FEATURED: FASTING by Scot McKnight [Vol. 2, #6]

February 7, 2009


“Embodying Our Grief

A Review of
Scot McKnight.


By Chris Smith.


Fasting (Ancient Practices Series).
Scot McKnight.
Hardcover: Thomas Nelson, 2009.

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Just in time for the season of Lent, which starts on Ash Wednesday (this year February 25), Thomas Nelson has just released the newest book in its “Ancient Practices” series: Fasting by Scot McKnight.  This volume offers both a deeply rooted theological case for fasting and a firm caution against the dangers that fasting poses to one’s health, if done excessively or without an understanding of how the human body works.

            Here at Englewood Christian Church, the only practice we have of fasting is to fast during the day on Good Friday, a fast which we promptly defame with our gigantic potluck dinner that follows our evening prayer service.  I’ve tried fasting on my own a few times, particularly on retreats, but to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, fasting is a practice that I’ve found difficult and therefore one that I’ve pretty much left untried.  I recognize the biblical and historical significance of fasting, but have never really been part of a church community that valued fasting as a significant practice.

            It seems to me that at least part of our hesitancy toward fasting here at Englewood is the ways that we’ve seen fasting being done in theologically appalling ways.  At the book’s outset, McKnight names one such erroneous and detrimental way that fasting is practiced, to which he will frequently return over the course of the book: viz., fasting in order to produce results.  Such a practice of fasting, which McKnight calls an instrumental view of fasting, is not a healthy spiritual discipline, but rather a “manipulative device.”  McKnight argues instead that fasting is a responsive practice, saying that fasting is a body’s natural response to grief.   He does not deny that sometimes results do come from fasting, but he is adamant that for the people of God, the why of fasting should be a response to grief and not a means to an end – however good that end might seem.  McKnight is also careful to point out that avoiding chocolate, coffee, television or some other enjoyable habit for Lent can be helpful as a sort of abstinence, but should not be called fasting.


            Throughout this book, McKnight’s approach to fasting is to examine it as a historical practice of the Church, and even more as a practice of the people of God that began in the Israelite people before the time of Christ’s earthly ministry.  One of the things that I deeply appreciate about McKnight’s historical approach here is that he makes a seamless transition between the history of Israel and church history.  In the first chapter, McKnight notes that fasting is a bodily practice and that many of our problems with fasting – both in not doing it and how it is done when we practice it – stem from our misconceptions of the body.  Although in Western culture, we are inclined toward a dualism that severs the body and soul (or spirit). McKnight argues convincingly that we are biblically to understand the person as an “organic unity.”  He goes on to elaborate some destructive ways that we come to view our bodies as a result of making a sharp body/soul distinction: “a monster to be conquered,” “a celebrity to be glorified,” etc.  He concludes this chapter by concisely stating his understanding of fasting:

[A] unified perception of body, soul, spirit, and mind creates a spirituality that includes the body.  For this kind of body image, fasting is natural.  Fasting is the body talking what the spirit yearns, what the soul longs for, and what the mind knows to be true.  It is body talk – not the body simply talking for the spirit, for the mind or for the soul in some symbolic way, but for the person, the whole person, to express himself or herself completely (11).


The bulk of this book is spent on examining the variety of contexts in which fasting has been practiced throughout Scripture and church history.  The first such context is that of “body talk,” and here McKnight emphasizes again that fasting should be a response to a “grievous sacred moment,” a way of communicating (or “talking”) our grief through our whole person.  The next context is that of “body turning,” which McKnight notes is the most common form of fasting in the scriptures (24).  Fasting in this context is a practice of repentance, individual and corporate.  He notes here practices of fasting during Lent, during times when God seems absent, at times when we realize our complicity, and at the time of conversion and baptism.  Two more contexts in which fasting occurs are those of “body plea,” when fasting accompanies our prayers, and “body grief.”  Fasting has also been practiced throughout the history of God’s people as a regular (often weekly) practice of “body discipline.”  Such routine, stationary fasts come in response to grief that is rooted in “consciousness of sin, consciousness of weakness, the need for God’s empowering grace, the desire to cut back in life in order to find our center, and a yearning to grow morally in love and holiness” (64).  He is quick to emphasize however that excessive body discipline can become “body battle,” which is rooted in the “monster to be conquered” variety of dualism and is very unhealthy.  Another context of the church’s fasting is to remember seasons of the Christian year, particularly Lent and the Holy Week leading up to Easter.  Perhaps the most striking context in which McKnight examines the practice of fasting – particularly for churches in urban places like Englewood – is that of “body poverty”: i.e., as a response of grief to the injustices that occur around us.  McKnight points out that fasting in this context should often be accompanied by the twin practices of generosity (given what we would have eaten in food to those who need it) and solidarity.  The final two contexts in which McKnight examines fasting are as a form of worship or “body contact” – which comes as a grievous response to the realization of “the superficiality of [our] intimacy with God” (113) – and fasting as “body hope,” a response to the deep longing for the full realization of God’s kingdom.

            The second part of this book is much shorter than the first and in it, McKnight looks at the problems with the ways in which we practice fasting (e.g., manipulation, cheating, legalism, hypocrisy, etc.) and the benefits of fasting (a very brief chapter with strong emphasis on the fact that we should not fast in order to receive these benefits).  The book concludes with a chapter on the effects of fasting on one’s body.  I have read a few other books on fasting in the life of the church, and I’ve never seen another chapter like this one that pleads with the reader to understand how fasting works physiologically and to practice fasting with extreme caution.  Indeed, this chapter is a refreshing one because it reminds us that God created us as beings with an organic unity of body, mind, soul and spirit and that one way of understanding the shalom that God intends is in terms of health in the most holistic sense.  With God’s shalom in mind, McKnight firmly warns us that fasting, if not done properly, can cause great damage to ourselves – and thus indirectly to others with whom we are in relationships – and possibly even death.

            Fasting is a rich book that seeks to understand the practice of fasting in the contexts of Christian theology and of the history of God’s people.  I hope and pray that Englewood and other churches will read this book – perhaps during the season of Lent – and consider how fasting can be a part of their community’s life together.  Ultimately, fasting is primarily a practice of the church, and when I or anyone else undertake fasting as an individual practice, we are at a much greater risk of falling into one of the unhealthy patterns of fasting that McKnight names here.