Tell us a little bit about Recapturing the Wonder and why you chose to write a book focused on disciplines for the Christian life.
The disciplines became really important for me in a season of my life when faith ran dry. They were a lifeline. It was the first time I discovered the disciplines as a way of meeting with God, rather than a task meant to appease him. Reframing that reference to them was a game-changer for me in all kinds of ways, and I wanted to share that experience.
The book itself is about how a disenchanted world has primed us for unbelief and primed us to miss out on the rich experiences that the Christian life offers. It explores disenchantment and offers a variety of pathways whereby we might unmask and disarm it.
In what ways do you see an absence of wonder among American evangelicals? How is the body of Christ weakened by such a lack of wonder?
Some of it is subtle. One example might be a lack of emphasis on prayer—it reveals the hard truth that we don’t always think God will show up. On a more grand scale, we see it in the addiction to hype, noise, and distraction. Wonder invites a stillness and silence that also awakens things in us that make us deeply uncomfortable, like fear and anxiety. So we avoid it, and it hurts our witness. A church without wonder, without an overarching sense of transcendence, has little to offer the world around it.
What would you consider some of the primary roots of our disenchantment today?
It’s a broad historical phenomenon. Modernism really caused it by stripping mystery out of the world. And it’s not that modernism is all bad—thank God for antibiotics and air conditioning. But it gave us the illusion that there’s an explanation for everything, that we can understand and know everything, and this crowds out the kinds of mysterious categories that spiritual life demands. We’re so immersed in a world without mystery that we imbibe it without really noticing that it’s taken us over.
How have you experienced the kind of disenchantment you write about in the book?
I think it’s best seen in our “gut reactions” to things. Are we quick to assign rational explanations for everything, or do we have a sense that we live in a world where there are deeper spiritual realities at work, where God is present and active? If we’re not inclined to the latter, why? How did we get that way?
For myself, there were a series of events that made me notice those gut reactions, times when I should have been caught up by wonder, or been open to the possibility that more was going on than could be explained. I began to wonder why that was, and how I might be able to change it.
You advocate for a number of ancient disciplines practiced throughout the history of the church as ways of recapturing wonder. Yet, many bristle at the idea of “disciplines,” seeing them as the murder weapon of choice in legalism’s killing of enchantment. How do you distinguish the practices you advocate from charges of legalism? How should we reframe our understanding of spiritual disciplines?
They certainly can be legalistic, and people certainly use them as a weapon. Some people may need to take a break from most of them in order to get the space to enjoy them. Ultimately, though, they should be part of every Christian’s life. There’s a reason these practices have lasted throughout the history of the church. They work. They are transformative when we see them as meeting spaces for God and his presence. A phrase I use in the book is this: Spiritual disciplines are invitations, not obligations, ways of being with God, not appeasing him.
What do you consider the most common misunderstandings in Western culture about the idea of “discipline”? What about in the church?
There’s this ex-Navy Seal named Jocko Willink who has the best definition of discipline. He says, “Discipline equals freedom.” I think that’s the truth. Practicing anything gives you the freedom to enjoy it. Playing the piano isn’t fun when you start, but with practice comes the freedom to think in music, to delight in it. The same goes for our spiritual life. Discipline with scripture, prayer, fasting, and silence trains our bodies and minds to enter into them wholly, and with time, we’ll find a freedom in them that is life giving, and that spills over from our devotional practices into all of life.
What role can the local church play in helping believers recapture wonder?
They can stop offering cheap substitutes like spectacle and hype. They can slow down. They can teach people to pray. They can model and invite people into soulful living. This will take a radical reformation of most pastor’s lifestyles, though, and is an uphill battle.
What was the most surprising way the process of writing Recapturing the Wonder influenced your life or how you see the world?
I wrote the book in about a two-year window. It took a ton of effort to hone down what I was trying to say, and to inhabit these practices in a way that I could speak meaningfully about them. The whole experience—along with other challenges that were happening in other areas of my life—was transformative. I think this book and that season of my life will always be important to me.
What was the biggest challenge in writing a book about wonder in an age of skepticism?
Writing the book exposed my own skepticism and cynicism. In some ways that actually made it easier because, in an odd way, I was writing to convince myself as much as I was writing to others.
I also went to great effort to try and use fresh, conversational language about the experience of faith, so that some of these ideas can be experienced anew. My hope is that skeptics find it comprehensible and that Christians find it surprising. I’ll leave it to the reader whether I succeeded.
Who do you hope is reading your book and what do you most hope they take away from it?
I thought a lot about Matthew 11:28 in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase—people who were weary and burned out on religion. I think religious burnout has its roots in two places: a misunderstanding of the gospel, and a spirit that’s been beaten down by a disenchanted world.
By misunderstanding the gospel, we look at every aspect of our spiritual lives as a kind of performance. The reality is the exact opposite. Performance is done, and we are simply accepted by God.
Read an excerpt from the book.
That spirit of performance, though, has its grip on us, and when coupled with disenchantment, it makes for an anxiety-inducing and fearful life. We’re never living up to our expectations for ourselves on the one hand, and doubtful it’s worth the effort on the other.
My hope is that these folks might read the book and catch an alternative vision for their lives, and might do so in a way that is profoundly practical. I hope they see that the Christian life can be an ordinary life, that it might be challenged, but it’s worth it, and that they might be weary, but they aren’t broken.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.