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An Experiment in Formation

A bonus track from A Habit Called Faith by Jen Pollock Michel

Published on:
February 11, 2021
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4 min.
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American-born novelist Henry James understood that writers were obliged to draw a circle around their work, deciding what would be included on the inside of the circle and what would be left out. They would need to respect the circle and the boundaries it represented in order to protect the integrity of the work.

I want to draw my circle early, both for myself and for my readers.

There are wonderful books that attempt answers to complicated faith questions, books that I’ve read and admired, but A Habit Called Faith is not one of them. I think of Tim Keller’s bestselling The Reason for God and its confrontation of questions like, “How could a good God allow suffering?” or “How can a loving God send people to hell?” For people with deeply held intellectual reservations about Christianity, it may be best to start with books by someone like Keller, who pastored decades in skeptical Manhattan. I am not indifferent to these kinds of questions, nor to their answers; it’s simply that there’s not enough room for them in my circle.

Instead, my interest is taken with the biblical texts themselves, and I’ve drawn my circle around two important books of the Bible: one from the Old Testament (Deuteronomy) and one from the New (the Gospel of John). These selections may seem to some a haphazard choice, but I promise they were not the result of Bible roulette.

For one, to read both the Old and New Testaments is to acknowledge their story of continuity. Unfortunately, it has grown popular in some churches to feel a bit chagrined by the Old Testament, as if it were the hillbilly cousin of the New. But this is to miss the biblical point entirely. The best way to read the scripture is as a unified, purposeful whole. As one scholar has written, “The New Testament authors present their accounts as the completion of the story begun in the Old Testament, and the Old Testament itself creates the expectations realized in the New Testament.”[1]

As an example, when John compiles his biography of Jesus, he no doubt has Moses in mind. (And when the compilers of Deuteronomy finish their work, leaving Moses outside of the Promised Land, they’re surely anticipating the better Moses to come: Jesus.) Reading scripture as a whole requires us to work at noticing the thematic resonances between the books and the comparisons of their central figures—for instance, paying attention to the book called “Words,” the most common Hebrew title for the Book of Deuteronomy, and the enfleshed “Word,” which is the title attributed to Jesus by John in his prologue.

The goal of such attention is not to accumulate a heady knowledge of each book, but to examine the nature of faith. Because the book of Deuteronomy highlights five verbs—see, live, love, obey, know—it’s important to note these activities of faith.

A Habit Called Faith is a forty-day experiment of faith formation, recognizing, on one hand, the sacred number that forty represents in the Bible. When Moses first received the two stone tablets of God’s commandments, he was on the mountain for forty days, speaking to God face-to-face. No sooner had he descended the mountain when he found the Israelites cavorting around a golden calf, dancing a jig of worship. Moses ascended the mountain a second time, disappearing in the cloud of God’s company for another forty days.

Once the nation of Israel, led by Moses, finally made their way to the Promised Land, they chose twelve spies to scout the land for forty days. After they returned with a fear-filled report, God sent them back out into the wilderness where they wandered one fateful year for every faithless day. Hundreds of years later, after Jesus’s baptism inaugurated his public ministry, the gospel writers tell us that he was led immediately into the wilderness, fasting forty days and fighting the forces of evil bent on discrediting him. For all of these reasons, forty seems just the right number for the purpose of formation.

We can be formed, for good and for ill, in as short a period as forty days. Of course, taking up the habit of scripture reading will require laying other habits down. Modern life, as we all know it, is time-pressed and full. Still, it is also safe to say that we choose busy as often as it chooses us. Maybe, in order to make room for scripture reading, we abandon social media for a period of forty days. Maybe we give up Netflix. Maybe we set our alarm thirty minutes earlier to create a quiet, blank space in crowded days.

Looking back on more than twenty-five years as a Christian, I see the slow, incremental nature of faith, how its bricks are laid, one by one.

Importantly, the discipline is best sustained when we complete it together. An experiment like this is meant to be a collective one, where we puzzle together over the texts, bringing to them the full force of our doubts and longings, our hesitations and hopes.

Perhaps you find yourself wishing for an easier, less strenuous method of faith formation than forty days of reading and reflection. I do too. Every technological advance that reduces our burden of moving through the physical world leaves us with the illusion that exertion is our enemy. Still, looking back on more than twenty-five years as a Christian, I see the slow, incremental nature of faith, how its bricks are laid, one by one. The labor can be dispiritingly tedious. Nevertheless, Jesus said the strongest houses are built by hearing the words of God. 

And this is the great promise: in days of storm, that house stands.

Jen Pollock Michel
Jen Pollock Michel is the award-winning author of Teach Us to Want, Keeping Place, and Surprised by Paradox. Her fourth book, A Habit Called Faith, releases in February 2021. She is the lead editor for Imprint magazine, published by The Grace Centre for the Arts, and host of the Englewood Review of Books podcast. You can follow Jen on Twitter @jenpmichel and also subscribe to her monthly letter at jenpollockmichel.com.

[1] James M. Hamilton, Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, p. 65

[2] Cover image by Annie Spratt.

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