Monday, January 22, 2007

Looking for Help With a New Project

I've decided (and not for the first time - let's hope it finally takes) to start working on a book. As I keep writing for this blog, I realize that part of my project here is not just to tell my own story (though that's important) or even to comment on what's happening in the world, but also (this is going to sound to grandiose, but...) to articulate a vision of religion in general, and Christianity in particular. This vision is not necessarily a new one, as it borrows from many authors and theologians. It is also not exactly my vision, as - again - it borrows from other sources, and is a continuation of a movement that neither started with me nor is limited to me.

There may be no glaring need for new books articulating this vision, as Marcus Borg, Johanna W.H van Wijk-Bos, and many other, better educated and more articulate figures are still doing better work than I will ever do. And, I am not exactly qualified to add my voice to the conversation, being neither an ordained minister nor a credentialed scholar. But, if writing this blog has done anything, it has taught me two important lessons:

1. I need to write.

I simply can't help it. I fundamentally need to write. I used to justify the amount of time I spent writing by appealing to something outside myself. The paper is due. The sermon must get prepared. But, for most of my time writing here I have been neither a student nor a minister. There have been no external demands on my time, save for those trying to pry me from my writing. Yet, with no external compulsion, and with no monetary compensation, I've still written something almost every day, and much of it ends up here.

I have an existential need to write. It is simply who I am. And my writing, whatever else it does, articulates a particular vision of religion in general and the Christian religion in particular, no less than my sermons did when I was a preacher. I may have left professional ministry, but I haven't stopped trying to minister to others by articulating a form of Christianity that rests less on believing the impossible than on having faith in the God that lies beyond all human beliefs.

2. Some people respond to my writing.

I certainly don't have the world's most popular blog. In the blogosphere - a strange social artifice, the definition of an artificial reality - I am, in fact, rather small and insignificant. I've never had a knack for self-promotion, nor can I say what most people seem to want to hear.

Life is complicated, faith is complicated, and living a life of faith in this world is, well, complicated. There are no easy answers, and even if there were, I certainly wouldn't have them. So I can't give anyone the five or twelve or twenty or two or whatever steps to enlightenment, serenity, security, salvation, and, of course, a better body.

But, for some reason, some people really do respond to what I write. There may not be very many of them, but, like me, they have all tried the easier answers and found that they were, well, light and unsatisfying. Lacking in spiritual substance, and smacking of dishonesty. As such, while I don't minister to very many people, it is quite possible that many of the people I do minister to through my writing could not be reached in more traditional ways. It's not that they aren't looking for something to satisfy their souls; it's just that they, like me, have trouble accepting arguments from authority, especially when that authority preaches the impossible while consolidating power for itself.

Don't let that fool you, however, into thinking that this blog has a primarily external focus. If anyone is being ministered to here, it's me. Here I can work through my own issues, bouncing ideas off of others who struggle with the same problems, face the same doubts, recoil from the same fears and insecurities. Ultimately this blog, is one of a very few factors that have helped me reclaim my faith, keeping me connected to my Christian roots. That's why I keep writing here.

But it isn't enough. Perhaps that's because no matter how many connections I make here, the blogosphere still feels contrived rather than organic. Sure it has its advantages: where else could I, an unemployed (again!) former pastor of one of the smallest Methodist churches in Kentucky, someone who holds no post-graduate degrees of any kind, someone who has never published a book or a paper, someone who has no right to compete for the attention of the theologically curious and spiritually hungry, connect with people from all over the world? Sure, not too many people, but people nonetheless. People who I would never have contacted in any other medium. And, people who have touched my life and helped shape my thoughts. But, no matter how much I cherish these virtual friendships, these digital connects, they somehow feel a little unreal.

This virtual reality is not very much like my daily experience of life. And, the words and thoughts that I publish here feel much less weighty that the books I read every day. Somehow the screen is not a satisfying a literary vehicle as the page. It lacks the weight, the texture, the smell, and the gloss of a book. It may be much more ecologically friendly, but it is far less romantic. And, no matter what I write here, it doesn't feel as significant as a published book.

Part of this, of course, could be the nature of the work itself. Every day I read books by some of the greatest theological and philosophic minds of any generation - classic works that not only survived the brutal publishing process, but in many cases have also stood the text of time, being checked again and again my new generations of readers, and still found enlightening. I am not fit for such rarefied air.

But part of this may also be the medium. For as functional, as pragmatic as this mode of publishing, this propagation of ideas is, it just doesn't have the weight of books. Ideas cannot be explored as deeply, arguments cannot be sustained as long. I find that, just as soon as I am really digging into the heart of an issue, I press the PUBLISH button and am finished with the topic.

