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Book Review on “Conformed to His Image” by Kenneth Boa
Spirituality is very much woven into the very fabric of life in Asian cultures. Even more modern-minded and upwardly-mobile generation of younger Malaysians gravitate to feng shui paraphernalia, bomoh medicine and yoga gurus for the promises of health, prosperity and self-fulfillment. A similar awareness and hunger for spiritual renewal is also evident amongst Christians, but how is an authentic biblical spirituality any different from that of their surrounding cultures? What are the distinctive marks of Christian spirituality?
In his book Conformed to His Image: Biblical and Practical Approaches to Spiritual Formation, Kenneth Boa seeks to provide a more comprehensive and balanced approach to the spiritual life from a biblical perspective. He describes spirituality as a “Christcentered orientation to every component of life through the mediating power of the indwelling Holy Spirit” (page 19). It is analogous to a pilgrim’s journey which starts with our embrace of God’s free grace and progresses through lifelong faith and obedience in Christ. Even though the book is designed as a college or seminary text, it is highly readable with chapter overviews, helpful charts and emphasis on practice. There are thought-provoking questions at the end of each chapter intended to lead us to reflect and apply what had been learnt earlier. I would heartily recommend it as an excellent, balanced and indispensable resource for small groups, churches and lay leaders who seek a deeper spirituality as well.
A common pitfall of spiritual writings is the tendency to focus on a few selective approaches while neglecting the remaining ones, especially if they are associated with other traditions. As a result, some practitioners fall into the trap of treating every problem as a nail (i.e. demon possession) because their only tool is a hammer (deliverance ministry). Being ecumenical in scope, Boa attempts to address such gaps by offering a more integrative and holistic approach by incorporating lessons for both recent and ancient spiritual pathways. For those who are interested, there is a high-level sketch of movements and earlier pilgrims in church history who have left a map to guide our own journey in Appendix B entitled “The Richness of Our Heritage”. Readers could gain a broader perspective as well as a better equipped toolbox.
But first and foremost, Boa intends to write a handbook to spiritual formation. According to him, the various spiritual approaches are like twelve facets of a precious gem. Without claiming to be exhaustive, these categories are an attempt to “reflect the various dimensions of biblical truth as they relate to practical experience on a personal and corporate level” (page 21). Some of us may be more attracted to some of these spiritual “facets” than others due to our different temperaments and background. An extrovert may be more inclined towards an active and expressive mode of spiritual life while an introvert may prefer more reflective contemplation. Recognizing that there is no one-sizefits-all approach, Boa has included Appendix A called “The Need for Diversity” to help us understand our predisposition regarding spirituality and encourage us to deliberately engage an approach which we tend to avoid or neglect. Ultimately, regardless of personality types, all of us need a balance of knowing, being and doing (page 480).
Here I will briefly summarize Boa’s twelve facets of spirituality which provide the basis for the chapter organization. Relational Spirituality: Because God is a relational Three-in-One Being, we are created in His image for fellowship and intimacy with God and with each other. Loving Him completely involves our whole being – intellect, emotion and will (page 31). It springs from God’s unconditional initiative to love us first. As we know Him more clearly and love Him more dearly, we are empowered to follow Him more nearly. When our need for significance and security is rooted in Christ, we have a healthy sense of identity as defined by Him, rather than the world’s expectations. As a result, we become liberated to serve others compassionately without demanding favors in return. Paradigm Spirituality: The temporal paradigm seeks satisfaction in earthly pleasure, recognition, wealth and power but ends up with emptiness. On the other hand, an eternal paradigm finds true fulfillment in knowing God, humility and servanthood. Boa puts it succinctly, “Your presuppositions will shape your perspective, your perspective will shape your priorities, and your priorities will shape your practice” (page 71). Disciplined Spirituality: There are two opposite dangers in downplaying either God’s role or our role in spiritual growth. We need to depend on the power of the Spirit as well as discipline ourselves to cultivate godly habits (1 Timothy 4:7). Time-tested spiritual disciplines like solitude, lectio divina, journaling, fasting and so on are not ends in themselves, but means of grace that bring us under the Lordship of Christ. Although it may sound like legalism to modern believers, the classical disciplines actually release us into greater freedom and proficiency to live for God.
