Archives For Discernment


I recently finished reviewing this superb new book for our fall print magazine issue. 
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ACTS: Belief Commentary Series
A Theological Commentary on the Bible

Willie James Jennings

Hardback: WJK Books, 2017
Buy Now: [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
I’m excited to share the following excerpt from this book with you, which I take as one of Jennings’s central (and most timely) themes in this commentary. 

Reprinted from Acts: A Theological Commentary on the Bible
by Willie James Jennings.
Used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. All rights reserved.


Word of God against Word of God.
A Reflection on the Story of
Peter in the House of Cornelius
Acts 10-11

(Pages 118-121)


“You have heard that it was said, . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matt. 5). These often repeated words of Jesus set the stage for our interaction with the living God, whose words to us are living, because they are bound up with the source and giver of life itself. Acts 11 is a moment of reorientation where the Spirit is teaching us a crucial lesson that the church must constantly remember: God yet speaks and word of God always presses against word of God. What God has said in the past is pressed against by what God is saying now. Israel shows us that the human creature is always positioned between these two words and destined for yet more hearing from a God ever extended in grace toward us. This in-between position  has often been painful for us as we try to grasp clarity of thought and action on a walk of obedience to God on a well-lit path, albeit with multiple twists and turns. (Ps. 119:105) In this regard, the struggle of the church has been twofold: we struggle to hear the new word that God is constantly speaking, and we struggle to see the link between the new word and the word previously spoken.

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A Brief Review of Two Recent Books
on Guidance and Discernment.
Decision Making and Spiritual DiscernmentBy Nancy L. Bieber.
Paperback: Skylight Paths, 2010.  
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]


Discovering Our Spiritual Identity:
Practicing for God’s Beloved
Trevor Hudson.
Paperback: IVP Press, 2010. Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed By William Mills.

Every year the market is inundated with new books on Christian spirituality: prayer, fasting, meditation, lectio divina, vocation, spiritual direction, and healing. Every year it becomes increasingly more difficult to sift through the wheat from the chaff and quite frankly it can be overwhelming.  However, two recently published books are essential for serious readers seeking thoughtful reflective books on the various spiritual issues among Christians.

Discovering Our Spiritual Identity is not just an ordinary book on Christian faith but one which encourages the reader to stop, reflect, and then act. Trevor Hudson is a pastor in the Methodist Church in South Africa and is the author of numerous books, most recently Listening to the Groans. He also works closely with the Renovaré Spiritual Formation Institute and travels to the United States several times per year to lead retreats and small conferences.

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A Review of

Honeybee Democracy.
Thomas Seeley.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon

Reviewed by Mary Bowling.

There’s something about honeybees that captures – and holds onto – the interest of people who come into contact with them.  It’s the same for almost all beekeepers, and it has been for ages.  People who work with bees love them, are intrigued, captivated, and mesmerized by them, Thomas D. Seeley – the author of this book – notwithstanding.  So what is that something that causes people to fall for them and not just for their honey?  They are a superorganism, a collection of thousands of tiny, cold-blooded insects that together function something akin to a warm-blooded animal.  Bees don’t maintain their own body temperature, but a hive does. Bees don’t live more than a season, but a hive does.  Most bees don’t reproduce, but a hive does.  Bees don’t analyze information and make decisions based on that information, but a hive does.

Honeybee Democracy represents years of research on the part of Seeley and collaborators into the habits of a swarm of bees as it chooses a new home.  The book details various experiments performed by Seeley in order to test his and some of his predecessors’ hypotheses about several aspects of the behavior of a swarm as it looks for a suitable place to live.  Each chapter contains charts, graphs and diagrams representing data collected during his many experiments with the swarms.  The experiments, when taken in total, provide evidence that a swarm functions in much the same way as a primate brain; gathering information from an array of sources, deciding which option is the best, and acting upon that decision as a unit.

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A Brief Review of
The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision-Making
by Elizabeth Liebert. 

by Laretta Benjamin.

Beginning with what I consider to be a good definition of discernment (the process of sifting out what is of God; discriminating between that which expresses God’s call to us and anything that runs counter to it), the author of this book takes us on a rather intricate journey leading us step-by-step toward an understanding of discernment. The writing is one of the most detailed I have seen and read on the practice of discernment (but in reality I’m not sure that’s saying much!) The thoughts she expresses in the first part of Chapter 1, “Discernment, What is It,”  are great.  She seems to hit the mark here. Her ideas are scriptural and to the best of my understanding, reflect the course of Christian history and tradition.  She explains well that discernment is a way of life, not a one-time event.  Discernment is a habit that leads us to live differently. She lays out before us pictures from both the Old and New Testaments.  Throughout the following chapters of her book, Ms. Liebert very thoughtfully examines such things as our memories, our imagination, our intuition, our personal desires and the ways those areas of our lives can be both a help and a hindrance to discernment.

