The best part of reading fiction is to explore the big questions most people want to ask but are afraid to do so in their local church or synagogue. Novelists (I mean good novelists) push easily constructed worldviews to the liminal edges that rarely get spoken of in sermons and Sunday School.It is also true that many people’s underdeveloped view of the Bible comes from glib answers in movies and shallow love stories of the popular variety. It does us good to read something meaty and controversial once in awhile.
That’s why I like Jim Weaver. He doesn’t read for easy answers or for purely escapist fantasy. He’s thinker and a laugher. He enjoys good wine and good friendships but he doesn’t neglect the interior life. After a career in ministry and non-profit work, he turned to the third stage of his life, that of Elder Sage. His day to day choices in retirement are too many to outline but you can learn more about his work here:http://www.jwnonprofitadvisors.com
He’s one of the first people I call for advice and even though he lives in SoCal I must hang with him twice a year or I go looney. He’s that helpful. Here’s Jim’s Hall of Fame list of faith challenging reading from the past twenty years. If you’ve read them before, do it again with Jim’s vantage point in mind.
“The Poisonwood Bible”
True faith is empty if not freely embraced. Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” plunges the reader into the trauma of a family constellation of four daughters and their mother who were emotionally imprisoned in an austere life on a far-flung mission field by an over-zealous and cruel father and husband. Calloused and abusive, this appallingly misguided missionary dragged his family to the Belgian Congo with a ruthless spirit that masqueraded as a passionate desire to save the godless African natives.
Coercion and control was his mode of operation, whether it was directed to the villagers among whom he took up residence, or to his wife and family who virtually cowered in his presence and tussled deeply with the faith that was their expressed reason for traveling thousands of miles in response to what they felt was the call of God. In reality, the voice of God sounded most like the father and husband’s voice, a perplexing reality that tore at the family’s once cohesive faith.
Pain, loss, and confusion were the daily lot of both the angry villagers and the confused daughters and mother. Yet throughout this remarkable story we hear the unique voices of the five women in their struggling attempts to salvage their lives, find redemption and embrace a faith that, although having disappointed them in so many ways, may still hold the key to their emotional, and even physical, survival.
Anne Lamott never ceases to charm, enlighten, entice and anger her readers. Whether it’s her instructive insights on translating elusive thoughts into writing in “Bird by “Bird,” or her earthy genuineness readily seen in her whimsical dreadlocks, her signature first impression. Her authenticity as an author shines through both her creative memoirs, her witty instructions on faith and her captivating characters that have been humiliated by rejection, confronted divorce or contended with alcoholism.
One such novel is “Imperfect Birds” which walks the reader into one of Lamott’s dominant areas of writing – the family. As with her other works, Ms. Lamott’s writings are mirrors that reflect to readers their own worlds and, to change metaphors, that allow them to resonate with the tensions and struggles that she portrays. In “Imperfect Birds” we once again meet Rosie Ferguson, who we saw as a precocious child in “Rosie” and then as a teenager who was a skilled tennis player in “Crooked Little Heart.”
Rosie is now a beautiful, intelligent and athletic seventeen-year old, who has been a delight to her parents. Challenging times have befallen the family, however, as Rosie begins to exhibit unusual behavior which soon reveals itself as blatant deception, leading her parents to believe misleading information about what occupies Rosie’s days. Drugs, drinking and sex with an older man have been hidden from her Mother and Stepfather. Rosie’s duplicity and her parents’ suspicions eventually collide, threatening to tear apart the fabric of this once trusting and intimate family.
The difficult path of restoration of faith and rebuilding of trust is painfully explored amidst laughter and tears as only Anne Lamott can evoke. Agonizing dilemmas endemic to family life are a thread throughout Imperfect Birds, compelling readers to examine their own lives and families with the same lenses of honesty and humor utilized so deftly by Ms. Lamott.
