“THIS book is just a tool. To be of any benefit, it must be used.” With these words, Pamela Evans urges us to read Shaping the Heart differently from the way in which we usually read books.
Her work is an interesting exercise in learning to think, feel, listen, and wonder a little more as we read. Too many of us read as an entirely linear experience, cantering through a narrative from beginning to end. Evans, by contrast, calls us to slow down and pause, to pray and reflect, as we make our way through her book.
It is described by the subtitle as Reflections on spiritual formationand fruitfulness. Evans shows how frequently modern life is subtly inimical to growth in virtue and holiness. We can repeatedly change the provider of almost any service we buy, at the click of a mouse, and endlessly shop around for the best price or the quickest result. In that context, it is a significant challenge to rediscover the value of concepts such as long-term fidelity, endurance through difficult times, or patience when we do not get our way.
Evans begins by pointing to some of the conflicts that lie at the heart of being a Christian in a post-modern world. She shows how, in a culture that exalts the temporary and the disposable, we often struggle to form loyal relationships that are capable of reflecting the love of God. It can also be counter-cultural, she argues, to place ourselves at the service of others when the principal religious commitment our society most often displays is the cult of the ego.
In response to this situation, each chapter in Shaping the Heart explores an area of the spiritual life crucial to our growth as mature, sensitive Christians. Each ends with biblical texts suggested for reflection. Throughout the chapters themselves, however, Evans sprinkles a series of “lay-bys”, in which she calls us to stop, pray, and reflect on the topic that she has been discussing.
It has to be said that these occasionally verge on the whimsically sentimental, such as the occasion when we are urged to think over one point while kneading bread. The lay-bys contribute, however, to what is probably the book’s greatest strength, namely, its flexibility and adapt-ability.
We start with basics such as learning to know that we are loved by God, and to see ourselves in the light of that love. Evans also correctly points out that we need to change and grow constantly in order to experience God’s grace afresh, in each day of our Christian discipleship, and to live it out. The author presents Christian faith less as intellectual assent to theological propositions than as a deep trust in God’s faithfulness, out of which emerges the creative space to grow into Christ’s likeness.
The book also explores the notion of life as a school of adversity, in which we need to challenge the modern world’s inability to cope with delayed gratification, or with the way in which God sometimes seems silent in the face of human trouble. Waiting, listening, and persistence draw us to the places where we experience the fruits of trust in God’s faithfulness.
Shaping the Heart is also insistent that worship is one of the most important things that form us: it reminds us of the basic vocation that the whole of humanity shares in offering praise and prayer to God. The author offers helpful tips about how growth in prayerfulness is often a much simpler and more practical experience than we might imagine.
Evans writes from an Evangelical perspective, and in many ways she seems to presuppose an affinity of theological outlook with her intended audience. I suspect that a reader coming from a more Catholic background might find some of its more significant theological gaps a little frustrating. There is, for example, a surprising absence of almost any mention of the sacramental life of the Church. I felt this gap most acutely in the chapter on prayer and the liturgy, which did not once mention the eucharist.
That said, I could imagine using this book in a wide range of contexts. It lends itself to being the focus of a reading circle or discussion group, but is equally suited to individual reading, or to being taken away on retreat.
In the pages of Shaping the Heart, Evans invites us to embark on a sensitive and thoughtful process of reading, thinking, praying, and reflecting, which many will find refreshing. It is a book that has the capacity to bring us to new knowledge and insight, as we encounter afresh the God who saves us.
The Revd Peter Anthony is Junior Dean of St Stephen’s House, Oxford, and Junior Chaplain of Merton College, Oxford.
Shaping the Heart is published by BRF at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-84101-726-6.
SHAPING THE HEART — SOME QUESTIONS
Has reading this book led to your making any changes to the spiritual framework of your life?
Which chapter did you find most helpful?
How would you describe the hallmarks of the Christian character?
What does the author mean by expectant trust?
How would you describe the difference between happiness and joy?
How does the author define true worship: on what does it depend? How often have you experienced it?
How do you connect God with your daily life?
What idea from the book has made the most impact on you?
Were there any places where you disagreed with what the author was proposing?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 June, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It is published by Pan at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-330-53344-7).
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tells the true story of a poor black tobacco farmer, who died from cancer in 1951, aged 31. While she was ill, cells were removed secretly from her body, and they rapidly multiplied to become the first “immortal cell line”. Hundreds of scientific projects have relied on these cells, including developing the polio vaccine, IVF, gene therapy, and cloning; a multi-million pound industry has grown up around these areas of research. In spite of this, the Lacks family remained poor and living in obscurity. Skloot tells Henrietta’s story; as she does, she ex-plores questions of class, race, ethics, and faith.
Rebecca Skloot lives in Chicago. She took degrees in biological sciences and creative non-fiction, and has taught non-fiction and science journalism at the universities of Memphis, Pittsburgh, and New York. Well known for her writing on scientific subjects, she has contributed to a range of magazines and journals, and edited others. This is her first book. She was awarded the Wellcome Trust Book Prize, which celebrates writing about medicine, in 2011, and Best Book of 2010 by the American division of Amazon. She enjoys knitting, and caring for stray animals.
Books for the next two months:
July: The Other Hand by Chris Cleave
August: Jubilate by Michael Arditti