Women, Food and God: An Unexpected Path to Almost Everything by Geneen Roth, Scribner, 2010, 211 pp.
I don’t even know how to start talking about this book. Geneen Roth is the non-diet expert, who speaks to women of their food issues by telling us it is about issues first and food second. This book is the summary of all of her other works, the one that puts her philosophy and worldview together in one place. As always, it just makes sense to me, even if I am not ready or able to change my life to conform to it entirely.
The basic premise of the book is that women who struggle with their relationship with food are using food to deal with their emotions, either by exercising control through denial or indulgence through regular binges. I find this to be true to my experience–I eat to celebrate, eat to grieve, eat to decompress, eat to be happy, eat to be sad. My relationship with food has far more to do with my emotional life than my body or my belly.
Roth urges us to be present–to listen to our bodies when they ask for food, but to listen to our feelings when they are doing the talking. Food should not be a substitute for our feelings or a suppressant for them. Food should not be a tool to keep the feelings at bay. She writes, “With awareness (the ability to know what you are feeling) and presence (the ability to inhabit a feeling while sensing that which is bigger than the feeling), it is possible to be with what you believe will destroy you without being destroyed.” (92) Further, she instructs her readers to “eat what they want when they’re hungry and feel what they feel when they’re not.” (101)
The central part of Roth’s philosophy is summarized in her guidelines for eating. Simple, whole, and reasonable–yet still a challenge for those who struggle against emotional eating. The guidelines include eating when you are hungry, stopping when you are full, sitting in a calm environment, being free from distractions, eating what your body wants, and eating with “enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.” Finally, eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others. Even if change is slow, I try to be mindful of these guidelines and take small steps as I am able.
Roth’s books have been a help to me, and this one has too.
I don’t often share chatty posts just to catch up here, because this blog acts more like a vehicle for sharing more in-depth reflections, along with a bulletin board reviewing what I’m reading. My reflections have grown a little thin lately and are about to get thinner, so I wanted to share why.
In the last several months, I’ve been invited to preach and speak for several special events beyond my local congregation, so I have been engaged in an enormous amount of writing shared in other places. I have been keeping up monthly posts at Practicing Families, and you can find my latest reflections about “A Day of Yes,” “Protect or Prepare?” and “Grace Rules.” With encouragement from many of you who read this blog regularly, I’ve also been investing some time and energy in trying to submit materials for publication.
The title of this blog has always been For the Someday Book. In an effort to get “someday” here a lot sooner, I have signed on to participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November. NaNoWriMo is an online community of people who commit to writing 50,000 words in the course of the month of November. No, I’m not writing a novel, but I am tagging along to the community challenge to try and create a book’s worth of reflections in the next 30 days. I don’t know if I will succeed at getting 50,000 words (there are prizes if I do!), but I know it will bring me a lot closer than I am now. My username is RevJMK, and I believe you can visit my page here as I report on progress. All words of encouragement and support are welcome, now and all month long!
As you might have guessed, I don’t anticipate posting much (if anything!) here on the blog for the next month, as I’ll be digging deeper into the book-length project. If I manage to finish reading any of the books I’ve started, I’ll hope to get a review up, but that’s about all. I’ll be back again in December, I’m sure.
Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement on the way. Let me know if you’re participating in NaNoWriMo, too. You can find me and sign up to be my buddy.
Carry the One by Carol Anshaw, Simon & Schuster, 2012, 288 pp.
I can’t resist used books. I dropped my son off at the YMCA for fall break camp, and they had a few tables full. I gladly made a donation to the Y in exchange for this one, because I just needed to escape into a novel for a day or two. Carry the One was a good read, not a great one, but it was enjoyable.
The novel follows the lives of a group of young people–interrelated by blood, marriage and romantic entanglements–after they are involved in a car accident that kills a young child. The rest of their lives, together or apart, they carry the burden of the one girl, a stranger, who did not live. The accident is with them all the time, together or apart. For some, the dead girl becomes a muse, as they dedicate their artistic work to her memory. For others, she is a ghost who haunts them with guilt and destroys them. For others, she is always a cipher. The novel spans more than 25 years of their moving from young adulthood to middle age, and the characters change and develop in interesting ways.
While the story is interesting and well-written, I did not find the characters as compelling as I had hoped. They fell too easily for me into archetypes–the artist, the addict, the activist, the actress. I had hoped for a deeper perspective on existential responsibility. While the characters all feel responsible in some way even if they weren’t behind the wheel, the author didn’t offer much that was new or insightful about the burden of that responsibility.
