Review "The Common Rule" by Justin Whitmel Earley
Who sets our agenda, God or our smartphone? This is the challenging and timely question that Justin Whitmel Earley asks in his book, ‘The Common Rule’ tagged as a program of habits designed to form us in the love of God and neighbour. Earley writes the book as a response to the endless business of modern life and to fight back against the dominance of technology that seems to be all-encompassing in this day and age. He argues that our schedules rub off on our hearts, driving us far from God and the people we love; essentially, it is a call to change our way of living and fight back if we wish to honour God and build His Kingdom. The book starts with Earley’s personal story and then describes the daily practices, such as kneeling in prayer and looking at your Bible before your phone. The weekly practices follow this, such as observing the Sabbath, fasting and having an hour-long conversation with a friend.
I should say straight away that I have found reading this book to be incredibly exciting, both to read but also to try out! It was refreshing to read the book and come across habits and practices which are simple and don’t induce guilt. Earley writes clearly and with creative vibrancy. I loved reading his description of prayer, and his thoughts on hospitality have given me much food for thought (pun intended, I’m not sorry!). His description of his marriage and mental health are told with honesty and authenticity, a challenge to those of us who are easily jealous of our heterosexual married friends. Earley roots his habits in scripture and takes time to explain how they fit within the biblical narrative. I was pleased to read that these habits are about love and not legalism, and his argument of finding freedom in limits, using Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as an example, definitely rang true to me, as did his challenging words on how our sense of worth often hangs on performance and not on faith. In many ways, this sums up the book's essence - choosing Jesus through these simple habits and rooting our identity in Him rather than in the agenda our technology and media can sometimes give us. I also wanted to give special credit to his chapter on friendship, a subject that Earley clearly holds in high esteem. To find a writer who will advocate for the importance of friends in a marriage-obsessed Christian culture is deeply gratifying and refreshing. Despite the simple nature of the habits, Earley is not afraid to lay down some challenges. Some of us may baulk at the idea of limiting our Netflix time like this reviewer!
Of course, the book is not without flaws. It struck me that the habits Earley advocates for work best when practised in his own lifestyle (a family man with a demanding job, living in a city). With this in mind, I was a little disappointed by the lack of flexibility described in practising the habits. For example, not everyone will be able to kneel in order to do their kneeling prayer, and the alternative suggestion of just opening your hands seemed thoughtless. Whilst I laud his commitment to physical friendship, I couldn’t help but think of the many isolated TFT people that I know who rely desperately on technology for connection and community; what is possible in Richmond, Virginia, may not be possible in rural Britain. Sadly, there is also a level of assumption about people’s social status, namely that we will all have friends who wish to spend an hour with us. Unfortunately, this may not be true, and I could see people reading this chapter with a feeling of disappointment and loneliness.
All of which is to say that this is a ‘pick and mix’ book. I believe that if you read it, you will gain simple, easy habits that will make you more like Jesus, but not every habit will suit every situation. Choose which habits work for you and your circumstances and discard the ones that don’t. For my part, I have found myself excited to try these habits out for myself and have certainly benefited from them over the last few weeks. Simple acts like reading a chapter of Proverbs before looking at my phone have given me a sense of peace and closeness to God. Even switching off my phone for an hour (although terrifying!) has been highly beneficial. So, taking those critiques into account, I’d highly recommend this book to you, and wish you well as you make yourself and your technology obedient to Christ.
“The Common Rule” by Justin Whitmel Earley
( IVP, 2019) 208 pages
£11.99 paperback, £8.49 ebook.
This article was originally published in the summer 2022 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.
Download the summer 2022 edition of Ascend