Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book Review and Interview - O me of little faith by Jason Boyett

Disclaimer #1: While I've never met Jason Boyett face to face, or talked with him on the phone, I have corresponded with him via e-mail, twitter, facebook, and his blog - I have copies of all of the Pocket Guides and refer to them regularly when I want to sound particularly knowledgeable and/or witty.

Disclaimer #2: The fine people at Zondervan (specifically Assistant Marketing Director Mike Salisbury) sent me an advance copy of “O me of little faith” with a nice letter asking me to consider posting a review on my blog.

Let me be the first to say that this book is not for everyone - if you are so strong in your faith that you cannot comprehend someone raised in a church setting expressing honest doubt about the basis of everything upon which Christianity is founded (including the very existence of a divine being), then you probably should not frustrate yourself with this book. If you are a staunch atheist convinced that anyone who holds to a belief system that involves a deity cannot be a deep thinker or is living in denial and you wish to maintain that prejudice, do not read this book.

Allow me to now speak for a significant number of us - the ones who are immersed in American Christianity, were probably raised going to church, have had the proverbial “mountaintop experiences” with God, but still find ourselves wondering, “is it really real?”  The unfortunate truth is that many of us are uncomfortable bringing those questions up with our friends, family, and especially not with those who share our faith (weak as it may be).  For everyone who has wondered, “Am I the only one asking these questions?” - stop reading this review, go here and get this book now (then come back and read the rest of the review).

Jason has a way of writing that is inviting, entertaining, and informative - I've often told people that when you read the Pocket Guides (Bible, Sainthood, Apocalypse, Afterlife), you find yourself laughing your way through page after page and then all of a sudden realize that you're learning great information at the same time.

Jason maintains the great writing skills in “O me of little faith” - but he adds a layer of vulnerability and openness that is more than a little challenging.   Jason's chapter on prayer - “Reverse Brick-Laying” - is one of the most honest, insightful accounts I've read on the subject - and thanks to that chapter I now have a copy of the Book of Common Prayer on its way to my home.  The following chapter - “Insanity at 900 Feet” - will shake you to your core. Seriously.

I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say this - Jason does an incredible job with each chapter of introducing a concept, taking you down a winding path and bringing you back at the end of the chapter with the destination clear. But don't expect that with the book as a whole - Jason doesn't take you by the hand and say, “come this way, I think I've got this figured out now, we should go in this direction...” rather, he seems to say, “thanks for listening, let's keep trying to figure this out together.”

My recommendation, read the book and engage in the conversation here.

OK, that does it for the review portion - now the Interview:

Jason, pull up that yellow chair of yours, let's chat about this book of yours.

First, I'm going to ask for your assessment - right now we can walk into most book stores and find shelves of books that either take on the God/Atheist debate or explore the personal side of Faith and Doubt - you even reference some of these in your book - how would you compare OMOLF with the other books out there? And, in light of those other books on the market, do you believe we're seeing a fad, a trend, a movement, or something else?

Yes, I think we are seeing something of a trend. In fact, one of the most distressing things I've red on a blog or two discussing my book has been the concern that books about doubt have become a fad among certain kinds of Christians, and my book is an attempt to capitalize on that fad. Oof. THAT certainly makes me feel good about myself. Glad I was able to time my personal struggles to peak at just the right moment so I could get this book written!
I'll stop being snarky now. The truth is that books like mine -- call them confessional faith memoirs, street-level apologetics or, simply, doubt books -- have indeed become something of a trend in recent years. Starting with Blue Like Jazz, we've seen an uptick in Christian books that aren't afraid to ask hard questions of the faith without offering any definitive answers. Instead of logical propositions, we tell stories. Instead of certainty, we offer honesty and transparency. And I'll admit that O Me of Little Faith does fit into this genre. And I would explain the genre by citing postmodernism or a reaction to Baby Boomer rationalism, but one of the best books in this "movement" was The Myth of Certainty, written 25 years ago by Dan Taylor. And John Ortberg has written a great book about doubt, too, and he's my parents' age. So it's not as tidy of a movement as we think.

Another interesting pattern is the way people who have grown up in the Protestant/Evangelical camp are finding real meaning and comfort in the Liturgy from the High Church camp (observing Lent, Liturgical prayers, etc.). Can you offer a little more about what these kinds of explorations have done for you - and again, any thoughts on whether we're just seeing this as a couple of isolated cases or do you see a trend that might bring some denominations together around something more substantial than a political agenda?

