judaism · memoir · nonfiction · religion

Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg

Have you ever read a book solely because you follow its author on Twitter? (Okay, maybe that wasn’t the only reason; I follow authors I haven’t read yet simply because I like their personalities. I definitely need to be interested in the subject or story of a book to read it!)

That’s how I found Surprised by God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion by Danya Ruttenberg (Beacon Press, 2008). I caught a few of her tweets since they were liked or shared by others that I follow and ended up following her because I enjoyed her voice and her message so much. And then she mentioned the book she wrote in one thread, and I was like, “A BOOK, YOU SAY????” Not only did I immediately add it to my TBR, I requested it via interlibrary loan as well.

Danya Ruttenberg decided she was an atheist as a young teenager. The Judaism of her childhood didn’t make sense to her, and so she continued on with her life, not believing but still trying to connect with something bigger than herself, a sense of connectedness with something spiritual or divine. She tried by partying with her friends, convening with nature, and delving deep into yoga practice, but while she occasionally got close and found certain glimpses of holiness and states of ecstasy, nothing was quite enough for her. Being a religious studies major gave her insights into other belief systems and the demands of each; connecting with other friends seeking the same helped her not only to see the beauty of the religion she was born into, but to recognize that not everyone’s path is the same, nor should it be. Hers is a gradual journey to faith and practice, replete of any sudden “A-ha!” moments, but it’s that slow, steady exploration before the eventual arrival at rabbinical school that lends her story such significance.

I really loved this book. Before ending up in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ruttenberg majored in religious studies (can you feel my jealousy??? I find religion so fascinating that, were I able to go back to school, this would be a heavy contender for my choice of major) and quotes some of the great historical and modern religious thinkers of every religion throughout the book. She mentioned something about Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou/I-it’ theory that led me to a better understanding of it, which I’ve been pondering all week (I even shared that article on Facebook, where I rarely talk about religious matters, because I found it so infused with meaning for me). While she does get a little into the more mystical aspects of yoga practice, something that, while I’ve done plenty of yoga to help with my back, has never appealed to me, I still appreciated her description of what it meant to her in order to further my understanding of what it meant to her and means to many others.

I identified with so much of Rabbi Ruttenberg’s feelings throughout her journey, her search for meaning and a sense of connection with the Divine. Her slow, measured journey to a deeper spiritual awareness resonated deeply with me, along with making me a little jealous. I’m not sure mine will have such a well-defined end goal or landing place, but I’m thankful that she shared her story with the world. Her view of life, of the sacred, of justice and of what connects us all is beautiful and inspiring, and I’m deeply grateful to have read her thoughtful insight, which has given me a lot to ponder, and a lot of what she’s written has given me a sense of peace I’ve been needing lately.

I’m very much interested in reading her latest book, Nurture the Wow: Finding Spirituality in the Frustration, Boredom, Tears, Poop, Desperation, Wonder and Radical Amazement of Parenting. It sounds like a book I could definitely use in my life!

Visit Danya Ruttenberg’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · religion

Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others- Barbara Brown Taylor

I’m so busy hunting for books from my TBR most of the time that I’ve been neglecting the New Books shelf at my library, but just before we went on vacation to Branson, Missouri with my mother this year, I stopped by that shelf to see what I could find to take with me on our trip. A good, relaxing vacation read should probably have a beach on the cover, maybe a fancy drink with a little umbrella in it or a pair of sunglasses, but I can’t do anything normally, so I leaped at the copy of Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne, 2019). I often say I’m not hugely religious, but this book sums up where I sit religiously: I may not have all the answers, or any of them, but I relish the opportunity to observe and appreciate what is sacred in the beliefs of others.

Barbara Brown Taylor was, for many years, an ordained Episcopalian minister. After leaving her position as minister, she taught World Religions at Piedmont College in Georgia. As Piedmont is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (and also located in a very religious part of the south!), the vast majority of her students were Christian, and most of them were encountering religions other than their own for the first time in their lives. Some of them couldn’t handle this and dropped the class early on or after a single field trip to another house of worship (one left a Hindu temple in tears, so upset that the worshipers could be so very wrong in their beliefs); others opened their minds and hearts and learned to experience what Ms. Brown Taylor termed ‘holy envy’: appreciating parts of these other faiths and using what they learned to make them a better practitioner of their own faith.

