Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2006, 294 pp.
Oh, what a beautiful novel this is. It is a profound testimony to grief, community, ministry and the relationship between a church and its pastor. I need novels for myself, for my own emotional well-being. Sometimes, I have a tough time breaking down and working through my own feelings. The problems are too close and too complex and they feel overwhelming. A good novel lets me do the emotional work a bit vicariously–weeping, grieving, sitting in silence. Abide With Me was just that kind of book.
The novel tells the story of Rev. Tyler Caskey, a pastor to a small town church in Maine. It is the story of his marriage to an unlikely candidate to be a pastor’s wife, of their love and their struggles and her untimely death. It is the story of his daughter Katherine, age 5, and how his grief and her own break down in her life. It is the story of the members of the parish–the organist who wants a new organ and her husband reckoning with his unfaithfulness; the housekeeper who befriends him in spite of her shady past; the teacher and school psychologist who play out their own assumptions on him and his daughter, on and on. It is a story about the heavy, heart-wrenching work of grief, the toll it takes on a life to engage that work, and the even greater cost of ignoring it. In the end, it is a story of redemption and the power of community to move beyond rumor and gossip into love. It is a story of imperfection and vulnerability between pastor and congregation, told with hope and affection.
Strout includes many insightful gems from the life and mind of the minister, like Tyler’s desire for “The Feeling,” the “profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there” (15) and his reflections and comparisons of his own calling with that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which many a pastor has done (including this one). At one point, his sister accuses him of caring too much about the feelings of others: “If you’re always thinking of the other person first, you don’t have to bother with what you’re feeling. Or thinking.” (123)
When Tyler’s grief finally overtakes him and he breaks down in the pulpit, the organist subtly begins playing “Abide With Me,” his favorite hymn, while the head deacon comes forward and takes his hand. His seminary professor then tells him,
Your congregation, it seems to me, has given you love. And it’s your job to receive it. Perhaps before now they gave you an admiring, childlike kind of love, but what happened to you that Sunday–and their response to it–is a mature and compassionate love. (286)
I am blessed to serve that kind of congregation, and I was blessed to read about Tyler Caskey’s congregation, the way they cared for each other as pastor and congregation. Thank you, Elizabeth Strout, for Abide with Me.
Inhabiting Eden: Christians, the Bible and the Ecological Crisis by Patricia K. Tull, Westminster John Knox, 2013, 193 pp.
There are Christians who are passionate environmental activists, those who are mostly committed recyclers, and those who doubt that their faith has much to do with the concern for the earth. No matter what your current attitude, this book is a great resource for you. Hebrew Bible scholar Trisha Tull (who also happens to be a neighbor and friend) has written a thoughtful, scriptural book intended to stimulate conversation about the connections between our Christian faith and concern for the well-being of our shared planet. It is Tull’s depth and approach as a biblical scholar and theologian that makes this book so rich and helpful.
Tull starts in the most natural place–the story of creation in Genesis. This is well-covered territory when connecting the scriptures to concern for the environment. While Tull’s analysis adds richness to the conversation on Sabbath and the imago dei, it is in the subsequent chapters that the book adds the most to the ongoing conversation. Most Christian authors on this subject stop after the simple implication that God created us to care for the earth, and therefore we should. Tull digs deeper, and uncovers many layers of biblical treasures that inform and impact our relationship with the natural world.
For example, she moves immediately beyond the story of creation into Genesis 3-4, the story of the expulsion from the Garden and the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. She sees in the text the subtle language implying that the soil, the earth itself is damaged by these wounds, and she talks about the way God created human life to exist within limits–and the way we are punish and the earth hurts when we break those limits.
The subsequent chapters take on particular examples from scripture that pertain to consumerism, food systems, animal care, environmental justice, and climate change. However, rather than launching into a polemic about the environmental crises at hand, Tull starts with the biblical narrative and constructs a scriptural worldview. This is not a proof-text or an attempt to make a scriptural case for environmental causes. Instead, it is a conversation between the proper relationships laid out in the Bible governing human relationships with the earth, and the relationships we find ourselves living out here in the 21st century. The results are insightful and arresting–but not without hope.
