Posted by: Keith Clark | November 2, 2011

Dictionary of Christian Spirituality

Zondervan’s Dictionary of Christian Spirituality explicitly sets forth seven goals for which it aims, goals which supposedly set it apart from other reference works on Christian spirituality:

  • Biblically engaged
  • Accessible and relevant to contemporary Christian practitioners
  • Generous in its regard for the full range of Christian traditions of spirituality
  • Attentive to otherwise neglected topics, concerns, and formative figures in the evangelical tradition of spirituality
  • Global and international in both topical scope and contributors
  • Reflective of interdisciplinary engagement with related fields of inquiry
  • Reasonably priced

The dictionary, divided into two parts (“integrative perspective” essays and shorter alphabetized articles more narrow in focus), generally attains these goals.

In surveying the extensive material in the dictionary, its strengths are readily apparent, many of which are foreshadowed in the goals stated in the preface. The attention paid to other traditions of spirituality is immensely important, given the increasingly pluralistic world in which many prospective readers of this work live. The inclusion of more recent persons (i.e. Richard Foster and Ronald Sider) and events of significance (i.e. the development of the internet) in the study of Christian spirituality reflects well the ever-evolving landscape of Christian spirituality, while not eclipsing the classic persons and events of established importance. The intentional incorporation of interdisciplinary engagement (especially in the “integrative perspective” essays “Music and the Arts,” “Spirituality in Relationship to Psychology and Therapy,” and “Spirituality in Relation to Creation”) helpfully nudges the study and practice of Christian spirituality into the common life of the church, rather than allowing it to remain confined to a small segment of Christians. The biblical engagement of the contributors is evidenced throughout, with each “integrative perspective” essay and even many of the shorter articles being replete with Bible references.

The dictionary has its limitations as well. While the interdisciplinary engagement is helpful as far as it goes, it does not go far enough. The “integrative perspective” essay, “Spirituality in Relation to Creation,” begins to address the interface of science and spirituality, but doesn’t move much beyond questions of origins. Further, it is striking to recognize little in the way of such interdisciplinary engagement related to issues of economics, business, and politics. Additionally, the level of technical or specialized language raises questions as to the dictionary’s accessibility. While the stated goal is to be accessible to “practitioners,” many of the articles feature language that would be cumbersome to any practitioners not trained or well-read in the literature of Christian spirituality. Given the fact those already trained or well-read are less likely to rely on a reference volume such as this, the amount of technical or specialized language is surprising. Lastly, some of the shorter articles are so short and lacking in relevant insight, they are not helpful. It’s not that the topics themselves are unnecessary, but that the content of the articles simply did not merit their inclusion.

Limitations of reference works are as frustrating as they are inevitable. Despite the limitations, however, the strengths of Dictionary of Christian Spirituality combined with its low price-point, make it worthy of inclusion in any minister’s or church’s library.

Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher, though I was not required to write a positive review.


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