A Serious Call To A Devout And Holy Life, by William Law
I would likely never have read quite a few books, including this one, had I not first read a book commending this work as one of 25 books that all Christians should read in their lifetimes . Quite a few of these books have been Christian classics worthy of being read, but this book unfortunately reads like the nagging of an insufferable prig. A great deal of my considerable annoyance at this book has to do with the framing. This book is like a minister giving a finger-wagging jeremiad to his audience, and rather than someone seeking a godly way to live and obey God and setting a good example, this book is a serious of arrogant and hostile lectures. One gets the distinct feeling that this book was chosen as one of the two dozen great classics of Christian writing because those people appreciated the finger-wagging and had the same pietist feelings about our own present age. This sentiment does not make this book any more enjoyable to read, but even if this book is difficult to enjoy, it is certainly worthwhile to read on other grounds.
In terms of its contents, this book consists of 300 pages of someone giving their unasked for spiritual advice on how to engage in works righteousness and more or less earn their way into God’s good graces. Throughout the book one gets the distinct feeling that the author is trying to promote an almost Roman Catholic spirituality under another name, for popery was looked down upon in the 18th century England when the author wrote. The chapters contain various calls to overcome the materialism of life and devote oneself to prayer and extreme personal piety through various object lessons taken from the author’s views of the people of his own time, some positive and mostly negative and all of them given some kind of odd Greek or Latin-based name in order to avoid the inevitable lawsuits for libel that would have resulted had the author spoken about them by their name. The result is a book that drags on and tends to be written deliberately to provoke the reader into some sort of attempt at self-justification in the face of the author’s attacks, ending with a few chapters that appear to be encouraging the reader to set up a personal devotional habit that resembles the monastic prayers of the Middle Ages, although the author is not intellectually honest enough to tell his readers that he is promoting prayers on prime or vespers or something else of that nature.
So, if this book is such a chore to get through and is written so unpleasantly, what about it is worthwhile to read? There are at least some praiseworthy aspects of this book. The author’s goals of supporting social causes is notable and worthy, and the author has a high view of the spiritual capabilities of women and appears to have risen above much of the casual sexism of his time, which is praiseworthy. Most of all, though, is that this book serves us as reminder of what we can be when we let our own thoughts of personal piety overcome any sort of concern for the well-being and respect for the freedom of others. This book is like a post stuck in the water telling us that shoals or reefs are ahead and that if we want to safely travel through the seas of our lives without encountering shipwreck we should avoid sailing in that direction. Sometimes knowing what spirituality to avoid in our lives, including the self-righteous condemnation of others who are at last as righteous as ourselves, is as important to be aware of as the sort of spiritual practices and disciplines we should appreciate. This is the work of an ascetic whose writings seem almost Gnostic in their distaste for God’s physical creation, and as a warning of what we are to avoid in our own spiritual life this book is certainly an achievement, although not necessarily an achievement someone would prefer to write.
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