One of the best examples in the book is the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Tull reminds us that the story is one where the poor man (Naboth) has his few possessions stripped away by the rich and powerful for their own pleasure and acquisition. Then she places that story alongside the poor communities today whose land, clean air and clean water are stripped away by wealthy corporations. She writes,
While environmental justice takes many forms, this chapter will reflect specifically on the modern Naboths who lose property and even health and life to more powerful neighbors, specifically to industries nearby whose toxic wast invades their air, water, soil and bodies. (115)
The scripture serves to illuminate the unjust relationship in our own world, to draw a narrative parallel rather than making a finger-wagging case.
Just a few pages later, Tull summarizes her own work in the book this way:
The question here is not whether Scripture yields exact parallels to contemporary dilemmas. Rather it is the extent to which we are at least living up to Scripture’s best principles. If we find Scripture instructive, and even authoritative, how might we encourage better practices for our world? (117)
It’s that approach, from beginning to end, that makes Inhabiting Eden so worthwhile. The book’s intended audience is not people who care about the environment, but people who care about the Bible, especially those who take the bible seriously (though not literally) as a guide for contemporary life. Each chapter contains discussion questions and activities to try at home, making it a natural fit for small group conversations in churches. This is not a polemic, it is an invitation–to move closer to God, to study the Bible, and to understand ourselves, our roles, our limits and our responsibilities in relationship with the whole earth.
The Sociopath Next Door: The Ruthless Versus the Rest of Us by Martha Stout, Three Rivers Press, 2005, 241 pp.
Clinical psychologist Martha Stout has spent much of her career helping people whose lives have been damaged by the work of sociopaths. Sociopaths, she argues, are not just the stereotypical violent criminals without a conscience. In fact, she argues, one in 25 ordinary Americans lives without a conscience. This book is a conversation not only about how to recognize (and avoid falling prey to) the sociopaths in your life, but about the importance of conscience to our understanding of what it means to be human. Drawing on case studies from her own practice, psychological research, and philosophical understandings, she explores the role of conscience in our social work, and the dangers of its absence.
The opening section of the book describes conscience as a seventh sense, an human capacity for care and concern for the needs and feelings of others. Stout describes Joe, a man who left for a very important meeting and work trip without leaving enough food for his dog. Does he turn around and go back, or leave the dog hungry until morning? What force, internal or external, drives his decision? What makes him return to feed the dog is the thing we call “conscience,” and Stout traces the development of the idea from early Christian thinkers like Jerome and Augustine, to Aquinas, and then on into the modern conception of selfhood developed by Freud, carefully distinguishing between conscience and super-ego.
To be a sociopath is to exist without this thing called conscience, this nagging accountability for the feelings and well-being of others. Contrary to our stereotypes, many sociopaths are popular, well-liked and successful in life. She tells the story of Skip, a wealthy, married businessman who gets ahead by ruthless cunning and winning the affections of others; of Doreen, who passes as a licensed psychologist and treats patients, all while manipulating coworkers simply because she is jealous of them; of Luke, who married a woman for her pool and continued to evoke pity even in those of whom he had taken advantage. To a sociopath, life is a game for the winning, and those who bother to care about others are chumps and losers.
Stout details the ways that sociopaths learn to use the consciences of those around them as tools of manipulation. The key way to identify a sociopath, she says, is pity. Sociopaths evoke pity in those around them, because people are most easily manipulated into generosity, sacrifice and obedience when they feel sorry for someone. (107-108) Ironically, what is most pitiable about sociopaths is the same thing that makes them the most dangerous. Sociopathy is rooted in the complete inability to form an emotional attachment to another human being (or animal). Stout writes, “Conscience never exists without the ability to love, and sociopathy is ultimately based in lovelessness.” Sociopaths are so dangerous to human relationships because they have absolutely no care or concern about the well-being of others.
