Book Review: John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping

I got John Ortberg’s Soul Keeping almost immediately after reading his If You Want To Walk On Water, primarily because I had enjoyed it so much and been so moved by it.  And as is often the case with me, I made the mistake of assuming the author’s books would all be similar in tone, in attitude, and in topic; I picked up Soul Keeping assuming it would be a convivial little book full of anecdotes and thoughtful reflection.

As it turned out, I was wrong.  Soul Keeping isn’t quite as humorous or as anecdotal as If You Want To Walk On Water; it is by far a more serious and a more philosophical book that cogitates on, as you might imagine, the nature of the soul – and how we ought to be taking care of it.  In that regard, it’s a helpful book – almost a handbook to soul-keeping, as it stands – but might not be for the everyday reader or for those looking for something a bit more light or casual.

The structure of the book was disconcerting to me, at first, since the frame Ortberg uses for it is his series of conversations with his mentor, philosophy professor Dallas Willard. I’d heard of Willard before, but without fully grasping the nature of his work I struggled a bit with jumping into a book that depended so heavily on his thoughts.  With all that being said, Ortberg does a wonderful job of introducing Willard to the reader and helping us to understand what made him such a remarkable man and mentor, and I was warmed up to it by the end of the first chapter or so.

The crux of Soul Keeping is that believers ought to be more thoughtful about our souls than we are.  In an amusing passage, Ortberg points out that many believers can’t even define what a “soul” is, despite knowing that we do have one, and that it is a part of us which is intimately connected to God.  From there, he continues on to discuss the ways in which we can either guard and nourish, or degrade and corrupt, our soul – as well as the results thereof.

This was a fascinating book primarily because it recognizes, with all its talk of the soul, how little our culture wants to think about the soul.  We’ve moved away from worrying about it; anything to do with the soul seems mystical, strange, a little obscure.  In the secular world, there is not much place for concern about it at all.  And yet the believer is to be deeply preoccupied with the state of the soul because, as Ortberg points out, the soul is that which integrates everything else about us: the very fundamental core of who we are.  Neglected, it falls into disarray – and so do we.  This isn’t a book that merely settles into a series of “garbage in, garbage out” platitudes – Ortberg spends some time examining how our choices and our spiritual disciples can transform our soul, and how the lack of those can result in a sort of spiritual disintegration which results in corruption and eventual soul-brokenness.

I was a philosophy minor in college and spent loads of time reading theory and philosophy in graduate school; as such, the heavier and more philosophical aspects of Ortberg’s book felt fairly comfortable to me.  If you’re not the sort of person, though, who enjoys epistemological discussions or inquiries into the nature of the soul that are both spiritual and academic, this won’t be enjoyable reading for you.  While Ortberg does an admirable job of translating philosophical concepts into layman’s terms, and while he offers up excellent and spiritually-grounded suggestions on caring for one’s soul, be mindful that this isn’t really anything like If You Want To Walk On Water (or like Max Lucado, or even Beth Moore).

If this sort of book doesn’t work for you, I’d suggest you not ignore John Ortberg entirely – there’s more of his other work worth looking at, and some of it is far lighter fare than this.  But if you’re interested in something that’s a touch more academic/theological in some aspects than typical fare, and if you’re curious about this thing we have called a soul and feel more than a little ignorant about it, this book will be a boon for you.



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