Many thanks to everyone who visited last week’s edition of Books Are My Boyfriend Mondays, “Really Stinkin’ Funny Memoirs”. I really enjoyed picking out some of my favorite passages to share with you, and I also very much appreciated the suggestions for new books to try that people left in the comments.
This week I wanted to share some books related to a topic very near and dear to my heart, which is people who are in the process of working out their faith and personal spirituality. (Of course, there is no way we can cover this entire topic in one week, so I will continue to pop back every now and then whenever I find something new that I MUST share with you.) I guess we’re all actually in the middle of doing that ourselves, but these people have written books to give us a glimpse into a part of their own personal search. I love books like this, because all my life I have been a spiritual seeker. Speaking of that, I guess that in the interest of full disclosure, I should share my own religious background with you.
I was raised Baptist-Independent, not Southern (although I personally have no idea what the difference is). Then when I was thirteen we moved, and I spent 5 years attending a non-denominational church. Then at Wake Forest, which is actually a Southern Baptist institution, although it is not “officially” tied to the church anymore, I spent 3 years hanging out with the Methodists as a part of the Wesley Foundation. Then during my last year of college and my first year of graduate school I felt a real calling toward the Catholic Church, and so in 1995 I converted to Catholicism.
Then when I turned twenty-nine (2001, if you’re interested) I decided to have my “turning 30” crisis a year early, and started questioning just about everything in my entire life. It was during this time that I became a student of A Course In Miracles, which I have practiced on and off since then. And now, for the past 3 Sundays, I have been attending the Baptist church up the road because-and pay attention here, because I’m pretty sure that this is the only time you will ever read these words IN YOUR ENTIRE LIFETIME-I desperately missed hymns. So there you go.
I don’t know that there’s an Officially Still Catholic Yet Also A Student of A Course In Miracles Yet Surprisingly Also Drawn Back To The Baptist Church denomination. Or perhaps, maybe as of RIGHT NOW, there is. 🙂
So back to the books-the first one I have to share today has the amazingly fantastic title, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance: a memoir by Elna Baker.
Elna is a Mormon who decides to attend NYU (her first choice) rather than BYU (her parents’ choice). So before she leaves, both her mother and her father sit her down to give her some special, parental advice.
“My mother was terrified…To her, New York was the city from the movies made in the seventies, where you heard gunshots out your window and pimps screaming at hos. Not that there were many scenes like that in the PG-rated movies my mother was inclined to watch. But still, New York was a scary, dangerous place. A month before I went off to college, she sat me down for a mother-daughter talk.
“Elna,” she said nervously. “The first thing that will happen when you move to New York is, you might start to swear.”
I wanted to say, “Oh shit, really?” But I knew that only my dad would think that was funny. Instead I nodded my head and said, “Mmm hmm.”
“And Elna,” she continued, “swearing will lead to drinking.”
I had somehow missed the connection.
“And drinking will lead to doing drugs.”
The conversation was starting to get more amusing than even I had anticipated. “And Elna,” she said, pursing her lips, “what would you do if a lesbian tried to make out with you?”
…I was…slightly offended. If you followed my mother’s logic, each step was a progression toward becoming more of a sinner. First I’d swear, then I’d drink, then I’d do drugs. By that point I was getting used to the narrative, so I assumed sex with men would be next. But no-my mother skipped that altogether and jumped to my becoming a lesbian. Did my mother honestly think that I had a better chance of getting action from a woman than a man?
These are all questions I didn’t ask her directly. But at this point I’d almost forgotten she’d asked me anything. What would I do if a lesbian tried to make out with me?
She was sitting there, arms folded, waiting for an answer.
“I’d say, ‘No thank you…lesbian’.”
My mother rolled her eyes. “There’s one more thing,” she said, resuming our heart-to-heart.
Sex with men, sex with men, sex with men.
“There are these clubs in New York where men pay larger women to dance with very little clothing on; don’t do that.”
Our mother daughter talk ended with that golden nugget of wisdom. I left thinking, Great, my mom thinks I’m moving to the big city to become a lesbian stripper. Apparently when she told me I was “special”, this is what she meant.
My father sat me down a few days later for another leaving-the-nest talk. His advice was a little different.
“Elna,” he began, “never forget these three things.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Number One: Never wear a dead man’s socks. Number Two: Never let ’em see you sweat. And Number Three: Never touch a fat man’s stomach.”
I waited for him to clarify, to add a line that would somehow make all the other words he’d said to me make sense. But he just patted me on the shoulder and left me in the living room to contemplate his wisdom.
That was all the advice I was given before moving to New York City.
OK, so I know that this particular excerpt doesn’t actually describe her particular spiritual journey, but it is where it all starts. Plus, it’s the passage that made me stride up to the cashier IMMEDIATELY and give her money so I could take this book home with me RIGHT THEN. I’m afraid if I tell you too much more then I’ll spoil the story which is well worth reading, and ends in a way that is perfect for the end of the book, although not at all the way I expected the book to end.
So, onto Book Number Two. This book is called The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester At America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose, who when he was a sophomore at Brown University decided to transfer to the Revered Jerry Fallwell’s school, Liberty University. Says Kevin:
“I used to be a secular kid. Still am, I guess. It’s hard to tell sometimes.