The leaps and bounds some of her students make are incredible, but it’s the insights that Ms. Brown Taylor experiences while teaching and the glimpses into houses of worship of non-Christian faiths that make this book explode with life and color and light. If you’re at all interested in religion or faith or the practice thereof, or the beauty that comes from education and growth and deep respect and appreciation for the many facets of humanity, this is a book you can’t afford to miss.

Holy Envy called to me from the very first page. I love reading about religion, the facts and the hows and whys, and I especially love reading how people experience and live out their own faiths. The concept of holy envy wasn’t one that I’ve ever realized had a name before this, but it’s definitely one I’ve felt over and over again as I’ve studied Judaism and its weekly Shabbat celebration and its relentless pursuit of social justice, both the Muslim and LDS sense of community, the Mennonite commitment to creating a sustainable lifestyle, the Catholic commitment to maintaining tradition, the list could go on and on. It was in reading through my Goodreads TBR list when it was up to 332 books that I came across the books of Rachel Held Evans, may her beautiful soul rest in peace, and I understood that another person’s faith doesn’t need to be my own for me to appreciate it and learn from it. And since then, I’ve never looked back, and that is why Holy Envy felt like home right from the start.

Ms. Brown Taylor speaks of many things in these pages that hit home for me; I constantly found myself reading a paragraph, staring at the wall or out the window as I considered what I’d just read, then reading the paragraph again, and nodding. Her reminder of the best way to learn about another faith being to talk to a practitioner of that faith felt pointed a bit in my direction; while I do enjoy a good memoir about a person’s experience of leaving a faith, I do need to keep in mind that that’s not always the best way to learn about the tenets of that particular religion, or what its best practice looks like. I’m always glad for such a gentle prod in the right direction. 🙂

Her notion on suffering gave me pause, and I wrote it down in my reading binder because I found it so very poignant:

The sooner they learned to accept the human condition with equanimity, the sooner their suffering would end- not their pain, but their suffering- since suffering is so often a measure of how much we want things to be different from the way they are.

That rang so true to me. Far too often, I fight against how things are in my own life, when instead I could accept it, incorporate it- still work to change it, yes, but with grace and peace in my heart. I need to spend more time considering this…maybe I should cross-stitch it on a pillow or sampler, or paint it on my living room wall.

The other quote that stuck with me was the following:

Eventually all people of faith must decide how they will think about and respond to people of other (and no) faiths. Otherwise they will be left at the mercy of their worst impulses when push comes to shove and their fear deadens them to the best teachings of their religions.

The above goes for people of no faith as well, I think. Some nonbelievers are nonbelievers solely because they don’t believe; others have had poor experiences with religion in the past and no longer believe. No matter one’s belief status, it’s crucial that we learn to understand and appreciate what makes us unique; it’s not necessary to incorporate each other’s beliefs, but to acknowledge it, find what speaks to us, and use it to become better people, better human beings, so that we can better take care of each other. Because loving each other is everyone’s sacred duty, and we’ll never accomplish that goal without first understanding each other.

Holy Envy is a beautiful book full of love and wonder and awe, not only at the divine, but at the people who practice so many forms of faith, and it’s absolutely one of the best books I’ve read this year. Barbara Brown Taylor has made me a fan for life with this one book and I’m very much looking forward to reading everything else she’s written.

Visit Barbara Brown Taylor’s website here.

nonfiction · religion

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life- Amber Scorah

Sometimes I learn about a book that I know I’d enjoy reading, and I add it to my TBR list, and there it sits for…well, a long time (years, sometimes *hides in shame*). Not so with Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah (Viking, 2019). I learned about this book only weeks ago, and as soon as a copy turned up at one of my local libraries, I was there, practically hissing at other patrons in order to keep this book all to myself.

Amber Scorah was a lifelong member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, that door-knocking, proselytizing religious group known for not celebrating birthdays or holidays in any fashion. While her family wasn’t hugely devout during her youth, Amber grew more zealous as a young adult. After her marriage had grown stagnant, she and her husband moved to China in order to take the Witness religion to the Chinese. As this sort of proselytizing is illegal in China (some groups are allowed and heavily monitored; the Witnesses are not one of them), Amber and her husband had to resort to code words with the handful of other Witnesses, secretive worship services, and only bringing up religion to potential converts after first taking the time to establish a friendship and ensuring that these people could be trusted (a process that could take months and even years).

