Monday, March 14, 2011

A Lutheran Geek Book Review: A View from the Back Pew

I've never been to Catholic school.  As a Lutheran, my own understanding of it comes from the very stereotypical depictions of nuns with yardsticks from movies and a sense of very rigid Catholic doctrinal teaching, but judging from Tim O'Donnell's experience, the stereotype might not be far off.  O'Donnell was probably one of those boys that aggravated the nuns to no end - smart enough to see the logical flaws in the some of the specifics of the Catholic dogma while interested enough in the questions of religion to persist in their pursuit.

O'Donnell spent sixteen years in Catholic school alternatively reveling in and rebelling against the religious indoctrination that was taking place in his life.  After a college year spent in Rome pursuing these questions of faith, he had a religious experience that he refers to throughout as The Deal.  And in his understanding the Deal was this:  God will give him the tools to be successful in life and in turn at age 40 O'Donnell would be able to retire and return the favor to God.

And O'Donnell was successful.  He dropped out of college but went on to have a successful career as a speaker, newspaper publisher and businessman.  By all accounts, he seems to have a real knack for motivation, hard work and strong sense of ethical business practices.  And he was able to retire just after he turned 40 and then was faced with keeping up his end of The Deal as he understood it.

So in a cabin in the woods, O'Donnell faced the real questions of faith and doctrine of his upbringing vs his very real understanding of personal experiences of the divine.  The result is his book: A View from the Back Pew.

By the author's own account he has no formal theological education but rather a Catholic school upbringing and a lifetime of experiences combined with a lot of self-study.  And it is clear that O'Donnell has studied and questioned the church, the Catholic church primarily, with great abandon.  In A View from the Back Pew, O'Donnell alternates between auto-biographical chapters and chapters summarizing his questions and discoveries about the doctrine's of the Catholic church.  I say doctrine's here because while some of the things he questions are certainly held by other denominations, few are upheld with the strictness of his Catholic upbringing.  In the end, formal religion becomes a stumbling block for O'Donnell, even while the teachings of Jesus and an understanding of God are not. 

As he works through the questions about God, faith and religion, O'Donnell's faith reduces to spiritual melange of Christian and Deist teachings combined with an individualized sense of ourselves being our primary window into the understanding of God.  O'Donnell says we can strive for Oneness with God in a sense very similar to how he understands the incarnation of Jesus, that we can truly recognize and channel the part of God within us through a focus on our own "Ascending Urge" to the divine.  Religion in the end is a man-made structure that in his mind detracts from one's own sense of the divine.  Literally God is the voice and the feeling in his gut guiding him through life and the more in tune with this he is, the more he is in tune with God.

While I found this book to be a very interesting read, particularly his autobiographical sections, I found myself frustrated as the book neared its spirituality-centric conclusion.  Firstly I was frustrated with the education of the Catholic church as well as with their insistence on often avoiding the hard questions of faith, instead relying on the "mystery of God."  Growing up Lutheran, church was a huge part of my own life and it remains so, but I never felt my religious education to be limited to fact-gathering without questioning and analyzing things for myself.  Perhaps this is a difference in the denominations or the age difference between O'Donnell and myself but questions and contemplation were built into my faith experience so that they did not feel like betrayals of my God or my church.

I think O'Donnell suffered in an extreme version of what we called "Religion 101 syndrome" back when I was St. Olaf College.  There was a tendency of college kids who came from rigid or conservative denominations or churches to suddenly find all of their tenets of faith questioned in their first year religion class.  This typically ends one of two ways - with a walking away from their faith with a sense of delusion or clinging to it more tightly and disregarding the lessons of the class.  A faith without a realistic understanding of questioning, doubt and growth inevitably leads to some crises of faith.

I will say for O'Donnell that he doesn't head to either of these extremes, but takes a far more "lapsed-Catholic" approach and creates his own version of individual spiritual faith removed from the structure of the church.  This may work for O'Donnell but it also strikes me throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I am not ready to give up the tradition and theological thinking of 2000 years of Christian thinking over a rigid doctrine of Virgin birth or the question of who really wrote the Gospels.

