The Lost Discipline of Conversation

Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans

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Joanne J. Jung
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Zondervan
    , June
     2018.
     224 pages.
     $16.99.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780310538967.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans, Joanne J. Jung brings to the attention of the Christian community at large the importance of conferencing—that is conversing about the faith. The Puritans considered conferencing as a means of grace. Thus, the book draws together the thoughts of a wide range of Puritans from William Perkins to Richard Greenham on the importance of believers speaking together about scripture and inquiring about the health of their souls. However, the book is not just a historical survey; rather it serves as a practical and contemporary source which can help today’s church leaders to disciple their flocks in a busy world of distractions. As such, the book fits into a larger revival of interest in the Puritans, known as neo-Puritanism, which has arisen among evangelicals since the 1960s.

The book begins by outlining the problem it seeks to remedy. Jung begins with the stark warning that “the growing epidemic of social isolation is killing us” (17). Jung, writing two years before I am writing this review during the Covid-19 pandemic, warns of the dangers of “isolationism and pervasive individualism” (24) upon the spiritual health of Christians. With many churches in the West shut for much of 2020, Jung’s book takes on even greater relevance today. Jung is also aware that the pace of change in the evangelical church is creating an expression of Christianity that is in danger of losing what is distinctly evangelical, namely a solid grounding in Scripture. Jung notes that biblical literacy in our churches is not what it once was (70).

The book also gently critiques the individualistic hermeneutics many Christians employ today in small group settings. Jung particularly notes the importance of understanding the broader Christian metanarrative when approaching scripture (70). Evangelicals are seeking authenticity, honesty, and depth. Jung’s outline of a return to the Puritan practice of conferencing offers a way out of the current stagnation.

After introducing the practice of conferencing in part 1, Jung explains in part 2 how conferencing could look today in small group settings, between marriage partners, between pastors and individual congregants, and between fellow pastors. This is important, as Jung shows that all believers can engage in conferencing, not just the clergy. Her sections on the letters of Lady Brilliana Harley (145-48), for example, as well as on Susannah Wesley’s spiritual conferencing with her children (87-9), show how women had an important role in Puritan conferencing. Part 3 gives seven detailed templates of biblical texts and questions that could lead to fruitful spiritual conversations.

The chapters often begin by counterpointing quotations from a Puritan with a more contemporary evangelical, such as Billy Graham, again showing the book’s unique bridging of Puritan theology to the present. Then, at the end of each chapter, the aspects of Puritan piety discussed are applied to the present state of evangelicalism in America. Jung gives guidelines on redeeming the use of technology for the church (152). I particularly appreciate the useful advice on the importance of reading a physical copy of the Bible rather than reading scripture on a Bible app because the latter risks conflating scripture reading with playing a game or watching a film (93). Jung also warns about the danger of confounding a real relationship with a digital connection (153). These sections are well written and engaging and constitute significant strengths.

As for the book’s weaknesses, I note that most of the Puritans mentioned are from the early period long before the Puritan Revolution of the 1640s and 1650s. Thus, leading Puritans such as Thomas Goodwin and John Owen are not cited. Perhaps this is because spiritual conversation was emphasised early on in the history of the Puritan movement, before later political changes turned Puritanism into more of a political force. The Puritan movement was broad, spanning two continents over a period of over one hundred years. This historical context and complexity could have been analysed in more depth. Instead, Jung presents Puritan spirituality as somewhat monolithic.

The book also neglects to outline its methodology. The work is an example of historical theology as it uses insights from the past to make suggestions for the present. Thus, the book shows the interconnectedness between theology and history: theology cannot be written in a vacuum but must be contextualized within the history of the church. The book missed an opportunity to situate itself within such methodological parameters.

Overall, this book makes a timely, unique and accessible contribution to the field. Jung focuses on an aspect of Puritanism, conferencing, which is little discussed and yet was a distinctively Puritan form of spirituality. Jung goes beyond Puritanism however and reminds us that the Christian faith in the 21st century is to be personal, but it is not to be kept private. She also reminds us of the importance of living the whole of one’s life for the glory of God and of the importance of a holistic theology in an age of fracture. This book is clearly written for the believer and would be especially helpful to pastors. However, for scholars purely interested in Puritanism as a historical movement, this book would be less relevant as it never begins to plot the intricacies of how conferencing developed and changed over time. In this sense, the work is more descriptive than analytical. It is a good introduction to the topic, though not the final word.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lawrence Rabone is a doctoral student in Jewish/Christian Studies at the University of Manchester.

Date of Review: 
November 20, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joanne J. Jung is Associate Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University.

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