A Review of
The Ninefold Path of Jesus: Hidden Wisdom of the Beatitudes
Reviewed by John Fortner
Mark Scandrette begins this book with an encounter he had with a Zen Buddhist monk named Shinko. In the course of them getting to know each other, Mark lands on a question to help him better understand his new friend: “When you wake up each day, what do you seek to do and to be?” (2). It’s a good question and his friend offers a clear answer: Buddhism is a religion of practice formed around the four noble truths and the eightfold path. His friend didn’t need to think hard about this, because he woke up each morning with clarity about the habits and practices that would shape and form him as a Zen Buddhist. It was a really good question and it did its work of helping Scandrette to gain clarity about his friend’s religious practice.
But here is where the narrative gets interesting: Mark’s friend returns the favor and asks the same question of him. As a follower of Jesus, Shinko asked, “When you wake up each morning, what do you seek to do and to be?” Scandrette fumbled around a bit in his response, finally landing on the two-fold command in Scripture to love God and love neighbor. But he was haunted by the imprecision of his answer: what specifically did he do each day to put practices around this intention? What habits would shape him each day into the kind of Christ follower who indeed loved God with his whole heart and loved his neighbor as himself?
The question gets deep inside of Scandrette, the way that great questions can, challenging and reorienting his understanding of his own faith. I was reminded here of a scene from Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow, in which the main character, who is in training to be a pastor, becomes so haunted by questions about Scripture and prayer that he begins to doubt the very nature of his calling to the ministry. When Jayber takes these questions to a professor he knows will tell him the truth– even if it is something he doesn’t want to hear– he receives this response to his tortured questioning: “You have been given questions to which you cannot be given answers. You will have to live them out–perhaps a little at a time.” Scandrette had stumbled onto just that sort of question and his book, The Ninefold Path of Jesus, emerges as a field guide from his work of living into an answer.
Central to that lived-out answer is his discovery of Jesus’ Beatitudes (Matthew 5:3-12) as a “curriculum for Christ-likeness” (in the words of Mark’s teacher, Dallas Willard) that can direct us each day in what to do and to be as a Christ-follower. Scandrette’s compact book does not offer a standard Bible study or commentary on Jesus’ teaching, but rather offers an invitation to join him in living out the Beatitudes as nine, embodied practices that will shape and form us as disciples of Christ. I found it helpful that he provided actual physical positions or stances, creatively illustrated throughout the book, capturing the postures of both our “first instinct” and the “new posture” that each of the nine beatitudes/paths teach us. (You can view them at https://ninefoldpath.org/) These postures can themselves become embodied forms of prayer, etching each of these paths ever deeper into the map of our daily journey with Christ.
A good example of this is the fifth posture, the way of compassion, where we begin with the posture of a downward glance of judgment with our eyes peeking through fingers pinched together, figuratively crushing the heads of those we find contemptible (71). Yet the way of compassion, the call to express the mercy we have been shown (“blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy”), gives us a new posture where we form with our hands a heart around our eyes looking out at the world through lenses of compassion. In seminars he offers, Scandrette has participants sit across from each other looking intently at one another through the hearts they have formed with their hands. What would it take to own our belovedness as we embrace the belovedness of the one we see before us?
As in each of these ways/paths/postures, Scandrette offers helpful practices to attend to the posture. He suggests here a practice of quiet prayer for those we pass by each day, looking into their faces and whispering “Child of God, may you be well.” He calls us to a seven day covenant of positive speech in which we commit to only speaking compassionate words of affirmation about ourselves and those around us, detoxing from the angry speech amplified by the social media platforms of our world. With each of these postures and suggested practices, Scandrette’s goal is to move us beyond the paradigm of right thinking equals right discipleship into a kinesthetic embodiment of these nine paths to form wholehearted disciples fully participating in God’s in-breaking kingdom.
This practical, field-guide approach does elide some questions I would have liked to be addressed in this study of the Beatitudes. Why does Scandrette choose to freely amend some of the language of the Beatitudes, changing “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness….” to “Blessed are those who hunger for [justice]…”? And, similarly, why change “Blessed are those who have been persecuted…” to “Blessed are those who are [mistreated for doing good]…”? I can imagine some exegetical arguments for making these changes, but what was Scandrette’s reasoning? I also was puzzled at times by his tendency to focus solely on the blessing as a path or posture of discipleship, while overlooking the literary structure of the Beatitudes that contain both a blessing and a reward. How might, for instance, the blessing for peacemakers be enriched by considering the reward of being called “sons and daughters of God”? Might the underlying, implied theology of reconciliation, where we are reconciled sons and daughters of the King, help us to better understand our call to be reconciled reconcilers?
Yet an even more foundational issue that I wrestled with is the irony of Scandrette mentioning that Dallas Willard was a mentor in seeing the Sermon on the Mount, and more particularly the Beatitudes, as a “curriculum for Christlikeness.” Willard famously stated in The Divine Conspiracy that the Beatitudes illustrated the availability of the kingdom to “spiritual zeros,” so that to be “poor in Spirit” means you are literally spiritually impoverished with no rationale for your inclusion into the kingdom of heaven. To be “pure in heart” is to be a persnickety perfectionist prone to judge everyone around you who is still invited into the kingdom. He argued in The Divine Conspiracy that, “The Beatitudes simply cannot be ‘good news’ if they are understood as a set of ‘how to’s’ for achieving blessedness.” Yet Scandrette, in contrast to Willard, invites us to see them, not perhaps as “how to’s,” but certainly as blessed postures for embodying the ethics of the kingdom in our everyday lives. Willard’ exegesis has been fairly critiqued as overstressing the negative definition of these terms–after all, how do you find something negative in someone who is merciful or acting as a peacemaker? But because Willard’s interpretation has been so influential, it would have helped for Scandrette to give some account for his different way of reading the Beatitudes.
Still, in reading Scandrette’s provocative, little guide, I also learned to love, as Mark did, Shinko’s challenging, clarifying question. In embracing some of the helpful practices Scandrette commends, I hope that in the backward glance of living into his question I might find the same resolution that Mark himself did: “I am grateful to have spent the past five years immersed in the hidden wisdom of the Beatitudes. I don’t feel like I am anywhere close to mastering the life they point us toward. But I do feel like I now have a better answer to the question Shinko asked me, `When you wake up each morning, what do you seek to do and be'” (11)?
John Fortner is a writer, editor, course designer, and adjunct instructor in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, where he lives with his wife and four daughters. He loves teaching Scripture and theology in service to the church, having served for over 15 years in parish ministry.