One interesting observation Stout makes is about the prevalence of sociopaths in American culture, compared with other parts of the world. In the Western world, sociopaths make up four percent of the population, as compared with 0.03-0.14 percent in East Asian countries like China and Japan. (136). Psychologists believe that sociopathy is caused by a combination of both nature and nurture, as life experiences can trigger certain genetic predispositions. Perhaps, Stout argues, cultural norms of group identity and familial obligations can curb sociopathy in those cultures. In America and the West, by contrast, our cultural values of acquisitiveness, power, individuality, independence and freedom can actually encourage and reward sociopathic behaviors.
The book concludes by looking at the opposite of conscience-less sociopathology–those individuals with an overabundance of conscience. By contrast, Stout reminds us that these people are not troubled souls. In fact, they are our moral heroes. If conscience is linked to the ability to love, an abundance of conscience comes from an abundance of capacity for love. These moral exemplars are those whose hearts are big enough to love beyond the normal scope of friends and family, and to take responsibility for social justice in the wider world. If the absence of conscience is a grave danger, its excess is a gift to all humanity.
Stout’s book is an interesting read. As someone who works with people from all walks of life, it was informative and insightful about how to be on the lookout for those who are dangerous to communities and individuals within them. Looking over my congregation, community and circles of relationships, I did not recognize sociopaths in our midst after reading this book, certainly not at a rate of 1 out of 25. However, I think this information will arm me well if and when someone raises my suspicions, and help me think through how to protect those most vulnerable.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2008, 286 pp.
Olive Kitteridge is not a novel in the traditional sense, nor is it simply a collection of short stories. It’s more like a series of highlights or video clips assembled in chronological order but not necessarily united by a single story arc. The single unifying presence is Olive Kitteridge, a woman large in physical presence and charismatic influence on whatever room she enters. She is not charming or adored–she is often feared, loathed, or avoided. Sometimes she is the center of the story–it is her story–but often she is only a minor character on the set, someone who simply helps advance the plot in some simple way.
Each of the thirteen stories is self-contained and stands on its own, beautifully written and intricate with details of the characters’ internal lives. Several of the stories feature her husband Henry or her son Christopher. Most of the stories, though, center on various people in the Maine town where they live. Strout picks up on the intimate back stories of the woman who plays piano in the bar, the cashier in the grocery store, the man who moved away and returned for a visit. Olive herself is a teacher, and Henry the town pharmacist.
For most of the stories, the character’s live and development is contained in the one short chapter focused on them. But Olive evolves throughout the book, as do our impressions of her. Christopher grows up, Henry ages–but only Olive matures and develops in ways that are deeper and richer as the various stories unfold through her and around her. I was surprised and touched by how my own perceptions of Olive evolved throughout the course of the book. I was cheering for her at the end.
In fact, only a handful of the congregation goes to church regularly anymore. This saddens Henry, and worries him. They have been through two ministers in the last five years, neither one bringing much inspiration to the pulpit. The current fellow, a man with a beard, and who doesn’t wear a robe, Henry suspects won’t last long. He is young with a growing family, and will have to move on. What worries Henry about the paucity of the congregation is that perhaps others have felt what he increasingly tries to deny–that this weekly gathering provides no real sense of comfort. When they bow their heads or sing a hymn, there is no sense anymore–for Henry–that God’s presence is blessing them. (15)
I am looking forward to reading more from Elizabeth Strout. I struggled a bit to get into Olive Kitteridge, because I wanted to dive into a traditional novel instead of the separate stories. However, her beautiful prose and intricate characters kept me going. It was well worth it.
When “Spiritual But Not Religious” is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church by Lillian Daniel, Jericho Books, 2013, 215 pp.
