Reading a Book I’d Never Write

Reading a Book I’d Never Write January 15, 2012

I’ve just finished Sara Miles’s memoir Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, but I don’t think I can write my usual style of review.  Miles was raised by atheists (although she had missionaries a couple generations back), is a liberal lesbian, and converted to Episcopalianism in midlife.  I’m always interested in the logic of converts, especially when they’re a good match for me demographically, but Miles and I are way too far apart conceptually for me to have anything substantive to say about her change.

Miles, while visiting a church, was seized with a deep longing for the Eucharist.  She hadn’t been particularly religious before, but suddenly felt a powerful yearning.  Since she was at an Episcopal church that practiced open communion, she got in line to receive and was overwhelmed by a sense of Jesus’s presence.  She became more and more involved with that church, eventually becoming a deacon and opening a food pantry.

And I, of course, read this wondering when there would be theology and other scholarly stuff.  How could you have all these feelings and not want to thrash them out and formalize them?  So this memoir was too far from my way of thinking to grapple with, but it may be of interest to some of the blog readers.

And I will say, in defense of my hyper-logical approach, that there was one part of the book that seemed to be crying out for more theology, even if it wasn’t a major part of Miles’s conversion.  As she becomes more involved with the church, Miles tends to think a lot of doctrines and practices are obstacles to a relationship with Christ (closed communion, only the priest gives blessings, etc).  She seems to resemble that “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus” guy.

What bugs me is that she seems to be arguing primarily from the strength of her intuitions and a few proof-texts (Jesus doesn’t turn anyone away, etc), but without a meta-guide for how to read and interpret the bible.  She just asserts that her citations trump the traditions and understandings of people on the other side of the issue, and, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a truth-telling thing they have in common to settle the dispute.

I don’t understand how you could be persuaded of a religion’s claims without acquiring some kind of epistemological framework for judging their truth.  I can see that one might get inconclusive answers, but there would still be some kind of evaluation you were performing.

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  • Joe

    That’s what I call ecclesiastical nihilism.

  • deiseach

    “She just asserts that her citations trump the traditions and understandings of people on the other side of the issue, and, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a truth-telling thing they have in common to settle the dispute.”

    Welcome to the Anglican Wars, Leah 🙂

    Looking for theology in a work of popular appeal? That’s never going to happen! Same way that newspaper ‘reports’ drive me up the wall by starting off like a mini-novel, introducing Lucy, a blonde housewife in her thirties who on her way home from the dog-grooming parlour with Muffin, her three year old Labradoodle, ran over a little green man in the street and this made her realise that we are not alone, so she started a Facebook group to contact alien intelligences.

    No, I don’t care about Lucy’s story, fascinating as it may be. I want to read the facts and figures about SETI and how it’s getting on; I’m not six years old any more and I don’t need to be coaxed into reading something by sweeties or giving me a nice emotional thrill to connect with my life so I can recognise and be interested in what’s going on (for are we not all blonde thirty-year old housewives with Labradoodles and Facebook accounts?)

    • leahlibresco

      I saw The Religion Thing in workshop at Theatre J in DC and kept thinking “When are they going to talk about theology? They’re all having fights about religion, but they’re such shallow fights!”

      • deiseach

        I could fall on your neck like a sister (were it not that I’d crush you and besides, it’s rather too familiar of me on mere acquaintance): yes! I, too, want to know “Where’s the theology?” when these kinds of memoirs get released.

        Same way with that “Eat, Pray, Love” thing; I neither saw the film nor read the book, because the little I did see about them in reviews, etc. put me off. “So long as it feels good and makes you do good, that’s all that’s needed” seems to be the idea, which makes me (as a Catholic) laugh, because excuse me, but Protestantism started off at the Reformation by dumping any semblance of works-righteousness (like those deluded Catholics believe in) and now in certain of the mainline denominations, at least, it looks like “We don’t put God into a box by talking theology, we do good in the world instead”.

        • Joe

          I’ll say this for some protestants. Some of them have a true and deep love for Christ and maybe a few saints. I hope they will soon discover that there is more to Christianity then experimental theology.

