James, the Brother of Jesus, by Robert Eisenman (LentBooks 2013 #7)

jamesI was not long into the project of writing a novel about James, the brother of Jesus, a few years back, when someone asked me if I’d read Robert Eisenman’s massive scholarly work on the subject, James, the Brother of Jesus (which is the same title the publishing house ended up giving my novel, though it was not my working title). I hadn’t read it at the time and didn’t read it while I was researching the book, because I was specifically interested in writing about James from within the framework of the little that the New Testament said about him, and not drawing in extra-Biblical source material.

However, I have always felt a little guilty about not having read this book, and fascinated as I am by James, I decided that this would be my “big book” for Lent this year, as during my six-week fiction fast I usually try to tackle at least one book that’s long, heavy and a bit more “scholarly” than my usual reading.

Often such books present views and perspectives that are well outside the conservative-Adventist-Christian framework of Biblical interpretation that I’m familiar with. Although I frequently disagree with some of their conclusions, I always enjoy tackling big, meaty works of Biblical scholarship that challenge my ideas. I inevitably learn something and broaden my thinking even if I don’t come away agreeing with the author. Notable books of this type that I’ve read in the past include John Dominic Crossan’s The Historical Jesus and Finkelstein and Silberman’sThe Bible Unearthed.

I include this background information both to show what kind of reading experience I was expecting/hoping to have with Eisenman, and also to defend myself against the charge that “You just didn’t like it because it doesn’t fit with your orthodox beliefs.” Yes, my beliefs are pretty small-o orthodox, but I’m more than willing to read, think about and engage with non-orthodox ideas and scholarship. So my dislike of Eisenman’s James was not based on it being “too heretical” for me; it was based on it being a terrible piece of writing, full of argumentative holes through which one could drive a camel train, were one so inclined.

Disclaimer one: I’m not a scholar, just a moderately well-read layperson. These are my unprofessional, lay-reader responses.

Disclaimer two: This gets long.

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The Still Point of the Turning World, by Emily Rapp (LentBooks 2013 #6)

stillpointAs memoirs go, this is one of the most shattering, intense ones I’ve ever read. Given the subject matter, it could hardly be otherwise, though a lesser writer might have made it sentimental or just painful to read. When Emily Rapp’s only son Ronan was a baby, she and her husband learned that Ronan had Tay-Sachs disease, an extremely rare genetic disorder than is always fatal. They were told that over the next couple of years they could expect to see Ronan gradually lose all the developmental ground he’d gained in his first few months of life, and that he would probably die by age three (Ronan did, in fact, die just before the publication of this book).

This is tough material, and Rapp writes from right out of the middle of the experience, completing the book while Ronan’s short life continues and his disease progresses. I made several comments about the memoirs I reviewed last year to the effect that writers write better memoirs when they allow time to put distance between themselves and the experiences they’re writing about, and Rapp herself is well aware that this is generally true, and addresses it directly in the book. While it’s certainly true that she would have written differently about the experience ten years after Ronan’s death (and might yet, I suppose) there’s something about the raw immediacy of this book that’s compelling. As I said, another writer might not have made it work, but Emily Rapp does.

I noticed that in her Acknowledgements one of the fellow writers she thanks is Dani Shapiro, and that interested me because I thought about Shapiro’s Devotion when I was reading The Still Point. Devotion is the story of a mother who believed for months that she was going to lose her infant son, but who ultimately experienced the happy ending we all hope for, in life and in stories. Emily Rapp didn’t get that. Ronan’s condition was exactly what she was told it was, and she was his mother for a few brief years, knowing that it would end all too soon.

It makes for a fascinating meditation on parenthood and on unconditional love. Reading it, I was sobered to realize how much of what I think of as “parenting” has to do with investing in my children’s future, planning for it and trying to prepare them for it. Our approach to parenthood is almost completely future-oriented, even when we feel so crazy in the midst of the parenting trenches that we think we’re only living moment to moment. We’re really not: we’re nagging about homework and trying to cook balanced meals and refereeing sibling quarrels because we believe that someday our children will benefit from all that education and nutrition and discipline.

