Roger Gottlieb has chosen a strangely engaging method for presenting his Engaging Voices. Early in I began to wonder if this was going to be another Peaceful Warrior kind of book, with the mysterious wise man appearing and disappearing along the path of self-absorbed self-discovery. In fact, it was slow to engage me or my attention until the prison setting of the first chapter. As a former jail chaplain I was drawn into both the tensions and the lighter moments of the exchanges. The author’s use of stories within stories, and voices of marginalized people, took hold and the rest of the book kept hooking me with bits and pieces of questions and clarity and back into more conundrums–religious, political, cultural “drums” as these can be. At times I found the conversations tedious and unenlightening. At other times there are flashes of touching brilliance such as the moment Richard, the weary environmental organizer, admits, “What do I care why people do the work, just as long as they do” (p. 132). This is made more meaningful in the setting of an eclectic group of hikers taking shelter in the woods.
The dialectical give and take was fine when not excessively personalized or universalized but drawn into the context of the wider community. Some of Gottlieb’s approach was jarring while much was predictable, even simplistic. When major issues and concerns revolved back to “love” or “relationships” or a nice nature story, I began to skim. Then, one character’s inter-connection with another and their common emergence (and immersion) with Nature as a matrix for their humanity, hooked me again (maybe this fits well with the “fish story” retold in chapter 8). When the stories focused on the unity of commitments to create better, more balanced community working for a saner world, the author pours us a handful of energizing trailmix!
Gottlieb seems to find his own voice in the voices of others–”connected” as well as dis-connected people. Though it can take him a while to get to it, he invites the reader to an eyes-open understanding of our need to listen, to speak our views honestly and forthrightly, and to include “the other.” Perhaps the least inspiring chapter (6) offers us an ego-fest in academia with a very implausible argument between professors. Nearly everyone is a caricature except, oddly, the chaplain. Chapter 7 gave a little more food for thought in an uncomfortable dinner shared by father and son. I found the son’s description of the “religious types” he was working with sensible and even non-judgmental: “Religious types worked hard. . .and did what they said they’d do. But they rarely saw the big picture. . . . They were too busy trying to do the right thing today” (p. 165).
As a counselor and social worker I held some appreciation for the images and comments in the latter part of the book. In chapter 8, the image of people gathering, emptying their pain from “battered duffle bags, elegant black suitcases and tan canvas shopping bags” felt real and down to earth. Each was learning to do something meaningful and call it life, to love the earth as is and not as dreamed, to see “God” as a relationship with whatever helps you connect to the world, to see “faith” as trust in this life and that all is amazing. Though the episode with the struggling minister moaning that he “must still believe in God” was too melodramatic, the persona of the Teacher visiting the Rabbi was poignant and appropriate to lead us toward a closing. The final chapter (“Feeling Left Out”) once more returned to the theme I most appreciated in the book: the wise voice of an outsider nearby. The housekeeper is heard, her opinion is valued, and differing viewpoints are wound together like thriving roots.
Engaging Voices is more than a collection of troubling ideas tossed around by diverse circles of agitated people. It is a choir of wild thoughts and questions, notions sprinkled with nonsense that not everyone will wish to think on or sing about. As with many books (including perhaps a few of my own), the closing pages could be read first and the general idea gleaned. The author defines “spiritual” as something in-between oppositions, as choice, humble admission of ignorance, progress on a path to. . .at the very least, compassion, wisdom. Gottlieb has captured something here that intrigues but cannot be tamed. And it is out along the edges of wild truth where few of faith or even philosophy may be willing to trek.
A freethinker and former minister, Chris Highland is the author of Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple and other natural spirituality books, as well as numerous essays and blogs (see www.naturetemple.net). He is a teacher, writer, and social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For more resources on Engaging Voices, including a book excerpt and Author Q&A, visit the Patheos Book Club.