Culture shock and the language barrier were obviously an issue, but Ms. Scorah seemed to adapt better than most, eventually working for ChinesePod, a podcast dedicated to Chinese language learners. But this new culture, with its different values and ways of viewing the world, its language and its history, forced Amber to question the discrepancies in what she’d been taught her entire life, until she could no longer deny to herself that what she’d grown up believing no longer held any truth. Exiting the Jehovah’s Witnesses means being shunned by all friends and family members still in the sect, and thus began the long, lonely road of building a life outside of the only group, the only way of being, that Amber had ever known.

Odds are good that even if you don’t recognize her name, you know of Amber Scorah, and this goes along with a content warning for the book. A few years back, Ms. Scorah and her partner lost a young child in a tragic way that made the news, and as I read this section with shock and sorrow, I realized I remembered reading the articles when it happened. If reading this is too heavy for you to bear right now, please keep this in mind and maybe put the book on hold for a bit.

While I deeply enjoy delving into what makes a person leave a religion or a religious group, what really drew me in about the premise of this book was Ms. Scorah’s move to China. The linguistic challenge alone seems daunting to me, but she tackled it head-on, with admirable passion and fire. When immersion in Chinese culture and tradition, with its thousands of years of history and different perspectives, forced Amber to confront disparities between reality and what she’d been taught, instead of refusing to consider this new evidence, Amber realized that she had to change her mind and the way she thought about certain things. That’s not an easy thing to do and requires not only emotional intelligence, but strength and humility, and, in Ms. Scorah’s case, a well of courage to rebuild one’s life. I deeply admire her for that.

She doesn’t hold back when it comes to dissecting her ill-fated marriage to the husband who accompanied her to China. While always respectful of him (to the point of honoring his privacy and never sharing his name), she admits that their marriage was more due to Witness ideals and less because of love, even going so far as to confess that she realized she shouldn’t be marrying him the night before the wedding (community pressure can be a terrible thing). Plenty of groups and cultures view marriage as more of an arrangement where love will grow after the wedding, and obviously that works for many people, but in Ms. Scorah’s case, it led only to pain and heartbreak for both parties. While obviously not the most sorrowful part of the book, the descriptions of her marriage are forlorn and lonely and make me wonder how many other couples are stuck in similar relationships, neither one feeling free to leave and pursue something more emotionally fulfilling .

Leaving the Witness is a new take on exiting a religious group, and Ms. Scorah’s writing is strong and intense, placing you in her shoes as she takes on the Chinese language, her long-standing beliefs, and the wild, wide-open world. Her storytelling abilities are so tightly honed that I think we’ll be seeing her name on the shelves for years to come, and I look forward to reading whatever comes next from her.

Have you ever learned something from or spent time in another culture that made you view something in your own life differently? I found this one of the most fascinating aspects of this book, and I wish this were something more people were open to (not necessarily for religious reasons, but more in a way that we should always be open to considering that maybe we don’t have a monopoly on truth or perfection; maybe there’s a better way to go about even the simplest things in life. I try to keep this in mind and incorporate better ideas into how I live, and it can be frustrating when people around me insist on doing things in a less efficient or more difficult way simply due to tradition or stubbornness!).

Follow Amber Scorah on Twitter here.

nonfiction · religion

Stalking the Divine: Contemplating Faith with the Poor Clares- Kristin Ohlson

Another one bites the dust!

Another book that’s had a longtime place on my TBR list, that is. Fitting right in with my fascination with cults and closed groups is a fascination with nuns. I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic grade school. We were taught by regular teachers, but our school librarian was, until she retired after my third grade year, a nun (Sister Grace!), whom I loved- I even wrote her a goodbye letter and cried a little when she left. She was a dear, sweet lady. The only other nun we had at school worked in what I think was the religious education office, and she was…not so sweet. I was never, ever interested in becoming a nun, but as an adult, I’ve definitely been interested in their lives, and thus Stalking the Divine by Kristin Ohlson (Plume Books, 2003) ended up on my TBR list (and, uh, stayed there, for far too long).