  • Hibernia86

    Sounds like Sara Miles “felt God’s presence” and decided to go with religion because it felt good. I doubt that there is any deeper thinking to it than that.

  • Joe

    Some people reject normative relativism for the same reason. It makes them feel comfy.

  • Will

    It is frustrating trying to deal with people insisting “Forget that nasty old theology and give us some nice simple religion”, as though “theology” was something a conspiratorial group just made up solely to be difficult. The self-styled-mainlne Protestants around me will work up a bloody froth about incense or kneeling, but can not understand disaffection over something as trivial as doctrine. (Their idea seems to be that Jesus came to tell us to be nice to each other, and this somehow frightened The Establishment so much that they killed Him horribly.)

    Just yesterday, I found people couldn’t understand why I thought Swedenborg’s assertion “The Lord was God as to the soul” falls into the Apollinarian heresy. (i.e., Jesus was some kind of freak walking around with God INSTEAD of a soul).
    Dorothy Sayers’ “What Do We Believe?” is a good discussion. ‘However ‘interesting to theologians” this may be, it appears to interest Tommy Atkins and John Brown to the point of annoyance.’

    • deiseach

      I feel a Chesterton quote coming on 🙂

      From “The Usual Article” (The Thing, 1929)

      “But I touch rapidly and reluctantly on these examples, because they exemplify a much wider question of this interminable way of talking. It consists of talking as if the moral problem of man were perfectly simple, as everyone knows it is not; and then depreciating attempts to solve it by quoting long technical words, and talking about senseless ceremonies without enquiring about their sense. In other words, it is exactly as if somebody were to say about the science of medicine: “All I ask is Health; what could be simpler than the beautiful gift of Health? Why not be content to enjoy for ever the glow of youth and the fresh enjoyment of being fit? Why study dry and dismal sciences of anatomy and physiology; why enquire about the whereabouts of obscure organs of the human body? Why pedantically distinguish between what is labelled a poison and what is labelled an antidote, when it is so simple to enjoy Health? Why worry with a minute exactitude about the number of drops of laudanum or the strength of a dose of chloral, when it is so nice to be healthy? Away with your priestly apparatus of stethoscopes and clinical thermometers; with your ritualistic mummery of feeling pulses, putting out tongues, examining teeth, and the rest! The god Aesculapius came on earth solely to inform us that Life is on the whole preferable to Death; and this thought will console many dying persons unattended by doctors.”

      • We need to remember the “line of demarcation” between Science and Logic on the one hand, and Faith on the other. No amount of “reasoning” or rhetoric can salvage faith..and no faith can establish reason…..

  • ,—
    | I don’t understand how you could be persuaded of a religion’s
    | claims without acquiring some kind of epistemological framework
    | for judging their truth.

    I’m starting to think that this is how most people go about their beliefs in general (and I would group non-inquiring-non-believers/apathetic-to-theism-ers in there too). I think most of us bloggers on sites like these just may very well be the immensely small minority. Which I find sad. My primary ability to relate to others to get the burning itch to know and investigate comes from people I’ll probably never meet in person.

    Since I am surrounded by believers in a group in which I used to belong, my experience with this is almost solely based on them. I know that mysteriously all of the following can be true:

    1) Most/all have not inquired intellectually on whether or not Christianity is true, only on deeper reasons building on the fact that it is true (in other words, devotionals, spirituality enhancement, theology).

    2) They are self-aware of the previous fact.

    3) No desire to remedy this deficiency exists.

    I have yet to figure this out, but think it’s just how the world is. I’d be interested to know if this is primarily nature or nurture. I’m inclined to think that it could very well be genetic. My family is scientifically minded. My dad was raised in a Baptist family but never really bought it. My brother (a fair bit older than me) deconverted when he was my age. I also deconverted. We are all curious, obsessive learners.

    Anyway, just wanted to add that. I don’t get it either (refer back to the quote above), but I’m trying to learn not to be surprised or upset by it.