May 3, 2003

Religious reviews

Compiled by The Dallas Morning News

Reviewer’s Choice

The Story of My Father: A Memoir

Sue Miller, (Knopf, 192 pages, $22.50)

You’re not likely to find this biography in a bookstore’s religion section, but it is a moving account of a faithful man. Miller’s father, James Nichols, was a devout Christian and a student of religion. He taught theology and church history at the University of Chicago and at Princeton Theological Seminary. The author pieces together her father’s life and her relationship with him while recalling his decline at the hands of Alzheimer’s disease. Miller propels readers to the inevitable end of his life by weaving together anecdotes and memories of her father, her mother and her own experiences.

If you’ve ever loved someone with Alzheimer’s, you may find an odd comfort in reading about Nichols’ hallucinations, delusions and wandering episodes. This tale isn’t just for those touched by the disease, though. Nichols’ faithfulness, loyalty and steadiness are comforting, too. He wrote homilies for his children’s weddings, saved his wife’s love letters, wiped out his savings to loan money to his children.

Miller is candid, revealing her father’s shortcomings, too. It is her honest portrayal that makes him an even more sympathetic character. When she was a teen, Miller declared that she would no longer take Communion. He didn’t scold her, as she expected, but instead encouraged her to decide for herself. He also described his own journey to faith, following not a single signal from God but a gradual path. “He compares faith to falling in love; and, more, he says that for him the experience of both was as though he’d entered a room backwards — backed into it — so that by the time he was able to look around and understand where he was, he was already encircled by it, held in it.”

Books

A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven The Jewish Life-Spiral as a Spiritual Path

Arthur Ocean Waskow and Phyllis Ocean Berman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 300 pages, $24)

United in marriage, these authors — leaders of the currently burgeoning Jewish renewal movement — have written individual prefaces to this, one of many new books aimed at helping nopracticing Jews reconnect with their faith, while proffering some new options to those already observant. His deals with the birth of his first grandchild and the modern ceremony he helped to create for welcoming a girl into the Covenant of Israel, likening it to the ancient one observed with the birth of his grandson.

Hers treats bifurcations between the public and the private in Jewish life, and ways to bring these two together. As a team, they then delineate an individual’s chronology, from birth through death, with stops along the way for childhood, marriage (and possible separation), middle age, even “going to seed.” Torah references and traditional blessings meet head-on in their “four-step life-dance” that helps answer this question: “What to do when your own life-cycle reaches a turning that feels important to you?”

Magazines

Shambhala Sun (May)

Renunciation is mostly associated with a “Life of Vow,” such as with monks and nuns. But, Blanche Hartman says in her essay that anyone of faith does this. She reminds us that “devotion” means vow. What is renunciation? “Just to welcome your life as it arrives moment after moment ... leaving behind all of your preferences, all of your ideas and notions and schemes.” Another article suggests techniques for “Working with Chronic Pain.” Chris Stewart-Patterson explains cognitive behavioral therapy in Buddhist terms as “essentially the replacement of unskillful thoughts with skillful thoughts.” It is an antidote to unhelpful thoughts, “such as obsession with blame, misinterpretation of symptoms and inability to see the remaining positives in life.”

In the “Psyche & Spirit” column, meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein praises “non-OK-ness.” “If you wanted it perfect, you came to the wrong planet.” When your inner voice is down on you, she asks whether, if you had a friend who spoke that way, you would keep that friend.

The Atlantic Monthly (May)

The rising religion is “apatheism,” and columnist Jonathan Rauch counts himself as one of its adherents. “I still don’t believe in God, but the larger truth is that it has been years since I really cared one way or another.” This attitude is shared by a lot of believers as well, he says: “The softer denominations in America are packed with apatheists.” Rauch sees this as a good thing. America’s example “will be a source of strength, not weakness, in a world still beset by fanatical religiosity [al Qaida] and tyrannical secularism [China].”

On the other hand, the non-apathetic are viewed in “I’m Right, You’re Wrong, Go to Hell.” Bernard Lewis, professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, sees a clash of civilizations between Christianity (or the West) and Islam.

His lengthy essay argues that “the clash between these two religiously defined civilizations results not only from their differences but also from their resemblances.” He says our worldview has changed since 9-11 to a perception “of religion subdivided into nations rather than a nation subdivided into religions.”

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