John Jefferson Davis, Meditation and Communion with God: Contemplating Scripture in an Age of Distraction. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2012. 168 pp. $20.00.
A particular anxiety surfaces for evangelicals over terms like “contemplation,” “meditation,” or “spirituality.” The feelings are understandable, with so much Eastern religious/transcendental meditation interference in Christian circles in the last several decades. And as Protestants, we have an uneasy relationship with the contemplative tradition of Roman Catholics. On the one hand, Eastern religion aims to empty the mind of everything; on the other hand, Roman Catholics look to fill the mind with God through symbols that aren’t, well, Protestant. Even among evangelicals, there is an impulse to go into nature to get in touch with God. Doesn’t Psalm 19:1 tell us that nature declares the glory of God? Yes, but we tend to not read the rest of Psalm 19, which is about the perfection of God’s Law that has the power to revive the soul (v. 7), cause the heart to rejoice (v. 8), help discern error (v. 12), and show us our presumptuousness (v. 13). The point of Psalm 19, in other words, isn’t that nature can perfectly reveal God to us, but that if we are going to look to nature to see God’s glory, we better do so with our Bibles open!
Due to these extremities from within and without Christian circles, many evangelicals have steered clear of experiential language like “meditation” and “contemplation.” However, not a few authors of late have argued that we are poorer for it. As Fred Sanders has said elsewhere, evangelicals are running on a spiritual deficit. John Jefferson Davis’s Meditation and Communion with God is not the first book to attempt to fill this deficit in the past several years, but it’s likely the strongest for a number of reasons.
Let me begin by explaining what this book doesn’t try to accomplish. Then I’ll explain what it accomplishes that no other book—to my knowledge—does.
What It Isn’t
Mediation and Communion with God is not a popular-level book. It’s not the most difficult of reads, but it does demand some acquaintance with philosophical discussions on the “self” and theological discussions on inaugurated eschatology and union with Christ. I began hoping this would be a book any pastor could read with his team of elders. I ended thinking, Maybe not.
This is also not a book like Donald Whitney’s Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life or Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which are filled with explanations of particular disciplines, though Davis does spend a good portion of his last chapter talking about method.
What It Is
Davis, professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, proposes an understanding of the nature and practice of biblical meditation as communion with God based on a biblical framework focusing on the doctrines of union with Christ and inaugurated eschatology. In other words, because the power of the age-to-come is experienced by Christians “already” through our union with Christ, God is really present with the reader and is really transforming us into his likeness. Our union with Christ is not a metaphor. The Holy Spirit is a real person, so the bond between the believer and Christ is real—mysterious, but real. And the power that will transform us in an instant when Jesus returns (1 John 3:2) is changing us now, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18).
Some of those Protestant anxieties arise whenever Davis uses the language of “a new understanding” or “a new proposal,” but Davis is actually proposing a historical Protestant understanding of meditation and contemplation on Scripture, which has always had a deep awareness of our union with Christ, though not always with an awareness of inaugurated eschatology. The latter element makes Davis’s proposal fresh, not necessarily new.
Davis provides a richly theological foundation for the presence of God with his people as they read Scripture. He begins with the doctrine of adoption, where the resurrection of Jesus Christ brings a radical new existence, a people brought near to the Father by the Spirit (see pp. 35-41). He then moves to our union with Christ, which he argues is a “real presence,” united by the Spirit, explaining that this union is “not adequately viewed as the cooperation of workers in a common task or a union of the mind between student and teacher, but must be conceived in more organic categories, such as the members of a living body, living branches in a vine, or the loving marital union of a husband and wife” (43). The truth of the power of the age-to-come present in our union with Christ radically shapes how we meditate and read Scripture, giving us real confidence for change and transformation. Like a pinch of leaven in a lump of dough, the leaven doesn’t replace the dough, but, given enough time, completely transforms it into its likeness (see Luke 13:20-21).
Any lingering Protestant anxieties should be put to rest as Davis is thoroughly Word-centered. He applies a robust doctrine of Scripture to the practice of mediation and contemplation. If the God who is present with us through adoption, union with Christ, and inaugurated eschatology inspired the Scriptures, then the Scriptures should not merely inspire us, but also affect us. It is primarily through Scripture that God is present with his people, transforming and uniting us to him (see chapter 5, 90-106). Meditation and Communion with God is clearly rooted in the text.
Davis not only provides confidence in Scripture for transformation, but the motivation to come to Scripture, lingering to taste the truth as it goes by. We don’t just come to Scripture for transformation; we also come for the joy and delight of God’s presence. We come with new, heavenly senses that can taste and see pleasures of the age-to-come.
Find the Gold
Some of Davis’s excursions were a bit peculiar and ineffective. For example, he asks the important question of how the Lord is really present with us in corporate worship and the Lord’s Supper and how the believer is really united to Christ (55-62). He introduces the concept of the “extended self” and compares it to the “empirical self” (molecular). For example, two individuals may be empirically separate, but our “selves” can be extended through electromagnetic waves by a cellphone. The two individuals are empirically separate, but really present, just in a different mode. Davis extends this concept to cyberspace, by way of Facebook and Skype icons.
Davis is successful in showing that presence can be real in more modes than just molecular, but he fails to emphasize the shortcoming of these analogies. Electromagnetic waves and cyberspace may be different than molecular presence, but they are all fundamentally material. By contrast, God’s presence and our union with Christ is real—in fact, Davis is right to point out that God’s presence and Christ’s union is more real—but the concept of “extended self” seems to undermine the mysterious (even mystical) presence of God and union with Christ. Like Calvin said of the Lord’s Supper, “I’d rather experience it than understand it.”
Never mind, though! Skip the excursuses and find the gold, which is plentiful in this book. Meditation and Communion with God will embolden Bible readers to taste every bit of the Lord’s goodness they can find and come back the next day to find more. Davis gives theological and biblical foundation for pastors to center their ministry around God’s Word and urge Christians to go and live in the Scriptures, where the face of Christ shines most brightly.