Pros: Attempts to address the long-neglected spiritual discipline of fasting; one excellent chapter.
Cons: Humanistic theology; geared toward extroverted leaders; poorly-written and repetitive.
The Bottom Line: Ordinarily, I attempt to be objective in my reviews. I had truly hoped to enjoy this work; yet, its principles are so lacking in Scripture that I cannot recommend it.
That Beautiful Day of Devotion
24 March 2004. The day seemed ordinary enough--a brief hike, conversations with family, and all of the other delights that render domestic life beautiful. Yet, the hours spent that day were adorned with a grace far more elaborate than that produced by mere tranquility. The day had been set apart for service to God. A dear friend was in need of earnest prayer; this March day in the midst of spring break seemed the perfect moment to devote myself to praying for her. Throughout the moments of worship and Scripture reading, I was filled with a peace that passed all understanding. That evening, I retired with the assurance that, though I did not know God's plan for my friend, I could leave the challenge in His hands. Two days later, prayers for this beautiful woman were marvelously answered.
That day was but one of many such days of prayer, Bible study, and intense worship. Commonly known as days of devotion among my family and close friends, these times are, perhaps, the most precious moments in a person's relationship with God. In addition to the prayer that generally springs from these hours of joy, fasting has frequently been one cherished element in seeking God. Although the various methods and durations of fasting differ among denominations, many Protestants hold to similar principles regarding the practice of Biblical fasting. In an effort, then, to locate thorough Scriptural information about this oft-neglected Christian discipline, I began to search the virtual shelves of Audible.com. Great was my delight when I discovered Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough: a Guide to Nine Biblical Fasts, a paradoxical audio book whose initial beauty quickly faded to worn denim.
When once I unearthed this $10 work, I was elated. I had planned to enjoy three days of devotion that week and felt that a book that described the powerful practice of fasting might be perfectly suited to this time of prayer. After all, Elmer Towns was a leader in the Baptist church--a denomination that I respected for its careful adherence to Scripture. Despite several worthy elements, however, I found that this book was suitable neither for a time of extended prayer nor for personal edification at other times. Conclusion: Towns incorporates a number of theological concepts that make me very uncomfortable.
SAMUEL, ST. PAUL, AND SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Before I discuss this work's premises and the conclusions that may be drawn from Towns' thee-ology, allow me to suggest that this work is endorsed by Dr. Bill Bright and Rev. Jerry Falwell. The former is a man whom I deeply respect for his spiritual commitment; in fact, he has written several articles on fasting that I recommend in lieu of this work. Yet, I fear that I am in severe danger of digressing, so suffice it to say that this book seems to have received the support of various strong, Biblically-based Christian leaders. Within a lengthy list of acknowledgements, Towns thanks these men; his secretary; his church family; and, last of all, God. Many rhetoricians stipulate that the last point in an argument must, of necessity, be the strongest; however, whether Towns' ordering was a rhetorical strategy or a reflection of his priorities remains questionable.
A common and horribly detrimental assumption exists within many communities that fasting is a fanatical practice that serves only to endanger a person's life. Towns quickly and efficiently points out that, while abuses of fasting do occur within some cults, this spiritual discipline is actually healthy and beneficial when practiced according to Biblical principles. This timely argument is impressive, as I have frequently heard people disparage the mere idea of fasting simply for the abuses that may arise from it. But to say that fasting is generally abnormal and prone to inflicting an unhealthy lifestyle is not logical. I have a deep appreciation for Towns' argument against abuse and for regular fasting, as it puts a long-neglected method of earnest prayer in perspective.
There then follows a brief history of fasting wherein the author discusses the practice throughout the Old and New Testaments. Towns even explores fasting in the post-apostolic church; this section was particularly captivating, as I quickly learned that members of the early church regularly fasted Wednesday and Friday. Although the reason for this is quite fascinating, I shall leave it for you to discover should you so choose. I'm not entirely certain why you would, though, as this is nearly the only palatable section in the entire work.
During his first chapter, Towns explains that there exist four types of fasting: abstaining from both food and water, abstinence only from food, refraining from certain foods, and rotating the foods that may be eaten from day to day. This is a rather refreshing section, as it illustrates the idea that fasting does not depend upon the practice of abstaining from food but upon a prepared, reverent heart. I have a medical condition that prohibits me from engaging in a typical fast; were I to refrain from eating, certain blood levels would become dangerously elevated and I could become very ill. People in this position are encouraged to fast by eating only foods that they consider bland or unappealing--Saltine crackers, unsalted nuts, etc. Towns' nonjudgmental approach, which emphasizes the spiritual practice rather than its physical manifestation, is certainly one that people with medical challenges may wish to take to heart.
Using as his basis Isaiah 58:6-8, Towns proceeds to lead us through the principles surrounding nine Biblical fasts. This is an extraordinary passage that, taken in the proper context, may, indeed suggest nine types of fasting. When speaking to His people, God said: "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter--when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard" (Isaiah 56:6-8, NIV). By carefully dividing this passage into smaller sections, Towns arrives at the conclusion that fasting may be employed to pray against spiritual bondage, as Jesus' disciples ought to have done; to ask God for healing or to improve health, as Daniel did; as part of supplication for personal or corporate revival (Samuel); to ask God for wisdom in solving difficult problems, following Paul's example; to improve one's testimony, as the disciples of John the Baptist did; to pray for physical or emotional protection, as did Esther; and even to pray for and share one's resources with the poor, as the widow at Zarephath was asked to do. While these are excellent ideas, their delivery leaves much to be desired.