But what if they couldn’t? What if our children had no future — if all we had with them was the present moment? What would parenting look like then?

This is the question Rapp returns to over and over in this memoir — not to try to teach other parents anything about living in the moment, because most parents’ experiences are in no way comparable, and anyway Rapp (herself a disabled person, having had one foot amputated in childhood and using a prosthetic limb) vigorously rejects the idea that sick and disabled people are put on earth to be living object lessons for the healthy. She is simply telling her story; what conclusions we draw are up to us. The intensity of that story made it possible for me to overlook things that might have irritated me in a more objective writer (mainly her attitude to Christianity: Rapp is a minister’s daughter and former theology student who has since left the Christian faith, which is fine, but her scornful description of adolescent evangelical prayer groups set back-to-back against her uncritical enthusiasm for Reiki “healing” grated a little: can’t she at least see that some people have gotten as much benefit from prayers circles as she’s ever gotten from Reiki, and some people consider both to be equally hokum?). When I brushed up against moments like these I was reminded: this woman is telling her own story, a story that seared and changed her for life. Why should she be objective? She’s not, and I wouldn’t be either.

I’m not going to lie and tell you that The Still Point of the Turning World is an easy book to read, especially if you’re a parent. It’s not. But it is incredibly engrossing and rewarding.

Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, by Marc Lewis (LentBooks 2013 #5)

addictedbrainWell it doesn’t seem like we can ever get through Lent without me reading an addiction memoir, but this one is definitely different, and I think it’s a good difference. Rather than just a person’s story of his journey through drug addiction and out into recovery — engrossing though those can be — this is a story by a neuroscientist who was a drug addict in his youth. Marc Lewis not only narrates the chilling and stupid things he did to his brain and body as a younger man; he analyzes, at each step (first drink; first joint; acid trip; near-death from heroin overdose; relapse…) what’s going on in the chemical-affected brain. Sometimes the neuroscience parts of the book went over my head, though he carefully couches everything in layman’s language and includes diagrams. But for what I was able to understand it was very interesting to see a brain’s-eye view, as it were, of how drug abuse and drug addiction impact the user.

There were a couple of gaps in this book that I wish Lewis had filled in. First of all, he didn’t touch on the question of who becomes an addict, and why. Of all the unhappy fifteen year olds like himself who get drunk and smoke weed, relatively few end up breaking into hospital labs (during their internships!) to steal drugs. I would have liked to know whether Lewis had any insight, from a neuroscience  perspective, as to why he was one of those who did become an addict. Is addiction wired into people’s brains in any way we can understand? Also, I find that while he spends a lot of time talking about his drug use he skates over  his recovery fairly quickly in the closing chapters. While this is a common failing of (some, not all) addiction memoirs, I was  particularly disappointed here that we didn’t learn more about how the brain changes during recovery, and how those patterns that have become so well-worn (and well-documented) can be changed. The book is both interesting and informative, but there were definitely areas where I felt the author could have told us more — not about his own life, which he covers quite well, but about the brain.

The Idolatry of God, by Peter Rollins (LentBooks 2013 #4)

idolatryofgodThis is the first Peter Rollins book I’ve read, although people always seem to be talking about him. Some talk favourably; some less so. I was intrigued enough to add his new book to my Lenten reading list. Just before I read it, a Facebook friend posted a link to this article, and that writer’s critique of Rollins’ thought was in the back of my head as I read, chiming in, to some extent, with the doubts and questions I had while reading. That’s not to say I didn’t find a lot of value in The Idolatry of God, simply that I don’t uncritically agree with everything Rollins says.

The book is subtitled Breaking our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction. In a lot of ways it speaks exactly where I am in my spiritual life right now, so I was intrigued. Growing up in a church where certainty about doctrine is prized as one of the highest values of the spiritual life, I find myself in midlife questioning almost every certainty I’ve ever been taught (see my Searching Sabbath video series for more details…) It’s been my observation that most people, when they experience uncertainty about their faith, tend to move fairly quickly towards greater certainty. It could be the certainty of rejecting belief and embracing atheism, or the certainty of seeking out another religious tradition to join, or the certainty of rejecting their doubts and holding firm to what they’ve always believed, stifling any further questions that may arise.

