Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Big 5-0

Eat Pray Love
by Elizabeth Gilbert

Just wanted to share this milestone - this week I recorded in my book journal book #50 for 2007. It is...(drum roll please) Eat Pray Love.

Frankly, I had put off reading this one because it has gotten so much press. As much as I love to read, when a book becomes faddish it turns me off, especially if it is about spirituality and seems to be the next big thing. Perversely, when there is a book about spirituality that everyone is telling me I should read that usually is a pretty good sign that I won't. Examples of pseudo-spiritual or ostensible faith-based books that I place in this category include The Purpose Driven Life, The Prayer of Jabez, The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy, and ANYTHING by Tim LaHaye. Okay, okay - I flipped through Left Behind one time, but that was because I was doing a sermon on Revelation and I was using the book as an example of bogus misinterpretation of the prophecies of Revelation, not to mention utter crap writing.

However, enough readers and faithful, spiritual people read and enjoyed and recommended Eat Pray Love that I finally decided I should read it. Almost in spite of myself, I enjoyed it. Elizabeth Gilbert is a likable, funny narrator. Her writing is more utilitarian than beautiful, but it serves her purpose of telling a good story. She has a conversational, self-deprecating style that pokes fun at her own neuroses (and all of ours, really) in a way that is not mean-spirited. She makes the whole narrative feel like she went on an amazing spiritual journey and invited her friends to come along. There are many thought-provoking insights and nuggets along the way. Early in the book, she writes "True wisdom gives the only possible answer at any given moment." I like that one - and that's just one example of some of her ideas that make practical yet holy sense. I learned a lot about meditation in her second section of the book where she visits the ashram in India for four months. Meditation does not come easily to me, given my personality type. Her experiences, however, made me see the value of it. Although the tone of Eat Pray Love is lighthearted, Elizabeth Gilbert has been through a lot, is devout, and clearly takes her spiritual life seriously.

A couple of things about the book did seem odd. One: the Italy portion of her journey was about pleasure and its pursuit. I definitely want to go to Italy someday. However, I got a little bored with what was her fairly narrow definition of pleasure. For her, it was about learning the language (which is beautiful) and eating. I like to eat as much as the much as the next person, and perhaps she did not give us a window into everything that she did while there. She did travel quite a bit within Italy, but that was mostly to find the best restaurants. Especially on a spiritual pilgrimage, I cannot imagine spending four months in Italy and missing all the spectacular art and churches to be seen there. Maybe that's the point, though. Someone who is in a healing process and working on self-discovery should not have to do anything that he/she does not want to do. One person's pleasure may be another's chore. I certainly would spend a significant amount of time eating good food and drinking good wine if I spent four months in Italy, but there would be a few other things that would make my list of pleasures.

Another thing that I would like to think more about is an assertion she makes in favor of "cherry-picking" in matters of faith - choosing the parts of different faith traditions that appeal and creating your own spirituality, and chucking the rest. To a degree, this makes sense. I certainly agree that various practices can cross over from one tradition to another. For example, the Dalai Lama makes clear that one does not have to be a Buddhist monk to draw strength and peace from the common Buddhist practice of chanting. The principles of yoga can be applied to any faith tradition. In the introduction to Eat Pray Love Elizabeth Gilbert shares an insightful bit of religious history - that strings of beads called japa malas have been used by Hindus and Buddhists for centuries to help them concentrate during meditation. The medieval Crusaders thought this was a great idea and took the idea back to Europe as the rosary. This just shows how we are all passing ideas and practices around in our differing searches for the truth. This kind of cherry picking seems natural and beneficial. To a certain degree, we all cherry-pick as far as doctrine goes. I do not know a single Christian who can honestly say they agree with every belief we have posited over the last 2,000 years. We find the same differing opinions and academic wrangling (and some non-academic wrangling) over questions of authority of scripture and the truth of various doctrines in all the religions of the world.

I am uncomfortable, though, with what seems to be a common way of doing faith these days - this idea that we can cherry-pick our way through life, adopting whatever practices and beliefs strike our fancy without ever committing to a community or tradition. Of course we are all on individual spiritual journeys, but we also were created to walk those journeys together, as communities. If we are not careful, we can begin to live a cafeteria style faith, which seems like the easy way out. When something gets too difficult, we can just move on. I am not saying this is what Elizabeth Gilbert is doing - I would not presume to judge someone else's experience. But, it's much easier to create our "own" little faith castles and think we can be a Christian or a Jew or a Hindi all by ourselves without being held to the responsibility and accountability that a faith community should call us to. I guess for me it comes down to "cherry-pick all you want insofar as it will help you on the journey to which you have committed," be it Jewish or Muslim or whatever. It may seem rigid to put it out there, but I still think the concepts of commitment and community are important, and seem to be getting lost in our increasingly individualistic society.

Is anyone else concerned about this? How can those of us who are embedded in communities help those who are not to understand how life-giving an extended family of faith can be, when we get it right?

Reverent Reader


At 10/30/07, 6:59 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel you would love to Google "Famous Rapture Watchers." BTW, the writer of it also has a bestselling book THE RAPTURE PLOT (see Armageddon Books). Flossie

At 10/31/07, 10:34 AM , Blogger Reverent Reader said...

Thanks, Flossie, for the tip - I'll be sure to check it out. Thanks for reading and responding!


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