Subsequent chapters are devoted to an individual analysis of each fast. Although their length varies according to the amount of explanation that Towns sees fit to provide, each section follows a consistent format. First, the author provides a bit of Biblical background--a brief portrait of Daniel's captivity, the need for Esther's fast once King Ahasuerus had issued a grievous edict to destroy the Jewish people, the wickedness of the people during Samuel's reign and the obvious need for revival, etc. Following the important yet frequently repetitive background, Towns attempts to infuse his findings with more theological tenets than the passage actually contains. The majority of the chapter is taken up with a list of principles for completing the fast in question: how food and resources should be shared with the poor, effective problem-solving skills, various methods for praying against spiritual bondage, etc. Chapters then end with a summary that could by no means be accused of brevity.
In addition to a preface, acknowledgements, and Towns' ten chapters, there do exist a number of appendices in which the author provides resources for further reading, most of which are likely better than his own book; notes for creating prayer and fasting journals; etc. Sadly, these were not included in the audio recording listed here. Ah! The joys of purchasing a book that is technically abridged, despite your naïve assumption that you were investing in a completed recording!
Speaking of the audio version of this work, the item listed on Epinions is produced by Hovel Audio, a division of Christian Audio. I harbor a deep respect for this high-quality, Christian publisher and am generally impressed with their non-dramatized, unabridged recordings. Fasting for Spiritual Breakthrough is narrated by one Michael Kramer. By Hovel Audio's generally excellent standards, Kramer's reading is mediocre--perfect, yet perfectly bland inflection and emphasis. For any members of the blind community who may be reading this, Kramer resembles a narrator from the Talking Book Library--professional, but not terribly enthusiastic. However, I find myself unable to fault Kramer entirely; I am simply surprised that his voice does not reflect deep mourning while attempting to read this book.
Momentarily, I shall devote a section to the plethora of problems that assail this book--trials to Biblicality that nibble at any solid theology like a swarm of moths. However, let us focus for a moment upon the one redeeming quality in this work. Chapter II discusses fasting in order to pray against spiritual bondage. Here, the author suggests that spiritual bondage does not involve controllable or infrequent sins--a quick temper, the temptation to lie, etc. While these are sins and require repentance, fasting is designed to break deep, oppressive addictions--substance abuse, eating disorders, addiction to pornography, continual temptation to harbor an unhealthy mindset, etc. Here, Towns provides a number of sound suggestions for praying for wisdom, guidance, and the ability to resist demonic temptations. Towns proposes that a binding addiction is often brought about by spiritual oppression and offers effective ways to ask God for healing. I must admit that this is an excellent chapter.
RESTORATION AND REVELATION: REDEFINED
"To thine own self be true". -William Shakespeare
"If thou follow thine own inclinations, thou wilt be successful. Read thy books and write thine ideas, without which thy trials shall find no solutions. And thy body shall be healed of itself as touching small afflictions." (Fourth Laodicians 1:8.)
Certainly not! Many who have experienced Biblical texts will be aware that these words are not in the Bible, and that the book of Fourth Laodicians has never existed. The last "quotation" was entirely fabricated and should only be used to illustrate the deplorable, humanistic tendency of Towns' work. Before I describe the principles at hand, let us examine Towns' apparent ideas--a system known as thee-ology.
Theology: n. The study of God. Der.: Theological, theologically.
Thee-ology: the study of oneself; often masked by Scripture. Der.: Thee-ological, Self-focused, Unbiblical.
But I suppose that any further ranting shan't do terribly much good and may only serve to confuse you. Towns frequently suggests that God either cannot or will not provide actual, spoken answers to a supplicant's challenges. Rather, a person must look within himself, study both Christian and secular materials related to the problem, write the difficulty and its potential solutions, and infuse the solution-seeking session with a dose of prayer. Lest the reader should become too attached to the latter practice, however, Towns makes a strong yet ill-founded statement--that is, that a person must maintain a proper balance of Word and Spirit. So far, so good: for the Bible cannot be read without the wisdom of God, nor can God's wisdom come apart from the Bible. The challenge lies with Towns' next statement: "Too much Spirit, and you'll have an emotional explosion. Too much Word, and you'll dry up." I am deeply uncomfortable with the first of these sentences, as it seems to quench the power of God. What are we to assume--that if, while praying, we are deeply touched by the Holy Spirit, we are to seek something else in order to avoid "an emotional explosion"? Faith is not put into practice through analytical objectivity, but through matters reachable only by the heart.
