Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites
by Lynne M. Baab
Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2006
Reviewed by Rev. Monica McDowell Elvig, MDiv
The ancient practice of fasting is perhaps the most misunderstood of all the spiritual disciplines. Our culture’s contradictory obsessions with dieting and consumption lead to all the more confusion about the appropriate place for fasting in contemporary lives. Won’t it contribute to eating disorders? Doesn’t it denigrate the body and deny God’s good gifts of food and abundance? Questions like these are at the forefront of Lynne Baab’s thoughts inFasting.
Baab deals with the controversy around fasting by first broadening its definition. “Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific time for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation” (p. 16). By doing so, she defines fasting as more about our spiritual appetites, that is, our deepest desires for intimacy with God, than about our physical appetites. Offering examples of different kinds of fasting: fasting from television, shopping, information technology, and even social engagements or acts of service that have become routine rather than grace-filled, the author reframes fasting not as self-deprivation but as spiritually enriching. By deciding to give up activities and habits for a time that have become distracting to the most important things in our lives, we intentionally create space to experience God in new and fresh ways.
By then applying this broader and deeper understanding of fasting to the traditional definition of abstaining from food, Baab brings balance and correction to a practice that has been misused and abused throughout history. Moreover, by presenting a variety of partial food fasts, such as the “Daniel fast,” she offers alternatives to those for whom full fasts are not practical. The author is also very careful to emphasize who should never fast from food, including those who have a history of eating disorders, those with certain medical conditions, as well as children, pregnant women, and others.
Using stories from scripture, church history, mystics, and Christians from different traditions around the world, the author compiles a wide range of experiences with fasting. She also includes a wealth of insightful quotes from contemporaries who have experimented with fasting both individually and in community, as well as a helpful bibliography organized by subject matter. Spiritual directors will find this book an invaluable resource as each chapter ends with questions for reflection, journaling, and discussion along with suggestions for prayer.
Considering our over-saturated culture, Fasting is a prophetic voice calling us to remember that we do not live by bread alone. It is an invitation to create space for prayer in a world hungry for Spirit and a challenge to be in solidarity with those in our world who are often hungry for food. It should be noted that Fasting follows Baab’s previous book, Sabbath Keeping. The two books together provide a complementary spiritual rhythm of feast and fast. After reading both books, I am convinced like Baab that “in the Western world we need fasting today more than ever” (p. 140).
Rev. Monica McDowell Elvig, MDiv, is an ordained minister practicing in Seattle, Washington, USA. She is the founder of Women’s Sanctuary, a contemplative worship service and dinner for women, as well as a spiritual director and energy healer. She was the first ordained minister in the USA to be granted civil rights in a federal ruling.