One Christmas, when her children were visiting their father, Kristin Ohlson finds herself longing for…something. Something she can’t quite name. A lapsed Catholic, she decides to attend Christmas mass and ends up at St. Paul’s in downtown Cleveland, home of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, an order of cloistered nuns whose mission it is to pray around the clock. She develops a deep fascination with the sisters, and though it takes some time, she’s able to gain access in order to write a newspaper magazine article on them, which becomes the basis of this book,

One by one, Ms. Ohlson interviews the aging sisters, whose order is shrinking. The sisters have faith, though; the Poor Clares have seen tough times before, and they know they’ll bounce back. Alongside her interview and writing, Ms. Ohlson involves herself in the life of St. Paul’s, attending mass, volunteering for different events and happenings in the parish, and contemplating her own faith- or lack thereof- the whole time. Ms. Ohlson isn’t quite a believer: she’s trying, and she hopes that her involvement with the sisters will help. Although she never quite reaches the level of true believer, the message from the sisters rings loud and clear to her: sometimes, you just have to keep showing up, even when the faith isn’t there.

Boy, this was captivating. It’s been a while since I read anything about nuns, and though I was a little nervous at the beginning about this being the right book at the right time (have you ever just not been able to read a book you really wanted to read, and it sent you into a reading slump? My brain’s been a little wonky lately, so I’ve been living in fear of this), but Ms. Ohlson’s light, yet informative style was exactly what I needed. Being able to slip behind the grates and listen to what life is like as a cloistered sister, living communally with vows of poverty and chastity, hearing about their struggles, their crises of faith, their difficulties living with one another, how they spend the majority of their days in silence, all of this had me absolutely riveted, and I blew through the book in less than two days.

Ms. Ohlson is honest about her struggles to believe; as someone who is fascinated by and drawn to religion as a whole without fully believing either, I found this refreshing and honest. She comes to a slightly different conclusion than I have in regards to the practice of faith (so far, that is; who knows what the future will bring?), but I enjoyed reading her journey and how she reached this place. I don’t have to share someone’s faith journey to appreciate and respect what they believe and how they come to believe it; reading about different beliefs never fails to keep me in a state of awe at what a wondrous place the world is. 🙂

If you’re interested in closed-off groups, this is a great read, and along these same lines, I highly recommend Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns by Cheryl L. Reed. This book covers many different orders of nuns, from the ones so service-oriented that they hardly find time to sleep or eat, to those who are so cloistered that they can barely manage to refuse an interview. I read this book back in…somewhere around 2005 and still think of it often.

Are you interested in closed-off, secretive groups? Do nuns fit into that category for you? As a child, I wouldn’t have believed that this would be a subject of interest for me as an adult, but, well, here I am. 🙂

Visit Kristin Ohlson’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

Christianity · cults · fundamentalism · Lilia Tarawa · memoir · religion · religious extremism

Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult- Lilia Tarawa

I’m suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuper fascinated by cults and insular religious groups. There’s something deeply intriguing to me about people with secretive rituals and beliefs, turning their backs to outsiders. A few months ago, based on a suggestion from someone on Facebook, I put the documentary Gloriavale (available through Amazon Prime) on my watch list, and my husband and I finally got around to watching it a few weeks ago.

Now, when it comes to different beliefs and practices, I’m usually cool as a cucumber. I have zero problem with other people believing in things I don’t, participating in things that don’t resonate with me, etc. Variety is indeed the spice of life, and I enjoy my life pretty darn spicy. But Gloriavale Christian Community is straight-up bananapants in a way that extends far beyond their religious beliefs. If you haven’t watched this documentary, drop everything and watch it YESTERDAY, because they’ve got people named Hopeful and Courage, schooling that ends at 15, arranged marriages for teenagers who touch each other for the first time at the wedding ceremony (those first kisses, GACK! Those VOWS! Holy squirmfest watching that, Batman!), immediate consummation of the marriage offscreen while everyone waits for the teenage couple to get the job done, families with 16+ kids, the list goes on and on. It’s quite possibly one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever watched (and I say that having watched Abducted in Plain Sight this past weekend…), and so of course I was thrilled to find that Lilia Tarawa, who was born at and grew up in Gloriavale, wrote a book after her family had left, titled Daughter of Gloriavale: My Life in a Religious Cult. And lucky for me, my library had an e-copy. It took a few weeks for it to finally be available, but I actually shrieked with joy when I received the email that it was finally MINE. (You’ve done this too, admit it!)

