Sunday, May 4, 2014

Something Different: Something Other Than God

A few points to note before we get started today, class:
  1. This is a review of a Catholic book written for a Catholic audience. Act accordingly.
  2. This post contains links to where you can buy the book, but they are not affiliate links.
  3. This post is being entered in a random drawing for a prize being offered by the author of the book to mark its launch and encourage people to read and write about it. However, the post is not sponsored or anything like that, and the opinions here are 100% my own, blah blah blah.
Now, on with the post... 

It occurred to me this afternoon that the Church gives us saints in response to our desire for celebrities. A celebrity is someone we want to think we know; they represent something — sex, or genius, or a particular system of belief — and we watch them like hawks. We think we know them, and we think we know their story, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like we are, in the middle of an uncertain life with unknown twists and turns ahead. When our celebrities fall or stray from their designated narrative we criticize them, we question or abandon our beliefs and affiliations, we recontextualize and rationalize and talk and talk and talk. We want so much to see particular values played out in someone else’s life, to have someone to point to (not always positively; we want someone to represent wrongness as much as to be our role model). The saints are an answer to this. Their lives have been lived, with all their messiness, but they have lived out particular virtues and heroisms, and we know that they have run the good race. In short, the Church tells us that if we want someone to model for us what virtue and devotion look like, we should look to these saints who are now eternally with God. (True to Philippians 4:8, the Church apparently isn't particularly concerned with providing bad examples.)

I was thinking about this because the book I’m reviewing here, Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God (click for links to buy, a free excerpt, a video featuring a man in a banana suit, &c), is an example of a genre I really don’t ever read: the conversion story.

This is the gif Fulwiler made to celebrate the book launch. She is my people.
Fulwiler grew up as an atheist (in Texas, no less), without any real knowledge of religious culture or lore, and her objections were more to religion itself, as a guiding principle in someone’s life, than to any particular doctrine. This is more the culture that I recognize in my own surroundings, and part of the reason why I like reading Fulwiler’s blog. Her explanations and ponderings speak to the kinds of pushback I feel around me, and the currents I feel invited to fall into (that’s a terrible metaphor but whatever). The other reason her blog is so great is because Fulwiler is a funny, lively writer, who’s able to tell a hilarious story in all its absurd glory. She’s been working on this book for years (always a good sign), and when it was finally available to preorder I jumped on it. I also set up text alerts from Amazon to let me know when it was on its way. One of those texts arrived as I was counting down the minutes to a phone interview; if it had been my mother texting to wish me good luck I might have been annoyed at the near-heart attack it gave me, but since it was this book, I was just that much more excited. Priorities.

I was so psyched when it came I had to document the moment. And the tiles in my building's foyer. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT.

If I had to pick two words to describe the writing I might choose “clear” and “tight”. I was seeing reports on Twitter of people reading it in four or five hours, and I believe it. It’s not a quick read in the sense that there’s nothing to it, but in the sense that it draws you in and doesn’t slow you down. Since I’m a grad student I am contractually obligated to (a) like books, but also (b) make critical remarks, and this is really my only criticism: the book is so lean and focused that it can feel, well, too lean and focused. All the description of Fulwiler’s pre-conversion life is centered on her spiritual crises and the questions she had trouble answering within an atheist worldview. I would have liked a little more — I hate phrases like “word painting” or “pen portrait” but fine. I would have liked a little fuller pen portrait of atheist Jennifer Fulwiler, rather than getting it later on as a contrast to whatever was currently happening in the narrative. That being said, this tight focus gives the book a humble quality: it's not here to offer too much interpretation beyond the demands of the narrative. So, in my usual academic way: it's a plus and a minus.

The focus of the book is on the conversion process itself which is wrapped up in several dramatic changes that took place in her and her husband’s lives at the same time. This story is really interesting and relatable, even though it deals with fairly unusual circumstances, and in spite of the (realistic) complexity of all this, it's easy to follow. If you want to know the details, you should buy the book (also available as an ebook).

Which brings me around to the thoughts I opened this post with (eh? eh? I’m a writer). Conversion stories are like memoirs, being autobiographical narratives published while the writer is still alive. (That sentence is mocking me, pointing out that there is a ton of theory on exactly this topic that I have not read, but I am pushing through.) A conversion story could potentially play into a desire to latch onto celebrities, pulling us away from the real spiritual growth that could come from studying the lives of the saints into the roller coaster drama of constantly evaluating someone else’s life and opinions. As I was reflecting on the book, I thought about how difficult it would be to publish a narrative of your life like this. It would be strange to read a book written by a friend, offering her decided-on version of the part of her life which included you, particularly if you were part of the “before” picture. So what’s the point? Given that we don’t want to be idolizing our contemporaries, what’s the point of reading a story like this?

My answer to that question is that a book like this offers a unique kind of faith-sharing, where we can see what thoughts were going through someone else's mind and what challenges they faced, all in the context of a larger trajectory. Each of us is in the midst of our own story, striving to make little before-and-afters out of our faults and failings. Each of us is called to conversion throughout our lives: am I embracing that, or am I just trying to get comfortable? A story like this can also make us reflect on how we are helping others on their own way. Am I the camp counselor who pressures people in my care to conform? Am I the parishioner who celebrates the presence of a seeker?

This isn't a book that has all the answers, and of course it shouldn't be; Fulwiler, still alive (and long may she be) is not a saint, and she wisely isn't setting herself up as a celebrity either.* What it is, is a fascinating story about how — to quote the subtitle — the author "passionately sought happiness and accidentally found it." Something Other Than God is more than just a blog book; for one thing it gives a much more complete version of Fulwiler's story than I ever picked up reading her blog. More importantly, it's also a thoughtful account of how "conversion" means changing your life along with your mind. I enjoyed it just as much as I thought I would, and I can't wait to read/hear other people's thoughts about it.

* I am emphatically not telling Jennifer Fulwiler "Careful Icarus", just to be clear.**
** Mostly I added that footnote so I could link the Careful Icarus clip. I'm only human.

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