These days, I go through the motions of a model Liberty student. I attend prayer groups, I sing in the church choir, I spend my Friday nights at Bible study. When it comes to socializing, I follow the old Baptist moral code: “Don’t drink, smoke, or chew, and don’t go with girls who do.”
But what…my friends at Liberty don’t know is this: I haven’t always lived this way. In fact, everything I do here-the Bible study, the choir, the clean-cut morality-it’s all part of a borrowed faith.
Three months ago I was a student at Brown University, a school known for everything Liberty is not. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to call the schools polar opposites. Liberty was founded as a conservative Christian utopia, and by those standards, Brown, with its free-spirited student body, its grades-optional academic scene, and its active chapter of the Young Communist League, is a notch or two above Sodom and Gomorrah.
…This semester I transferred to Liberty precisely because it was so different-not just from my old school, but from anything I’d ever seen before.
…You can probably guess, then, how I felt during college, when by the virtue of a job I had taken as a writer’s assistant, I found myself standing in the lobby of Jerry Falwell’s twenty thousand-member Thomas Road Baptist Church, which occupies the entire northern end of Liberty’s campus.”
A little later on Kevin explains a bit more about what inspired him to make that decision:
“…My social circle at Brown included atheists, agnostics, lapsed Catholics, Buddhists, Wiccans, and more non-observant Jews than you can shake a shofar at, but exactly zero born-again Christians. The evangelical world, in my mind, was a cloistered, slightly frightening community whose values and customs I wasn’t supposed to understand. So I ignored it.
…As a college student who doubles as a journalist, what fascinated me most about Liberty was its student culture. I…had so many unanswered questions.
…Several moments after my Thomas Road visit [Roose visited campus with the journalist A. J. Jacobs to help with research for Jacob’s book, The Year of Living Biblically], while browsing Liberty’s website one morning, it clicked: What if I spent a semester at Liberty as a student? What if, instead of speculating about Christian college life from afar, I jumped over the God Divide and tried to experience it myself?
And so he did.
I feel that there is really no way for me to do justice to the depth and breadth of his journey by just picking out random quotes here and there to share. But I will say that I was incredibly blown away by the attitude of open-mindedness he took with him. There is not bashing of anyone, nor any kind of agenda being pushed here. I will also say that this book kept me interested and engaged right up through the end of the story, which again was not without its own satisfying twists and turns.
And so finally we come to the final book for this week: My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith by Benyamin Cohen. In it he describes how, after marrying a former Methodist who converted to Judaism, he was inspired to go on a journey of his own. As he explains it,
“But [Elizabeth, his wife] alone could not solve all my problems. After all, she herself found inspiration outside her inherited religion; perhaps I would need to do the same. She peeked behind the curtain of a foreign religion to help reconnect her to the Almighty. I wasn’t planning on converting, but maybe I needed to examine Christianity to see how it could make me a better Jew. For me to reach a renewed sense of faith in faith, I would have to follow her unusual path. She worked at it. She grasped Judaism and made it her own. She had chosen it. Yes, she would help me. Indeed, she would be my muse. But it was me who had to take that elusive first step.
…And, as crazy as this sounds, I’m looking to Jesus to make me a better Jew.”
However, the people around him are not as excited about his pilgrimage as he is. But after some initial resistance, both his wife and his rabbi work with him to find a way where everyone is more or less comfortable with his proposed year-long experiment.
Now, one of the other things that drew me to this book, besides the compelling story and the author’s self-deprecating humor, was the fact that the author lives in metropolitan Atlanta just like I do, and so it was like I got to go on all of his “year of church fieldtrips” around our area, without actually having to leave home.
So there are lots of chapters describing his experience with all kinds of Christian denominations, but it wasn’t until chapter 11 that I really sat up and took notice. It is called, “Wrestling With God”, and begins with the following eye-popping description:
“I’ve heard of people doing some crazy things in the name of the Lord-martyrdom and murdering infidels come immediately to mind-but never in all my travels through religious houses of worship have I seen this-Christian wrestling. And we’re not talking about just any Christian wrestling. This is Ultimate Christian Wrestling.
It’s a frosty winter night at the Harvest Church just outside Athens, Georgia. Down a rural dirt road, this is the Bethlehem of Ultimate Christian Wrestling. It says as much on its Web site. And when I had stumbled across the site while aimlessly surfing the Internet a few days earlier, my first reaction was of total disbelief. Could this be real?”
Now as it happens, Athens, GA was the very city in which I spent two years earning my Masters Degree, and so I had a really hard time reading the rest of the chapter because all I could think about at first was, “DUDE-I CANNOT BELIEVE I MISSED THIS!!!!
Even the founder of this ministry finds it a little hard to believe.
“When I get to heaven, the first thing I’m going to ask God is, ‘Where in the world did you come up with that idea?’ “There may be many of us asking that very same question.”
I still have about 1/3 of the book left to read, but I strongly recommend it, because this is one approach to working out one’s personal faith that I’ve never heard of before. So, go. Definitely. Read.
OK, so now that I have written approximately the longest post in the history of the Internet, it’s your turn. What books do you recommend? I’ve got some blank spaces in my To Be Read Line-up. And thanks so much for stopping by!
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