Ruth Haley Barton & Contemplative Corruption—Part 2

Barton’s books are evidence of reliance on feelings, experiences, misuse of Scripture, and at least some influence from Buddhism. There is no biblical evidence supporting the contemplative teachings and practices so passionately promoted in these two books. In adopting the belief that she has discovered a door to deeper spiritual transformation and intimacy with God, Barton has, in effect, closed the door on the truth given by God Himself

In this second installment of a two-part series, we continue looking at two of Ruth Haley Barton’s books, Invitation to Silence and Solitude (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books; 2nd ed, 2010) and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books, 2006). They are two key books in the burgeoning movement of contemplative practices in the church.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the extent of the issues in these two books is substantial, even for a two-part series. As a result, for the sake of time and space, almost as much will be left out as will be covered. The issues are addressed under four categories: Misuse of the Biblical Text; Reliance on Experience; Elitism; and the Buddhist Influence. Many examples for the categories necessarily overlap. Quotes will be referenced by page number followed by the initials SR for Sacred Rhythms and SS for Invitation to Silence and Solitude. All Scripture is from the New American Standard 1995 unless otherwise stated.

Spiritual Elitism

Barton writes that contemplative practices take one into a deeper, more intimate knowledge of and relationship with God than what results from normative prayer and Bible study.

Barton disparages regular Bible reading and study as an information-gathering mindset that is analytical and may make us critical and even judgmental (SR, 49). She makes a false dilemma between viewing the Bible as a love letter or as a textbook. In truth, the Bible is neither (Barton sees it as the first one), and although one can learn about and know of God’s love through the Bible, to reduce it to a love letter is a drastic simplification of what the Bible is about and for. Stephen Altrogge points out in “Is The Bible A Love Letter From God?”:

The Bible is not a love letter.

Does the Bible tell us about God’s incredible love for us? Of course. But the Bible is not primarily about us, the Bible is primarily about God. The Bible is not primarily a subjective account of God’s feelings for us; it is an objective record of God’s magnificent, glorious plan of redemption. The Bible doesn’t exist in order to make us feel good about ourselves. The Bible exists in order to stir our affections for our glorious God.

Barton discusses prayer under the heading “Prayer Beyond Words” (67, SR). This is about seeking intimacy with God and knowing God experientially rather just knowing a lot about God (68, SR).

She cites Psalm 37:7 and 62:2 as supporting the view that one knows God deeper without words and in the stillness of waiting (68, SR). But reading the context of these two Psalms shows that this is not about knowing God without words or being in a state of stillness. Psalm 37 is about not being anxious or angry about evildoers but instead to trust the Lord and know that he will sustain the righteous (verse 17).

Psalm 62 is also about trusting God in light of those who lie and who bless with their mouth but inwardly curse (verse 4). The silence of the psalmist is in contrast to falsehoods and hypocritical blessings. Many passages like this using the term wait in silence are about trusting God, often as a contrast to the frantic machinations of evil men. Nothing in the contexts of passages like this are instructing one to literally be silent in order to know God, nor do they teach that silence is superior to being verbal.

A practice called Lectio Divina is described by Barton as a more life-giving way of approaching scripture as opposed to the deeply ingrained information-grasping patterns (i.e., normative Bible reading and study). Lectio Divina writes Barton, prepares one to listen for the word of God spoken to us in the present moment (54 SR). Scripture is already God’s word for the present moment, as well as for the original audience and everyone since and in the future. What Barton proposes is a way to generate an experience and a private meaning from Scripture. That is what this method is designed to do.

One must be in silence prior to reading a Bible passage in order to create a quiet inner space in which we can hear from God (56, SR). One reads the text (no more than six to eight verses), attentive to a word or phrase that causes a visceral reaction or brings about a deep sense of resonance or resistance (57, 60, SR). This is a word, contends Barton, that is meant for you (60, SR). The individual then reflects on this word and thinks about where they are in the text and ask what do I experience as I allow myself to be in this story?  (57, 60, SR). Barton continues:

Rather than thinking about the passage (and we have to be very careful here), we keep coming back to the word that we have been given (57, SR).

Again, using the mind is given an inferior role. In actuality, one needs to think about the passage in order to understand and properly apply it. After this step of getting a special word, as described by Barton, comes a response and then a rest in God, which is also when:

we resolve to carry this word and listen to it throughout the day…you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning until it begins to live in you and you enflesh this word to the world (58, 61, SR).

This is considered superior to reading the Bible the usual way, but instead, it is an entirely subjective way to read Scripture which is meant to evoke an experience with a word from the passage, viewing it as a special word given to the reader. Instead of reading the passage in context, comparing it to related passages, and possibly using Bible study tools to understand the point/s of the passage, one guides themself into an inner experience that is likely to be deceptive and spiritually damaging.

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