A tremendous, tremendous book! Fasting is part of Thomas Nelson’s “The Ancient Practices Series.” McKnight, an Anabaptist theologian, handles the subject in a careful, balanced, and thought-provoking way.
He defines fasting as “the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” (xx) and then spends the remainder of this book unpacking that definition. This definition posits fasting as responsive instead of instrumental. That is, fasting is a response to a “sacred moment,” be it conviction over sin, a recognition of God’s holiness, heartbrokenness over the suffering of the world, etc. And it is an inevitable response: it happens when we realize that we simply cannot eat, that eating in such a situation would be almost blasphemous.
McKnight hits the instrumental view of fasting (i.e., fasting in order to see this or that result) squarely between the eyes time and time again. He is right to do so! He convincingly shows that fasting for results misses the biblical impulse for the act and makes us into selfish consumers. We do not fast for this or that, we fast for God.
Now, in this context there is an appropriate way to look at results, but the results ought not be what drives the fast. To be sure, in doing this McKnight is striking out against consumer religion and pragmatic religion, two scourges of modern evangelicalism.
The book is well-written and well-organized around the various kinds of fasting. He makes a convincing case for the reimplementation of calendar fasting along the lines of the early Christians’ compelling example. He draws from various sources within Christendom to illustrate where fasting has been approached correctly and where it has been approached incorrectly.
The book is marked by pastoral concern and a strident balance. This is especially clear in the final chapter where McKnight deals with the question of fasting and health. I was, frankly, a bit surprised at the skeptical approach he employed towards the alleged health benefits of fasting. He seems to be reacting to the kind of faddish fasting industry that views it as a cure-all for various physical maladies. In this he is no doubt right. He passes on the advice of his own medical team that the health benefits of fasting are minimal. On the contrary, fasting presents various physical challenges and needs to be approached very carefully. McKnight’s cautions are well-grounded (and he is no doubt aware of the penchant for faddish extremism among evangelicals, particularly), but I do wonder if he has not perhaps overplayed his hand a bit here? At the very least, the tenor of this chapter differs markedly from other things I have read about the health benefits of fasting. But, then, what do I know about the science of the body? (Answer = very little!)
Regardless, McKnight is dead on in his assertion that we do not fast for health benefits or for any other results that may or may not come (he uses the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe as a great illustration at this point). We fast for God.