Daughter of Gloriavale doesn’t disappoint, starting with its foreward from Fleur Beale, whose name I immediately recognized from having read I Am Not Esther years ago (if you can get your hands on a copy of this, I highly recommend it. It was one of the best books I’d read that year), which is a middle grade/early YA novel that deals with a young woman who becomes unwillingly involved in a strict religious cult. Lilia Tarawa, however, was born in Gloriavale, the granddaughter of its founder (a man who changed his name to Hopeful Christian and who was both an obvious narcissist and a sex offender who served time in prison. I’m sure you’re shocked). Lilia was the third eldest of what would eventually be ten children, the last of whom was born after her family had left the group.

Gloriavale (you can see their website here) is an intentional, fundamentalist Christian community. Everyone wears the same things; they all work at church-owned industries (where no one earns a salary) or, in the case of the women, labor away at domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning, or childcare on a massive scale for the community; there’s no access to the outside world and things like books and the internet are highly censored. Parents and children sleep in one big room, as Hopeful Christian preached that it was just fine and dandy for children to see their own parents having sex. There are communal showers with shared bars of soap; women must remain submissive at all times to all men; children’s school reports are read out loud at the communal meals where everyone eats at the same time. Women are discouraged from showing any affection or emotion; men are responsible for everything and will be harshly rebuked in front of the community if a member of their family commits a transgression. Children are punched and beaten with leather straps as discipline. Families change their last names in order to strengthen their Christian walk (Lilia’s family’s last name in Gloriavale was ‘Just’) and give their children names of virtues or qualities they want their children to have; when mixed with their last name, the effect can be…striking. Willing Disciple, Steadfast Joy, Dove Love, Watchful Steadfast, these are all members of Gloriavale. And at age eleven, Lilia assisted in the birth of her cousin, a sweet baby girl named..Submissive. Yikes.

It’s no surprise when Lilia’s siblings start running away, and while Lilia is adamant about not hurting her parents in that way, she’s got questions. And it’s the beginning of the end when her family receives permission to live outside the commune, because Lilia gets a taste of what freedom truly means.

It wasn’t all horror and sack dresses. Music, parties, community shows, and days of fun were part of life at Gloriavale. Families gathered for (highly censored) movie night in the big hall. The community would erect waterslides for the children to go down (the girls still wearing their regular clothing, of course, because nothing says fun like swimming in an ankle-length dress), and the children would gather for soccer games and instrument lessons. But it wasn’t enough. It never is, when you can’t truly be who you really are.

Phew. Reading stories like this make me grateful that I never had to escape from such an insular community. Lilia was luckier than most; she had taught herself website coding and design and had skills that could translate to the outside world (and even then she still struggled. It’s terribly difficult to throw off the yoke of oppression, and Lilia was extremely lucky that she had such a great support system. Others, such as the Lost Boys of the FLDS or people who leave Hasidic sects, aren’t always as fortunate. Far too many succumb to addiction to help them cope with the loss of their families and community). Most people who leave Gloriavale do so with little in the way of life skills and possessions; fortunately, it seems there are people helping those who leave. And people are leaving- one article from 2015 claims that at that point, 65 people had left in the eight years prior. In a community of somewhere over 500 people, that’s not an insubstantial number, and I can only imagine that the numbers have grown since then.

Daughter of Gloriavale is an personal look into a tiny, heavily restricted community that few will ever have the chance to venture. I’m so thrilled that Lilia made it out and has been able to forge the kind of life that feels authentic to her. I watched her TED talk yesterday and you should too, because it’s deeply moving and gives yet another glimpse into what life in Gloriavale is like. Lilia Tarawa is a woman of fire, strength, and conviction. I can’t get enough of stories like these, and I’m so glad Lilia decided to share hers.

Visit Lilia Tarawa’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.



fiction · religion

Heretics Anonymous- Katie Henry

I read about Heretics Anonymous by Katie Henry recently on someone else’s blog (and for the life of me, I can’t remember who; if it was you, please leave me a comment and I’ll credit you with a link to your review here! This made me realize I need to start writing down where I find all these great recommendations). The cover alone made me laugh, and the premise made it sound like it was my kind of book. Religion in YA? Bring it on!

