The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

The Spirit in the Letter: a book review

There was a time I didn’t know who Henri Nouwen was. His name wasn’t bandied about very often in the church I grew up in. I was in my twenties before I discovered him. He had already passed away. I was in a Christian bookstore and saw a cardboard cut out of a middle-aged man with disheveled hair and aviator-framed bifocals. It was a display for a book of remembrances from those touched by Nouwen’s life.

I didn’t buy the book but I got hold of some Nouwen’s other books (they are called legion for they are many). I read Reaching Out, and a couple of his shorter works.  My appreciation for Nouwen continued to grow. Books like The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Wounded Healer, Making All Things New, and In the Name of Jesus have stamped themselves on my heart and I return to them each every so often. I’ve appreciated the depth of Nouwen’s spiritual insight, his warm pastoral concern and the vulnerability of his reflections.

NouwenLove, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life reveals a less public and polished Nouwen (the one with the disheveled hair).  This collection of letters, collected and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw, reveal Nouwen at three distinct stages of life. The letters in Part I (December 1973-1985) are from the period where Nouwen taught at Harvard and Yale but felt called away from academia to L’Arche, a community of care sharing life with the profoundly disabled. Part II (1986-1989), has letters from Nouwen’s early days at L’Arche, his interpersonal struggles, and his fight with depression and anxiety.  Part III (1990-1996) contains letters from Nouwen’s final years where he felt freer and more at ease.

There is a big range in these letters. Some of them are addressed to readers or folks whom he led in retreat asking for spiritual life or overcoming struggles. Some letters were to friends whom he has shared life with and confidants he trusts. Some letters were from colleagues and fellow authors with whom he shares an affinity and mutual academic interest who he wished to encourage. Some letters were for people he was planning a retreat or conference with. Nouwen is attentive to each type of recipient. Several times he sent along a copy of one of his books.

I like books of letters and have read several. Letters reveal some of the thinking behind an author’s published works and clarify their ideas. They give us a glimpse of how a person cares for those in their sphere of influence. I really appreciate this collection for the way it reveals Nouwen to me and clarifies his thinking. Some of these letters describe the angst Nouwen felt as he struggled with his sexuality and his desire to remain faithful to his vocation (Nouwen was same-sex attracted but called to the celibate priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church). Other letters reveal Nouwen sharpening his thought in conversation with friends, or clarifying his thinking for inquirers.

One gem I unearthed reading this, was his response to Sister Anna Callahan (letter dated October 31, 1988). He clarifies his Wounded Healer concept in response to a paper she wrote, “You write, ‘Nouwen would agree that we minister best out of our needs and our wants[sic].’ This is incorrect. It doesn’t really represent my thinking. My opinion is not that we minister best out of our needs and wounds but that we minister best when we have recognized our needs and have attended to our own wounds”(195).

I highly recommend this book for Nouwen fans. Readers of Nouwen will be familiar with many of Nouwen’s ideas, but seeing how he responds to readers who contact them in the midst of their own dark night, or colleagues who are struggling with their vocation, showcase  Nouwen’s pastoral skill and deep love for people. I give this book five stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher through the Blogging For Books program in exchange for my honest review.

Waving Bye and Hi to God: a ★★★★★ book review

This isn’t an apologetics book, though I took from it what I normally get from one (a rationale or some ground for continued belief). Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, doesn’t set out to convince you of your spiritual path. Finding God in the Waves is a memoir of McHargue’s own spiritual journey. I love memoirs, especially ones with a Hobbit-like shape ( There and Back Again). McHargue describes both losing his faith, and finding God again (SPOILER ALERT) in the waves. Along the way he shares the scientific and philosophical axioms which allow him to hold on to faith in the face of science, reason and doubt.

sciencemikePodcast listeners will be familiar with Mike McHargue from his Ask Science Mike podcast or from The Liturgists podcast which he does with Michael Gungor. The name Science Mike, a vague discipline combined with his personal name, doesn’t really communicate anything substantial about McHargue’s credentials. It is kind of like calling yourself Humanities Jane, Literature Harry, or Theology Bob. Rob Bell christened him as Science Mike, so what are you going to do?  McHargue’s bio doesn’t tell you what kind of scientist he is (or if he is), you just have his assertion that his years as an atheist, when he could examine evidence without religious ideological lenses, made him a better scientist. Perhaps, but this book is more science-y than anything approaching hard sciences.

