Monthly Archives: March 2007

God Laughs and Plays, by David James Duncan (LentBook #10)

My brilliant and well-read friend Jamie recommended David James Duncan’s books to me. Duncan has actually written a few novels, but since I wanted to read him during Lent, I had to go for his non-fiction book, a collection of essays, talks and interviews that give a fair overview of how David James Duncan thinks.

Duncan is an environmentalist who mostly writes about fly-fishing and saving rivers, but he also has an eclectic approach to spirituality that doesn’t have much time for organized religion (the book is subtitled “Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right”).

What caught my eye right off was the fact that Duncan’s own background was Seventh-day Adventist, as is mine. He was raised in an SDA home although he never felt much strong connection to the faith and left it as a teenager (as did most of his family, eventually). He seems to have emerged from this experience with a rather sketchy grasp of SDA doctrine — for example, he appears to think SDAs believe in an eterntally burning hell. But perhaps this is not so much doctrinal inattention as a lack of interest in the specifics: David James Duncan emerged from an SDA upbringing with a strong dislike for conservative Christian sects that think they have a monopoly on truth, and in a sense he’s willing to tar them all with the same brush.

He’s not as bitter as you might expect, though, towards SDAs — no more so than he is towards any of the Christian right, and certainly less so than he is towards the Bush government’s policies in Iraq. He does discuss his relationship to the SDA church in a very thoughtful and balanced interview with Craig Van Rooyen, included in this volume. But mostly, his attention is elsewhere — on a universalist and pluralist sense of God that can be found in many different religious traditions but (for him) most surely and honestly in the natural world.

Despite my best efforts, nature mysticism has little appeal for me, and I enjoyed the book more when Duncan was railing about politics than when he was rhapsodizing about rivers (although I do agree that rivers are great and should be kept clean and fishfull — it just doesn’t hit me on an emotional level like it does him). I was relieved that the book was free of the sort of hearty machismo I dread in the writing of male environmentalists. There’s humour in this collection of writing, and anger, and passion for a vision of God that’s not restricted by the kind of boundaries most Christian churches (including mine) place on the idea of God. Definitely a lot to ponder here.

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Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert (LentBook #9)


Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir about a year spent travelling in Italy, India and Indonesia in search of inner peace, is the latest in my collection of “spiritual journey memoirs” and destined to be one of my all-time favourites. I read it in about twenty-four hours and it wouldn’t even be accurate to say I devoured the book — it was more like I inhaled it, racing through the pages as if I were being pulled along in Gilbert’s wake on her trip around the world.


After a devastating divorce and the break-up of her post-divorce love affair, Elizabeth Gilbert was left depressed and shattered. She decided (with the help of an advance from a publisher, which always helps in these matters) to take a year off travelling the world and trying to put herself back together. She spent four months in Italy immersing herself in the pursuit of pleasure, mostly in the form of really good pasta and platonic relationships with gorgeous young Italian men. Next, she went to an Indian ashram for four months to study meditation (this wasn’t on a whim — she had already been practicing yoga seriously for several years). Finally, she wound up on the front porch of an ancient medicine man in Bali, living there for four months while she tried to figure out how to balance the life of pleasure and the life of devotion.


I also would like to know how to balance the life of pleasure and the life of devotion. I also would not mind having four months in Bali to work it out. But perhaps surprisingly, I did not feel resentful of Elizabeth Gilbert’s options, or consider her a self-centred, pampered North American on a self-absorbed Quest for Meaning. This is probably because her writing is so honest, funny and engaging that I was completely drawn into the story and felt like I knew the author as a friend.


Gilbert comes across as completely sincere — her story reminded me in some ways of Jennifer Cox’s Around the World in 80 Dates, but there was no sense of frivolity or manipulation in Eat, Pray, Love because the spiritual aspect of her quest was undeniably real. I found this book absorbing, entertaining, and thought-provoking.

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When Jesus Came to Harvard, by Harvey Cox (LentBook #8)

When Jesus Came to Harvard is subtitled Making Moral Choices Today. The book is based around Cox’s experience of teaching an extremely popular seminar on Jesus and moral choices at Harvard University for several years. He poses the question: How can the life and teachings of Jesus guide people in making moral choices in today’s world, when we face questions and dilemmas that didn’t exist in Bible times? He suggests that Jesus offers timeless principles that he and his students explored in the seminar and which can be applied today.

