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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-Spiritual-But-Not-ReligiousWhen 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.

This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers, by Lillian Daniel and Martin Copenhaver, Eerdmans, 2009, 235 pp.

This is one of the best books I have read in a long time, and one of the best books I have ever read about the pastoral life. In the preface, the authors promise “a current book that is honest about the challenges of this vocation but still reflects the joy that can be found in it… an encouraging yet realistic book about the ministry written by someone who is still doing it.” (xiv) The chapters that follow make good on that promise.

Each chapter takes a particular experience in pastoral life (singular or recurring) and holds it up to the light, examining the specks and imperfections while simultaneously seeing the experience as a prism that reflects and refracts the light of God. They dissect everything from shaking hands at the back of the sanctuary and visiting hospital rooms to church fellowship hour and committee meetings. Without exaggerating or idealizing, Daniel and Copenhaver articulate why each of these little things matter, and describe the ways they have witnessed God’s light break through in these ordinary moments.

Sometimes, it feels as though they have pulled back the curtain to expose that we wizards behind the magic of the pulpit and pastoral presence are just ordinary, wrinkled, anxious human beings. Copenhaver’s chapter about “The Twin Imposters” of praise and criticism in ministerial life discusses the lavish praise pastors can receive for just showing up, even if we do or offer very little. Daniel’s chapter entitled, “Can We Be Friends?” takes on the challenging tension between wanting friends outside the church and wanting people to join your church. I suspect some clergy might want to avoid these kinds of revelations, but to me they only increase my respect for the work of ministry and for these two particular clergy. I admit I am even a bit jealous of their confidence and honesty—not to mention their way with words.

From the beginning, I put this book in dialogue with another account of the pastoral life: Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church. Taylor also describes the beauty and challenge of the pastoral life, but she does it with an underlying sense of frustration and incarceration that eventually causes her to leave the pastoral life altogether. I loved her writing about ministry, but did not share her conclusions. This Odd and Wondrous Calling is the antithesis of Leaving Church—Daniel and Copenhaver acknowledge the mess and the stress and then loudly declare their love for it. Daniel gives us images upon images that move and inspire, like identifying the church as “one of the last remaining homes of the no-cut audition,” (116) or seeing  “people who have no china of their own get to own the china of the church.” (27) While the whole of the book is not a response to Taylor, Copenhaver’s final chapter does take direct aim. Entitled “Staying in Church,” Copenhaver talks about Taylor’s book and concludes that pastoral life is simply a calling: “it is a good life, if you are called to it.” (234)

I am with Copenhaver and Daniel all the way. They point out that the pastoral life presents the opportunity to be better than you are, to grow in wisdom every day, to stand and witness God at work in people’s lives, and occasionally even serve as midwife to holy experiences. This book captures that life in all its complexity, sacrifice and joy. I recommend it to those considering ministry, preparing for ministry, living the pastoral life or contemplating leaving the ministry.

The authors strike a balance between honesty and awe at the pastoral life. The daily tasks of ministry are sometimes tedious, difficult, stressful or even ridiculous, but those same daily tasks draw us into close proximity with the Holy One all the time. It is a gift, a work, and most profoundly a calling.

About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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