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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8 Comments

Filed under Nonfiction -- general

8 responses to “God Laughs and Plays, by David James Duncan (LentBook #10)

  1. adrienne

    One of the pastors at my church recommended this book to me. Funny that I should run across it twice in a week, huh?

  2. Jamie

    Apparently, blogger didn’t like what I had to say here and refused to process it. Usually I do a CTRL+C before trying to post, since this isn’t an isolated phenomenon, but I didn’t this time. So what was a longer reply (and an inspired, brilliant piece of art, I may as well add, since no one can prove me wrong at this point), is now reduced to a post complaining about the lack of reliablity of blogger.com when posting replies.

    Quick version (too late), I agree with your assessment overall, Trudy, though I think I enjoyed more of it than you did. Being a collection of essays, I found that some really touched me and others didn’t. My favourite had to be the one about St. Francis and the eating of the ashes.

  3. Nathan Brown

    I’m a fan of David James Duncan and appreciate many aspects of his critique of his Adventist experience. And he is (mostly) a sparkling writer. “The Brother K” and “The River Why” are both wonderful novels.

    I wrote in response to “God Laughs and Plays” last year at http://www.adventistreview.org/article.php?id=720

  4. I like your new look. It’s *fancy*!

  5. Thanks for the compliment, Julius.

    Jamie, wish I’d read the rest of your comments … the ones Blogger ate. And I hope WordPress works out better for commenting.

    Adrienne, I always find it weird when that happens — you stumble across the same book, person, word, whatever, twice in quite different contexts. I’d be interested to know if you read it and what you think about it.

    Nathan, I liked your article a lot (when I finally navigated the byzantine registration system on the AR site). Did you ever get any response from Duncan himself?

  6. Glad you were able to track down the article. I have not had any direct contact with Duncan, although have heard from a couple of people who have interacted with him.
    I highly recommend his fiction, when you get back to fiction reading.

  7. DJD is most certainly my favorite living author. This is the only book of his I have not read/do not own….thanks for the review. And please read The Brother’s K. It is one of my two favorite books (the other being Till We Have Faces, and A Tale of Two Cities coming in close third) because I feel that it (along with TWHF) portrays both the beauty/joy and the pain/ugliness of life as one cohesive unit, without polarizing. And, its gorgeous.

  8. Allow me to add the weight of my opinion and recommend DJD’s two novels, both excellent in their own way. I’ve just come off a re-reading of The Brothers K and a first reading of an unproduced script based on the book. Both confirmed my love for his writing.

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