Sucked into a Christian Book Study Group
I never would have predicted it and I’m not sure I’m suited for it, but I got sucked into a Christian book study group over last summer. It started because of a book called Everything Must Change. I couldn’t have agreed more with the title, and it intrigued me that a Protestant pastor would be so outspoken to suggest, as Brian McClaren does in that book, that contemporary American Christians are in league with corrupt global capitalism, propping up a vast and unsustainable economic, political, and moral charade. If they really want to preserve civilization, he says, they ought to be practicing the hard, humanitarian work Jesus lays out for them in the Gospels.
There were four facilitators of this seminar-like study group, two of them friends of mine. Another friend loaned me the book. I read it before the seminar began. It was pretty amazing. McClaren is a political liberal—make that a radical—calling for nothing less than a revolution in western society, not violently in the streets but in the hearts and minds of Christians. In chapter after chapter, writing with the evangelical fervor of a Peter or Paul, he lays out his points like any peacenik or socialist or tree-hugging environmentalist. We are killing ourselves and the planet with our voracious materialism, he says. And that includes a bloated military. But in the Gospels—in Jesus’ life and teaching—we find a way to calm ourselves down, simplify our lives, and reset our relationships so that all are included without prejudice. That’s true Christianity, and if it’s also radical extremism, don’t people realize Jesus was a radical extremist? I’m not sure McClaren’s book fully convinced me. I agreed with his analysis of the enormous, Hydra-headed problems we face today, but his solutions through the institutional church seemed tepid to me by comparison. And I don’t think he accounts adequately for Christianity’s baggage. The Church has been a principal perpetrator of the imperial evils which have brought us to the brink of spontaneous global die-off. Can the Church really provide the cure? Or is this a companion case of too-big-to-fail? Nevertheless, I stayed connected to the process through several meetings of the study group, participating in discussions and meeting some thoughtful, interesting people—most of them, unlike myself, practicing Christians. The reason I’m not a practicing Christian or a member of any church goes back to my days as a senior in high school. It’s not theological or ideological. It’s pure adolescent attitude. My father, for some reason, had a thing about making me go to Unitarian Sunday school and church. I of course was far more committed to my Saturday nights, out late with my girl friend. My father would come into my bedroom Sunday morning and throw open the curtains to let the glaring morning light stream in directly on my sleeping head. So long as I was in school, he said, he and my mother would insist I get up for church on Sunday morning. It was a direct attack on the poetry of my soul, and it really pissed me off. I swore that once I graduated from high school I would never go to church again in my life. And I’ve pretty much held to it, even though I love churches, especially cathedrals. That’s because I love spirituality, reverence for life, soft philosophies of love and tenderness, stories of Eden and reflections on eternity and life everlasting. To enter a church, especially a gothic-style cathedral but also a plain, unassuming chapel, has always brought a quiet awe-filled joy to my mind and heart, an “Ahhh” of relief from the noise and confusion outside. But that’s when there’s no service going on. When the service starts, that feeling for some reason begins to leave me, and the longer the service goes on the less close to the sacred I feel. That’s why I had no fire for getting up for church when I was in high school. It was such a disappointment. It couldn’t begin to light my spirit with the same glow as Saturday night at the YWCA dance. Maybe it’s all the standing up and sitting down, constantly interrupting my reverie; maybe it’s the lackluster hymns that make my temples ache when I sing them; maybe it’s the dull sermons that tip-toe around strong emotions, startling ideas, and, of course, sex; maybe it’s the canned prayers and the monotonous drone of responsive readings. Maybe it’s all of those. The truth is, I don’t connect with God in church services as much as in other places, using other means. I seem to require my own personal spirituality which I don’t find, or haven’t yet found, in any liturgy.
But after the Brian McClaren book was done, the study group leaders decided to continue, and two offshoot groups formed, one studying the Hebrew tradition and the other offering to compare The Heart of Christianity, a book by Marcus Borg, with Native American Spirituality, where one of our group’s pastors has expertise. I was quite interested in the latter because Native American spirituality was my entry point into understanding my own spiritual feelings. But I didn’t see much connection with Christianity there. I wanted to learn if there was one. Well, the answer is complicated, but, overall, I believe, negative. As became pretty clear to me in the study group, a sizable gulf exists between standard Christian belief and the Native American animistic experience of unity with all creation.
After that second book study, the group decided it wanted to keep meeting, and a third book was chosen, The First Christmas by Borg and a co-author, John Dominic Crossan. I decided to stay in the group for a while longer because, for one thing, the cost of the book was covered. But, as I perform in an annual version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the second-most popular Christmas story in the world, I thought it behooved me to learn more about the first most-popular version. Well, The First Christmas pretty much destroys the magic of the nativity story in the Bible, like telling a child there is no Santa Clause. The angels, the virgin, the stable, the star, the shepherds, the magi, the narrow escape from an evil king—it was all advertising. The authors say as much. They trace how the details of the Gospel story were transposed from older stories of prophets in the Jewish scriptures and world saviors in pagan myths. Jesus’ followers were in competition with those established stories and myths. To attract believers, they needed a comparable myth. The beloved Christmas story is one result—a public relations coup, when you think of it, but maybe not entirely effective. While Jesus definitely replaced Zeus, it’s not so certain he’s yet to replace his chief rival Caesar.
I left the book study group for my acting job before we finished The First Christmas, so no doubt there was more to come than simply demystifying the Bible nativity. But I heard the group would continue after the holidays with a new selection. Eventually, Naked Spirituality by Brian McClaren—the Everything Must Change pastor—was chosen, and meetings began this February. I had a perfect opportunity to slip out of the group at this point, but the people drew me back. I missed them, and they seem to like me and my take on things. I like them, too. They’re earnest, sweet, and accepting. Most are recovering fundamentalists of one sort or another, including Catholics, drawn to a contemporary movement sometimes called “the emerging church” because it seeks societal renewal through a rededication to the basics of Christianity as practiced by the first Christians. To me it reflects a hope for another Great Awakening of the sort which swept America in the 19th century.
But some, including one of our facilitators, are also long-time members of the Edgar Cayce Association for Research and Enlightenment. Cayce, a fundamentalist Christian who became a phenomenal psychic, was an anomaly. There’s no explaining him by any measure of religion or science. But in the 1920s and ‘30s he began what has become a large movement of followers worldwide, many as staunchly Christian as he, who also believe in reincarnation, practice meditation as well as prayer, favor alternative health advice, and entertain a wide and various swath of esoteric and occult ideas and information.
This unique group forms a bridge between fundamentalist Christianity and spiritual independents like me who find greater comfort in the quiet mysticism of the East than the compulsive salesmanship of the West. Edgar Cayce uniquely spanned them both while adding much of his own into the mix which the wider culture has slowly but steadily been catching up with ever since his death in 1945. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for why I keep returning to meetings of this eclectic Christian book study group. It’s just wacky enough to inspire both my love and my mirth, a rare but satisfying combination indeed when it comes to spiritual practice.