My favorite thing about Sundays is the Divine Liturgy served at St. John Orthodox Church, which is about six blocks from my home in midtown Memphis. It’s right up there with births and baptisms and weddings and everything that’s sacred and mystical and worth having in this life. From 10-11:30 am, I am transported into the eighth day, and if I’m prepared, I receive life’s greatest miracle—the Body and Blood of Jesus— “entering all my joints, my reins, my heart, cleansing my soul, hallowing my thoughts… enlightening, as one of my five senses….” as St. Simeon the New Theologian’s Euchaaristic Prayer says. Heavenly thoughts for a blog post, but needful, if one is going to write about Sundays.
But another, much less ethereal thing, that I love about Sundays is the New York Times Book Review, which arrives in my driveway in a blue plastic bag, inside its parent, the Times itself. I mention the blue plastic bag because it’s an important part of the packaging. Our sprinklers are set to come on at 8 am on Sunday mornings, so I’m diligent to retrieve the Times before that happens… but in case I don’t, I’m thankful for the blue plastic bag. (Our local rag comes in an orange plastic bag, and truthfully, I don’t much care if the sprinkler leaks into it or not, unless I’m house-hunting and need the real estate section, like now, actually.)
So, at 7:55 a.m. I rescue the Times and pull out the Book Review and blap! front page and center is "Family Blessings," a review by author Darcey Steinke, of Mary Gordon’s new book, Circling My Mother. I met Darcey at Burke’s Books here in Memphis recently. She was reading and signing her newest book, a memoir, Easter Everywhere, which I loved. What I love about Darcey’s writing is that she brings her whole self to her work—preacher’s daughter, single mom, her struggles with stuttering, the dark sides of herself. She’s an earthy, contemporary novelist (who also wrote Suicide Blonde, Jesus Saves, and Milk, which explores the connection between sexual and spiritual longing) who grasps at a memoir like Gordon’s because she longs for a “third kind of religious book.”
What caught my attention in her review of Gordon’s book, though, was her contrasting of modern-day protestant evangelical “religious” writing with Roman Catholic writers like Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day:
“Rather than pontificating on the state of religion, both [Merton and Day] tried to engage in a conversation with the modern world. Midcentury Catholicism captivated some of the most imaginative writers of the era: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy….” Yes!
Author Mary Gordon’s new memoir focuses on her mother’s religious life as a Catholic. Steinke says that Gordon’s mother “attends to the nourishment of her own particular religious vocation, a vocation less glamorous than Merton’s and Day’s but no less divine—a vocation as a single mother, as one afflicted by polio, as a woman in full belief of the love of God.”
It's Steinke's assertion that, “These days we seem to have two kinds of religious books, those like The Purpose Driven Life, the pastor Rick Warren’s self-help book, insipidly set out conservative precepts, encouraging us to join churches, obey their doctrines and center our spiritual lives around them, no matter how limiting those lives might be in that context alone. At the other end of the spectrum are gleeful repudiations of religion like Christopher Hitchens’ atheist manifesto, God is Not Great. But Hitchens’ definition of religion is childlike and reductive; he completely discounts the longing many of us feel for divinity.”
Steinke seems to be offering Gordon’s book as a "third kind of religious book"… an alternative to the extremes offered by Warren and Hitchens. I haven’t read the book yet, but I just printed off the first chapter from the Times' online webiste, and it’s on my list now.
The day before I read Steinke’s review in the Times, I read an article in the Septemer issue of Touchstone Magazine called, “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor.” The author, Donald Williams, pulls no punches as he begins by saying that his fellow evangelicals “have not tended to write anything recognized as having literary value by the literary world.” Then he says, “The modern Christians who are important writers are all from liturgical churches: Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox.” He praises O’Connor for imbuing her writing with three things she received from her faith: a “true world view,” a “definition of art that affirmed a spiritual purpose,” and a “sense of mystery.”
As an Orthodox I would hasten to add Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov) into the mix here for those looking for a "third kind of religious book." But, like Steinke, I’d welcome some more books in this ilk by contemporary writers. (Two that come to mind on the spot are Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons, and Stephanie Kallos’ national bestseller, Broken For You.) For that to happen, I think we need more writers who are seers … those who glimpse beyond the everyday and believe, as Dostoyevsky did, that “beauty will save the world.”