When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even in the Church by Lillian Daniel. New York: Jericho Books, 2013. Pp. 215.
Back in September of 2011, Lillian Daniel published two pieces poking fun at American DIY spirituality, a longer piece in the Christian Century called “You Can’t Make This Up: The Limits of Self-Made Religion,” and a short piece in The Huffington Post called “Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me.” The second went viral and, judging from the comments, successfully drew quite a few Huff Post readers to the former.
Both of these pieces — which now appear as chapters 1 and 19 in Daniel’s new collection — recount conversations with strangers who take pleasure in reporting to Daniel, a minister, how they managed to transcend organized religion and now can find God on their own, typically alone in nature or in a general feeling of being blessed in comparison to the rest of sorry humanity. Pastors of course have to be polite good listeners in these situations, but Daniel garnered a lot of attention for letting out the inner Oh, please running through the minds of many religious leaders who have found themselves in the same trapped seat.
I hope some of those folks in the comment thread who accused Daniel of coming off smug or superior (most inappropriate for a minister, they say) will pick up a copy of When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough. Daniel, a local (Glen Ellyn) United Church of Christ pastor, author of two previous books, and a frequent contributor to the Century, is a wide-ranging, equal opportunity humorist. Much of the time the joke is on her — her struggles to meditate in yoga class, her repeated truancy for worship while on retreat at a monastery, her troubled history trying to learn a second language, her feelings of inadequacy when encountered by other ministers who can play concert piano or perform magic tricks. Other times the joke is on the church she so loves, with neither its conservative nor liberal wings getting off the hook. In one particularly good chapter, Daniel describes the too-common clergy gathering in which “check-in” time devolves into a gripe session about what “we,” the ordained, understand quite well but “they,” the congregation, just won’t get, cleverly juxtaposing it with a remembrance of her eccentric South Carolina grandmother who ended up knocking over garbage cans in the middle of the night to get back at a whole neighborhood she believed was against her and her dog. Essays like these provide a fuller context for the more biting title piece and its partner, indirectly strengthening the case she makes there for religion practiced in community by folks who are honestly just muddling through.
Sometimes the distance between the world of the scriptures and an affluent twenty-first century American suburb can feel like the Grand Canyon.
WSBNRINE, it should be stressed, really is an eclectic collection. Most of the pieces are not about the spiritual-but-not-religious phenomenon — that’s really just the hook — though they are all about “seeing God in unexpected places, even the church.” Memoir-style essays, editorials, rants, pensées, accounts of holy moments, and gems likely culled from sermons coexist under the themes “Searching and Praying”, “Confessing,” Communing,” “Wandering,” “Wondering,” and “Remembering and Returning,” with Daniel’s sardonic but hope-infused voice the unifying agent. Many of the chapters are very short, ideal for sharing aloud in a group setting or as a launching off point for one’s own reflections; still, you can miss them if you are reading too fast. This is a book to be read slowly and, for those who preach, to learn from in the art of saying a lot with a little.
Lastly, as a pastor in the next town over from Glen Ellyn, I found particular truth in Daniel’s clear-eyed portrait of suburban culture — its values, its motivations, its cover-ups. After a decade in Glen Ellyn, she knows her context well and demonstrates how to speak God’s grace into it. Sometimes the distance between the world of the scriptures and an affluent twenty-first century American suburb can feel like the Grand Canyon, but Daniel makes smooth and inspired connections, surprising in their immediacy. In “The Special Occasion,” the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is the mother who refuses ever to get out the nice china unless someone in the house accomplishes something truly “worth” a celebration. In “The Limits of Taste,” Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth is repeated in a modern day suburb where the locals are so accustomed to championing their own opinions with yard signs and Facebook posts that they can’t imagine worshipping someone outside themselves. In “Valentine’s Day,” the verse from Song of Solomon “Rise up, my loved one, and come away” is a call away from the dream of the perfect family vacation or romantic dinner to a simple gift of spending time with the ones we love, cleaning a bedroom together or going out to the Indian buffet.
In a landscape where the religion of the Self has gained ascendancy and the dream of having it all turns back its face in judgment, Daniel illustrates the grace of taking ourselves lightly. “For in the end, people are not complete until God completes us,” she says. “[U]ntil then…there’s nothing wrong with taking an incomplete.”