Conversation on a “disturbing” spiritual practice with Scot McKnight

That’s how Phyllis Tickle, the General Editor of the Ancient Practices Series, introduces Scot McKnight’s startling new book on “Fasting.” If it’s done right, she says, the experience can be downright “disturbing.”
Those are surprising words when talking about a subject we all think we understand: Fasting? It’s giving up food, right?
Or, maybe it’s giving up things in general, right?
Billions of people around the world do it—certainly Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, Christians and followers of many other faiths. We do it, because … Well, because it’s a tradition, right? A requirement of the faith. And because, it somehow … somehow … connects us with larger spiritual truths, doesn’t it?
Well, yes it does, writes Scot McKnight, the Karl A Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago and the popular author of more than 20 books. But—the spiritual truth of fasting is a whole lot larger than most of us suspect.


DAVID: I think this is the first book I’ve ever read, among thousands of books on religion I’ve explored in the past 30 years, that is focused entirely on fasting. When I opened the cover, I thought I knew what fasting meant, but I want to credit you with teaching me a few important things about this worldwide practice.
First of all, we’ve gotten pretty vague in our casual use of the term, fasting, haven’t we?
SCOT: In the contemporary world, particularly the Christian world, fasting has become equivalent to giving up anything by choice. Some people even refer to dieting as fasting—so the word “fasting” has become really broad and it basically means for most Christians: abstinence.
DAVID: Help us sort out the two words.
SCOT: When the Bible refers to fasting it’s our choice not to eat any kind of food for a designated period and it might also include not drinking any water or liquids for that same period of time, normally 12 to 24 hours. On the other hand, abstinence is giving up some specific items, perhaps, while you’re continuing to eat and drink other things. So, when someone tells me they’re “fasting from meat,” I tell them that’s not really fasting. It’s abstinence. When someone tells me they’re fasting from Facebook—that’s abstinence, at most. Giving up Facebook certainly isn’t fasting.
The Muslim tradition at Ramadan is much closer to what the Bible meant in fasting.
DAVID: Or the fast of Yom Kippur—an entire day and night of fasting from all food and drink.
SCOT: The meaning of fasting has been expanded in our popular culture until it is much easier to perform. The act of not eating and drinking for 12 to 24 hours is very demanding. It’s much easier to give up something small.
DAVID: One reason the more traditional forms of fasting are tough—and one reason Phyllis Tickle calls your book a challenge to truly courageous readers—is that fasting involves throwing your whole body into this spiritual response. You point this out over and over again in your book. Fasting is whole-body spirituality. It’s disturbing, Phyllis points out, not only because of the physical demands—but also because it’s admitting that we’re not merely a spirit hooked to a physical form. It can be disturbing to admit that we are whole beings—mind, body, spirit hooked together as a whole.
The opening line of your book is: “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural, response to life’s sacred moments.”
SCOT: Right. The act of fasting is a very physical thing. It’s almost hyper-physical to deny yourself what your body needs in order to survive and sustain itself.
It’s a whole-body response to a grievous sacred moment.
DAVID: You’re using important words there. Your book argues eloquently that people shouldn’t look at fasting as a way to get a convenient spiritual buzz. Fasting traditionally wasn’t practiced as a sort of boot-camp exercise people could haul out to bulk up on their prayer life.
Your book argues that fasting is a response to the sacred—and in its most classical form it’s a response of grief—grief for our failings or compassionate grief over the needs of the world.
Basically, you argue that fasting isn’t about “us” as much as it’s about our fundamentally reconnecting with the far broader needs of God’s world.
SCOT: The standard way we hear Christians talking about fasting these days—especially Christians who have gotten into the spiritual-disciplines movement—is to talk about fasting as if it’s prayer on steroids. We hear preachers trying to motivate people to fast by describing it as a kind of hyped-up way to pray when we really, really, really mean business!
Some people even suggest that, if you fast, you’re more likely to have your prayer requests taken up by God. There are a number of public statements made by Christian leaders who’ve said that they believe the church is in a weak condition today because people aren’t fasting anymore.
I call this the instrumental theory of fasting. We start trying to use fasting in the way we use an instrument to accomplish a goal. It’s like getting in a car so that we get to the corner more quickly. It’s something we can use to get what we want.
My contention from reading the Bible is that—if this idea makes sense at all—it’s a minor aspect of fasting. And it may not even exist at all as a real spiritual principle. The biblical approach to fasting is that it’s a whole-body response to something—rather than an act we take to get something in return. When someone dies, we fast because we are entering into the grievousness of the moment. When Israel is about to be attacked by some foreign country—fasting is a response out of the fear of what’s about to happen. Or when something tragic happens to the country, people fast in response.
Yes, they pray. But the emphasis in the Bible is that they fast in response to just how awful the situation is.
DAVID: You point to examples from the life of King David and the writings in Isaiah.
For example, you point out that in the 58th chapter of Isaiah, we find a fairly acidic rebuke of people who fast out of self-righteousness or self-absorption.
The passage includes these words:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of injustice,
    to undo the thongs of the yoke,
    to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?

