Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith
Suzanne Strempek Shea
Beacon Press, 2008
324 pp., 24.95
Reviewed by Linda McCullough Moore
Church-Hopping with a Purpose
Shea freely shares her church-bought thoughts: Rick Warren preaches "the love of a New Testament God, without all that legendary heaven-splitting anger and judgment. One who just wants us to love everyone." But at Saddleback Shea must taste a "heavy side dish of disappointment in an otherwise pleasant morning … the fundamentalist viewpoint, seeing gays and Jews as doomed, believing a woman's right to choose is wrong." Mars Hill Church in Seattle likewise fails her test, "hammering out the same old hate." Shea names one church as helpful and heartening, and wonders: why are these two attributes "so rare in the house of the Lord." She has a decided penchant for pastors who manage to "get through a sermon without using the fear factor or advertising any exclusionary doctrine." (God forbid a deity might be given to opinions, particularly ones that presume to differ with our secular cultural moment. This is America. Like I say, we all got us opinions.) People want to be told that they're okay, just the way they are (as though there were no common knowing in the human heart, no certain knowledge, that something is amiss. But I opine.)
Shea is an able prophet decrying the consumer in the church marketplace, where it is common practice to test-fly churches. At the Times Square Church, she is put off by the glitz and staginess, but she writes, "Don't care for one story? Try another. Enjoy the music in this one? Then you might love the show that's two doors down."
Church is rarely a walk in the park. Except, of course, when it is. The book concludes with a story of a onetime atheist who says she needs no church, because she always feels that she is in God's house, and religion only "distorts God's true message that love is all there is." Shea concurs. In fact, perhaps her own most profound experience of blessing comes as she sits in the Denver airport chapel, alone but for one rosary-praying Catholic. (Other people: who needs them, with their smells and their tacky outfits and their opinions?)
That solitude notwithstanding, Shea in the end defines the qualities she would require in a church of her own: a welcoming community with no interest whatsoever in her politics or lifestyle, a church intent on social justice, with little to no hierarchy and congregants empowered to decide, "a spiritual message inspired by love rather than fear, and all this in an art-filled space that rings with awesome music."
Ah, those politics and lifestyles, the deal-breakers. Ultimately, Shea has one decisive litmus test: a church's party line on homosexual behavior. (Church speakers Anne Graham Lotz and Jimmy Carter bite the dust on this one. They may be nice enough people, but … .) On this issue, each church falls or stands. This is, I think, neither arbitrary nor reductionist, but rather fitting and pretty efficient. The package deal: that reciprocal relationship between amorphous God, amorphous sexuality. Tell me what you think of one, I'll tell what you think about the other. Weigh in on the Immaculate Conception, and I like my odds on pegging you as Catholic or catholic. Preach prosperity and I might well guess your god's first name. So too is Shea's test fairly reliable. A church that's got a God who is possessed of attributes, and those not always to the ready liking of the visitor, or even of the members, will not receive Shea's blessing. And by the same token, she must shake the dust from her special-order vegan sandals when leaving any church where God is said to have opinions, when those opinions fly in the face of anything that Shea deems good. What's wanted here is a god who's happy just to be invited to the party, a well-mannered sort, infusing inspiration, bereft of all commands/demands—oh yes, and wanting in the just worst way for us all to love each other.
Shea's just like us. We all decide which hill we'll die on. And, we, every one of us, decide the things we will let pass. Pick a team for the organ music/rock band wars. Clean your parish church, the bishop's coming. From Uganda. Or, stand over there, back against the wall—love: frank, fierce and righteous—as Jesus clears the temple.
Linda McCullough Moore, essayist and fiction-writer, lives and writes in Northampton, Massachusetts, where she is completing a novel, World Enough and Time.
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