When this book came out last year, it sparked a lot of interest, attention and controversy within the church world and beyond it. Most of that attention related to a snarky opening essay where Daniel challenges the depth and novelty of those who identify as “spiritual but not religious.” While I was sympathetic to those who stood up for the “spiritual but not religious” and argued that the proper Christian response should not be snark but sensitivity, I also appreciated Daniel’s attempt to illustrate the often self-centered and shallow nature of that path, and to make a case for the other side.
What was interesting in reading the book is that the critique (and the snark) is mostly limited to the first opening essay. In that essay, she tells the story of an encounter with someone who has moved through a variety of churches, and now says that they don’t go to church any more because they can find God just fine with the sunset, or a walk on the beach, or at home reading the New York Times. Her interlocutor is a particular man, but serves as a composite representation we all recognize. She describes, with a great insight and accuracy, the way he speaks of his own spiritual wandering as somehow more sophisticated or evolved than those who continue to require church to find God. Her description captures the arrogance that often prickles those of us who have devoted our lives to being both spiritual AND religious. She goes on to offer a more substantive critique that calls out the self-centerness, inaction in response to human need, and inability to wrestle with human suffering of his position. I have to admit, I was cheering her on in this section. It felt good to have someone take up the other side for once. She pushed hard along the lines of the title, to show that “spiritual but not religious” is not enough. This was one gem:
Who are you, God of sunsets and rainbows and bunnies and chain e-mails about sweet friends? Who are you, cheap God of self-satisfaction and isolation? Who are you, God of the beautiful and physically fit? Who are you, God of the spiritual but not religious? Who are you, God of the lucky, chief priest of the religion of gratitude? Who are you, and are you even worth knowing? Who are you, God whom I invent? Is there, could there be, a more interesting God who invented me? (10)
I expected the rest of the book to continue along these lines, but it did not. It is not a case against people who identify as “spiritual but not religious,” or an analysis of why that position will falter and fail. Instead, the book is an ode to a life that is both spiritual and religious, an homage to the way that spirituality–even God–exists within traditional churches. After the opening chapter, Daniel proceeds to tell story after story after story of how the church crosses borders to connect with everyday life and everyday people. Rather than craft an argument, she weaves a network of stories that break down the stereotypes of what the church is, how it acts and what it does in the world. She talks about her experiences of impatience in yoga class, bringing seminary education to Sing Sing, jealousy in talents, struggles in prayers, and the church serving those who are never its members.
To be honest, I really wanted more of an argument. Daniel is a brilliant storyteller, but I felt like I was enjoying all the appetizers and still waiting for the main course. I left the table still hungry. While she alluded to various biblical stories, she didn’t probe them nearly as deeply as she did the stories from her own experience. The book was heavy on contemporary life, and light on theology and bible study. Which made me wonder: was this whole endeavor, like “seeker services” at the local megachurch, an invitation for the spiritual but not religious to engage in conversation about what the church might offer? The snark at the beginning made me think it would be a book for churchy-types to hold their own against the rising tide of religious nones, but the rest of the book seemed like a perfect invitation for those who are spiritual but not religious to engage with someone who still finds hope and purpose in the church.
It was beautifully written, humorous and connected–just a much lighter read than I anticipated. I recommend it, but set your expectations for spiritual insight, beauty and reflections on life, rather than snark, critical depth and analysis.
On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good by Jim Wallis, Brazos Press, 2013, 303 pp.
I’ll confess this up front: I have a whole bunch of mixed feelings about Jim Wallis and Sojourners. Sojourners magazine was key to helping me find my faith footing when I was emerging from my evangelical background, and I value their commitment to social justice and especially economic justice and advocacy for the poor. They do good and important work in that area–helping connect economic justice issues to emerging and evangelical Christians. I remain disappointed at their narrow-minded approach to issues of reproductive rights and their explicit rejection of equal rights for LGBT people. That’s the basics.