None of these options works for me. I want to be (as the tagline on my main blog describes me) a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who doubts, questions, and loves my church. Can one be a faithful doubter? Is it OK to live with uncertainty, to say of some issues, “I don’t know the answers, and that’s OK with me”?

It’s the embrace of uncertainty that I found appealing in The Idolatry of God. Rollins’ premise is that our basic human problem is one of idolatry: we sense a lack, a need in our lives, and we look for something — anything — that will fill it. Whatever we adopt to fill the void in our lives becomes an idol. Traditional Christianity would say the problem here is that we are filling the void with the wrong things: the void is God-shaped, and no idol will ever truly satisfy. Rollins turns traditional Christianity on its head by saying that the god offered in Christian churches is just another idol: we Christians hold out the same hollow promise as everyone else. “Worshipping [the right] God [in the correct way, as we do] will fill your emptiness and make you whole!” Christianity promises, and Rollins contends that in the end this idol is just as empty and unfulfilling as any other.

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Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed, by Jay Bakker (LentBooks 2013 #1)

faithdoubtAs I do most years, I’ve laid aside most of my usual fiction reading during Lent to pick up works of theology, Biblical studies, spiritual memoir or otherwise vaguely-religious (or sometimes specifically irreligious) non-fiction. This year, the start of Lent happily coincided with the release of a book I’d been waiting for: Jay Bakker’s Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking With an Unknown God.

There’s a lot of material here that will be quite familiar to anyone who’s read Bakker’s Fall to Gracewhich I read quite recently. Once again, Bakker presents a theology that grows organically out of his own messy life experiences, a theology centred firmly on God’s grace, interpreted in the broadest possible sense. He has a particular emphasis on including gays and lesbians in God’s grace, an emphasis that has made Bakker a bit of a pariah in some conservative evangelical circles where he was formerly celebrated. In this book Bakker challenges other Christians, particularly Christian leaders, who may be secretly affirming of the LGBT community but afraid to come out and say so because of the damage it will do their ministry or the attention it will divert from other important causes they support. To Jay Bakker, this unwillingness to speak out is sin, a sin he is not afraid to call by its right name. That’s the part of this book that will stay with me longest, because it hits closest to home: I am not a religious leader, but I am a member of a conservative Christian denomination and I disagree with my church’s teaching about homosexuality. How great is my responsibility to speak out? How wrong am I when I keep silent?

Beyond this specific focus, the book explores the subjects of faith and doubt more generally, particularly in context of the Bible. Jay Bakker’s own understanding of Biblical criticism has brought him to a point where he can discount difficult passages in Paul’s letters by suggesting that that letter, or that passage, does not originate with Paul but is the work of a later author. This, of course, is mainstream Biblical scholarship among more liberal Christians but is anathema to conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists, who believe in the inspiration of all parts of Scripture equally and thus have to expend a great deal of mental energy harmonizing apparently contradictory passages. Viewed in this context, Jay Bakker’s crossing of lines may appear to be a fairly conventional story: a conservative Christian crossing the line into a more liberal approach to faith and sacred texts. What makes his reflections worth reading, to me, is Bakker’s celebration of doubt as an essential element of faith. He’s not afraid to contradict Biblical writer James, who condemns doubt as a bad thing: in Bakker’s view, it’s OK to live in uncertainty. There’s far too much certainty among both conservatives and liberals, and as someone who spends a fair bit of my own spiritual journey wandering between faith and doubt, I find Jay Bakker’s writing invigorating even when I don’t agree with every conclusion he reaches.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (LentBooks 2012 #13)

This memoir was a great choice for my last LentBook of the year, although there’s nothing specifically religious or spiritual about it. In fact, a strict religious upbringing (in a Pentecostal church in the north of England) was one of the reasons why the author’s childhood was as narrow, restrictive and difficult as it obviously was. However, Winterson is a perceptive and thoughtful enough writer to do what far too many writers don’t or can’t do in writing about narrow religious worlds: she shows the richness, depth and joy of that world even as she shows why it was a world impossible for her to live in. She celebrates the fact that the church, so central to the lives of her adoptive parents, gave many working-class people the sense that their lives were part of something bigger and more important than the daily routine of work, and though she obviously doesn’t share the belief system, she laments the fact that many people’s lives are poorer because that sense of purpose has been removed with the decline of Christian churches in communities like the one where she grew up.