The book then takes episodes from Jesus’ life and examples from His teaching chapter by chapter in chronological order and explores each, with references to what Cox taught in class and how his students responded to this aspect of the Jesus story. He has some interesting insights into how to talk about Jesus in a multi-cultural classroom with a variety of religious backgrounds represented, and his class certainly sounds like it would have been fun and thought-provoking.

But –here’s the thing — he really doesn’t answer the question he set out to ask. Many of the reflections on Jesus’ life and teaching don’t actually shed much light on how those Bible passages can be applied to help us make moral decisions. For example, Cox talks about the parables as being sort of like Zen koans — open-ended stories without clear “lessons,” designed to jolt us out of our familiar paradigms and help us think about things from a different perspective. Yet he doesn’t clearly connect this to the issue of morality or how we make moral choices. In the ended, I thought his course (and by extension his book) though an interesting look at Jesus, was probably not that much different in scope from the standard “Life and Teachings of Jesus” class — without any special insight to offer on how studying Jesus helps us confront the moral issues of the twenty-first century world. Good book, well worth a read, but I’m not entirely sure it does what it says on the tin.

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Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller (LentBook #7)

I picked this up on a whim the other day in Chapters — the title and author sounded familiar; I thought it had been referenced in Shaine Claiborne’s The Irresistible Revolution. (I still haven’t checked to see if I’m right about that). When I came home I said to Jason, “You know how I like memoirs and collections of essays by women talking about their spiritual journeys? Well, this one is a departure….”

He guessed, “It’s by a man?”

Got it in one.

I tend to be kind of sexist in my reading in general (novels and memoirs should be written by women, though men can write other kinds of non-fiction, and certain fiction genres like fantasy) so it’s not surprising that this was a new area for me to explore: a man talking about his spiritual life. (Yeah, I know men pretty much invented the genre, St. Augustine and all — hey, as my co-worker Ann said of me once, “At least you own your prejudices!”)

Back cover blurbery describes Donald Miller as sort of like Anne Lamott with testosterone, which is not a bad comparison. He has the same self-deprecating humour and postmodern approach to both Christianity and essay-writing, which is to say that we’re wandering through his stream of consciousness picking up small gems of insight he’s discovered along the way. He’s not as funny as Anne Lamott, but then, who is? As for the testosterone, I think what stood out to me was not what a guy Donald Miller is, but what a young guy he is — or at least, was when he wrote this book. Barely 30, I gather. Looking back from the vast heights of 40+ I realize I am turning into that crotchety old woman who mutters, “What has some young whippersnapper got to teach me about Christian spirituality?” Got to watch that tendency!!!

It was interesting reading this book in tandem with Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (one of the things I love about my Lenten reading project is the strange bedfellows it produces). Everything Carl Sagan hates about “spirituality” — that vague sense of “I believe it because I believe it,” the willingness to brush off difficult questions rather than exploring them — is here in this memoir. While there were times I wanted Don to be more sharply focused and follow his ideas through to their logical conclusions, I also enjoyed being a fellow traveller on his journey for a couple of hundred pages. There are places where he seems naive and a few where he comes across as self-righteous, but I kept turning pages and nodding at things I agreed with. I’d read another Donald Miller book if it came across my path (and there are others) so I guess I need to drop my biases and admit that yes, men can write well about their own spiritual journeys, too.

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The Demon-Haunted World, by Carl Sagan (LentBook #6)

Many years ago, on a now-defunct discussion board where I used to post, I noticed that Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World was something of a bible for hardcore atheists who insisted that only that which was verifiable by the scientific method was “true.” I commented that I intended to read the book sometime, but was almost afraid to … maybe I thought it would turn me into an atheist.

One of my atheist cyber-friends quite rightly wrist-slapped me for this comment, pointing out that my faith must not be very strong if I was afraid to expose myself to challenging ideas. In some ways I think much of the reading and thinking I’ve done over the past five or six years has been an attempt to get past those fears, to ask the questions I’ve been afraid to ask, to see how my beliefs hold up if I really allow them to be closely examined. It’s been an interesting process.

So this year, while making up my Lenten reading list, I decided it was time to include Carl Sagan’s scary book. Not so scary, it turns out.

Carl Sagan loved science. I mean, he really, really loved it. Though he didn’t have much use for any organized religion, I think it’s fair to say that science was his religion: he believed that through the rigorous use of critical thinking and the scientific method, humanity could create a better world. Unfortunately, he also thought that critical thinking was becoming an endangered process in the late twentieth century.

Stories of alien abduction, UFO sightings, New Age channeling, faith healing, religious authority — anything that doesn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny falls beneath Sagan’s withering critical contempt in this often witty book. He doesn’t entirely rule out the concept of a god of some kind, pointing out that the way the universe is organized is exactly what he would expect of a creator, if there were one. But sacred texts, religious observances, and belief in answered prayer are all in the category of “superstition” for Sagan.

Sagan has prior assumptions of his own here that he doesn’t examine or criticize (and although I’m writing in the literary present tense, it’s obviously a bit late for him to examine these now, since he’s dead), but he is right about the widespread credulity and lack of scientific knowledge in the general North American population. I find I can agree with much of what he says while continuing to believe there are other kinds of “truth” than those that can be demonstrated in the laboratory.

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The Emerging Christian Way, by Marcus Borg, Matthew Fox, Tom Harpur et al (LentBook #5)

Some of the writers in The Emerging Christian Way — most notably Marcus Borg, whose essay kicks off the collection — dissociate themselves from the label “liberal” in favour of talking about an “emerging paradigm” of Christianity. But that’s mostly rhetoric: this collection of essays is about what we all recognize as “liberal Christianity,” that is, Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations who question traditional doctrines such as the divinity of Christ and the authority of the Bible, yet who still find Christianity meaningful and significant.

There’s nothing wrong with this book speaking to that audience, but something in the packaging made me hope that the writers would address a broader spectrum of Christians, that there would be something here for someone like me who self-identifies as a conservative within Christianity, a liberal within my denomination, and who’s very excited by the idea of “emergent” Christianity as described by Brian McLaren. I’m interested in visions of Christianity that transcend traditional boundaries and categories, and I thought The Emerging Christian Way might present such a vision.

But it doesn’t. There’s no real interest here in building bridges with more conservative Christians; indeed, as Marcus Borg says up front, this “emerging paradigm” of Christianity is so different from the traditional paradigm that they might as well be two different religions. Fair enough; most conservative Christian writers I read aren’t that interested in building bridges to the liberal wing of the faith, either. But since there are elements of both liberal and conservative Christianity that appeal to me, those bridges are of interest to me.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this book (which is published in Canada and, despite the presence of essays by Borg and Fox, has a distinctly Canadian slant) if you’re looking for a guide to what it means to be a Christian even though you don’t accept all the traditional doctrines. The book turned out not to be quite what I was looking for, but what it does, it does quite well.

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Living Buddha, Living Christ, by Thich Nhat Hanh (LentBook #4)

For some time I’ve been curious about what Christians can learn from Buddhists. I believe there is a lot of wisdom in all spiritual traditions, and when I’ve read Buddhist authors or heard Buddhist acquaintances talking about some of the concepts of their religion, I’ve been interested to know more.

One of those Buddhist acquaintances suggested I should read something by Thich Nhat Hanh, one of the most famous Buddhist teachers of the 20th century. When I found this book, it seemed like a good fit, because it’s basically about some of the parallels between Buddhist and Christian teaching, and what Christians can learn from Buddhism.

While I don’t agree with everything Thich Nhat Hanh says in this short, easy-to-read book, I did feel like I gained some insight from it. I’m particularly interested in a better understanding of the concept of mindfulness, because I feel like I don’t live enough in the present moment — my mind is always flitting off to some other place, and I’m often multi-tasking. Multi-tasking, while a virtual necessity for a working mom, turns out to be a bad idea if you want to practice mindfulness. If the Buddhist monk is washing his bowl, he should be giving careful attention to the task of washing the bowl — as opposed to talking on the phone and supervising the kids’ homework, which is what I’m usually doing when washing my dishes. Of course, monks don’t have kids’ homework to supervise, which is why they are monks, but if they did I’m pretty sure they’d focus on the homework and the homework alone, mindfully present in the moment.

Clearly I have a long way to go in practicing mindfulness, but I am working on it. Any Christian interested in broadening his or her perspective to learn a little about (and from) Buddhism could probably pick up a thing or two from Living Buddha, Living Christ, even if you don’t agree that Buddha and Christ are both “living” today in the exact same sense. (Thich Nhat Hanh would probably say that both Buddha and Christ are living through the followers who practice their teachings, but being a fairly traditional Christian I think Christ is living in that sense and also in the literal sense of being still alive). You might even find it inspiring in places. I did.

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Misquoting Jesus, by Bart D. Ehrman (LentBook #3)

Along with books that inspire me, I usually try to rig my Lenten reading list to include some books that will challenge and maybe even disturb me as well. The title and the buzz I’d heard around Misquoting Jesus made it seem like a book that might challenge my conservative approach to Biblical inspiration and reveal disturbing new insights into the process of transcribing and translating the New Testament.

In fact, this wasn’t that book at all. Misquoting Jesus does talk about scribal changes, intentional and unintentional, in the New Testament. However, there’s not one thing in the book that would be unfamiliar to anyone who uses a Bible transation with footnotes — for example, the “shocking fact” that the story of Jesus forgiving the adulterous woman is not in the oldest manuscripts of John 8 and may not be an original part of the gospels at all. Does anyone not know that? (My favourite non-scholarly argument on that passage comes from Thomas Cahills’ Desire of the Everlasting Hills: he believes the story originally belonged in Luke, because Cahill likes this story and likes Luke’s portrayal of Jesus, whereas he thinks John’s Jesus is big jerk who wouldn’t have done something nice like this.)

Most of Ehrman’s “revelations” are exactly of this calibre: an analysis of textual variations that are normally footnoted in most modern translations of the New Testament. What Erhman adds that’s new and useful — and he does it very well — is a good overview of what textual criticism is and how it works, intended for the intelligent but non-scholarly reader (i.e., me). As a general reader who has read tons of books which refer to and rely on textual criticism, I found it really useful to read about how the process actually works and some of the history behind it.

However, a book with a title like An Overview of Textual Criticism for the General Reader would probably sell 37 copies in a university bookstore somewhere, whereas a book called Misquoting Jesus is, in these post-DaVinci Code days, almost certainly to be a bestseller. The suggestion that Ehrman has new and controversial truths to unfold will no doubt cause people to buy the book, but the only people who will be shocked or shaken up by its contents will be people who hold to a very narrow view of verbal inspiration. The rest of us have pretty much taken on board the fact that the Bible is a human document (whether divinely inspired or not) and that both the original text and the subsequent scribal copies are open to human error. There’s certainly nothing here that’s going to shake up my faith in Scripture.

Since it’s a popular rather than a scholarly book, Ehrman takes the liberty — inappropriately, I think — of presenting a lot of his own speculations as firm conclusions rather than possibilities. Assumptions about why a text was changed, which in a scholarly article would have to be hedged about with fences of “it may be” and “a possible explanation” are here presented as fact, which may be a disservice to naive readers who tend to believe things just because the author sounds authoritative and scholarly. I would be happier with Ehrman if he had flagged the fact that his own speculations are simply that — one possible understanding of the text — and had questioned some of his own underlying assumptions and biases, thus drawing attention to the fact that he is just as fallible as the Biblical scribes whose work he’s critiquing.

Bottom line: There’s some useful stuff here, and I would have gotten the book out of the library even if had been called An Overview of Textual Criticism for the General Reader. I’m not impressed with the decision of either Ehrman or his publisher to give the book a “hot,” controversial title that doesn’t really reflect the book’s contents, but that’s the way the business works. In fact, I’m kind of wishing my publisher had chosen to call my novel (The Violent Friendship of Esther Johnson) something more attention-grabbing — like Sex with Swift, maybe? Whatever sells copies!!

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