One special side note: I appreciated that this book was not pigeonholed as “lesbian fiction,” yet featured lesbian relationships and sexuality as prominently (maybe more so) than heterosexual ones. Hooray for moving beyond heteronormativity!
So, I recommend this to you as a good beach book, a good escape, a well-written story. It was all of those things. If you are hoping for more, keep looking.
Beautiful Outlaw: Experiencing the Playful, Disruptive, Extravagant Personality of Jesus by John Eldredge, FaithWords (Hachette Book Group), 2011, 219 pp.
A leader of my church passed this book along to me as something that opened her to a new understanding of Jesus, and moved her closer to Christ. I was intrigued and thought I might skim it, but ended up reading the whole thing. There were elements I applauded, parts to which I objected, and parts that also moved me in my faith. There was not much that was new or surprising, but I can see how it could be new to lots of people.
Eldredge aims to strip away the religiosity and pious purity of our images of Jesus, and reclaim what he calls his “true personality,” his humanity. This is not a new project–many have attempted it before–but the aspects he highlights are solid, and it is always a helpful reminder. Eldredge emphasizes Jesus’ playfulness, especially in his interactions with the disciples. He imagines inside jokes and jocularity among “the boys.” He also develops aspects of Jesus’ fierceness, anger, cunning, honesty and humility. His Jesus refuses to be pastel-colored in a gentle Sunday School painting, which he refers to as “marshmallow.”(144) He wants us to be able to relate to this Jesus, and to be confronted by him. If I’m in the mood (which I was), I always find these kinds of projects interesting and illuminating.
He is a fan of G.K. Chesterton, and quotes him identifying Jesus as “more human than humanity.”(48) Eldredge straddles a traditionally irreconcilable Christology here–he claims a pre-existent Christ, with foreknowledge of creation from beginning to end, yet the same one who must learn to walk, speak, and live in a human body. His theology is extremely traditional and conservative, which is what makes it so odd to me that he would take such a vindictive approach to what he calls “religion.” Religion, for Eldredge, is what prevents us from meeting Jesus as he truly is. We can only do that when we leave religion behind. While I understand that church culture or religiosity can white-wash or even obscure the powerful edginess of Jesus, he condemns all church practices as religious in this way, at the same time he is starting his own ministry (aka church) and existing well within orthodox theology shaped and preserved by–you guessed it–the church. He treats Christianity and the church as a straw man throughout, as though he has never seen any merit there.
Nevertheless, there were things that gave me pause and opened me for prayer. One question he asked was, “What do you think Jesus thinks about you?” What limits have we placed on Jesus? What judgments do we hear, and are they accurate? He writes:
Where are you having a hard time with Jesus? Where is your struggle with him?
Do you find it hard to believe he loves you? Or that he loves you because of what you do?
Do you feel like you are always disappointing him?
Is he mad at you? Ignoring you?
Does Jesus seem like a hard man who wants you to work harder?
Does he seem distant–loving, sure, but disengaged? (160)
I find myself right now having definite struggles with Jesus, and these questions helped me move forward in my conversation with him.
Eldredge also offers this gem in his conclusion:
What enormous good would it do in the world if churches would be known as playful, witty, fierce, humble, generous, honest, cunning, beautiful and true? When we hold fast to a bland Jesus, we get a bland church. A two-dimensional Jesus equals two-dimensional Christians. (210)
Indeed. It’s because I have found the church to be all of those things, however imperfectly, that I do not share Eldredge’s anti-religious sentiment.
Beautiful Outlaw is a decent, readable introduction to Jesus beyond the Sunday School paintings, written to invite a devotional personal relationship with Christ. I would hesitate to share it, however, because of its anti-religious sentiments and straw man argument against the church.
Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O’Donnell, Harper Perennial, 2005, 396 pp.
I picked this up a few years ago to be a refresher on Augustine. I read Peter Brown’s landmark Augustine of Hippo back in seminary, but I wanted to revisit this epic and influential figure, his controversies and his theologies. O’Donnell’s book was on the non-fiction “summer reading” display at the local Barnes & Noble, so I figured it to be a fairly easy go. I was wrong, but I was richly rewarded by the effort this book required.