All that said, it’s pretty clear that Winterson’s adoptive mother was on the far-right-crazy side of conservative Christianity, and that a hellfire and brimstone religion was a natural match for her obsessive-compulsive personality — also that it was a bad match for Jeanette, a bright, rebellious girl who as a teenager fell in love with another girl and was kicked out of the house at sixteen. She went on to get an Oxford degree and become a critically acclaimed novelist — but she continued to be haunted, not just by her harsh upbringing but by the secret that lay behind it — the identity of her birth family.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? is a book about many things — adoption, abuse, mental illness, faith, doubt, the quest for love and family. Winterson first explored her background, and these themes, in her autobiographical first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which I haven’t read but now really want to. Some years later, she takes away the thin veneer of fiction and writes about the same characters and events directly, extending the story into her own midlife crisis and her search for her birth mother. Her honesty is raw, fair-minded and very appealing — while meeting her birth mother is obviously an important step, she doesn’t pretend it was the perfect happy ending, and while her (now long dead) adoptive mother was abusive and unkind, Winterson views her with compassion: as she says, “she may have been a monster, but she was my monster.” A rich, thought-provoking and very satisfying book.

Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man, by Bill Clegg (LentBooks 2012 #12)

I didn’t intend to add this book to my Lenten reading list, but I can never resist a good addiction memoir. Why is that? It seems odd for a person who’s never used or abused any mind-altering substance to be so drawn to stories of addiction, but I can’t pass one by. I could justify it by saying that many of the youth I work with are alcoholics or drug addicts and it helps me understand them better, but while that’s true, I think it really works the other way: I enjoy working with that population because I’m fascinated with the mindset of addiction, and how people manage the seemingly impossible task of breaking free. When a writer tells that story in a compelling and readable way, I can’t pass it by, so when I read an excerpt of Bill Clegg’s new book, 90 Days, in Newsweek magazine, I had to seek out his first book.

This is a simple story: a bright, talented young man with plenty of skeletons in his closet slides from heavy drinking and occasional drug use into hard-core crack addiction. The story of an epic crack binge that entirely derails Clegg’s life, ruins his business and his relationships, and drains his considerable bank account, is interspersed with scenes from his early life. There’s nothing in his childhood and youth that makes you go, “Aaaahhh, that’s why he became an addict,” and maybe that’s the point — sure, he had his troubles, but who doesn’t? Nothing ultimately determines who takes that deadly slide into addiction — choices made along the way certainly contribute, and so, no doubt, does trauma in the past and some ticking thing in the brain that can’t be controlled — but in the end, it happens, and Bill Clegg does a powerful job of describing what it’s like when it happens. There may not be anything new or startling here, and maybe, for those of us who aren’t addicts ourselves, reading books like this does have a kind of train-wreck voyeurism — but it’s certainly well-told, and I’d recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of book.

Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament, by Richard Davidson (LentBooks 2012 #11)

Flame of Yahweh is the most serious scholarly book of theology I’ve read in a few years (as opposed to books like the N.T. Wright or Peter Enns book I just reviewed, which are written by serious theologians but with a well-informed general reader like myself in mind, so that the references and footnotes are kept to a minimum). This was slow going, with the kind of pages where there might be ten lines of actual text at the top and the whole rest of the page is detailed footnotes cross-referencing the work of other scholars. But it was a very interesting read once I settled in to it. I actually started it well before Lent but one of my disciplines for this season was to stay focussed on actually finishing it, which I did.

The book was loaned to me by someone with whom I had been discussing the church’s position on gay marriage, and my position which is, admittedly, a bit different from that of my church. Richard Davidson is a very learned and very orthodox Seventh-day Adventist scholar who tackles the Bible’s statements about homosexuality, along with literally every other thing the Old Testament says about sexuality in any form at all, in this exhaustive and very thick book. While Davidson didn’t convince me to change my heretical views, I did appreciate seeing those texts carefully and thoughtfully examined in their historical context.

