One-Minute Book Reviews

September 10, 2007

God Catches a Break in Barbara Brown Taylor’s ‘Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith’

Can you have a love affair with God after you take off your clerical collar?

Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith. By Barbara Brown Taylor. HarperOne, 272 pp., $14.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

When I was the book editor of the Plain Dealer, a publisher sent me a study called The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives. I knew right away that I wanted to assign it for review: How many books have you read about those underappreciated pillars of so many congregations? But when I asked a minister’s wife to review the study, she said she couldn’t do it unless I let her write under a pseudonym – which most newspapers don’t allow — because in her position she couldn’t express her views freely. Which, of course, was exactly the point of the book.

We may know even less about the inner lives of the clergy than we do about those of their spouses. Like the minister’s wife I tried to recruit as a reviewer, the partners of spiritual leaders may believe they have a responsibility to keep silent on some issues. But they have no formal job description that requires it. The clergy do have a duty to protect confidentiality and use other forms of discretion, which helps to explain why we hear about their private lives mainly when a scandal erupts.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor opens a stained-glass window onto their lives in an engaging memoir that at times gives the impression that she either lacks self-awareness or isn’t free to describe events fully. Leaving Church tells of her years a parish minister in Atlanta and Clarkesville, Georgia, and her decision to become a religion professor after realizing that “feeding people was no longer feeding me.”

Brown Taylor says she once saw being a priest as similar to being the chief engineer at a nuclear power plant: “In both cases, one needed to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” Her book has many such lines that are clever rather than deep, or seemingly intended more to keep people awake during sermons than to provoke serious thought. You might also question the logic of her decision to become a professor if “feeding people” wasn’t feeding her, given that college teaching consists largely of feeding students.

But Brown Taylor has strengths that offset her inconsistencies. Chief among these is that she describes vividly the demands of the parish ministry without whining or sugarcoating the difficulties. “Like most clergy, I know how to post bond, lead an intervention, commit someone to a mental health care facility, hide a woman from her violent husband, visit an inmate on death row, and close the eyes on a dead body,” she writes. “One summer when a frightened murder witness showed up at the church door I even learned how to arrange an appointment with the district attorney for testimony before a grand jury.” After years in church leadership roles, I didn’t know that the clergy did half those things, and I’d bet most other lay people don’t know it, either. Part of what makes Leaving Church valuable is that it shows how much the clergy do for those poverty-line salaries that they get.

But this book does more than help to explain why so many clergy face burnout and need long vacations and sabbaticals just as professors do. Like Anne Lamott, Brown Taylor notices offbeat but telling details that suggest the tangy flavor of her part of the country. Not long after moving to Clarkesville, she saw a church sign that read: “Given Satan an inch and he will become your ruler.” What minister would want to tangle with parishioners who suspected them of giving that inch?

Coincidentally or not, Leaving Church has arrived when God is taking it on the chin. Biologist Richard Dawkins www.richarddawkins.net has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for months with The God Delusion, which says that the biblical Yahweh was “psychotic.” He shares space with journalist Christopher Hitchens www.hitchensweb.com, whose God Is Not Great contends that religion is “irrational.” Brown Taylor doesn’t try to argue with the atheists. Instead, in a quiet way, she suggests joys and pains of a life lived according to faith and does so well enough that you believe her when she says that, no matter what went wrong between her and the Church, “this is a love story.”

Best line: Like most clergy, Brown Taylor often listened to requests for money from people with hard-luck stories. She reports that when she said “no,” one petitioner took it as a challenge to try harder. The woman called her and said: “Martha is sitting on the toilet and we are out of toilet paper. If I came over right now, could you write me a check to the grocery store so she can get up?”

Worst line (tie): No. 1 Brown Taylor says in one paragraph that “we have romanticized” Native Americans, then tells us in the next that a Cherokee friend has “a noble brow,” as though the image of the “noble” Indian weren’t part of the romanticized stereotypes she rightly criticizes. No. 2 She says that “the call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.” That we should be “fully human” is one of those fuzzy clichés that many of have heard often from the pulpit. What does it mean? “Fully human” as opposed to half-human and half-bull, like a minotaur? Brown Taylor uses the phrase partly to explain why she left the parish ministry to teach religion. What about the people who have passed up such career moves? Are they less than “fully human”?

Recommendation? Likely to appeal to many fans of Anne Lamott www.annelamott.com, though Brown Taylor isn’t as funny or forthcoming about many parts of her life. Also highly recommended to church book groups.

Published: May 2006 (hardcover) and April 2007 (paperback) www.barbarabrowntaylor.com and www.harpercollins.com. Brown Taylor is a columnist for the liberal magazine The Christian Century www.christiancentury.org. She teaches at Piedmont College www.piedmont.edu.

Furthermore: Leaving Church won the Best General Interest Book award from the Association of Theological Booksellers www.associationoftheologicalbooksellers.org. For information on The Private Lives of Ministers’ Wives, click on this link www.lizaleshire.com and then on “Liz’s Books.”

Consider reading also: Michael Lindvall’s The Good News From North Haven: A Year in the Life of a Small Town (Crossroads, $16.95), a down-to-earth book of stories about the life of a Presbyterian minister in Minnesota. This book reads like a collection of autobiographical essays, though billed as a novel by its author, now the pastor at the Brick Presbyterian Church www.brickchurch.org in New York City.

One-Minute Book Reviews was the seventh-ranked book review site on Google www.google.com/Top/Arts/Literature/Reviews_and_Criticism/as of Sept. 6, 2007.

