Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Disappointing


Sundays in America: A Year Long Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
by Suzanne Strempek Shea

This one of those books that I thought sounded really engaging and interesting, and I looked forward to reading it for several months. I had read Shea's memoir of working in a bookstore (titled Shelf Life) and enjoyed it a lot. However, Sundays in America falls short of the mark. It's not that the book is so bad, it's just that it could be so much better. She undertook an interesting project. She visited a different congregation every Sunday for a year. She had grown up Catholic and had it drilled into her that all other congregations were going to hell. She decided to see for herself what the similarities and differences were between a variety of congregations and the faith that she remembered from childhood.

Sundays in America is, frankly, boring. Now right here might be the place where you expect me to go off on a big rant along the lines of "Well OF COURSE it's boring because CHURCH is so BORING and that is why we don't have any young people and we are all circling the drain....blah blah blah." I don't think church is boring although I can see where some people would. The problem with Shea's book is that she spends way too much time describing the physical space of each congregation she visited, as well as the demographics of each group ("Of the 54 adults present, 47 are White, 3 are Asian, 3 are African-American, and 1 is Hispanic. There are six children between the ages of 4 and 10, and three bored looking teens slumped on the back row.") Seriously, I think every chapter had some version of this sentence, and after the first few my eyes started to glaze over. I suppose the information is important, but there has to be a better way to present it - maybe a simple graph at the beginning or end of each chapter. Likewise with the lengthy descriptions of each congregation's worship space - yawn. She needs to change it up a bit.

I am more interested in how a congregation feels to the person visiting. Are the people friendly? What is the predominant theology? Are all types of people made to feel welcome, or just certain ones? It would be unfair to say that Shea does not address any of these questions, because she does. It just seems that her emphasis is more on the visual and quantifiable. I wondered if she was uncomfortable delving too deeply into the theology and stayed on safer ground that was less open to debate or interpretation.

Shea does make some astute observations along the way, and she visited some interesting places. She visited Joel Osteen's church in Houston and Rick Warren's in California. She experienced a wide range of faith traditions, including Church of the Brethren, Quaker, Baptist, Mennonite, Pentecostal, and Episcopalian. The only Presbyterian Church that she visited was a PCA congregation that was founded in 2006 in the Gulf Coast area to help with the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. However, the denominational background that she gave for the congregation was PCUSA. Somehow she had missed that the PCA group is separate from the PCUSA - and very different. That was disappointing for a Presbyterian reader.

Shea seems like she could be a kindred spirit, because a lot of the things that turned her off about certain congregations are the same things that would make me head for the door. She is uncomfortable with exclusion, especially the congregations who constantly grind the anti-homosexual axe. She responded most positively to the congregations that were diverse in terms of race and socioeconomic levels, and that put forth a message of hope and forgiveness. She quickly recognized that the sermon that Joel Osteen gave (the topic was weight loss) was theologically thin. So there was much potential here for a stimulating read, but it lacked a certain something that I can't quite name. It also was way short on humor. A sense of humor would have helped a lot in some of the situations in which she found herself. Still, I give her credit for undertaking such a project and for keeping an open mind throughout. She approached all congregations and traditions with respect and a genuine desire to engage - this is important since so many people are so dug in to the way they have always thought and believed. Her willingness to consider other alternatives is to be commended.

Reverent Reader

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