So I think I'm going to try to write a book. I don't know if I can do it. Sure, I've read plenty of books, and have a good idea as to how they're structured from the reader's perspective. But that's not the same as knowing how to construct a book from the ground up, ordering disparate fragments and ideas into a coherent and cohesive whole.

I've got plenty of fragments both at this blog and on my hard drive. I've written more in the past year than could fit into a single volume. But there is a great deal more to constructing a book than just writing volumes. I'm sure of that. I'm just not exactly sure what that "great deal more" is.

My goal for this hypothetical future book is to explore some of the ideas presented at this blog more deeply, and to connect them with some overarching narrative and theological arch. The working title is Waking Up, an exploration of my argument here that

At its best religion, rather than serving as Marx's opiate for the masses, calls us out of our deep slumber, begging us to see the world all around us, and see it clearly. It calls us to identify the causes of suffering and work for its alleviation, while also waking up all those around us. This is salvation. This is enlightenment.

That is the best encapsulation I can give for any broader "project" I might have. My primary beef with the "culture wars" is that they distract from this project, getting hung up on trivial issues, fighting silly fights. They reflect an unhealthy religious concern, a fixation on the "sins" of others - "sins" which in many cases cause no tangible harm - while ignoring both the sins of self and the more public concerns, the countless causes of global suffering.

I am, of course, not by any means alone in taking that stand. Even some of the more conservative evangelicals have started to realize that corporate action has at least as much moral value as private action, and that God is perhaps a great deal more concerned about genocide and global warming than we, with our fixation on who is doing what with whom in the bedroom, have previously acknowledged.

But while this may be no new perspective, and while it may not be offered by someone with either the formal credentials of ordination or a post-graduate degree, nor by someone with the perhaps more important informal credentials of popularity and public acceptance, it is still my story. Still my project. And, since I must write, not because of any external compulsion but simply because it is what I do, I may as well find out whether or not I can write a decent book.

But, if I'm going to do this, I need your help. I've already started putting together a list of posts that I think need some additional exploration, and that may serves as part of the skeleton for this book idea. I now need your feedback. Which posts have really spoken to you; and which posts do you think are connected to the broader project of religion in general and Christianity in particular as a vehicle for the kind of "waking" up that we need to do?


crystal said...

I think your idea of writing a book is a really good one. I've read some of the posts you have listed on your sidebar and have been very impressed and also helped by them. I hope to read more of them in the future, but three that I've recently read and thought were especially good were ...

# The Culture War and Homosexuality: A Different Sort of Quagmire

# The New Testament and Homosexuality: My Quagmire Revisted

and -

# Boldly Going Where No Man Ought to Go

Brian said...

Given the working abstract for the book you give near the end of your post, you will definitely need to include your multiple posts that criticize exclusively functional understandings of religion. Also, I have found your posts on religious epistemology (including your recent one "On Knowing God") to be quite worthy of development.

A question occurs, however: To what extent do you see this book as an academic book? Certainly it doesn't seem like you're shooting for a specialized academic niche. But your working abstract takes aim at a fairly specific theoretical problem-- functionalist explanation-- that many general readers (and publishers) might not recognize as a terribly pressing problem. Do you plan to make a case for singling that out as a problem that people in the pews should take seriously? I think you can do that, but putting it in terms of Marx or Durkheim won't do it. Outside the academy, Marxism is a dead issue, and no one outside the academy probably even knows who Durkheim is.

Sandalstraps said...


Thanks for the input, and especially for the encouragement. I am planning to do the second half of the book on moral and social issues, and so I expect that at least parts of those three will show up there.


I don't really see this as an academic book at all. I'm sure it will reflect my academic interests, and perhaps it will appeal to academics, but I envision it mostly as a general audience book that tries to take a more academic theological approach and make it accessible. I know that's walking a fine line, and could fail miserably. But, basically, I'd like it to be a book that my wife or my brother or my parents could read - people with a high level of education, but no expertise in any particular area, much less theology - and enjoy.

I picture it, in other words, as theology for the pews. To that end, I don't think that I will have to reshape my argument against functionalism, but I think that will be easy enough to do. I hope to affirm more than I attack, building up a distinct mode of encountering God and religion rather than attacking modes that I disagree with.

Oh, and my religious epistemology is at the heart of the book abstract so far. It follows immediately after establishing the narrative arc (religion as in part a call to wake up) for the book, and comes before looking at specific issues. I'll have to show you what I've got outlined so far sometime in the "real world." It isn't ready for the blog yet, but I'd love to discuss it with you.

Brian said...

I would like to get together sometime to talk about that. It sounds like a worthy project. My experience with adults in church is that they are very bright and very hungry for some theology, but at the same time very touchy about feeling like they're receiving a lecture or being patronized. My pedantic teacher side makes me come off as patronizing, I think, and so I've never really been able to carry off the proper tone.