Living in a time of increased secularization has numerous byproducts, and among them is neglect of the soul. The immaterial or spiritual dimension of the human person has become a mystery, and while soul-language endures, questions such as "How is it with your soul?" are often met with perplexity and mystification. Our thinking concerning the soul is quite limited, and for those suffering from deepest distress at our spiritual core, we lack wisdom concerning where to turn.
John Ortberg, in his latest book Soul Keeping: Caring For the Most Important Part of You ($5.99 on Kindle today), calls our attention to the soul, something he claims we acknowledge yet do not understand. We do live during a time when the soul is greatly neglected, even among Christian people. Therefore, when a pastor or leader steps forward and offers us wisdom, we should evaluate their words first, and then, where found to be true, put them in to practice.
I've read many John Ortberg books, and I think this is one of his best. It is personal and it is sophisticated. It is a readable work, one that I enjoyed. The book begins with a parable, with Ortberg telling us of a stream and its keeper. In the story there is a village, seated at the base of a mountain. High atop the trail, there is an elderly man who travels up and down the stream, keeping it free from debris or any substance that could pollute its waters. As long as the stream is well kept, the village prospers and enjoys the benefits. When the stream is neglected, all suffer. And Ortberg tells us the soul is like the stream, and we are like the keeper. We must do those things which lead to health. The first priority is reconciliation and a sustained relationship with the one for whom our souls are made--God himself. This is a vivid and practical image that is carried throughout the book.
The book consists of a three-part construction. Ortberg explains what the soul is, and examines our lack of knowledge concerning this most fundamental part of the human person. He then explores what the soul needs--a keeper, a center, a future, fellowship with God, rest, freedom, blessing, sanctification, and gratitude. And finally, Ortberg explores the experience of desolation--known by many as the dark night. In complementary fashion, he also examines consolation, and the peace that comes when a soul is at rest, filled with joyous confidence in God.
As someone who reads a great deal of literature on Christian spiritual formation and the care of the soul, I recommend this book. As I have said, it reads easy and contains engaging personal stories and helpful insight. For those who have read Dallas Willard, you will see how Ortberg points to and develops themes within his work. But you will also see Willard as a mortal, a fellow disciple of Jesus who loved God deeply and was transformed by grace, yet not without his flaws and struggles. Ortberg also does well with theological and biblical material that helps the reader to understand the soul, and to turn to Christ for healing.
Other reviewers have noted that Ortberg often speaks of his mentor, the Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. Some found the frequency with which an anecdote, saying, quotation, or experience with Willard makes its way in to these pages an annoyance, and I can see how this might be the case. As I have grown familiar with Willard's work and even attended a few conferences where he spoke in his final years, one of the trends I observed was for his interlocutors to wonder at his brilliance during question and answer sessions, or to tell stories of conversations where Willard's profundity required restatement or simplification in order to be understood. Many of Ortberg's quotations of Willard fall in line with this trend. Many Willard quotes are followed by, "Huh?"
I happen to agree that Dallas Willard is an incomparable mind, and an unconventional thinker. His approach to Christian spiritual formation and the life of discipleship has been revolutionary for my own thought and practice, as it has been for countless others. In my opinion, Ortberg would have done well to let Willard's brilliance speak for itself, without drawing attention to his own slowness to comprehend his offhanded remarks or carefully presented teachings. But that is a matter of taste, not a matter of substance or value concerning Ortberg's overall work. Any reviewer that would downgrade their evaluation of this book because of an annoyance arising from this aspect of the presentation must not have paid ample attention to the lessons Ortberg does in fact offers us, whether by way of Willard, or through his own pastoral experience and theological reflection.
The wise reader will not finish this book and consider it as an end in itself, but will look beyond it to the God who created the soul, and has made available every resource in Jesus to bring about its restoration and healing.