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Churchless Sermons: “God Laughs and Plays”

In God Laughs and Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right, novelist David James Duncan shares a collection of thoughts and essays, some taken from talks given to different groups. “My life as a pew-poor, river-rich itinerant storyteller, writing teacher, and churchless preacher has been conducted in mostly playful, but occasionally heartbroken, response to the conservation and cultural crises of my time,” he writes in the introduction (xxvii).

As the subtitle portends, Duncan is not averse to getting on his soapbox and nailing some folks — or some ideas or actions — pretty hard in response to these “crises.” He’s very open about the soapboxes and gets on them with gusto.

There are two things that make this palatable, sometimes to the point of eliciting applause.

First, his soapboxes are multi-faceted. So often, the soapbox spiel is what it is because it’s single-minded and one-track. But even when he starts ranting a little, Duncan keeps in mind that there’s more than one idea, more than one person, more than one experience. He can shoot holes through fundamentalist ideologies and then remark, “But to merely shun those trapped inside this ideology is also futile. Those who are not fundamentalists are too often satisfied with expressing derision, intellectual superiority, or revulsion toward them and calling it good” (49). Or he’ll talk about how we view literature: “Ever since the advent of the printing press, there have been readers who slip from enthusiasm for a favorite text into the belief that the words in that text embody truth: do not just symbolize it, but literally embody it.” Duncan says, “Let us not overestimate the power of any form of literature.” And then immediately follows with, “Let us not underestimate it, either.”

Second, he doesn’t mind stepping off his soapbox. Perhaps his skill as a novelist helps in this, but he’s very good and being personally open and frank and expressing beauty, exploring fears, and contemplating possibilities.

He’s transparent throughout about his passions (conservation, anti-right-wingism, fishing, etc.) and I appreciate the honesty, though sometimes tire of the prevalence. And though not as powerful here as in his novels, Duncan’s brilliant use of words still shows up.

The topics are an eclectic mix, with God, conservation, and politics showing up most often. Duncan, who grew up with Adventist matriarchs, makes occasional allusions or references in his novels that reflect on that upbringing, and in God Laughs and Plays the reader learns more about the “religion” Duncan now embraces for himself, which looks very different than the Adventism of his childhood. He doesn’t really fit into a religious category, which is one thing that makes him refreshing to read. The book, as he explains it, is a collection of what he’s written or spoken “in boundless, though closeted… admiration of a Jesus whose life moves me to repudiate much of the preaching being done in His name today” (xxvi).

He talks about faith and doubt, intuition, censorship, fundamentalism, evangelism, church. He doesn’t like church, he says, but he doesn’t preach anti-church. He writes, “Before I delve into my lifelong churchophobia, I want to provide readers with a sort of Warning Label: my own experience is not intended to be an example to anybody. It’s just my own experience. Read your own hearts, everyone! Feel your own feelings!” (90).

In place of traditional church, Duncan is interested in “communal expression of spiritual wonder,” a phrase an interviewer once provided and Duncan latched on to. “A question I have for any sincere religionist is: why try to extend your vocabulary or your life beyond that lovely phrase? Jesus, the ‘Adventist’ Himself, spent the famous portion of His life moving on foot around a very small part of the world, demonstrating in word and deed that there is no goal beyond the experience and expression of love. If you’ve got yourself a little faith community and feel some love and mercy bubbling in it, why mess with that? Why ‘structure’ it? Why ‘enchurch’ it? Why not just live it and be thankful?” (95)

Duncan is interested in the Beguines, communities of “feminist mystics” before and during the time of Eckhart and spread all over Europe. Duncan’s expresses the sense that the American and European women are exceptionally spirited. He theorizes that women will do amazing things in terms of “communal expression of spiritual wonder” — an especially interesting thought as we grapple with the often very political and technical aspects of the issue of women’s ordination.

Duncan also talks about a different concept of evangelism, something that is nothing like proselytizing but is Mother Teresa’s prayer, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in.” When the “self-righteous knot in me that finds zealotry so repugnant” makes him want to sit on the side making sarcastic remarks, he says he can’t. “My sense of this life as pure gift — my sense of a grace operative in this world despite, and even amid, its hurts and terrors — propels me to allow life to open my heart still wider, even if this openness comes by breaking” (xxv).

Duncan is one of those people who scatter many premises of organized religion to the wind. But unlike most such people, he goes back out gathering them, finding new ways to appreciate their beauty or looking at how we can keep them, once we’ve seen them for what they are.

Lainey S. Cronk writes from Angwin, California, where she enjoys em dashes, playground theology at a public elementary school, and the meteorological moods of the Napa Valley. She is also the Spectrum online book reviews editor.

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