To those within Vineyard and New Wine Christian circles, Alexander Venter will be a familiar name. Venter is a South African pastor and church planter, currently engaged in itinerant teaching ministry, having planted and pastored churches. He is one of the key Vineyard international teachers – with his books like Doing Healing, Doing Church and Doing Reconciliation blending together common sense, biblical intelligence and practical teaching. He kindly sent me a copy of his newest book, Doing Spirituality: The Journey of Character Formation toward Christlikeness, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.
Alexander begins his book with a brief tribute to Dallas Willard, the well known theologian and spiritual teacher, whose fingerprints are all over the book. After a brief preface, we get going on the first of three key sections – the introduction, wherein Venter defines true spirituality thus: “For Christians, it’s about spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness: Jesus, the quintessential human being, who came to reveal the Creator- God. Practically, it means formation of moral character, knowing right from wrong, and routinely and naturally doing what is good and right in love of God and others.” Doing Spirituality is rooted in the story of Jesus and the theology and message of the Kingdom of God – Alexander’s cultural awareness of the power of story and the search for meaning helpfully frames this book, grounding it in reality.
In terms of locating his teaching and ideas in culture, Venter writes superbly, and I really was provoked in a positive way by this extended quote:
“Our (Western) minds have been fed rationalism, our bodies lavished with materialism, and our souls starved of spiritual mystery. We are mental-technological giants, but psycho-emotional and spiritual dwarfs. Modernism did not deliver the promised utopia of progress to freedom and prosperity. On the contrary, it gave us two world wars with atomic bombs and the holocaust. Fifty-two million people were killed in World War II, sacrificed to the god of humanist-modernity. We can now not only destroy humanity but the earth itself. We rape the earth of its natural resources, causing industrial pollution and global warming, with disastrous consequences. Thus disillusionment with Modernity has led to the current craving for spirituality.“
The middle part of the book deals with theological issues relevant to spirituality and the ‘doing’ of it, whilst the final section is eminently practical, with a number of chapters offering disciplines and tools for spiritual formation, as well as a call to the integrated spiritual life. For those looking to get on and ‘do’ something, you *could* read just this practical section, but you would be missing out. It would be like eating pulled pork without sitting around enjoying the smell for hours whilst it cooks.
The theological section of Doing Spirituality is a treat, as Alexander grounds spirituality within the wider theology and practice of the Kingdom of God, and (in his own words) “the glorious horizon of the Trinity – The Eternal Community – one God in three Persons: Father, Son and Spirit.” It is also an explicitly and deliberately (And, I would argue, beautifully) kingdom shaped perspective. Again, an extended quotation emphasises this, balancing a biblical eschatology with a practical rooting of ‘spirituality’, the ‘doing’ of the books title:
“Salvation and heaven are not escape into God’s presence beyond the clouds – a disembodied spiritual bliss! Yes, “born again” or pneumatikos people go to be with the Lord when they die. But it’s to “rest” in anticipation of their bodily resurrection. Salvation is “reigning in life” with Messiah – now in our mortal bodies, and in the age to come in resurrected bodies on a renewed earth (Rom 5:17, 8:19–23). God did not create humanity to leave the earth and “go to heaven”. He created us to be his image on earth, to rule over his creation. So, God’s goal is for heaven to come to earth when we rule and reign with Christ in resurrection bodies over his new creation. This is our vision, our destiny. Anticipating its fulfilment in the way we live now, by the power of God’s Spirit, is what biblical (or kingdom) spirituality is all about.“
Throughout, Alexander is keen to live in the tension of the Kingdom of God:
“The mystery is that we live between the times, in the overlapping or co-existence of two ages – a unique ontological and existential reality. Theologians call it the “already” and “not yet” of God’s kingdom.
Understanding this revealed mystery is crucial. It explains much of our daily reality as Christians. In fact, the remainder of this book is an exposition of this basic reality, the “eschatological tension” or warfare we find ourselves in. We try to resolve the tension one way or another. No one likes to live in tension, in war! The bad news is: it will not be resolved till Jesus comes or till we die. The good news is: it is the very means by which God grows and transforms us. It’s the stuff of our spiritual formation, the means of our training for reigning with Christ in this age and the age to come.“
Alexander has walked this road for a long time – and so many of the lessons in this book are hard-won. Throughout Doing Spirituality there is a wonderful emphasis on this tension of the Kingdom of God, and how this works out in personal reality. I love the echoes of Wimber, Peterson, and many great saints in this phrase: “Personal transformation, especially of character, takes much more than ecstatic power-encounter – it takes a long obedience in the same direction toward Christlikeness.” This book is also robustly biblical – not in terms of using the Bible as a series of proof texts, but rather taking seriously what the Bible says and appropriate ways of interpreting it. This is a book that engages the whole self, just as its ideas and vision embrace the whole of Bible. We often forget the big picture of the Bible, and so I love Venter’s summary that “My point is that Christian spirituality, which is Hebrew Messianic faith, must be grounded in biblical theology“. Amen!
Ultimately, this is a great book to read if you are interested in how to live like Jesus, and a superb introduction to the wider themes of spirituality and how it can and should intersect with the bible and theology in the life of the believer. Doing Spirituality would work as a book to be read and discussed in a small group – but reads well and is superbly written. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it – and would gladly go through it again in a more ‘practical’ way, using the discussion questions, trying out the exercises, and ‘leaning in’ to the Doing of spirituality in the way of Jesus.
If you are interested in finding more about Alexander, his website is a great place to start. I also link below to a number of books that may be of interest, relating to some of the themes in Doing Spirituality:
- Andy Frost’s book Long Story Short looks at the power and purpose of stories in our lives.
- Jon Brown’s MORE: Real considers the importance of authenticity.
- Campolo and Darling’s God of Intimacy and Action is a helpful both/and approach to a faith that embraces both spirituality and justice.
- Snodgrass’s Who God Says You Are is a great book on identity that would mesh well with Doing Spirituality.