Wednesday, July 9, 2003

A brief book report:

The Clearing by Tim Gautreaux was a bit of a disappointment, and confirms my opinion that I like his short stories more than I like his novels. (And I do recommend his short stories - they're wonderful). This might be a novel that I need to reread, so I'm taking it for what it is, rather than what I hope it will be. It was fairly interesting and absorbing, but there was something, and I don't know what, that kept me at a slight distance from the characters - brothers and others who are working a lumber tract down in Louisiana in the 1920's. There was a lot of death and destruction - the destruction of the trees echoing the destruction of human lives - but in the end, I wasn't sure what it amounted to. What I do know, however, from reading this and Gautreaux's other novel, is that he really, really likes to give us close descriptions of machinery and mechanical processes. I guess that's good. I guess that's admirable. But I usually succumb to the temptation to skip over it.

Landings is a nice little short book about a woman's journey from Quakerism to Catholicism. It's heavy on the Quakerism, which was interesting to me, and, although it's a work of spiritual autobiography, it was refreshingly taciturn on gory personal details. What makes this a particularly generous book is the author's motivation for writing it. She came to know Christ in a personal way through the Friends, and although she left (for a couple of reasons - the politicized nature of modern Quakerism, as well as her acceptance of the necessity and goodness of "outward" forms of worship and religious expression), she still appreciates the faith she came to there, and presents her story as a way for Catholics who might feel that their own tradition isn't giving them the personal relationship with Christ that they desire, the insights into that very relationship that Quakerism can reveal.

Finally, I read Seeking Faith: A Skeptic's Journey by Fenton Johnson which was, I hate to say it, a rather tedious book. I hate to say it because I really hate to come down hard on anyone's account of their own spiritual life, because their life is what it is, and it's hard to critique a book on that subject without sounding judgmental of the subject himself. Johnson grew up Catholic, rather intriguingly, in the shadow of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, and many of the monks spent time with his family. He lost his faith in his teen years, then grew up, centering his life on...well, living, writing and his identity as a gay man. By midlife, he was in crisis, and also happened to be invited to cover a big Buddhist-Catholic monastic confab at Gethsemani. He observed the monks, wondered if, in fact, this whole religion thing was really and truly bunk, and set off to find out.

The book is his story of the time he spent at Gethsemani and a couple of Zen facilities out in California. There's a lot of unpacking of both monastic traditions, which is okay, unless you're already familiar with it. There's some tendentious misreadings of Christian history, including the conclusion we've all come to expect - that institutional Christianity is a perversion of what Jesus really was about, and so on. I found the book dry, surprisingly misinformed on some historical and theological issues, and just really painfully self-absorbed. Okay, it's an autobiographical work, of sorts, but the best of the genre manage to get the point of the journey across somehow without making you feel as if you want the subject to just talk about something else besides himself, please,please, please. His sense of faith is, I think, quite absract and largely unrelated from any relationship with a Person, and totally unrelated to truth. Here's his final definition of faith:

...this act of confidence in our human right and responsibility to shape the terms of our encounter with the divine, as well as confidence in the greater order in which our search takes place

And, incidentally, it's as negative an advertisement for Gethsemani as The Seven Story Mountain was positive, unfortunately.

So, I'm taking Billiards at Half-Past Nine with me in the car tomorrow, but I don't know if it will grab me or no. Maybe something more interesting will turn up along the way.