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    Entries in memoir (2)


    Book Review: Nathan Foster's The Making of an Ordinary Saint

    When I was a child and our family went on a trip, my siblings and I played I-Spy, conducted scavenger hunts, or enjoyed the License Plate Game or Hey Cow. We read books or told stories. We asked our parents questions along the way concerning what we saw, when we would arrive, and what we could expect.

    Traveling with God is similar in that there are stories to be told, activities to be engaged, and guides to help us along the way. For Nathan Foster and his journey with God, his activities have been the disciplines, his stories have been a mix of biblical narrative and unfolding personal experience, and his closest guide has been his father, Richard Foster, best known for his book Celebration of Discipline, a contemporary classic of Christian spirituality first published in 1978.

    Celebration has sold millions of copies, and first impacted my life a little over a decade ago.

    Now, Nathan Foster is leaving his own legacy of wisdom and Christian witness. The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (BakerBooks, 2014) is an immersion in the disciplines, a revisiting of the teachings offered in Richard’s Celebration, and an honest recounting of Nathan’s personal experience seeking growth in the way of Jesus.

    Nathan explores twelve disciplines: submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. For each discipline, he quotes his father. Then, he tells his story.

    Nathan is forthright about his frustrations, however grand, and his progress, however slight. For those that assume the disciplines might be easier for some rather than others, they will discover this is not the case. They are a challenge for us all, regardless of autobiography. But they nevertheless have their reward, and are possible for us thanks to the grace given us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is what makes Nathan’s story enjoyable: we walk alongside him as he struggles, experience his disappointments, and celebrate his gains.

    Among the stories Nathan tells, I particularly enjoyed the lessons he learned while on his bike, his discoveries while memorizing the Bible, his willingness to submit to his children, and his disorientation when suspending his use of technology. I also enjoyed his brief historical sketches of Christian saints (Laubach, Woolman, Buechner), a subtle form of contrast and encouragement. Nathan seemed to be suggesting that we all have a long way to go, but through persistence and trust in God’s grace, we can all advance in holiness.

    If you enjoy memoir and have followed the spiritual formation movement, this book will be of interest to you. Nathan Foster is a good storyteller, and his struggle with the disciplines is reflective of what many experience today.

    I found his story to be encouraging and insightful, hopeful and invitational.

    For all seeking to grow as disciples of Jesus, the road will be marked with suffering but also with deep joy. Nathan Foster is walking that road, and calling us to join him along the way and discover the grace God has for us. May God honor his witness.

    Note: I received this work in exchange for a review.


    Book Review :: Sarah Sentilles' Breaking Up With God

    Sarah Sentilles’ memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story, is an honest, forthright, and forceful account of one woman’s spiritual journey.  Sentilles chronicles her beginnings in the Catholic church, attending worship and being discipled as the daughter of a Catholic father and displaced Episcopalian mother, who taught her how to question and doubt.  Very early, Sentilles had questions that did not find satisfying answers, whether it be in her conversations with a priest, a family member, or a Sunday school teacher.  As she continued to grow and mature, Sentilles struggled with an eating disorder.  Her quest to find acceptance before god is placed alongside her difficulties in accepting herself--her perception of her own body was always lacking in some way.  As she learned self care and self acceptance, overcoming her temptations to starve her own body, she moved on to college at Yale.  While in school, she faced another type of abuse, this time at the hands of a boyfriend she calls “Canada.”  Sentilles willingness to explore this element of her past is admirable.  After first seeking self acceptance through thinness, Sentilles then seeks to establish her identity in her dating relationships; a strategy that also leads to self destruction.

    After her time at Yale, Sentilles enters the Teach for America program, eventually landing in Los Angeles.  She did so to appear brave and generous, another attempt to earn acceptance of others and of god.  After this admission, she identifies herself in a short prayer as a “doer of good deeds.”  It is no longer thinness or a relationship that will be the basis of her acceptance of self, for now it is career.  And what she finds in Los Angeles is disturbing--the system she has benefited from is incredibly unjust, and there are young people in our inner cities who are deprived of even the opportunity to succeed.  During this time in her life, Sentilles discovers a church that feeds her soul, All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena.  She discovers art and writing and her own capacity for creativity. She also discovers a calling while at All Saints, explores a vocation as an Episcopal priest, and eventually leaves the west coast for Harvard Divinity School.  Her decision to pursue this vocation affirmed her sense of self.  Sentilles writes, “I wore my self on the outside, dressing it up for people to see and admire.  Saying, I’m going to be a priest was part of this costume, a badge, a mask.  Just being me wasn’t enough.  I needed props.”

    Sentilles time at Harvard Divinity School was formative, for in that context she was exposed to people of other religions or no religion, other sexualities, and other theological and philosophical perspectives.  During this time she did not attend church, but she did think, study, live and breath god every day.  Through Gordan Kaufman and other mentors, Sentilles began to discover her own theological method, and her beliefs about god began to solidify.  During this period, Sentilles began to see that religion was a tool to confront injustice.  It is something we create for our own purposes.  There is no revelation; there is no truth.  The task of theology, according to Sentilles, is to craft a narrative, or a world, wherein we can confront “injustice and environmental degradation and poverty and racism and sexism and the possibility of nuclear annihilation.”  In response to these problems, Sentilles says, “I can create a version of God that can respond to this.”  This leads to some strange assertions, such as “If you admit your understanding of God is a construction, then you won’t be willing to kill anyone over it.”  My response is simply, “Says who?”