You conclude, “These words must remain at the center of all teaching about fasting. Every generation needs an Isaiah to stand up in the middle of the action and say, ‘Hey, folks, this isn’t about us! What we give up when we fast should be given to others.’ ”
SCOT: It’s a typical teaching today for Christians to fast and then save the money from what they don’t eat. Instead of eating a normal meal, they may eat oatmeal and save the money to give to the poor. I think that’s very good. It’s an act of charity, alms giving, generosity.
The primary idea of connecting fasting and the poor is there in Isaiah 58. But it’s more metaphorical in Isaiah than just saying you should fast to do something good for others. Isaiah is saying something more than that. He’s saying that God will ignore your fasting if you are treating other people unjustly. Isaiah does say that a true and genuine fast is to feed the poor and help orphans. But this goes back to seeing fasting as a whole-body response to a grievous situation. The genuine fast is to enter into the poverty of other people by not eating. The deeper emphasis here is not on doing this in order to give money—but on making a whole-body response.
That to me is what fasting is about. In the connection between fasting and the poor, you’re really fasting because, before God, you’re becoming the kind of people who help the poor rather than build a bigger house for yourself or buy more expensive meals for yourself. We are moving into a different moral world.
DAVID: You point out that one of my own spiritual heroes, John Wesley, fasted twice each week and expected that fasting would remain an important, weekly part of Methodism. Unfortunately, it isn’t anymore in most branches of Methodism. But I think Wesley embodied exactly what you’re talking about here: Fasting not as a way to become more personally holy—but as a natural response to the injustices in the world.
I love this passage in your book: Wesley “cut the Methodists of his day no slack because fasting was for Wesley symbolic of spirituality itself: ‘Since, according to this, the man that never fasts is no more in the way to heaven than the man that never prays.’ ”
SCOT: Wesley was one of the most balanced leaders in the history of the church when it came to the necessity of personal conversion and evangelism along with a powerful commitment to social justice and help for the poor. He was one of the few in the history of the church who was both an evangelist and was really committed to social justice—very admirable.
DAVID: Yet, we’ve fallen so far away from such calls to truly demanding spiritual living. How did we drift so far away in many branches of Christianity from true fasting?
SCOT: I believe that fasting has fallen away not because we’re not reading the Bible but because we’ve become so disembodied in our spirituality that when we see these scenes of David or Paul or Moses or Daniel fasting, our response is along the lines of: Hey, that’s really cool! That’s the way they did things in those days!
I’m saying that we should try to enter into their experiences. We should fast. But we’re so disembodied in our spirituality now. We’re not careless in reading the Bible. We just don’t see what it’s really saying.
But if we look—it’s right there.


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