Thanks to his father’s job, Michael’s moved a lot throughout his life, and this time he’s landed at a private Catholic high school. Which wouldn’t be the biggest deal, except he’s an atheist, so it’s a little uncomfortable. Feeling out-of-place and friendless on his first day, Michael latches on to Lucy after her no-holds-barred response against the quote about well-behaved women rarely making history in theology class. Surely Lucy’s like him, not fitting in among all these sheeple.

Except Lucy does believe. Maybe not exactly the way the Church would want her to, but she still counts herself in. In spite of this, Lucy drags Michael with her to the group of friends who have dubbed themselves Heretics Anonymous, which includes a gay Jewish boy, a Reconstructionist Pagan girl, and a dresscode-flaunting Unitarian. Together, they decide to start shaking things up at the school. Rules, especially the pointless ones made by hypocrites, were made to be broken, right?

At first, exposing the school’s hypocrisy merely triggers debate amongst the student body, but when Michael’s family situation causes him to make a few decisions based on anger, the real-life repercussions begin to fall outside of the group. It’s no longer fun and games when everyone’s getting hurt, and Michael will have to use what he’s been learning at St. Clare’s Preparatory School in order to make things right.

This is a laugh-out-loud book (I figured the people sitting by me in the library were going to think I was nuts, with my constant chuckling as I turned the pages) with themes of justice, redemption, and self-reflection. Ms. Henry never gets in the reader’s face with a message; rather, she lets the group of friends’ actions and emotions speak for themselves. The friends are able to engage in spirited but productive debate over issues such as dress code and the school’s firing of a married lesbian teacher, defending each other when appropriate, telling each other to back off when necessary. While they may not always agree perfectly with each other or with the Church and school, their ability to express their feelings on each matter at hand and make the others understand the importance of their position is invigorating. Far from being a heavy-handed morality message, I think Ms. Henry has written a great example of what a cohesive friend group should look like here.

I attended Catholic school from two years of preschool all the way up until eighth grade graduation, and while I no longer consider myself Catholic, a lot of this rang true for me, particularly the religious jokes (I think we all made the joke about cannibalism at one point in our many, many hours of religion class) and the seething debate over religious issues and doctrine (I don’t remember one girl in my class who was okay with the idea of never using birth control, and you better believe we pushed back on that one). I do remember a few students who were more pious than others, but none quite as extreme (or as snotty about it) as Theresa…but then again, we were a pretty small school, so I’m sure students like her exist somewhere.

There was a moment that stopped me in this book, that surprised me. Close to the end of Chapter 14, Lucy brings up the Magnificat. *(If you’re not familiar, it’s from the Gospel of Luke, 1:46-55, where Mary sings after she’s been told she’s going to give birth to the son of God.) It’s Lucy’s favorite because it’s revolutionary, and she tells Michael about how it was banned in Argentina in the 1970’s after being used by mothers of people killed by the military, and how it was banned in Spain in the 1930’s by Francisco Franco. This all struck a chord with me, not because I was familiar with it (I can’t remember if we were taught the significance of the Magnificat or not), but because I’d recently read something about it and couldn’t remember where. When I got home, to my surprise I actually found it again, a Washington Post article titled ‘Mary’s ‘Magnificat’ in the Bible is revolutionary. Some evangelicals silence her.’ Up until the point I read this article back in December, I had no idea how revolutionary or subversive these verses have been considered, and it was fascinating to me to see this pop up again in my life.

This was really a fun, funny, thought provoking book. I see that Ms. Henry has another book coming out in August of this year, titled Let’s Call It a Doomsday; you better believe I’ll be breaking down the library door to check out a copy!

Visit Katie Henry’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

memoir · nonfiction · religion

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary- D.L. Mayfield

Ahh, interlibrary loan and your cover-obscuring stickers…

Assimilate or Go Home: Notes from a Failed Missionary by D.L Mayfield came to my attention via Episode #59: of the What Should I Read Next podcast, titled Prescribing books for what ails you. Ms. Mayfield was the featured guest, and based on some of the things she said, I thought I might enjoy her book.