Some readers, coming to this book, will find it jarring that Davidson is difficult to fit into standard liberal/conservative Christian molds. He argues strenuously that the Bible views all homosexual sex as always sinful, and argues just as strenuously (despite scanty Biblical evidence) that life begins at conception and that abortion is therefore always a sin. These are standard conservative positions, but he is even more determined and passionate in arguing for an egalitarian view of the relationship between men and women. He argues that Adam and Eve are shown as equal at creation, that male headship in marriage is a post-fall concession rather than a creation ordinance and that the goal should always be to return to true equality, and that in any case, male headship, where it applies, applies only as servant-leadership in marriage, not outside the marriage relationship — thus, that women are equally suited to leadership in society and in the church as men are. He also argues (not always convincingly, in my view) that many passages in the Old Testament which modern feminists view as horrifically sexist are actually, in the context of Ancient Near East culture, far more generous to women than the law codes of similar cultures.

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How God Became King, by N.T. Wright (LentBooks 2012 #9)

N.T. Wright has probably had more influence on my thinking than any other Christian writer or theologian in recent years. In a way he’s succeeded C.S. Lewis as my theological mentor. Yet I was reminded of Lewis in a contrarian way when reading How God Became King. Lewis wrote somewhere that every new publishing season brings a book from someone claiming to have really understood Shakespeare’s plays for the first time – the corollary, as I vaguely remember it, being that you should beware not only of that person but of the person who tells you they are reading the Bible correctly for the first time and getting right what the church has always got wrong. Yet this is almost exactly what N.T. Wright claims in this book, and I don’t find myself disagreeing with him.

Wright’s contention — not particularly startling — is that Christian doctrine focuses on the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, without putting enough emphasis on His life, and depends heavily on a theology of salvation that is drawn from Paul’s epistles more than from the gospels. The church, he argues, doesn’t really know what to do with most of the material in the gospels, and thus has not truly engaged with them. Thus, Wright says, most Christians have missed what the gospels are really about — about the kingdom of God, or God establishing His rule on earth through the person and life of Jesus.

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Some Assembly Required, by Anne Lamott with Sam Lamott (LentBooks 2012 #8)

It’s well-established that I love Anne Lamott and her ruthless, charming, disarming honesty. She’s never afraid to expose the ugly dark side of her own human nature, and to rejoice in the quirky ways God loves her in spite of that. I love what she had to say about parenting in Operating Instructions, about writing in Bird by Bird, and about faith in Traveling Mercies; Plan B; and Grace (Eventually).

Some Assembly Required returns to the home-front territory of 1993’s Operating Instructions, which chronicled Lamott’s first year as a single mother caring for her new son Sam. Almost 20 years later, art student Sam Lamott presents his mom with another surprise: he and his sometimes girlfriend Amy are having a baby. And keeping it.

Grandparenthood in her mid-fifties, the shock of her son being a teenaged parent, admiration for and clashes with fierce young mom Amy, overwhelming love for baby Jax and the blessed ability to give him back to his parents at the end of a visit — all this gives Lamott loads of material to write about, and she does it in her usual funny, self-deprecating, insightful voice. Sam’s reflections on being a dad are interspersed throughout his mom’s story, but this is still, ultimately, Anne Lamott’s story. All her nonfiction, whatever it’s about, is really one story — the story of a woman who’s well aware of her own flaws and neuroses, and also well-aware of the grace of God that has seen her through addiction, single-parent-hood, the death of friends and loved ones, the ups and downs of a writer’s life … and now, grandparenting.

Oh, there’s also a trip to India thrown in there. The only thing I’d like more than visiting India would be visiting India with Anne Lamott, so I thought that was great, even if it was a bit of a deviation from the main story of Jax, Sam, Amy and their relationship with Anne. Everything that happens to an insightful writer like Lamott is material, whether it’s changing a diaper or (against all good advice) giving cash to beggars in India — and she handles her material wonderfully. It’s always a pleasure to read an Anne Lamott memoir, and I hope life keeps handing her great experiences to write about, so I can keep reading them.