Janice Harayda is a novelist and an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour and a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle www.bookcritics.org. She is a former associate lay leader of Park Avenue Methodist Church in Manhattan and often speaks to local or national religious groups on topics such as faith in fiction.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

May 24, 2007

Robert Cording’s Poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey’

Filed under: Poetry,Religion — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:34 pm
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A reminder for anyone observing Pentecost (Sunday, May 27) …

Robert Cording’s eloquent collection Common Life: Poems (CavanKerry, $16, paperback) includes the poem “Pentecost in Little Falls, New Jersey.” A review of Common Life appeared on this site on April 5, 2007, and is archived in the “Poetry” category and with the April posts. You can find more information on Cording, a professor of English at Holy Cross, at www.cavankerrypress.org. Click on the “Reading Room” page on that site to read his poem, “A Prayer to Adam,” the first poem in Common Life.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

March 26, 2007

Robin McGraw’s Faith in Herself

Dr. Phil’s wife writes about her $50,000 Mercedes, her crystal chandeliers, and those tabloid rumors

[Note: I picked up Inside My Heart along with Love Smart, reviewed on this site on Feb. 8, planning to do a dual review. The books were so different I decided to do this one separately.]

Inside My Heart: Choosing to Live With Passion and Purpose. By Robin McGraw. Nelson, 223 pp., $24.99.

By Janice Harayda

Robin McGraw devotes four pages of Inside My Heart to a vasectomy reversal that her husband had without telling her – an incident that included, as she puts it, “fabricating” a cover story for his whereabouts during the surgery. This is by far the most revealing anecdote in her memoir of her marriage to Dr. Phil McGraw. What would her husband say if a man on his talk show confessed to doing the same thing?

McGraw says that she wrote Inside My Heart to get female readers excited about becoming “the woman that God created you to be,” a process that involves learning to stand up for themselves as she says she has done. Presumably to help them get “excited,” she writes about her $50,000 Mercedes, her “Italian Renaissance style” home with its “mosaic floors and crystal chandeliers” and her “black suede bomber jacket” that her husband gave her for Christmas. She says little about her day-to-day spiritual practices and struggles beyond that she gives thanks each morning for how “God has blessed” her.

Although Inside My Heart comes from a publisher of Christian books, God comes across in it as a generic figure with a goody bag that always has something for McGraw. So it’s hard to say who the target audience is. Inside My Heart may offend evangelicals with its glib materialism and lack of references to Jesus and the Bible. But it’s so shallow it has little to offer others, including people who enjoy good celebrity memoirs. Perhaps it’s is aimed partly at all those tabloid readers who wonder if there’s truth to the rumors that its author has been so lonely in Los Angeles, she went door-to-door trying to find someone to play bunco with her? If so, let the record show that McGraw says the stories about the dice game are false. “I had never even heard of it,” she says, “let alone played it.”

Best line: McGraw was startled when she first learned of her husband’s vasectomy reversal: “And then I took a good look at him and saw that he had a bulge under his trousers from a bandage and icepack.”

Worst line: At times McGraw slips into her husband’s nasty, hectoring tone. An example occurs when she urges people to have colonoscopies: “If you’re over fifty and haven’t had one done because you’re too squeamish to deal with it, stop acting like a baby and go have one.”

Consider reading instead: Firstlight: The Early Inspirational Writings of Sue Monk Kidd, by Sue Monk Kidd. A review is archived in the “Essays and Reviews” category on this site.

Published: September 2006

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

December 8, 2006

Julie Vivas’s ‘The Nativity': The Best Version of the Christmas Story for Preschoolers

And the critic said, “Fear not, for this book takes its text from the Gospel of Luke, which shall be found in the King James Version of the Bible.”

The Nativity. Illustrated by Julie Vivas. Voyager Books, 36 pp., $7, paperback. Ages 4–8.

By Janice Harayda

It’s a miracle: For once I agree with the American Library Association www.ala.org, which named The Nativity a Notable Book of the year after its first American publication in 1988. I haven’t seen every version of the Christmas story for preschoolers. But as a former Sunday school teacher, I’ve seen a lot. And take it from somebody who knows how to make remarkably convincing angels – well, sort of convincing — by folding back the handles of coffee cups and glue-ing on ping-pong ball heads: This book is the best for its age group.

The Nativity has several big advantages over most other picture books about birth of Christ and the arrival of the shepherds and wise men. One of these is that it tells the story through the rich and resonant text of the Gospel of Luke from the King James Version of the Bible, dropping only a phrase or two here and there for clarity or space. (“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” becomes “Fear not, I bring you tidings of great joy.”) Another advantage of the book is that the characters have no fixed race, so all kinds of families can identify with them. A third is that Vivas provides dynamic but offbeat and deglamorized watercolor illustrations — no gilt halos, no foil star, no flocked sheep. So The Nativity is more accurate than many of the books that have a Jesus, Mary, and Joseph who might have come straight from a DreamWorks casting call.

Then what’s not to like? For many families, nothing. But The Nativity has a painting that shows baby Jesus in what Hollywood calls “full frontal nudity.” I can only image the reaction of the mother who once wrote me angry letter after I praised a book by Maurice Sendak with similar anatomical detail. “Why on earth would I want to buy my child a book with pictures of naked babies?” she asked. And although The Nativity is widely available in bookstores, it’s so popular that it may sell out well before Christmas. My local bookstore had only one copy, much upstaged by newer titles. I snapped it up. Go thou and do likewise — this weekend – if you’d like to read The Nativity this season.

Best line: All.

Worst line: None.

Recommended if … you believe that a child who can sing “Baby Beluga” can understand: “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

Published: 1988 (first U.S. edition), 2006 (Restored Voyager Books edition).

© 2006 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

Check back for more reviews of books for preschoolers in the Children’s Corner, which appears every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews. Or read all the reviews archived in the Children’s Books category on www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com.

This blog was created by Janice Harayda, an award-winning journalist who has been the book columnist for Glamour, the book editor and critic of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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