Augustine: A New Biography is not an appropriate introduction for beginners. O’Donnell is clear to distinguish his project from so many others. While traditional biographies tell Augustine’s story through his writings and the public records of his major controversies–in effect, Augustine in his own words–O’Donnell invites the reader to examine what Augustine’s carefully crafted words leave out. What emerges from O’Donnell is a counter-narrative to the traditional Augustinian biography. It is not an open conflict with the stately portrait of the struggling author of the Confessions and vociferous defender of the faith against heretics, but more like the counterpoint that runs beneath that main melody.
As such, O’Donnell assumes a fairly sophisticated familiarity with Augustine’s traditional biography and catalog. I found myself turning to Wikipedia to remind myself of the various stories and heresies to which he regularly alludes, and even had to chase down a few vocabulary words from time to time. O’Donnell’s writing is an exercise in cleverness, and it does not follow a linear timeline or provide a basic outline. He regularly includes imagined letters, made-up words, and anachronisms as tools of revelation. He invites the reader into a hall of mirrors where he shows Augustine in various reflections and leaves you wondering which one is the distortion and which is the true picture, until you realize that all are equal parts accurate and misleading. Like the end of the hall of mirrors, you leave the biography amused and entertained, but also aware that the reflections have revealed both flaws and beauty marks you had not previously noticed. It is not a place to go for encyclopedic information, but what O’Donnell has created is brilliant and beautiful.
The Augustine that emerges in his portrait is the man behind the curtain of his bold, confident writings. O’Donnell asks, in a postmodern way, why Augustine was so insistent on various points. What was he trying to conceal? Why did he want this version of his story to survive against others? O’Donnell finds answers by quoting more frequently from Augustine’s interlocutors than from the man himself. They offer insight into how Augustine was viewed in his own time, and they interacted with the man himself, not the voice in his writings. The picture that emerges is more changeable than his immutable words, but it is also more pastoral. Augustine’s life’s work was not writing theology for the ages, but holding together a church full of squabbles, attempting to bring about a vision of all believers in catholic unity (a unique contribution from Augustine), all while negotiating imperial politics and the financial stability of the church at Hippo. This version of Augustine is far more human and relatable, in both his strengths and weaknesses.
While I would not recommend this as easy reading, or as an introduction to Augustine’s life and times, Augustine: A New Biography is well worth the endeavor. Its perspective is unique and compelling, and unmasks Augustine in a way that leaves you wanting more of him. I have removed Augustine of Hippo, the Confessions and City of God from my shelf, and added them to the pile of things marked “to be read.” Rather than feeling satisfied with an Augustine refresher, this book revealed just how much more there is to contemplate, and made me want to do so.
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 2008, 740 pp.
Oh, Wally Lamb! He knows how to plumb the depths of brokenness and healing, sin and forgiveness, estrangement and relationship. I have read both She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True, so I knew what to expect from his latest tome–a deep, searing, introspective novel with haunting sadness but always hope.
The Hour I First Believed maps the personal and psychological devastation of Caelum and Maureen Quirk, who were both teachers at Columbine High School in the 1999 mass shooting. While Caelum was away tending to his aunt after a stroke, Maureen experienced a trauma that broke her apart. Both of them unraveled, in their own ways, because of the shooting and its aftermath. They return to his aunt’s farm to recover, and Caelum gains access to his family’s long history and discovers information that discloses secrets that cause him to question his own identity. (I thought the long excursions into the past did not add much to the quality of the novel, and even detracted from its power. They could have been much shorter, or omitted altogether and the book would have felt stronger to me.)
I can’t say that I enjoy Wally Lamb’s work. I usually find it difficult and painful to read. However, that’s what makes it so valuable. Lamb’s characters are never perfect and they do not conform to expectations or neat categories. They do not behave like we want them to, and they frustrate and confuse. That’s what makes them so rich. What keeps me returning to Lamb’s work, even as agonizing as it can be, is that Lamb wrestles these complicated, broken characters into a place of hope and grace. It’s never easy, it’s never fully wrought or resolved, but he points the way to faith, every time.
Below are a few gems from the story, keys to unlocking the hope at the end of such sorrow.
Words from a pastor at a community meeting organized by local churches after the Columbine massacre:
We need to stare back, without blinking, at the depravity of these boys’ actions and realize that our love is more powerful than their hatred.” (203)
I said something very similar when facing the murder of a young girl in my congregation, with the shorthand “love wins.”
A little process theology tucked in, too, as Caelum quotes a chaos theorist he met on an airplane:
He said maybe God wasn’t Allah or Jesus Christ or any of the other deities that people are always using as an excuse to go to war over. That maybe all ‘God’ was was mutuation. Mutability. The thing that happens when the DNA we’re ‘carrying forward’ from our ancestors suddenly jumps the track. Gets altered in some unpredictable way, and, for better or worse, sets the first domino falling in a different direction. (451)
Caelum gets words about faith and doubt from an unlikely source, a retired chauffeur for a beer company.