“The Children Act”
Moral dilemmas are threads that weave throughout Ian McEwan’s writings. “The Children Act,” McEwan’s newest book, bears out that reality in glaring fashion. The characters in the book, as well as the reader receive a close-up look at the demands that faith can make on one who takes it seriously, however misguided one may feel that Adam’s application of his faith may be. Adam is a bright, gentle 17-year-old with a life-threatening illness. A specific medical protocol would likely save his life; but Adam and his family are saying “no” for well-articulated religious reasons.
Should the government step in and exercise its prerogative to overrule the family, even though they embrace an authentic faith, and order life-saving treatment? That decision is in the hands of Fiona Maye, a high-court judge in London who is charged with family decisions. A fair and well-respected professional, Judge Maye has her own personal struggles, including a deteriorating marriage and the distress of having borne no children which brush up against this arduous decision. Respecting the intelligence of the young man and grappling with the emotions of interacting with such a charismatic individual, Judge Maye struggles with the dilemma of the clash of faith with the law and with the sanctity of life. The reader is captivated by this quandary and by how his/her faith might have to be played out in painful and challenging circumstances.
“Crazy for God”
Every now and then a reader discovers that s/he has stumbled upon a book that mirrors his/her life in many aspects, some alarming and others reassuring. The book reflects the reader’s deepest struggles and besetting fears, echoes his intense joys and profound sorrows, and follows his own journey through life whether that path is one freely chosen or one pressured into.
For me, such was “Crazy for the God,” authored by Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, the nearly legendary fundamentalist/evangelical guru of the 1960’s through the 1980’s. Frank Schaeffer spent most of his growing up years in the womb of L’Abri, the Christian Retreat Center in the heart of the Swiss Alps that became an evangelical Mecca, frequented by an assortment of hippies, yuppies, academicians and spiritual leaders. There were true seekers desirous of answers to life. Others were already seriously committed Christian leaders wishing to bask in the teachings of Francis and Edith Schaeffer who had gained the reputation of being true conservative fundamentalists who were protecting the basic and vital evangelical tenets, but doing so in a fashion that was attractive to a wide spectrum of people, ranging from young people fresh out of the drug culture, to well-known Christian celebrities, to political leaders from around the world.
It was in this culture that Frank Schaeffer cut his theological teeth, embracing wholeheartedly from early childhood the faith tenets that his respectable parents taught him that he couldn’t live without. But even though Frank followed closely in his Father’s and Mother’s footsteps, actually becoming the one who may have been best known for his accomplished marketing of his parents, his adherence to his parents’ belief system was not to last. Frank’s masterful production of movies and books that contained his Father’s teachings, hailed with superlative reviews in both the religious and secular worlds, could not stem his own gradually eroding belief structure.
“Crazy for God” chronicles Frank’s journey through a sheltered childhood, complicated by his contraction of polio and his severe dyslexia, through a rebellious adolescence culminating in a youthful marriage, on into a movie-production profession that enabled him to convey, albeit superficially and hypocritically, that he was not only holding fast to the faith of his Father, but actually promoting his Father’s belief system to their faithful followers.
Throughout the book this reviewer was looking into a mirror and was seeing so many pieces of his own rocky faith journey, resonating deeply with the anguish of promulgating a rigid faith structure that at so many points along my path I too wasn’t sure I really believed. Highlighted throughout Frank’s autobiography of his growth in his evangelical faith and its ultimate demise were personalities that I recognized immediately from the Christian world within which I circulated for several decades. I knew a number of them personally and could hear their voices as Frank described his relationship to them. Others I recall moving me deeply when I heard them speak inspirationally. The mention of still others prompted memories of having devoured their ubiquitous books. Many I simply knew by reputation as Christian luminaries.
But far beyond simply having a familiarity with the fundamentalist cast of characters whose names cropped up on page after page, there was my visceral recognition deep inside that the teeth and claws of fundamentalism sink deeply and never want to let go. Even once they are extracted, with genuine healing and faith metamorphosis allowed to follow, the residual crazy-for-God scars often want to assert their presence, a persistent reality that Frank Schaeffer and this reviewer know all too well.