At the very outset, the author makes the indispensable point that discernment should be set within the context of a community of faith.  “This community carries our faith when we are weak, preserves the long tradition of listening for God, provides a collective interpretation of the Scriptures, and calls us to actions that are good for us and the larger community of living things.  Cut off from its communitarian roots, the power and veracity of Christian discernment can easily stray into viewing our own idiosyncratic interpretations—and even downright evil—as God’s call” (p. 10).  She brings us back to that point again in several different ways throughout the remainder of the book.  She also sets before us the idea that true discernment must be made in the light of God’s creative purposes and with the big picture of God’s work in the world.  Thank you Elizabeth Liebert!   History is full of crazy and harmful things have been done in the name of Christ because of someone’s very individual and personal “discernment”.

However, even with those things said and those points made, I still finished the book with the same very western, individualistic perspective from which many of us are struggling to break free.  That very popular question of contemporary Christianity, “How can I be all God created me to be?”, seemed to keep creeping to the surface of this book.

Discerning together as the people of God, as the body of Christ, as the Church in this world, called to a distinctive purpose, to lay down our lives for the sake of the world, is not something we here in this western culture do well, mostly because – even in the “Christian world” – our minds and hearts are set on being the best I can be. How would discernment be different if we truly saw ourselves as those who have “denied ourselves, taken up our cross and followed Jesus” and now are part of a new creation, a new kingdom, a kingdom present here and now but yet still to come?  How would making decisions be different if I truly believed I was part of the body of Christ on this earth so it wasn’t really about me anymore?  Ms. Liebert gives us some good foundational thoughts and tools to work with in learning to discern but I struggled with the paths she forged with those tools.  This book was not hard reading although in many ways it seemed a little more “technical” than I expected.   Particular “exercises” were given that might be helpful for some in beginning to grasp the idea of discernment.  Ms. Liebert has given much thought to her work on discernment.  The book was well-written, but in the end its vision of discernment, in my opinion, was not radical enough.


The Way of Discernment:
Spiritual Practices for Decision-Making

Elizabeth Liebert.

Paperback: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Buy now:  [ Doulos Christou Books $16 ]  [ Amazon ]


“Rooted in Economic Discernment?”

A Review of
Being Consumed:
Economics and Christian Desire.

by William Cavanaugh.


By Chris Smith.

Being Consumed:
Economics and Christian Desire.

William Cavanaugh.

Paperback. Eerdmans, 2008.
Buy now from: [ ]

When William Cavanaugh’s little book Being Consumed: Economics and Christian Desire was published earlier this year, no one could have guessed how relevant it would become with the recent economic turmoil.  This little book of four essays is a tool for helping us reflect in our churches on why we got into this economic mess.  The book’s essays are structured around the contrast between pairs of key ideas related to contemporary capitalist economics: “Freedom and Unfreedom,” “Detachment and Attachment,” “The Global and the Local” and “Scarcity and Abundance.” 

                In the first essay “Freedom and Unfreedom,” Cavanaugh uses Augustine’s concept of freedom as the basis for a Christian critique of the modern capitalist notion of “free markets.”  The thrust of his critique lies in the distinction that the capitalist concept of freedom is a “freedom from” that has no clear end, whereas Augustine views freedom as a “freedom for” which has a specific end in mind (i.e., reconciliation with God).  Cavanaugh also emphasizes that in contrast to the stark individualistic autonomy of capitalism, the Augustinian view of freedom maintains that others are “crucial to one’s freedom” (9).  Our desires, he observes, do not merely bubble up from within us, but rather our desires are formed in a social crucible, being shaped both from within and without (i.e., from our relationships with others).  Finally, Cavanaugh highlights Augustine’s notion that everything that exists is good, but only to the extent that they participate in the telos of creation – reconciliation with God.  Thus, when we desire things for their own sake, they become nothing to us.  Cavanaugh sagely observes that this provides a striking explanation for the addictiveness of consumer behavior:

A person buys something – anything – trying to fill the hole that is the empty shrine. And once the shopper purchases the thing, it turns into a nothing, and she has to head back to the mall to continue the search.  With no objective ends to guide the search, her search is literally endless(15).

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