I was correct. Assimilate or Go Home tells the story of her life among the Somali Bantu refugee population in Portland, a group of people that are, she states, some of the least successfully acclimated refugees the US ever attempted to resettle. Many of them had never lived with electricity or indoor plumbing; some of them had never climbed up stairs before coming to the US. The vast majority were illiterate in their own language, which makes learning written English difficult, if not impossible, especially when the trauma they’ve suffered is factored in. The Bantus were an ethnic and cultural minority even in their home country; even so, had it been possible, they would have chosen to stay there, rather than come to such an unfamiliar and difficult place..

Having long dreamed of becoming a missionary and bringing God’s kingdom (if she could only figure out exactly what that was…) to those who needed it most, Bible college graduate D. L. Mayfield began her volunteer work with the Somali Bantus positive that her mere presence would be all that it would take in order for them to accept Jesus and for their lives to improve. What actually happened was something very different.

Throughout this collection of essays, Ms. Mayfield details the challenges faced by the refugee families- language, poverty, culture, racism, bigotry, among many others- and describes how her presence often made the situation worse. Wanting to share her church’s Harvest Day festival with three headscarf-wearing Somali girls, whom she dressed up as Bollywood princesses, only proved how ‘other’ her own church community saw them; showing off her newborn baby, who was born quickly after what sounded like a fast diagnosis of pre-eclampsia, only drove home her privilege with the fact that had this happened to these women in Somalia, they and their babies would have died- most of them had already lost at least one child. ‘The longer I knew my refugee friends, the more ignorant I became,’ she admits. Clawing one’s way out of privilege and a smaller-than-you-realized worldview is no easy task; Ms. Mayfield does it, but realizes that it comes at the expense of those she’s supposed to be serving.

This is a memoir of hard-won humility, of unlearning just about everything you grew up being taught and thinking you know about the world around you. To be honest, I found Ms. Mayfield’s honesty and ability to examine her long-held beliefs and ideas extremely refreshing. While I’m not especially religious, I see far too many religious leaders with that white savior complex that Ms. Mayfield admits she originally had, with no contrary evidence altering their worldviews: this is the way things are, and if you do XYZ, then everything will be perfect and fall in line. It’s not quite that simple, Ms. Mayfield writes, and she’s correct.

This is one of those books where I would read a paragraph; pause; read it again; think about it; then write a line or two down in my reading binder (do you keep a log of notes as you’re reading? I find it helpful. I use a binder because Walmart was out of notebooks the day I went in. Out. Entirely. Again. One time they were out of extension cords. The Walmarts here are bizarre). D.L. Mayfield shares a lot of poignant insights that, while they stem from her Christian faith, apply universally, and she does it in a way that begs the reader to follow in her footsteps. Examine your ideals, your biases, your preconceptions about how the world should work and how people should act, and replace them with reality- not how you want it to be, but how it is. That’s where God, and growth, and peace,  and understanding, will be.

Even if you’re not religious, this is a worthy read, both for the story and for the painful lessons that Ms. Mayfield learned (and that so many of us could stand to learn as well). This should also be required reading for anyone beginning work, volunteer or otherwise, with any marginalized community. It’s not a soft, gentle read by any means; it asks hard questions and demands changes, but it’s a challenge we should all be up for.

I was pleased to see that Ms. Mayfield is represented by Rachelle Gardner; I’ve followed her on Twitter for years and I’ve read and enjoyed other books she represents. Do you read the acknowledgements? I always enjoy scanning them and seeing if I recognize any names.

If you’re interested in this topic, books with similar themes include The Newcomers: Finding Refuge, Friendship and Hope in an American Classroom by Helen Thorpe (for more on the refugee experience), and The Childcatchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce (for another example of the damage the pervasive attitude of white saviorism can wreak).

Visit D.L. Mayfield’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

cults · nonfiction · religion

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief- Chris Mikul

Sometimes, books that come to me via interlibrary loan are loaded down with cover-obscuring official paperwork!

The Cult Files: True Stories from the Extreme Edges of Religious Belief by Chris Mikul is a good book to look into if you’ve never read anything about extremist groups but your curiosity is piqued. After a brief introduction about what a cult is (and there’s some argument about the term), Mikul begins a chapter-by-chapter peek at an odd mix of groups who engaged in theft, intrigue, and murder under the guise of religion, some more seriously religious than others.