On a more snarky note, I find Jim Wallis’ writing to be desperately in need of a good editor. It seems repetitive, rambling and way, way too long. What is charismatic and endearing in speeches is long and dry in print. All of that was true in this book as well. Nevertheless, this book was a gift from a church member who wanted me to read it, and it was on a topic that I wanted to read about. It may have taken me a year (and frequent stops and starts), but I made it through. I still wish it was shorter and that Wallis stopped equivocating on issues of sexuality, but that doesn’t make me want to toss it out altogether. I’m glad I read it.
Now, with all that baggage named and claimed, let’s talk about what’s in the book itself.
On God’s Side is intended to spark a new public, religious and political conversation about the meaning of the common good. Rather than creating a religious left to stand against the religious right, Wallis wants us to claim another place where we agree on shared values. “Don’t go right, don’t go left, go deeper,” he says. (5) On the role of religion and society, he lends a nuance to Martin Luther King’s understanding that religion is the conscience of the state:
Religion does much better when it leads–when it actually cares about the needs of everybody, not just its own community, and when it makes the best inspirational and common sense case, in pluralistic democracy, for public policies that express the core values of faith in regard to how we should all treat our neighbors. (6)
Instead of trying to dominate the public square, faith communities should seek to inform and inspire it. Faith communities should prefer authenticity over conformity, reflection over certainty, leadership by example and not control. (19)
Our role in the world is to offer the presence of unexpected hope–not by what we say, but by what we show in our love and care for one another and the world. (24) Wallis argues that an emphasis on the common good brings together the right’s drive for personal responsibility with the left’s drive for social justice, both of which are required for society to function well. Theologically, Wallis roots this connection in Christology, claiming that an “atonement-only” Jesus is insufficient for a “God who so loved the world.” Jesus came for the sake of the world, and we must live for the sake of the world as well. (58-61)
The rest of the book wanders back over this territory again in different ways (that repetitive, rambling thing). However, Wallis does offer a sort of theological laundry list of all the issues we could and should engage as the church–not just right or left, but issues that all followers of Jesus could unite to address. Wallis covers immigration reform, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, civility in public debate, voting rights, the influence of money in politics and elections, wealth inequality, transparency and accountability in our financial institutions, exploitative lending practices, “stand your ground” laws, homelessness, human sex trafficking, mass incarceration, and the need for stable families. Some of the stuff about families drew way too close to traditional gender norms and certainly did not address the changing meaning of “family.” Some of the rest felt like a refresher in good liberalism, which felt quite refreshing to me at this stage in my life, when I am not immersed in it.
Wallis’ power remains his ability to bridge a concern for social and economic justice with evangelical theology. This was evidenced in a special section devoted to debates about the size of government, which is an issue far more on the right than the left. His most compelling case, as always, is that faith (even evangelical faith) is not a private matter. It is for the good of the world, not just the good of an individual soul. While this book did nothing to cause me to put aside all the above-named baggage I brought into it, that baggage did not stand in the way of making this a meaningful book to read. It offered some fresh insight and depth on the role of religion in relation to the state, and renewed my perspective on how we Christians ought to be engaged in the work of social justice.
Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening by Diana Butler Bass, HarperOne, 2012, 294 pp.
The ever-wise Diana Butler Bass continues her quest to root out the spiritual lives of contemporary Americans and the ways that local churches are helping, hurting, or just left out of them. Christianity After Religion unfolds the next chapter of the work she began in The Practicing Congregation (2004) and continued in Christianity for the Rest of Us (2006). Those books examined what was happening among mainline congregations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Christianity After Religion moves beyond what’s gone wrong and what’s going right in churches, and starts to posit what comes next after the rapid upheaval of the last several decades.
Bass describes a radical transformation underway in the practice of Christianity, triggered by a crisis in legitimacy. The crisis in legitimacy means that “large numbers of people question basic aspects of meaning and life.” (47) The basic questions–What do I believe? How should I act? Who am I?–are not being answered in a meaningful, satisfactory way by religion as it has been known and practiced. The compelling sense of believing, behaving and belonging has slowly eroded from contemporary Christianity. Bass traces the ways that believing, behaving and belonging have faded, leaving us with a faltering religion and the rise of the “spiritual but not religious” segregation.