Speaking of analytical matters, Towns seems to believe that the majority of his readers will be of Type A personalities. This is not necessarily the case; when I face great challenges, I do not sit surrounded by self-help books in my perfectly ordered home, making lists of problems and solutions. In difficult situations, outlines are not my friend and graphs become my greatest enemy. I generally pray, speak to others, attempt to circumvent the situation with little confrontation, or even cry--not, perhaps, an appropriate reaction, but sometimes a person must forsake analytical axioms in order to mend the heart. All of this is entirely ignored within several of Towns' chapters; apparently, only Type A analysts deserve consideration here.
More distressing than the apparent personal mandates of the audience, however, is Towns' thoroughly self-focused approach. Within two chapters, Towns provides sequential steps for solving one's problems. These are entirely void of Biblical principles or language. In fact, Towns himself suggests that his advice is applicable to both Christians and those who are not. Although this may be true, it is distressing to see the same concepts advocated for all within what purports to be a Christian book. The danger here lies, not in the idea that all problems may be solved according to certain steps, but in the fact that Towns' statement denigrates the Christian faith. In a book targeted toward Christians--particularly a book about fasting--reducing the faith to a "take-it-or-leave-it" belief system strikes me as quite disconcerting.
Neither do the difficulties end here. In the same two chapters on problem-solving--the Ezra Fast and the St. Paul Fast, if you are curious--Towns suggests that prayer alone cannot accomplish anything. And whyever not? God is so awesome that, yes, He can answer prayers in powerful ways. Is it wise to seek solutions in addition to prayer? Certainly. Is it aberrant to simply pray? Certainly not!
During certain sections, Towns makes suggestions that seem entirely un-fast-like. Momentarily, I shall end my diatribe against the problem-solving chapters, but for now, let us examine them more closely. Towns suggests that, while praying about a challenge, Christians should gather all of the resources that they can locate--Christian and secular books on the subject at hand; notebooks and journals; Bible commentaries; and, almost as an afterthought, a Bible. I know that I am delving into controversial territory,, but I have a tendency to hold that the most spiritually refreshing fasts are those accomplished through prayer, Scripture reading, and worship. Taking your briefcase to a secluded room; reading business manuals; and occasionally saying a brief prayer is not truly fasting, whether or not you happen to abstain from food during this time.
All of this would, perhaps, be excusable if Towns set forth his notions once, then refrained from discussing them again. However, he repeats the same information almost word-for-word within two chapters. Either he found his relatively-secular, problem-solving strategies extremely important, or he was attempting to create enough material to fulfill a publisher's requirement. In either case, the information was superfluous, highly offensive, and indicative of very poor writing. If you ask a French chef how he feels about McDonald's, you will have a perfect metaphor for my thoughts on bad writing in a Christian book.
Neither is self-centered solution-seeking the only challenge within this work. During the chapter on what Towns refers to as the Daniel Fast, the author suggests that Daniel's decision to refrain from eating the king's delicacies was likely a faith-based one. Excellent premise! However, Towns next surmises that Daniel's choice was primarily a health-based one that honored God. As the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, I can accept this. However, one finds himself in somewhat of a theological mire when he considers Towns' next ideas. Although he is careful to point out that fasting should not be done solely to lose weight, he does suggest that fasting can bring about physical healing. Excellent!
Now, though, comes the difficult point. Towns points out that the book of James makes provision for a sick man to pray; "the prayer ... shall raise him up". Here, Towns suggests that the word for "ill" or "sick" meant, in the original Greek, "a minor or insignificant pathology"--perhaps the flu or a cold. Towns explains that this particular passage was not referring to chronic conditions, such as blindness or paralysis. Now, I do not speak Biblical Greek and can provide evidence neither for nor against Towns' claim. I am, however, terribly distressed that Towns simply states that the passage does not refer to chronic conditions, leaving the discussion at that. Although one New Testament passage does not support healing from chronic conditions, I am sure that others do. That said, Towns seems to be indicating that God cannot--or, at least, does not--heal the blind, the deaf, and the paralyzed. Although I acknowledge that it seldom occurs, I do believe that God can heal those who are experiencing chronic medical challenges--whether by fasting and prayer or by the faith of others. Towns' suggestion that this simply cannot take place severely limits God's power.
In addition to the questionable doctrines regarding healing and self-service, this book might have difficulty finding an audience. Many of the fasts discussed, particularly the Ezra Fast and the Samuel Fast, call for strong leadership. Only leaders, it seems, can call for the Samuel Fast because such a time of prayer involves corporate revival. Who generally has the power to call for such repentance? Generally, this authority lies with leaders. That said, the book is not terribly accessible to average Christians who are simply seeking a closer walk with God. Had I known that it was extraordinarily--perhaps inordinately--leader oriented, I might well have refrained from purchasing this book. Sheep--or church members, as the case may be--like to lie down in the green pastures of peace, not on the carefully-constructed bed of analytical principles.
DEPARTURE: TO THE LAND OF DEMOLITION
As stated earlier, I had set aside three days during which to seek the Lord through intense prayer and was hoping that this book would provide a solid, Biblical foundation for my moments of devotion. Midway through the book, however, I was compelled to stop reading and await a time that would be more suitable to such reading. After publishing this review, I shall likely remove this audio book from my iTunes library. If you are truly curious, I suggest that you check this book out from your public library; it likely is not advisable to purchase this text.