Some of the groups were well-known: the Manson Family, Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, the Branch Davidians. Others, I’d known only because this area is an interest of mine, like the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, Jeffrey Lundgren and the Kirtland Cult, Nation of Yahweh, the Church of the First Born of Lamb of God. Still others were new to me: Mankind United/Christ’s Church of the Golden Rule (interestingly enough, Wikipedia has no page for this), MOVE, Roch Thériault and the Ant Hill Kids, Thuggee. Honestly, this book kind of makes it seem like the potential for the existence of extremist groups is endless, and that’s a little scary!

Each chapter is a brief look into a different group. It’s too short of a book to really go into any deep discourse, but if you’re looking to expand your knowledge on religious extremism (or at least groups who claim religious belief and then do terrible things in the name of said religion), this isn’t a terrible place to start. Personally, this is a subject I’ve been interested in for years, so the majority of this book didn’t cover any new territory for me, but it wasn’t a disappointing read.

memoir · nonfiction · religion · religious memoir

This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost- Carolyn S. Briggs

I’m a sucker for a good memoir about leaving a religion or religious group. It’s always been my favorite genre of books, and I’ve been known to shove one of those books to the front of the line whn it comes to what I’m reading next. I’m contemplating the why of it; there’s something about belonging to a community and suddenly (or gradually) finding oneself not merely embraced, but suffocated by it, that draws me in. I’m not particularly religious, nor have I ever truly belonged to a group, religious or otherwise, so maybe it’s just the intrigue of the unknown. Whatever the reason, This Dark World: A Memoir of Salvation Found and Lost by Carolyn S. Briggs was right up my alley.

Ms. Briggs grew up in Iowa, a late bloomer who lived in the shadow of her younger sister until puberty caught up with her and she blossomed at age 16. By 17, she began dating the lead guitarist in a popular local band, and the two married not long after they graduated high school, since Carolyn had become pregnant. When a close friend finds Jesus at college, Carolyn and her husband Eric begin seeking as well, and before long, their entire lives are centered around their new faith. They pass out Bibles everywhere they go, include tracts with the bills they mail out, and pepper their speech with “I’ll pray for you” and “Praise Jesus!” Within this intensely religious way of life, Carolyn finds a passion, one that she doesn’t feel for her husband, and the identity she left behind to become a married teenage mother and housewife.

As the years pass, her doubts and sadness over her lack of longing for her husband only increase, and it’s only when Carolyn returns to college in her 30’s that she’s finally able to shed the burden her faith and way of life had become. It’s clear that she’s outgrown not only the stringent beliefs and restrictive lifestyle her religion had stuffed her into, but her marriage as well, and she begins down a new path, one full of intellectual curiosity, where she’s allowed to seek happiness and fulfillment in all corners of the earth.

The bulk of this memoir focuses on Carolyn’s life as a “Jesus freak,” as she called herself, and later on, a fundamentalist (although she never seems to stray into some of the practices commonly associated with fundamentalists; there’s no mention of skirts/dresses only or homeschooling, for example, though she does mention that some of the families in the church refuse vaccines because God will protect their children). I found the descriptions of her day-to-day life and how she lived out her faith- and her doubts- interesting; I find great satisfaction in learning about the lives of people who are different from me, and I very much enjoyed reading about the many different versions of Bible study she attended, the growing number of children Carolyn’s fellow church sisters kept producing, how deeply she struggled with her doubts about her faith, and the sorrow she experienced over the complete absence of desire she felt for her husband. Her story is not dissimilar to Leah Lax’s Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home. Both women who came to fundamentalism in their teens, who filled their lives with religion and babies and who struggled with doubt and truly loving their spouses, until they realized they were living a lie and had to make serious changes, despite the difficulty doing so presented. And, obviously, both really great reads.

I enjoyed this. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the struggles of a young woman substituting religion for so many other things in life, watching her grow and change and finally outgrow and move on from her earlier choices. I’d love to read more of what Ms. Briggs’s life has been like since she left fundamentalism behind.

Apparently there was a movie made based on this book, called Higher Ground. I vaguely remember hearing about it years ago and looking it up, but I had no idea it was connected to this book until I scrolled through the Goodreads reviews. I’ve now got it cued in my Amazon Prime watchlist, although who knows when I’ll get to it- we’re currently finishing up season 10 of Supernatural, so we’ll be spending a little more time with that. If you’ve seen this movie, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Follow Carolyn S. Briggs on Twitter here.