    After Harvard Divinity, Sentilles moved to the local church, finding a position at a church just outside Boston where she would continue to pursue her vocation while aware that her sense of calling was fading.  But she needed a job. And others expected her to be a priest.  She moved in to the role, working with the church youth group, preaching inflammatory sermons, and becoming annoyed by the day to day operations of ministry.  Sentilles found that people didn’t want to talk about God.  They only wanted to be part of a group.  She says, “God was almost incidental to the whole enterprise, background noise.”  Distressed by the lack of god-talk in the congregation, Sentilles returns to the doctoral program at Harvard Divinity.

    Sentilles continues telling her story, moving from the death of a close friend, Charlie, who died young of stomach cancer.  She stops praying.  She becomes increasingly disillusioned by the church, and drops out of the discernment process.  She finds love with a former classmate from Harvard Divinity named Eric.  She is disgusted by what has taken place at Abu Ghraib prison, and becomes determined to write her dissertation on the photographs that emerged from that place of oppression.  She discovers more ethical eating practices, in part through the witness of Eric.  She moves to Idaho.  She and Eric marry.  She moves from belief in god to saying, “This is my faith: a fragile hope in what humanity might be able to do when we stop looking for someone else to save us." 

    Sentilles is the hero of her own story.  She admits as much, noting the moment in her own life when she began to view herself as the protagonist in her narrative.  This is significant for many reasons, but, considering this memoir primarily concerns the progressive unfolding of her understanding of and relationship to the divine, this admission marks a profound shift.  No longer does Sentilles look to something transcendent, or rely on some concept of Providence.  

    Sentilles looks to herself as the arbiter of morality, of purpose, and of truth.  She determines what is right and what is wrong, notably with regard to food related ethics and sexuality.  She asserts what can and cannot be known about god, suggesting that god is a useful construction, and, that if god exists at all, we cannot know what that god is like.  Any description of god we offer is something for which we must be held accountable, for none of us can speak for god.  Revelation does not exist.  Therefore, we only speak for ourselves.  Anyone who claims to speak a word from god, or on behalf of god, only does so in an effort to increase and leverage their own power.  Yet, employing such Foucauldian tactics not only serves to disarm those in power, but establishes a form of power of its own.  The oppressed become the new oppressors, as those who are able to recognize social constructions elevate themselves to a position where they, and they alone, are able to identity, establish, and create reality.

    There is a great irony throughout Sentilles’ memoir that she does not seem to recognize, that being, she decries the version of dogmatism she perceives that is present in much of modern Christianity yet, in its place, she produces a dogmatism of her own.  As someone who has jettisoned her idea of god, she replaces that concept with a god of her own making.  Jesus is a revolutionary and a political activist, not a cosmic Savior or Redeeming sacrifice.  Sentilles, too, is a revolutionary and a political activist, thus, the way of salvation is not rooted in the historical reality of the cross, but is accomplished through the denouncing of oppressive government policies and those who vocally oppose the legitimization of same-sex relationships (among other causes).  The God of her upbringing was male, demanding of human submission, and a stern judge, expecting his children (foremost here is Sentilles) to earn his acceptance through obedience to his divine commands or through expressions of righteousness.  Sentilles is a feminist, a libertine, and, ironically, a stern judge, expecting her fellow human beings to live in accordance with her standards, and therefore earning her acceptance and approval.  In order to avoid being called a bigot, you must be righteous as Sentilles is righteous.  “You must be holy, because I, the Lord, am holy.”  Not everything about the god of her childhood, it seems, was worthy of leaving behind.

    I happen to think that Sentilles' memoir is gripping and engaging.  I did spend a day with it, reading every page, every word, wrestling with her a/theological assertions, sympathizing with her journey, and identifying with her rage toward the Christian church that often appears to stand for one thing yet do another.  I appreciated, quite deeply, her engagement with highly intelligent and important scholars of theology and religion and philosophy.  She is more knowledgeable in such areas than many pastors, which I admit with some sadness.  I also think that Sentilles is honest during a time where there is much duplicity, both overt and covert.  There are many who are afraid to voice their own doubts and struggles for fear of being rejected, and thus the intellectual and emotional concerns that plague us are never brought in to the light to be faced down, dealt with, and moved past.

    In that respect, I can recommend this book.  But as a guide, I cannot recommend Sentilles.  I believe her ideas about god are quite wrong, and her characterizations of both the church, theology, the Bible, conservatives of all stripes, epistemology, method, and more should not be followed.  This, of course, is my informed opinion, one that is worthy of vigorous debate.  The ideas I have just listed are no small matter.  They are the stuff of life.  Just as Sentilles has the right to assert her own thoughts, and to justify those through argumentation, so too do those who disagree with her, yet, for Christians that might read her story and find her too bombastic or abrasive, it should be remembered that the Bible that Sentilles deconstructs commands us to provide an answer for what is believed with “gentleness and respect.”