By Leroy Lawson
The Best American Spiritual Writing 2007, ed. Philip Zaleski (Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).
The title raises several questions, doesn’t it? What exactly is “spiritual” writing? How do you decide what’s the best? And who is qualified to say?
Philip Zaleski’s anthology doesn’t answer. The literary range is wide: essays, poetry, meditations, biographies. The sources are varied: Buddhism, Christianity, atheism, New Age, Islam, and to be determined. The quality is, as you would expect, uneven.
But the reader who perseveres to the end will be rewarded, for there, in the penultimate selection, is Garry Wills objecting to one of our favorite pastimes, asking “What Would Jesus Do?” That’s not the proper question, he insists, because we can’t know exactly. We do know what he did, and that’s disturbing enough, because most of what he did runs counter to what we want to do.
“The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves—yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. . . . The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian.”
That’s worth pondering, don’t you think?
So is the poet Patrick Madden’s probing of the relationship between the spirit and laughter, a therapeutic scolding for us scowling Christians.
So is Harvey Cox’s introduction. He invites the reader to read carefully for what is offered “as a series of examples of spiritual discipline.” Yet he advises not to “take either our writing or our spiritual disciplines too seriously. We can distort and even smother them if we become too self-conscious about them. Like dancing or swimming or riding a bike, both are at their best when they become habitual.”
My favorites include Fred Bahnson’s adventure “Climbing the Sphinx.” The once-avid mountain climber confronted death more than once and lost his best climbing buddy, who was only 30 years old when he fell 1,500 feet to his death.
It was enough. He doesn’t climb now. He has a wife and child and church community, and his life, as he says, is no longer his own.
“Still, I wonder this: when I was climbing in flow, when my ego was gone, when I found my body moving in sync with gravity, weather, rock, and ice, were not my climbs small acts of worship, one creature’s hymn of praise to his Creator, to a God unknown?” If you have ever been awed by the majesty of the wilds, you can sing with him, can’t you?
I enjoyed reading Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom when it came out in 2002. His essay here, “Liberating Word,” treats the tensions that have arisen between the liberal (declining) churches in the developed countries and the more conservative, more convinced theology of the global South’s growing churches.
Christians in the Congo, Uganda, Brazil, or Southeast Asia live in a world much closer to the one described in the Bible than we do, hence they feel more in tune with scriptural teaching, more accepting of biblical authority. Their economic, social, environmental, and spiritual captivity lets them hear Jesus’ liberating message more gladly.
Jenkins closes by recounting a conversation he had following the 2002 publication of his book. An Episcopal woman “praised me for how effectively I had delineated the growth of new kinds of Christianity in the global South, with its passion and enthusiasm, its primitive or apostolic quality, its openness to the supernatural. Then she asked, ‘As Americans, as Christians, as Episcopalians—what can we do to stop this?’”
There’s more, much more. You’ll want to read “The Moderate Martyr” for an even-handed introduction to Islam, and “Idol Smashing and Immodesty in the Groves of Academe” for a little insight into higher education’s snobbery, and “Loving the Storm Drenched.” (“Culture is not a monolithic power we must defeat. It is the battering weather conditions that people, harassed and helpless, endure. We are sent out into the storm like a St. Bernard with a keg around our neck, to comfort, reach, and rescue those who are thirsting, most of all, for Jesus Christ.”)
Reggie McNeal, The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003).
Reggie McNeal, Practicing Great-ness: 7 Disciplines of Extraordinary Spiritual Leaders (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006).
Garry Wills’s reminder that Jesus calls us to be the least, not the greatest, would not stop pestering me as I read Reggie McNeal’s call for “extraordinary spiritual leaders” and his seven disciplines such leaders must practice. They are: self-awareness, self-management, self-development, mission, decision-making, belonging, and aloneness. In every chapter I found myself nodding in agreement. Yes, I thought, this man gets it. He knows what it takes to lead, the cost one must pay, the burdens one must bear.
But—the conscience of Wills forced me to ask, “Is greatness our calling, the measure of our achievement?”
Truth to tell, McNeal is wiser than his title implies. Our goals in leadership are to serve well, to bless many, to influence positively, to achieve excellence—and to walk humbly with our God. McNeal knows this (and he correctly labels the antithesis: “Bad leaders are a form of evil. They curse people by diminishing their life. They rob people of hope.”) Like all such books in this how-to genre, this author simplifies too much (Just 7 disciplines? Exactly 7?), but I recommend him anyway. The book is as good as many and better than most.
I’m more enthusiastic about The Present Future. A good friend recommended the 2003 publication, which I missed when it came out. My friend had organized a pastors’ conference and asked me to be the key resource person. To be certain I was aware of the deep trouble the typical church is in and to be able to speak intelligently about the proper cures for its sickness, he asked me to read McNeal.
I read, I saw, I was conquered.
It’s a tough read if you’re committed to the status quo (which, some wag explained, is Latin for “the mess we’s in”). McNeal calls for a New Reformation that will release Christians from churchianity for a mission to people who live outside the church’s walls. He thinks today’s North American church is more secular than the culture and in dire need of reformation.
Just when the church adopted a business model, the culture went looking for God. Just when the church embraced strategic planing (linear and Newtonian), the universe shifted to preparedness (loopy and quantum). Just when the church began building recreation centers, the culture began a search for sacred space. Church people still think that secularism holds sway and that people outside the church have trouble connecting to God. The problem is that when people come to church, expecting to find God, they often encounter a religious club holding a meeting where God is conspicuously absent.
So they look for God, as The Best American Spiritual Writing makes so clear, just about everywhere else.
The status quo is just not good enough.
LeRoy Lawson is international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship International and a contributing editor to CHRISTIAN STANDARD. His column appears monthly.