It’s been a few months since my I last wrote a “What I’m Reading” post, mainly because engagement is low. Nonetheless, I realized that I miss writing them, because I enjoy the process of reflecting on and synthesizing my recent reading. So here goes!
A Religion of One’s Own: A Guide to Creating a Personal Spirituality in a Secular World by Thomas Moore
I think I first heard about this book through a Facebook group associated with The Liturgists Podcast, which was my most valuable resource while I was deconstructing. The title caught my eye because although I am no longer religious, I remain deeply spiritual and still find religion fascinating. Perhaps my most passionate interest right now is to how to find spiritual fulfillment and community without religious belief.
Thomas Moore knows a thing or two about this, because he spent 13 years as a Catholic monk but left his order on the eve of ordination. He pursued an academic career but was denied tenure, so began a third career as a psychotherapist and writer. I was surprised I had never heard of such a prolific writer, who pens titles like Care of the Soul, Dark Night of the Soul, and A Life at Work—themes close to my heart.
This book calls for the deliberate cultivation of a religious sense in one’s life, even if one does not ascribe to any religion. Moore writes, “personal religion is both an awareness of the sacred and concrete action arising out of that awareness.” He says “it’s important to cultivate an eye for the numinous, a sacred light within things or an aura around them, the feeling that there is more to the world than what meets the eye” (4). This is a lifelong project, in which we each build—and help others build—our own personal cathedrals. Moore believes that hardcore secularists who deny our religious impulses live impoverished lives.
As a Christian, I was constantly taught the dangers of “cafeteria-style religion”, in which we remake God in our image by picking and choosing those aspects of religious experience that resonate with our souls. Moore has a higher view of human intuition, and enthusiastically embraces the project of constructing a personal religion; drawing heavily on Jungian concepts, he urges his readers to listen to those intuitions, explore widely among the world’s religions, and find authentic and personal ways of embracing the sacred. Chapters cover various related topics like mysticism, dreams, therapy, the erotic, art, and even magic. That last chapter was the most challenging for me, but makes sense within a Jungian framework in which tools like dreams or rituals can help us access our own unconscious. Speaking of Jung, I found the chapter on eroticism incredibly helpful, because Moore looks past superficial sexual desire to a deeper, less conscious thirst for life and connection.
The book is not perfect. For such a profound topic, from such a passionate writer, the prose often felt flat to me. The author’s personal embrace of different aspects of so many different religious simply sounds exhausting to me—but then, that is his personal religion, not mine. Those critiques aside, this was an inspiring book and one of the most helpful I’ve read about secular spirituality.
The Sand Sea by Michael McClellan
I mentioned this novel in my April Newsletter. Michael McClellan‘s debut is a masterpiece, and the world thankfully seems to have recognized it. Boosted by strong support from Steven Pressfield, the book appears to be selling well.
This is an unconventional fantasy novel, set in a world loosely based on the late 19th century. It has rightfully been described as “Lord of the Rings meets Indiana Jones.” I’d add that it’s seasoned with a bit of “Dune.” The heroes fight with scimitars and pistols. They ride intercontinental trains and venture deep into the desert on camel expeditions. Imperial armies tote their cannons into war against primitive desert tribes. I loved almost everything about this book. The world is richly imagined, the characters are three-dimensional and diverse, the action gripping, and the prose perfect. This novel is truly a labor of love; McClellan’s master craftsmanship, applied over more than a decade, shines.
If I can critique anything—and I’m nitpicking here—it’s expectation management. The book is huge, so I expected a full dramatic arc brought to a conclusion. I was surprised and a little disappointed to find that the book ends short of a full resolution, as it sets up for a sequel. A couple key characters developed early in the book almost completely disappear in the latter third, although I expect they will play a more central role in the next book. Readers should also be aware that the book contains multiple torture scenes, which are gruesome. They serve the story but made me queasy, and I’m left wondering if they were necessary.
On the whole, though, this is a fantastic novel that I’d recommend to anyone who loves sweeping fantasy, 19th century history, or just a great story in a richly imagined world.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
I bought this Audible book based on an algorithm recommendation and its glowing reviews. I wanted to love this book, because so much about it is excellent, but a couple structural flaws rankled the entire way.
The easiest way to characterize this book is as a 21st-century update to It’s a Wonderful Life, right down to the near-identically-named hometowns. That film has often been criticized for being too sentimental, but its unapologetic sentimentality has always been part of its enduring appeal for me. The Midnight Library also has a sentimental streak, but there are no childlike angels here; it’s a grittier book with antidepressants, alcoholism, a sexual encounter or two (not graphic), and the occasional f-bomb.
The premise is that protagonist Nora Seed, upon hitting rock bottom in life, finds herself in a library where she can try out alternative lives in which she makes different choices at key moments. It is hard to say more than that without giving away the story, but your initial intuitions about the book’s plot arc and themes are probably correct.