Still I respect and honor the fact that O'Donnell calls for real questioning to be a part of our faith, even if I disagree with his final conclusions.  Ironically even some of the precepts about God that he takes to be fact were things that we examined and questioned in my Seminary education.  My own thesis explored theories on God's temporality, a fact that O'Donnell believes is obvious enough to stand as one of his basic understandings about God discussed in Chapter 2.  Yet, for me, this searching and questioning does not separate me from my faith or my "religion."  Is that a simple difference in our upbringings or is it something more intrinsic in how we view God's ability to work within the church?

O'Donnell insists on God's real presence guiding his life, ultimately towards his book sharing his discoveries with the world, but the theological determinations of Church Father's of the past are often met with a skeptical "the church is in the business of religion" sense.  And yet it seems that it can be both.  God CAN have a guiding presence in our lives both personally and within the church (including, I believe, guiding the leaders who helped grow and shape the church throughout history).

One final critique I have in the extreme personalized faith O'Donnell presents is that it focuses on our own ego and how God can be present in our own lives alone.  But, as we turn inward, we often lose sight of the neighbor.  One aspect of the church and religion that O'Donnell did not cover was a sense of the church's outreach and mission, including many of the very worthwhile and faith-driven Catholic Charities of the world.  As O'Donnell's faith led him into the woods to contemplate God, others are compelled by their faith to work within the church, giving back for the blessings that God has given us. 

While contemplation is important, many of Jesus' teachings, which O'Donnell still revers, call us to serve one another.  In fact, O'Donnell says nothing of these teachings calling us to serve and love one another, while he focuses a lot of energy on those texts, particularly from John, that focus on a personal relationship with God.   While these are valuable and worthwhile texts, taken alone we risk isolating ourselves from the greater community of God's creation.

After reading this book I am left with a bit of a conundrum.  I find the introduction and insistence that questioning the church and our faith to be an important one and clearly something that many Catholic people grew up without.  However, I find the conclusions that O'Donnell ultimately reaches to be too withdrawn and individualized to integrate in my own understanding of faith, God and the church well.  However, if you need an introduction to the idea of questioning the church A View from the Back Pew might be a good place to start.

(I was given a copy of this book from TLC book tours in order to review it on this blog.  All opinions expressed in this review are my own.)


Sabrina said...

A friend of mine (Catholic) also read this book. She had similar feelings and your review very much echos what she said. As a girl who was raised Roman Catholic, I am tempted to pick up a copy.

LisaMM said...

Wow, Liz! Great review. I grew up Lutheran and my husband grew up Catholic. Like you, questioning was sort of built in to my religious upbringing, but with him, it was not. When I'd ask him why certain things were done in his church, it was always "because that's what we do" and he really never thought to question why. We're raising our kids Presbyterian, a compromise, and this church is much more outward-focused. Questioning is the norm.

Thank you so much for the very thoughtful review.

Midwest Elle said...

Very interesting! I am much like you and never felt like I was going against the church or God when I had questions. Questions were okay and a natural part of the learning process at my church.

I think another distinction that needs to be made here is that not all Lutherans are brought up the same just as not all Catholics are. Being an ELCA Lutheran myself, I was not welcomed into the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church of my friend's. The viewpoints and teaching were vastly different, as I know different Catholic churches are as well. Being lumped into a category is part of what I think creates tension between the larger denominations. {Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist etc}

Sarah said...

"Firstly I was frustrated with the education of the Catholic church as well as with their insistence on often avoiding the hard questions of faith, instead relying on the 'mystery of God.'"

Here do you mean "as recounted in the book?" I'm not sure how much of it is due to age differences, but my husband's Catholic school experience was far from the "nuns with rulers" stereotype and he feels they did discuss the tough topics in class. In my own conversion experience I was never discouraged from exploring the deep, rich history of the Church and was encouraged to question, study, and discern.

Outside of seminary or college level religion classes, I wonder if the average Christian spends much time thinking about God's temporality or questions the basic precepts of the Church. I'm guessing in our generation the average Jane in the pew is about the same - Catholic or Lutheran.

LutherLiz said...


O'Donnell did mention repeatedly in the book that the nuns responded to his questions by falling back on a it's a "mystery of faith" argument. While I realize that not all Catholic educations are the same (and I cannot speak for one myself) this frustration of mine comes primarily from O'Donnell's own account of his Catholic education.

As for whether the average person considers God's temporality, no I doubt most do, but I was merely trying to point out the importance of being free to ask the question if one wishes and seek answers out there.

Thanks for your comments!

kate hopper said...

So interesting, Liz. What a thoughtful review. Thank you, always, for your words and thoughts!