While the decline and crisis of legitimacy have been unfolding for decades, the first dozen years of the 21st century have been especially brutal. Bass identifies this as the “horrible decade” with a precipitous decline in religious participation and a “religious recession.” She cites five triggers for this horrible decade:
- September 11, 2001 Terrorist Attacks: When religion was blamed for the attacks
- Roman Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal: When religious leaders went from most trustworthy to least trustworthy professionals
- Protestant Conflict over Homosexuality: When Christians were mean to each other and especially mean to LGBT people
- Religious Right Win in 2004 Election, but Lose a Generation: The reelection of George W. Bush felt like a victory for the right, but it alienated an entire generation of young people who associated Christianity with ugly politics, power and exclusion
- Religious Recession: Studies document that only 20% of Americans have a “great deal of confidence” in “organized religion.” Participation declines rapidly. (76-83)
These have been the exact years of my ministry. I was ordained in the spring of 2001, and I have never known another decade of ministry. This is what it’s always been like. However, when you add it up like Bass does, it looks pretty bleak.
However, Bass is not bleak in her outlook. Not at all. Instead, she pronounces that this discontent is actually “a deeper longing for a better sort of Christianity.” (87)
What the world needs is better religion, new forms of old faiths, religion reborn on the basis of deep spiritual connection–these things need to be explored instead of ditching religion completely. (96)
The root of religion is “religio,” to reconnect–to claim the “and” of faith and practice.
What I appreciate most about Bass in this book is that she doesn’t stop there. In fact, she’s just getting started. She begins to chart the course of the new Christianity that might emerge–what it will look like, how it will feel, what it will embody. She returns to each of the fundamental questions of believing, behaving and belonging and offers a perspective on how they will be redefined and how we can begin to engage that work. For the work of believing, she shifts the question from “What do I believe?” to “How do I believe?” and “Who do I believe?” Those changes make room to explore issues of authority, meaning and authenticity. The work of behaving shifts attention to practices of faith. While habit used to be sufficient, we must now return to bigger questions of “what” and “why” we engage in worship, prayer, service and other practices. Bass writes,
Practices are the connective tissue between what is, what can be, and what will be. Spiritual practices are living pictures of God’s intentions for a world of love and justice. (160)
Our attention to behaving must focus on intention (the practices that will intentionally give shape to my life in faith) and imitation (the practices that imitate Jesus and the saints). The work of belonging, then, is the fundamental work of identity. Who am I? Where am I? Who am I in God? Our sense of identity is in flux, moving away from old familial and geographic identifiers and toward a more fluid understanding that “I am my journey.” (178) Our spiritual journey then becomes a sense of discovering who we are in God and through God, in relationship to God and one another.
After describing the new questions of believing, behaving and belonging, Bass proclaims that there needs to be a “great reversal.” For the last 500 years, since the Enlightenment and Reformation, we have put belief first in the order of faith, followed by behaving and then belonging. It is time to return to the original order: belong, behave, believe. First we belong to a community, then we take on the practices of faith. The sense of belonging (identity) and behaving (practicing) are what evoke believing. (203-204) The final section of the book outlines this transformation as a Fourth Great Awakening, and draws some of the outlines taking shape.
Christianity After Religion is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve read dozens of books about the decline of the church, the need for transformation, the causes of the collapse and what we should be doing about it. None of them compare to the depth of insight, wisdom, description and prescription found here. I finished reading it about six weeks ago, and I’m already feeling the need to read it again. It is a book to study, revisit and use as a lens for seeing contemporary ministry and religious life. I think every religious leader should be reading this book, talking about it, and finding ways to interact with it in their ministry. This book contains what may seem like depressing information about the demise of religious life as we’ve known it in our lifetimes. But it rings with hope at every page. There will be death, to be sure–but God holds out the promise for a resurrection, more beautiful and brilliant that we could have imagined. Thank you, Diana Butler Bass, for helping to roll away the stone.