Soul Keeping (by John Ortberg)

I have very much appreciated John Ortberg’s books over the years. He’s an American evangelical pastor, which could be off-putting to many; but he’s neither a fundamentalist, nor judgemental. He writes from a gentle, loving perspective focussing on people’s real needs and stresses. So whenever I discover that he’s written a new book, I put it on my wishlist. I was delighted to be given this one for my birthday a few months ago.

‘Soul Keeping’ (Ortberg has evidently given up on the long unwieldy titles of his earlier books!) is a book about the soul. Some might call it the ‘psyche’, but then that’s the Greek word for ‘soul’. Most of us are a little vague about what actually constitutes the soul, and I’m not sure I’m a great deal clearer even after reading the book - but although it's an overtly Christian book, it could be of interest to anyone who is willing to look beyond the material world.

The writing is clear, well-presented and structured in a way that each section builds on the one before. I read this over a couple of weeks, mostly covering just a chapter per day. The author gives some anecdotes from his own life as a father and pastor, and some relevant episodes in the lives of other people he’s known, in particular his friend Dallas Willard, as illustrations for what he is writing about.

The first section attempts to explain what the soul is, or at least how the author sees it, and certainly explains what it is not. It’s not our physical selves; it’s not our mind (by which he includes both thoughts and feelings) and it’s not our will. Instead, it’s something that makes us who we are; it encompasses our personalities, and is affected by the health of our bodies and minds, and the actions we choose with our wills. Ortberg gives plenty of Scriptural references to the soul, but I eventually realised it was never going to be clear to me. Perhaps it’s impossible to define the essence of who we are, in relation to God, and to other people.

The second, longest section of the book is divided into several chapters, each focussing on different qualities that the soul needs. A centre, for instance, a future, rest, freedom, gratitude, and more. By this stage I had a vague, fuzzy idea of the soul, and what the author said made a lot of sense. To be whole, authentic and integrated people, we need to be centred on God, aligning our wills with what we know to be right. We need to keep our bodies and minds healthy by eating the right foods and concentrating on the right things. When we do something we know to be wrong, we become fragmented: damaged in our souls.

The final part of the book looks at suffering, and the ‘dark night of the soul’ when we feel a long way away from God despite no known sins or unhealthy decisions. The author does not use cliches or false comfort; he acknowledges that this can happen, and that it’s not the fault of the person concerned. It’s not particularly reassuring, in that he gives no ways out other than time and a great deal of patience.

I don’t know that I found any great new insights into this book, but I found it encouraging and helpful in beginning to get a glimpse of what the soul might be. I was particularly challenged by the idea of ‘blessing’ (a jargon word, but there’s no real alternative) others in all we say and do, and that the opposite of blessing is cursing.

Definitely recommended if you’re interested in this topic.

Review copyright 2017 Sue's Book Reviews

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