McHargue grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. He said the sinner’s prayer at the age of seven, grew up as an evangelical praying to Jesus and believing. Hormones and playing in a band transformed him from an nerdy fat kid into someone more likeable and cool.  For a season he broke from the church (which frowned on premarital sex), until he fell victim to the flirt and convert. Jennifer Carol Frye, a girl he was smitten with, demanded that if he was serious about her, they attend church together. So he did, trading bar gigs for church camp and a worship band. By the time he was twenty-five, he and Jenny were married and McHargue was serious about his faith.

Then his faith fell apart. The cracks came when his dad left his mom for another woman, after almost thirty years of marriage. McHargue saw no biblical ground for divorce and  wanted God to fix his parents’ marriage. He began reading the bible through at a voracious pace and praying fervently. He noted contradictions in the Bible which he didn’t know were there before (i.e. the differences between the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts) and doubts began to form. Reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis helped him move past the need to fix his parents marriage and showed him that you could be honest about your doubts in the life of faith.

His Christianity weathered his parents divorce but not its next challenger: Richard Dawkins. An atheist friend got him to read The God Delusion. McHargue read it, along with dozens of other works from skeptics. His faith fell apart, particularly as Dawkins parsed the evidence against answered prayer. He became an atheist albeit a secret one. He had no desire to undermine the faith of his wife or others. He continued to teach Sunday school and be a deacon at his church. Eventually his wife (and mother) uncover his collapsed faith, but he remained a secret atheist to everyone else until he was roped into attending a religious conference put on by Rob Bell.

Remember I mentioned the Hobbit shape of this memoir? McHargue does make it back to the shire of belief, but just as with Bilbo, the landscape changed for him because of the journey. Rob Bell, a beach house and the waves, shake him out of atheism into an Eucharistic encounter with the divine, but he doesn’t return to the fundamentalist, evangelicalism of days of yore. He finds a progressive church that he feels comfortable worshiping in and writes axioms which allow him as believing skeptic to give a rational account of subjective religious experience and its benefit (i.e. the physiological benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer).

I really liked this book and found McHargue’s story a compelling one. I found I could relate to parts of his journey. Like him, my evangelical parents’ marriage dissolved after almost thirty years and I was left there to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Like him, my reading of books by skeptics and believers alike stretched my understanding of God, the Bible and the life of faith. I haven’t ever walked away from the faith but I know the experience of dissonance between outward expression of faith and doubts swirling around my insides.

McHargue doesn’t provide trite answers to tough question or cherry-picked evidence that demands a verdict. However, his axioms are a starting point for others on their way back to belief. These axioms make smaller and more general claims than the orthodox Christian tradition about God, prayer, the afterlife, salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or the Bible. I am unhappy with McHargue’s axioms as guiding principles for life and faith but I  appreciate the way he frames what he says. Each axiom begins by explaining what each element (i.e. God, sin, salvation, etc.) are  “at least.”  He gives skeptics a provisional place to begin their explore God. Just enough.

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Those who have wrestled with religious doubt will appreciate the honest way that McHargue explores his own doubts. Not every skeptic will be helped by his answers and many believers will wish he voiced things with a little more theological precision and substance; Yet if you have walked this road, you will appreciate the way McHargue names the in-between-places. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review.

Holy Shift! a book review

In 2006, Kathy Escobar underwent a ‘faith shift.’ No longer able to conform to the beliefs and practices of her conservative evangelical church, she went through a time of shifting and unraveling before rebuilding her faith, albeit in a new way. Currently she is a popular blogger,  the co-founder of Refuge, a mission center and Christian community in the North Denver area and a spiritual director. As a spiritual director and pastor she has journeyed alongside many spiritual-shifters.

