My first intentions were to actually go see this author in action before writing this book review. But my intentions… well let’s just say they got carried away. Gretta Vosper is a community leader (minister in the United Church of Canada), an academic and a mom. And what better way to see how she practices what she preaches than to go to her community, the Westhill United Church? (Check out the website please. It’s actually kind of fun.)
Well, whatever road those good intentions of mine may have paved, it has not been taken. Which is actually a shame, because I think she may have a church and a worldview that has some real integrity and some real future. So I reserve the right to go down that road in the future. And I’ll take my camera, because visual blog stuff is much more appealing than just my wordiness.
With or Without God has just over 300 pages in the meat-n-bones of the book and is separated into seven chapters. Vosper includes an appendix, or toolbox as she calls it, for the changes she proposes to the church. The toolbox is probably the most interesting thing in the book. In it she illustrates the the power of language, especially in terms of literal vs metaphorical messages and inclusive vs exclusive wordings. She even offers examples of theistic and non-theistic blessings, invocations and otherwise churchy rituals, but they are robbed of their cloudy and vague secret codes and instead presented as spiritual gathering points. This toolbox is a demonstration that community can be built on mutually-assuring values as opposed to revelation-based stories or mystically-restricted loyalties.
There is certainly a smell of scholarship in her writing style, but it’s comfortingly padded with the warm tones of a devout mother. She is calm and expressive for the most part, but there are some charming little bracketed commentaries here and there punctuated with exclamations. What’s so surprising is that with such a motherly tone, firm but forgiving you might say, the actual weight of the challenge she puts before the church caught me by complete surprise.
The book is written with what I think is a very specific audience in mind. And I don’t fault Vosper for it in the least. I’m chagrined of course that it wasn’t directed specifically at me, but I can get over my own selfishness when it comes to an author’s intentions. This book is for the liberal church and a confrontation to address the changes needed in order to be a thriving voice of future spirituality while also embracing the intellectual progress achieved over the last century.
Evangelicals, fundamentalists, literalists and maybe even moderates might have a difficult time even using this book as a paperweight. For one thing, the forward is written by Bishop John Shelby Spong (a name that stirs up the worst kinds of challenges to literalists…). As well, Vosper takes as a given, for example, that the Bible cannot be the authoritative word of God for all time, in any way, shape or form at all.
The uninitiated, such as atheists, will likely not get through the first few chapters since the first half of the book is about recent church history, Sunday school curriculum changes and books from the last 100 years or so that the church really should not have ignored so much. This is kind of a shame. Vosper has, in my opinion, an offering that may just satisfy, as Ronald Aronson puts it, “the most urgent need [for] a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one’s life.”
I’m going to change things a bit here. Because Vosper’s audience and my audience are quite different, I’m going to try and put just a few sentences down about each chapter. This way it may give a sample of what she covers in the book, but also it might suggest different entry points for different people coming to the book . (Hey, if the Bible has taught us anything, we can certainly open a book now and start to read from the middle if we so choose, and even ignore parts that aren’t really useful…)
1. It’s Time
Vosper uses a few examples from her own experiences growing up in the church and wanting to study theology to show how change has been put aside in the liberal church, or at best, addressed in only a drapes-and-curtains kind of way. She uses the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’ to show how there is a kind of silent agreement between congregation and leadership to not bring up the dangerous issues around faith and language.
2. Constructing Christianity
This chapter is a brief history of beliefs. There is a careful timeline here of how we created belief, what use it may have been to ancients, and then the shifts particularly important to Christianity. She discusses the construction of creeds, early and recent, and looks at how each statement of faith was accumulated through different committees with different inclinations and politics.
3. Challenging Christianity
The two sides of the brain are used in this chapter as a kind of metaphor for how we have treated belief and religious practice. We can shut off one side of the brain and take part in the rituals in the church and feel good, only to later on shut off the other side and critically analyze the rest of our daily lives. I was personally tempted to suggest there has been a kind of mental circumcision on our brains when it comes to religious beliefs, but that’s my extension and not Vospers (I think…)
4. Liberating Christianity
Using Albert Schweitzer and Richard Dawkins as slightly improbable guides, , Vosper highlights and discusses a way forward through these essentials: an open mind, passion, creativity, intellectual rigour, honesty, courage, respect and finally balance (patience, perseverance and pace).
5. Reconstructing Christianity
Vosper addresses the Bible (“If it’s the authoritative word of God for all time, we’re in big trouble!”), the human being of Jesus, the use of prayer by promises and the meaning of rituals.
6. Responsible Change
In an interesting twist, Vosper actually looks at the necessity of seeing things literally, or at least the consequences of what happens when we read things literally and what happens when we dismiss things as metaphorical. She also suggests here the idea of the spiritual toolbox, where the church cannot be an exclusive answer, but rather one offering in a world of available spiritual tools.
7. Crucial Change
Vosper gives some good examples of just how powerful and valuable the network of churches around North America can be. “Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, should they wish to reach the full extent of their market, would be envious of the number of outlets the church has managed to establish in every kind of neighbourhood… it would be safe to say there is not a community in Canada or the United States of America that does not have a church of some kind in it.” This illustration can be taken globally too, if we are willing to include other faiths and practices…
When I first read this book, I had already shed most of my Christian leanings and so her ideas weren’t that stressful to me or even revolutionary. But now that I have entered back into the conversation, I see just how scary Vosper might be to mainline Christianity. And like I said above, it’s a shame. Stress can be positive. Change can be the best solution to problems that just don’t go away. As she puts it, she doesn’t want to get rid of the baby or the bathwater. She’s drawing our attention to the monster in there, the mammoth or very human devil we have put there, and she is asking for your help to lift it out and show it the door.