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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.

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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