When I read the news now, I often run through a cycle of becoming scared, angry, frustrated, and then scared again. When a Christian leader again defends our president against something for which that same leader clearly would have been condemned two years ago, I begin to wonder if I am living inside an episode of The Twilight Zone. When I was a young evangelical, our elders defended the faith as a commitment to “truth with a capital T.” Today it would be a capital S for “spin.”
I have found unexpected comfort in remembering 1978. These were also troubling times religiously, with the Iranian Revolution running all year and into the next as well as the Jonestown massacre that November. But it was also the year when the newly relocated HarperSanFrancisco published a quiet book by a Quaker minister who was saying something unusual: that we have lost touch with many ancient practices and tools to help us grow in the Christian life and that he wanted to show his fellow believers how to reincorporate them. The pastor was Richard J. Foster and his book, Celebration of Discipline.
Celebration did not start off well. Only a few thousand copies sold its first year. What was strange, though, was that it kept selling at a steady rate, and then the steady rate started to increase. The decision was made to postpone the paperback, and forty years later, the paperback is still in the postponed category, since it never stopped selling steadily. It has now sold over two million copies.
Today people see Richard’s book as a classic, a solid spirituality guidebook that many Christian colleges, seminaries, and discipleship programs require. But that misses the drama Richard lived through. As his book became popular, he found himself under attack from fellow Christians. Pope John Paul II took office in 1978, but it took many years before he inspired evangelicals to rethink their strong anti-Catholic biases, much of which got aimed at Richard for encouraging “Catholic” practices such as fasting and confession. On the other side of the heresy-hunter spectrum were those who were on the lookout for “new age” teachings, which they said Richard was guilty of for his support of meditation and listening prayer. The word “heretic” came up often.
But Richard kept teaching, speaking, and writing, forming the organization Renovaré to help the church learn these tools for more deeply following Christ. Often partnering with his mentor Dallas Willard, Richard lived out what his friend Eugene Peterson once used for his classic work, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Slowly minds were changed, churches signed up, and now many of these practices are commonplace in Christian circles. No, Richard did not solve all the religious problems of the day; nor did he find a magic formula for representing the gospel in the idiom of the day. He simply kept teaching and writing about the deep things of faith, reminding us that Christianity is about living in sync with a living God, and for that we can do the necessary work for making ourselves able to hear and follow those messages.
This month we are publishing our fifth “special anniversary edition” of Celebration of Discipline, for which Richard has written a new preface, introduction, closing essay, and annotated bibliography. And while it is always exciting to read Richard’s latest thoughts, what is truly remarkable is how well the whole book has stayed timely after forty years. Congratulations, Richard, and thank you for being a beacon of hope in 2018, reminding us that doing deep work today can be an effective and hopeful response to the crises of our time.
Michael G. Maudlin
Senior Vice President and Executive Editor
PS: To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster and his son, Nathan, are going on a yearlong multi-state tour beginning in March. For more information, go to: Renovare.org/40