done – what McKnight calls a sacred moment – rather than a ritual intended to bring about a desired consequence; this working definition is offered: “fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” (xviii).
There were two contributions that I found particularly insightful and/or unique in this book. The first, mentioned above, is that fasting is primarily a response, not an action intended to achieve a result. The second is the manner in which fasting is connected to both the corporeal and the spiritual. Obviously, fasting is a physical discipline, but McKnight rightly recognizes the tendency in Christianity (and, perhaps, particularly so in evangelicalism) to neglect the body and/or to favor the spirit. This is true in our eschatology, our ethics, and often in our Christology. McKnight, in the face of this tendency, argues for a unity between the body and spirit, leading to an understanding of fasting that involves and affects both body and spirit in a unified manner.
All in all, this is a helpful book, covering the basic questions many would have about fasting – the history, the precedent, the reasoning, and some practical suggestions. Coming from a non-liturgical tradition, I especially appreciated the chapter on “Fasting as Body Calendar,” discussing regular, stationary fasts intended to draw oneself toward a rhythm of discipline and worship. For someone looking for a general exploration of the spiritual disciplines, you may want to start with a more general resource (Foster’s Celebration of Discipline or McLaren’s Finding Our Way Again [the opening volume in this series, which I have yet to read]), but for anyone looking specifically to better understand the practice of fasting, this is a great place to start.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher.