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.