Exchanged Life Spirituality: This approach stresses the need to reckon ourselves to be identified with Christ in His crucifixion, death and resurrection. We cannot live the Christian life by our own strength, but only through Christ’s life that flows in and through us. Regardless of our feelings, we need to acknowledge our new identity in Christ as a new creation. We abide in Him by grace and through faith so that we would bear much fruit. Motivated Spirituality: Boa discusses a set of biblical incentives that motivate our actions and choices such as fear, love, gratitude and rewards. The goal is so that our motives would be shaped by what Scripture declares are important rather than what the world offers. Only God could satisfy our deepest longing for meaning, security and purpose to our existence. Devotional Spirituality: The quality of a soul is measured by what or who it loves. Boa focuses on the beautiful attributes of God through exposition of Psalm 139, 145 and 117. We are called to cultivate intimacy with God through the contemplative prayer, meditation and sacred readings. As we develop an appreciation for God as our highest good, we gradually conform to that which we love most. Holistic Spirituality: There is a modern tendency to compartmentalize our faith from other aspects of life like work, family and finances. This false dichotomy can be overcome with a biblical understanding that all of life is under the lordship of Christ. We can live an integrated life by practicing the presence of God even in the midst of ordinary activities and use them as means to serve and glorify Him.
Process Spirituality: Who we are is the basis for what we do. We are not defined by our performance. Boa invites us to be “faithful to the process of life rather than living from one product to the next” (page 253). We can learn about letting loose of control, gratitude and contentment by practicing the presence of God. There are plenty of helpful tips like offering short prayers throughout the day, appreciating nature and turning daily pleasures into reasons for adoring the Giver of all good gifts. Spirit-Filled Spirituality: Although the role of the Holy Spirit has been largely ignored in the past, renewal movements in the 20th century have brought our attention back to His work and personhood. Boa steers a balanced path between cessationism and excessive abuse of charismata by discussing both strengths and weaknesses of Word-centered and Spirit-centered spiritualities. He envisions the possibility that Christians could humbly appropriate diverse spiritual gifts for the edification of others in the church. Warfare Spirituality: In order to aid our fight against the world, the flesh and the devil, Boa provides a set of affirmations that name our sin, recall our identity in Christ and respond by fixing our eyes on Christ. He believes that habitual sinful lifestyle in a believer may open the door for demonic oppression. Renunciation of our secret sins, resisting the devil and submission to God are steps that could be taken towards deliverance. However, we should avoid being too preoccupied with the demonic or downplaying the psychological dimension of a problem (page 361). Nurturing Spirituality: Christians should reproduce life in others through a lifestyle of evangelism and discipleship. We cannot impart what we do not have. In order to make disciples, we must first be a disciple. Boa counsels us to focus our energy on a few
teachable and committed people who in turn reach others. His philosophy of evangelism as a process of preparing the soil, sowing seeds, cultivating its growth and reaping the harvest resonates with me. Too often, we downplay the importance of such roles. Corporate Spirituality: Sanctification cannot fully happen apart from the body of Christ. The community of faith is the context in which servanthood, mutual edification and coporate discernment take place. In Christ, the separation of racism, sexism and elitism are transcended. Accountability to others in an attitude of submission and transparency is the antidote against pride in the flesh.
There are insightful lessons to be mined from virtually every page. For some time, I have been curious to explore the works of mystics and contemplatives but wary of ‘the dark side’. But Boa’s high view of Scripture and reliable discernment of possible dangers (as evidenced by his assessment of uncritical dependence on Carl Jung’s views) increase my confidence in his ability to navigate through unfamiliar territories such as contemplative meditation. He skillfully points out practical pitfalls as well as its potential benefits (page 166). Apart from his broad ecumenical scope, the discussions are also saturated with biblical citations and expositions. One comes away with the sense that most of the lessons are not merely the church’s historical heritage but also derived from divine revelation. Boa also
frequently draws on and points the reader to other available resources for further research. So there is a wealth of information and practical tips that reward slow and meditative reading. In fact, I plan to use the book for our family devotional time. But due to the overlapping nature of these ‘facets’ of spirituality, certain themes seem to be repeating in different chapters. As a result, it could start to feel dreary at times when I get the “here we go again” feeling. But looking at it from another angle, the most important lessons are often the most basic ones and they need to be frequently reinforced. From Appendix A, I would probably find myself leaning towards kataphatic/mind spirituality that stresses rational engagement with spiritual truth. Taken to extreme, it could lead to “overly dogmatic emphasis that stresses logic to the exclusion of mystery” (page 470). Therefore, it is extremely beneficial to explore and rediscover spiritual ‘facets’ like Spirit-filled and devotional spiritualities that are often neglected in my own life. At the same time, it is also liberating to realize that one is not necessarily less spiritual just because he or she does not gravitate to a practice or approach that works for another person. All in all, I would rate this book on spiritual formation as the most balanced and helpful one that I have ever come across. It has a rare combination of biblical exposition with practical insight, heart-and-mind integration and generous discernment. Taken together, the twelve “facets” represent the distinctive marks of that priceless jewel called Christian spirituality.
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