Faith Shift is not just Escobar’s story;  it is the fruit of her story and is birthed by her work with fellow-faith-shifters. Escobar has cataloged the process that she and others have gone through as they moved from  a faith which was ‘certain’ but narrow toward a reconstructed, generous faith (or a movement beyond faith).  By naming the process, Escobar comforts those experiencing the disorientation and disequilibrium of a ‘faith shift.’ The stages she describes are:

  1. Fusing– characterized by believing, learning and doing underscore this stage. People in this stage place a strong value on  affiliation, certainty, conformity.
  2. Shifting–discomfort with formulaic answers and beginning to disengage with aspects of belonging with the in-group.
  3. Returning–This stage is a ‘re-engagement’ and a ‘return’ to the faith community we were in, in the ‘fusing stage.’
  4. Unraveling–A letting go of the faith we had in our ‘fusing stage.’ If the fusing stage valued affiliation, certainty and confromity, in the unraveling stage we value autonomy, authenticity, uncertainty (65).
  5. Severing–cutting ties with your past belief system (Escobar observes that most shifters do not give up their belief in God, or their faith totally, but she allows for the possibility.
  6. Rebuilding–In the final stage, new faith (or a new spirituality, even an atheistic one) emerges. In this stage, our values are freedom, mystery, diversity (129).

Along the way, Escobar has a number of wise and compassionate things to say. Escobar validates whatever stage we may be at on our spiritual journey because each stage has peculiar gifts for us. Those who return to their original faith are validated because all our journeys are different, people return or a variety of reasons and the simple certainty we knew at that stage is comforting (see chapter 5).  Escobar has a gift for honoring the spiritual lives of others. She knows that even as we change and grow, something is lost from the ‘faith’ we had and it is worth grieving and appreciating. The reflection questions at the end of each chapter allowed me to explore how the theme of the book and make sense of  some of my own story.

When I began this book, I felt like I wasn’t exactly her intended audience. Most of the faith shifts she describes were movements from conservative Evangelical to something more progressive (or beyond). Like Escobar and her tribe, I too began my spiritual journey as part of a conservative evangelical church. Currently, I pastor one. I have made some denominational and doctrinal shifts along the way but still hold to the central doctrines I was raised with. I hold some issues far looser but I also feel more certain about the aspects of faith I regard as essential.  Still my own faith journey parallels Escobar’s stages.  I moved from a narrow  version of evangelicalism to one that is more generous and values freedom, diversity and mystery.  I think a lot of of what Escobar says will be instructive for anyone moving from a rudimentary faith toward spiritual maturity (not that I necessarily have arrived there yet!)  Faith Shift is first and foremost about spiritual and personal growth.

Escobar places no judgment on the outcome of a faith shift. You can move from fundamentalist to agnostic and in so doing, experience more freedom and authenticity. That is growth, and in many respects, growth in the right direction. However, I’m not sure that I want to relativize all aspects of ‘faith.’ I think it is possible to move towards a belief system that is healthier but falser (or as false). The stages that Escobar describes are individualized and allow each shifter to decide what they still believe:

Each person’s journey is unique. While I know some people who are no longer certain of the divinity of Christ, others hold strongly to this belief. While some believe the Bible might be inaccurate and therefore loses parts of his authority, others still believe it is inerrant and take it extremely seriously. While some may have five or more things they still firmly believe, others may have only one. (143)

I am enough of a Pietist to believe we each have to own our own faith, but I am not a relativist and and put a higher premium on (capital T) Truth in our spiritual quest. I certainly agree with her that many, whose faith has unraveled, need to pursue growth outside of the communities they are no longer a part of.  Honest, vulnerable doubt is preferable to quiet pretense.  But personally I hold out hope for God’s self revelation in Christ as a shining star in the midst of our wilderness wanderings.

If you forgive me my Evangelical quibbles, I think this is a very good book and I am grateful for Escobar’s insights. In the spiritual life we need more openness to mystery and wonder and less slavish obedience to some imposed standard. If it takes a faith shift to open us up into a new way of exploring God and fatih, I am in favor. I give this four stars. ★★★★☆

Notice of material connection, I received a review copy of this book for the purposes of this review.