I think the gradual movement from low-church worship to high-church worship -- from loose evangelicalism to liturgy -- is certainly a trend, and one we've been observing for a couple of decades. I grew up Southern Baptist. In terms of church membership and attendance, I'm still Southern Baptist. And yet my family observes Lent, because we've found it deepens our experience of Easter. I pray from the Book of Common Prayer and other liturgy because I get so annoyed by the cliches of public prayer (mine, and others'). We've found that these ancient practices offer a nice counterbalance to some of the silly shallowness of the contemporary Christian subculture. It propels us beyond self-centered spiritual practices and toward the traditions of the last two thousand years of Christian community. That's a good thing.
Of course, my anecdotal experience doesn't mean much by itself. But based on the studies I've seen, there's definitely a trend in the direction of liturgy. If it means a more thoughtful, deeper expression of Christianity, I'm all for it.
I have to be honest, some of the things you write about from your childhood/teen/20something days and the beliefs you held were both way too familiar and more than a little uncomfortable for some readers who may read this and think "wait a minute, I thought I was the only one who went through that and live every day regretting those beliefs/actions/etc." Um, I mean, hypothetically, someone could maybe think something like that... so the question is, how much did you struggle with the idea of exposing so much - and how difficult was/is it to put those slices of your internal life out there for public consumption?
Yes, I struggled with how much internal stuff to reveal. The Brazil story, in particular, is something I'd never shared with anyone other than a few close friends. I worried a little about what people would think about some of the uncomfortably transparent stuff -- like my family members, or people I grew up with at church -- but what's the use of writing a faith memoir if I'm going to gloss over the truth? I had to tell it right, even if the honesty made certain readers uncomfortable. Or if it made me uncomfortable.
But something I'm discovering about my personality is that it's much easier for me to share stuff like that in a book or blog post than to explain it in person. Maybe it's because I'm such an introvert. I'm much more comfortable hiding behind that degree of separation that the written word offers beyond face-to-face interaction. (In the same way, I prefer email to phone calls.)
You do a great job throughout the book of covering the predictable responses from those who might want to help you let go of your doubt (read this book, watch that video, claim these scriptures) - since the book has gone to print have you received any new advice (good, bad, or indifferent) from those trying to help? Is there a message you'd like to convey to those individuals?
I haven't gotten much advice yet. The worst up to this point has been the insinuations from some, prior to reading, that doubt was a wussy thing to get worked up about. Like I should just "man up" and believe harder. A few others have suggested that the best way to deal with my doubts was to "get in the Word." That suggestion floors me, because I'm pretty sure at least half of my doubts come from reading the Bible -- dealing with its stories, its varied perspectives, and its complexities. I'm not sure what Bible the "get in the Word" people are reading, but when I read Scripture I tend to come away with more questions than answers.
My message for them? Jude 22: "Show mercy to those who doubt." I didn't just flip a switch and start doubting, and I can't flip the switch the other direction and stop doubting. Uncertainty has settled in after years of historical study, theology, practice, and personality. If any of the easy answers helped, they would have worked by now. Doubters don't need to be given shallow instructions about how to get better. Doubters need to be shown grace -- just like everyone else.
You've connected with quite a few people from different faith backgrounds and some great atheists on your blog - any indications that as you've admitted your lack of faith some of our atheist friends might be willing to admit to some dabbling with faith of some kind? (I know, not exactly a fair question - just a thought) 

Interesting question. My willingness to ask hard questions has made me more approachable, I think, among my atheist/agnostic friends. They know I'm not going to immediately shut them down in conversations about God (or about there not being a God), because my own uncertainty has given me a tolerance and understanding of their viewpoint. I'm willing to entertain their questions without getting defensive or spoiling for a fight. And most of the non-theists I've met are quite knowledgeable about these questions and issues...often more so than believers. However, my tolerance for their perspective doesn't guarantee they'll respond the same way to me, and suddenly develop a new-found respect for theism. People dig trenches for protection, and it's hard to abandon those trenches even when the battlefield is safer. Still, my goal has always been conversation, and it's easier to have a conversation if you make the environment safe for everyone involved. A willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints is a good step toward that kind of safety. You can't have a conversation if everyone's shouting at each other, so I tend to approach these topics with humility, patience, and respect. And the funny thing is, that approach works. Grace goes a long way. But I don't have expectations. To say "I've dabbled with agnosticism! Now it's your turn to dabble in faith!" would probably be unreasonable.

Do you see yourself eventually (30 years down the road) writing something like "How my faith grew exponentially - and how yours can, too"?

Ha! I don't see myself ever writing a book with the subtitle "And Yours Can, Too!" because that requires too many assumptions, the least of which is that what you need in life is to be more like me. (Of course, as a raging egomaniac, I think it all the time. But I'd never put it in print.) That said, I'd love to someday be able to write a book about how I arrived at a solid faith and how I finally put it all together. That would certainly be an answer to prayer. But I'm not sure it would make for as interesting of a book.

Thanks, Jason, for writing the book and for participating in the interview - I'll let you get back to your own blog now.

UPDATE: Several other people have been offering reviews of Jason's book (so you don't have to just take my word for it) - here's the links:

Pastor David Kenney
Make Seriously
New Ways Forward
Tess Mallory
Danny J Bixby
Rachel Held Evans

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