I recently bought a well-known spiritual writer’s latest book but I just couldn’t get to it. I could see it there day after day on the bookshelf next to the fireplace in my living room. But for some reason, I hadn’t been able to bring myself to begin it. The last book I read by this author was a joy, one of those books that helps you start your day off right, a book that you look forward to reading a little bit each day.
This new book, however, was different. Even though I saw some good nuggets, the writing felt off, a little predictable. Even though the theological topic was a good one, one we need to be thinking about in more honest and sinuous ways, over several sittings the writing seemed almost superfluous. The tone and the style of argumentation came across as curmudgeonly, simplistic, guru-like, and lacked seriousness about everything that is going on in our world today.
Then it happened again with another book, a spiritual self-help-ish book by a hipster millennial about trying to find balance in our lives. The book just seemed self-absorbed.
Come to think of it, I’ve not been doing much spiritual reading lately, at least not of the kind I had been doing, or the kind that you would typically call spiritual.
Then it hit me how so much has changed in recent months, if not years. We find ourselves still in a generation-defining pandemic, with unmourned loss and grief, the worst kind. We’ve seen more clearly than ever an ongoing racism, emboldened by one of the most jarring and opportunistic politicians we’ve ever seen in our media-saturated lives, whose term ended with a violent mob invading the US Capitol. Even now, while a rising vaccinated population represents hope, we’re resuming mass shootings and seeing an uptick in gun violence. Then there are the signs of climate change that remind you of the beginning of a disaster movie.
Considering this and more, how do we think sacredly about our lives going forward?
The phrase “God Is Dead” is attributed to philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran pastor who became perhaps the world’s most adroit and persnickety atheist. Generally, the late nineteenth century Nietzsche acknowledged the march of the Enlightenment and science for how they redefined our worldview in such a way that we no longer needed a major deity to explain everything. Later, theologians in the 1960s made “God Is Dead” popular again when they responded to existentialism, particularly in light of the horrors of the Holocaust and mechanistic warfare in the early to mid-twentieth century.
As someone who works in publishing, I find myself asking: In light of the world we live in now, how do we read and write about our spirituality? How do we do it?
I can’t help but think that the rules have somewhat changed. Could it be we’ve only had more and more assaults on our concepts of God and personal growth, so much so that some of these concepts now seem trite and self-absorbed?
On one hand, I’m grateful that we can perhaps better see how so much of our spirituality can be superficial, overly spiritual, and sometimes outright exploitative. Perhaps we’ll work harder to write more honestly. On the other hand, however, I worry that once the shock of any particular calamity subsides, we will just go back to creating, like we often do, the same shallow, repetitive ideas about God and ourselves, though with some new gloss. Behaviorally speaking, the human race has changed only so much since we evolved into the bodies and brains we have today.
Will we, can we, take our spiritual writing more seriously because of these recent lessons?
I wonder what the next trend will be for personal, spiritual and theological insight and growth. More books on the individual journey of leaving authoritarian religion, perhaps especially for the marginalized? More books on the ways of authentic living in our hyperconnected world? More books on how our religious traditions encourage us to engage in the here and now, and not the glorious hereafter, or the nostalgic past?
I now believe there’s a reason I couldn’t get to that author’s book for several months. Things have indeed dramatically changed. Maybe even that author has changed since the book was written. I’ now going to be on the lookout for writers creating content for the time we live in right now, and who will heed its lessons. I hope you will, too.