I loved a lot about this book. The characters are fantastic, especially given the multiple roles that each has to play across many different realities. Audible narrator Carey Mulligan brings Nora to life. I devoured the book quickly because, at every step of the way, I wanted to know what happened to Nora next. That is the most essential element of storytelling, which says something about Haig’s talent as a writer. The prose is wonderful. Everything about the book is well-executed, from the rich cast of characters and crisp dialog to the vividly imagined alternative lives.
Unfortunately, two structural challenges consistently undermined the book for me. The entire premise is that Nora can try out any possible version of her life and choose the one that suits her best. However, each life she tries is marred by some fatal flaw that undercuts its appeal. This pattern drives both the plot and the theme, but if Nora can really enter any possible world, why can’t she simply enter an improved version of life without that flaw? Every step of the way, I imagined better alternatives, and felt increasingly aggravated by the smoke-and-mirrors necessary to drive the story forward.
Nora also enters each life with no memory to that point, no sense of her identity, and no knowledge of the people around her. She is essentially a stranger playing a part, forced to improvise and avoid detection as an impostor. This left me with a constant sense of dread, and many interactions made me cringe—not a feeling I enjoy when reading. The author relies on constant sleights of hand to make this work, and it repeatedly violated my suspension of disbelief. One character after another asks, “Are you okay, Nora?” when she doesn’t know the most basic facts about her life, and she waves them off with vague comments about alcohol or exhaustion. I can’t even imagine how hard these scenes were to write. Apart from the awkwardness, this setup undermines the book’s core plot and theme, because I can’t imagine any possible way Nora would choose a life in which she was a complete stranger to herself.
One might argue that I am overthinking things, but given that the entire book is premised on this notion of alternative lives, these two flaws felt like cracks in the foundation. The book captivated me the entire way through, but I was relieved to reach the end.
Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free
Throughout my Christian deconstruction, I had to process through so many domains of my life. What did I really believe? Why? What are the grounds for morality and ethics? How should I live? Without Christian teaching and practice to lean on, I had to tear my beliefs down to the foundations and rebuild. Far from becoming a spiral into nihilism and immorality (as many Christian leaders warned me it would), this has been a rich, meaningful process that forced me to engage with moral and ethical issues in a far deeper way than I had before.
One of the hardest areas of life for any person to work through—Christian or not—is sexuality. Religion and sexuality are deeply interwoven; both are rooted in our deepest sense of identity, and both involve our relationship with extraordinary, transcendent power that can be highly empowering or deeply destructive. I continue to study and reflect on sexuality with the same curiosity that I bring to religion or psychology. That study has implications for how I live my own life, but also for how my wife and I raise our children—a topic that feels increasingly urgent as they approach adolescence.
Pure is a damning indictment of the Purity movement that swept through American Evangelism in the 80s and 90s, when I happened to be coming age. This was the age of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, True Love Waits pledges, promise rings, dating Jesus, and sometimes even waiting for the wedding day for the first kiss. All of this will sound bizarre and alien to those who didn’t grow up in it—but for many of those who did, it shaped their lives in incredibly powerful ways. Author Linda Kay Klein is a former Evangelical, raised in the movement, who draws on over 80 interviews with other women raised in the Purity movement, and especially on her own group of teenage friends. They are grown now, with decades of life experience behind them. A pattern emerges from these interviews: the Purity movement scarred many of these women for life, and they want to tell their stories. Clearly, Klein has tapped into something.
I felt a little sheepish about reading a book about sexuality written for women, but it proved to be a powerful read. The stories these women share are devastating and sometimes excruciating. I alternated between empathy and righteous indignation. What I realized partway through—and what struck me harder than I expected—was that this is not a book about sexuality; it is a book about shame. At its best, religion shapes, upholds, and expands the human spirit; but at its worst, religion wields shame as a weapon to destroy a person’s sense of self and imprison them in abuse. Story after story reveals the appalling frequency of the latter.
Klein (still a Christian) takes great pains to emphasize that she is not attacking Christianity, and she acknowledges that some women view the Purity movement with ambivalence or as a positive force in their lives. However, her attack on shame is unsparing and well-deserved. As I man, I found the book helpful for understanding the extent of both explicit and implicit misogyny and shaming in the church and the world at large. The book also heightened my empathy for the stories that the women—and possibly men—in my life might be carrying.
Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
This literary memoir has been making waves lately. I picked it up because its themes of growth through fallow seasons seemed well-aligned with my own book. It’s a beautiful little gem of a book, from its magical cover to its gorgeous prose. The core metaphor of wintering works well, and speaks perfectly to our time.
This is a quiet, slow-moving river, so it will not appeal to everybody. Nothing much happens—just a lot of life—but that is exactly the point. May could be any of us, languishing a year into COVID-19, wondering why we are struggling when we don’t really have it that bad. What she brings to these experiences is a keen eye for observation, a rich capacity for a reflection, and a willingness to bring meaning to her experiences. Her memoir becomes a mirror in which we can see ourselves in a new light.