Well, let me give you a piece of advice, Mr. I Have My Doubts. Next time you’re in a bad way and you’re asking this god you have your doubts about to help you, just remember that the question you gotta ask isn’t Why? or If? The question is How? You got that? Not why. Not if. How. (519)
When Caelum teaches a class on “The Quest in Literature” at the local community college, they explore the role and importance of myth in healing. The closing assignment is to examine Picasso’s Minotauromachia and discuss what they see in the picture and what it says about modern life. One student responds thus:
“This picture shows us what all the myths we studied told us,” he concluded. “Life is messy, violent, confusing and hopeful.” (685)
That is what any good story will do–an ancient myth, a biblical text, and a good novel. Wally Lamb’s The Hour I First Believed is just such a story. It’s messy, violent, confusing and hopeful, and I recommend it to you.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Atria Books, 2013, 307 pp.
The title drew me in from the “new books” section of the library. I’d never heard of William Kent Krueger before, but he is apparently best known as a mystery writer. Ordinary Grace is a bit of a mystery, but it is mostly a coming-of-age story about a young boy, son of a Methodist minister, as the reality of death touches his small community and his family. It is not the best book I’ve ever read, but it was a good story well told. I couldn’t put it down, and it made me weep more than once. It spoke to my heart in a powerful way in this season of my life, as the pastor parent of a young boy.
The story belongs to Frank Drum, who is thirteen in the summer of 1961 and the novel’s narrator. Frank and his younger brother Jake have the run of their Minnesota small town, while their older sister Ariel is busy preparing to attend Julliard in the fall. Their daily explorations unpack the town’s characters: the minister father who carries invisible scars from his bleak past at war; the mother who gave up her own musical dreams; the piano teacher Emil Brandt, blind from war wounds and resigned from a life of fame; his sister Lise, living with mental illness; their father’s war buddy Gus, who lives in the church’s basement. There are savory and unsavory characters, from their young friends to a Native American with a past to the rowdy teenagers to the town police officers. The story unfolds a series of tragic deaths that occur over the course of the summer. As Frank is exposed to these deaths, and to the events that led to them, he enters an adult world of violence, betrayal, adultery, prejudice and more.
What drew me in was the plainspoken style that Krueger gave to many of the adult characters, especially Rev. Drum, as they explained to the boys and to one another the realities of loss, hope and especially grace. I put nearly a dozen flags in the book, and copied out countless quotations to keep for later. Here are just a few.
These are Rev. Drum’s remarks at the funeral of a transient man whose identity is unknown. I would hope to speak so simply and truthfully.
We believe too often that on the roads we walk we walk alone. Which is never true. Even this man who is unknown to us was known to God and God was his constant companion. God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven. This man, who in life may have felt utterly alone, feels alone no more. This man, whose life may have been days and nights of endless waiting, is waiting no more. He is where God always knew he would be, in a place prepared. And for this we rejoice.” (71)
When the Drum family suffers a terrible loss, Rev. Drum questions whether his own sins in war might be to blame. His war buddy Gus responds with words that cut to my heart as a pastor who has known times of doubt.
Gus said, “You think God operates that way, Captain? Hell, that sure ain’t what you’ve been telling me all these years. And as for those sins of yours, I’m guessing you mean the war, and haven’t you always told me that you and me and the others we could be forgiven? You told me you believed it as surely as you believed the sun would rise every morning. And I’ve got to tell you, Captain, you seemed so certain that you got me believing too. … I can’t see any way that the God you’ve talked yourself blue to me and everyone else about would be responsible for what happened.Seems to me you’re reeling here, Captain. Like from a punch in the face. When you come around you’ll see that you’ve been right all along. I know I give you a hard time about your religion, but damned if I’m not grateful at heart that you believe it. Somebody’s got to. For all the rest of us, Captain, somebody’s got to.” (191-192)
I know what it feels like to carry the weight of faith because other people need you to believe it, even when you have your doubts. Krueger’s ability to name this subtle experience of ministry so plainly moved me.
I also learned from the Prologue a quotation from Aeschylus that I had not heard before.
He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
In the end, it was the grace of Ordinary Grace that moved me–the way the characters in this small town extended grace and forgiveness to one another across terrible circumstances.