For The Someday Book

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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.

Here since 1954.

I have driven by this church sign about once a month for the last four years. The words have remained unchanged in all that time: “Here since 1954.” Every time, it makes me wonder, “Does this church actually DO anything, or is it just here?”

“Here since 1954” makes me wonder if the church has ever moved or changed at all. Are they still doing things now like they did back then? The year 1954 evokes images of a Leave It To Beaver church, full of button-down boys and crinoline girls sitting neatly in a row. It is foreign to my broken life, to a living God, to a real community, to a world in need, to a message of hope and purpose.

“Here” is a noun, a place. Is this church’s greatest accomplishment simply existing, holding down their corner property on a prominent thoroughfare? Surely there must be some verbs alive and well since 1954. How much more interesting would it be if they replaced “here” with any number of action words? Serving, growing, learning, worshiping, inspiring, praying, witnessing, proclaiming, giving, living. Throw in a single bonus descriptor like “together” or “faithfully” or “this community” or even “God,” and the church becomes downright interesting.

I visited this church’s website, and they seem a lively enough place to worship. They had pictures of smiling people, vibrant altar colors, and sermon recordings online. The problem is: I drive by their building every week, and never knew any of that. How many of our churches suffer the same problem?

This church is not alone. I lift up this church’s example not to be snarky, but because their sign speaks to a deeper concern. Every time I drive, my heart hurts for the vitality of the gospel and the witness of the church. I know that there are people, especially those that live in the neighborhood, who are desperate for community, for good news, for hope and grace. I believe that this church, by the power of the Spirit, has all those things to offer. But the only message we see is the one that tells us they haven’t gone anywhere in more than 50 years.

My church’s sign with moveable text.

Every church struggles with this challenge. How do we let people know that this is the place to find life? Every word on our signs, every image we project, the weeds in our church yards and the condition of the paint on our buildings communicates a message to the world. Is it a message of life-giving vitality? Do we vibrate with the verbs? Or do we just tell people that we’re here, like we’ve always been here—whether for 50 years, 150 years, or 350 years.

Assuming our church is in fact a life-giving, active, changing, growing place (which is not always true), how do we communicate that to people who pass by? The rise of the “nones” (people with no religious affiliation) has been all the news this week. Many of those absent from our religious communities believe that the church and Christianity are out of touch and out of date. Yet they most also continue to believe in God, pray and understand themselves as spiritual beings. They just don’t think the church has anything relevant to offer on those matters.

Our old sign, which definitely did not communicate vitality.

For too many people, the church has become a noun, a place—unmoved and unmoving, fixed in space, here since 33 CE. In our signs, images and publicity, we must find our verbs again. More importantly, in our worship, our community and our ministry, we must be active and vital, so that the verbs take over. We are not just “here.” We are serving, loving, praying, caring, connecting, living, worshiping, uniting, working, building, growing, learning, deepening, stretching, discovering, listening, helping, changing and infinitely more, by the power of the Spirit. May all those who seek life see Christ alive in us.

This is a major improvement, but…

… this is even better. Even with the old sign.

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine, by Eric Weiner, Twelve: Hatchette Book Group, 2011, 349 pp.

I can’t remember where I heard, saw or read the review of this book that made me want to read it. When the library e-mailed me to tell me that it was my turn to pick it up from the reserved list, I had forgotten it was there. I do remember that I thought it would help me better understand the world of the “nones,” the growing segment of people in the United States with no religious affiliation. I think it did.

Eric Weiner is a writer and reporter (for The New York Times and NPR, among others) who has never had an active life of faith or participated actively in a religious community. Although his heritage is Jewish, he has little connection to it as lived religion. When Weiner has a health scare, the nurse in the hospital asks him: “Have you found your God yet?” He has not, and that realization leads him into a deep depression and a quest around the world, trying on religious practices of all shapes and sizes.

At the beginning, he labels himself a “Confusionist:”

We have absolutely no idea what our religious views are. We’re not even sure we have any, but we’re open to the unexpected and believe—no, hope—there is more to life than meets the eye. Beyond that we are simply and utterly confused. (4)

I suspect that his brief summary and new category of Confusionism matches the description of many people raised in a secular environment. However, in my experience, few are willing to admit their ignorance and confusion, content instead to believe the stereotypes and caricatures about various religious traditions. I thought at first Weiner’s book might be a bit of religious tourism or even a bit of sarcasm, drawing out the extremes for (appropriate) mockery. But his story and his quest were genuine, and in the end, it’s his openness and honesty, his willingness to try anything, that gives the book its heart.

Weiner gives himself over completely to each faith he explores—physically, if not always mentally (which is a much bigger challenge for all of us). He tries the major players—Buddhism (Tibetan), Taoism,  Christianity (Franciscan), Islam (Sufism) and Judaism (Kabbalah)—but he also goes for some newer, non-traditional alternatives, like Wicca, shamanism, and Raelism. He criticizes and even lightly mocks when it is appropriate, but he also gives each practice credit for what it offers. In the end, he discovers what religious practice is capable of. Far more than a set of rules and regulations, it is a path to an encounter with the numinous, the Spirit, the Divine. Along the various roads, Weiner finds those sacred moments, and through his skepticism he honors them with awe.

This book is well-written, entertaining, creative and insightful. Through Weiner, I do feel like I got a new kind of insight into the “nones,” but also an interesting window into the various faiths he visits, including my own.


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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