Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, Chris Stedman

Near the end of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012), Chris Stedman wonders if he’s too young (24) to write a memoir. Stedman concludes that he isn’t. Turns out he’s wrong. Faitheist is full of good ideas, but it’s an article (or two) posing as a book. For those of you keeping count, the book’s metadata–that is, its bibliographic information–indicate that Faitheist is approximately 200 pages. If that’s accurate, 20 pages must be blank, and another 10-15 consist of front matter and notes. In other words, contrary to the advertised length, Faitheist is about 170 pages long, and, even then, it’s puzzling in its lack of specificity when it comes to Stedman’s life.

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Stedman is a native Minnesotan, and his sunny, Midwestern disposition shines through here. He cheerfully recounts his childhood, as well as his adolescent and adult difficulties, always concluding on a triumphant note, with success achieved or a lesson learned. Stedman’s optimism might be annoying if it weren’t so obviously sincere. It’s just hard to stay mad at that Chris, even when he’s kicking in church signs, or, in the case of the book, glossing over large chunks of his life.

Faitheist is clearly the work of a young man. This is not to say that young men aren’t capable of great things; they clearly are. But Stedman doesn’t seem to be aware–or willfully chooses not to acknowledge–that, as a twentysomething, his story has only just begun. Stedman presents as complete, or near complete, a story that, by rights, is just getting underway. He wants us to think he’s in chapter 15, when he’s really only in chapter 2.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of the book, in which Stedman goes into poignant detail regarding his grandmother and mother, his love for them, and their influence on his life. These women were independent, strong, and encouraged those qualities in Stedman. Of course, there is a glaring absence: Stedman’s father, who is not discussed. Stedman’s parents divorced, and it’s clear from the Acknowledgments that Stedman and his father are working on their relationship. Stedman clearly was uncomfortable with discussing in his memoir his relationship with his father. But that omission is obvious, and, in itself, speaks volumes about where Stedman is in his life. Given another 10 years, perhaps Stedman would be able to reach more meaningful conclusions about his relationship with his family. (His siblings are given short shrift.)

Of course, the draw of Faitheist is not Stedman himself, although he is charismatic, but his role in American religious life. Stedman is a “faitheist,” an atheist who is comfortable engaging in interfaith work and dialog with the religious. (The term is pejorative when one atheist applies it to another; Stedman’s intent is to reclaim it, as the LGBT community did with “queer.”) Stedman has had a remarkable spiritual trajectory, from a nonreligious childhood, to an adolescent infatuation with evangelical Christianity, to angry and alienated atheism, and, finally, to his interfaith work on behalf of atheism and Humanism, movements (or philosophies, or ways of life, what have you) that he goes to pains to point out are not religions.

Even here, in what should be the meatiest part of his memoir, Stedman is inconsistent. His struggle with his sexuality (he is gay) as an evangelical Christian is excruciatingly drawn. It’s after the chapters devoted to that period of his life, though, that Stedman’s narrative loses its momentum. Stedman discovers liberal Christians who welcome gays, and throws himself into the social justice work in which his community engages. Then, relieved to be welcomed into a new community, to have his very identity validated, he goes to college and, almost immediately, kinda, sorta gives up on religion for no reason other than that was his intellectual path. The angst of his adolescence and the joy of acceptance would seem to be at odds with Stedman’s almost apathetic abandonment of his faith. But wait: Stedman was angry. He carried a grudge against religion because of the box it had put him in, because it couldn’t live up to his expectations, because, try as he might, he couldn’t intellectually convince himself of the existence of God. But he’s okay with it, really. But he’s not. Stedman’s vacillations are understandable, especially in someone who is still relatively young, but, in the presentation of his narrative, he appears unaware of its internal inconsistencies. Stedman might have been advised to engage in more introspection as he considered his story.

Stedman’s philosophy is better thought out and will be of interest to the average reader. Put simply, Stedman encourages atheist engagement with the religious. He advances several reasons for this, for instance, education. Stedman argues that atheist-religious dialog serves atheists because it works both ways, allowing believers to discover that atheists are not the bogeymen they’re perceived to be (if popular polls are to be believed). In short, Stedman believes that “atheism” is a negative philosophy, defined as it is by what it does not stand for, and advocates for “Humanism” as a positive, active promoter of secular values.

Stedman is a social justice warrior (and I say that as a compliment) and advocate for his beliefs and those who share them. He is a promoter of understanding and dialog. He is a leader. But Faitheist is a poor reflection of Stedman’s ideas. It is not the book his movement needs. Faitheist is, like its author, sincere, well-intentioned, but callow. Give Stedman another 10 to 15 years. Perhaps then he’ll produce a memoir worthy of his goals.

Advertisements

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Have you heard of this guy, Stephen King? I get the impression he’s a big deal, a Young Turk of the publishing world, taking the horror genre by storm. Pay attention to him. He’s going places.

Har, har.

Stephen King, of course, needs no introduction, having attained decades ago authorial, if not literary, success. Likewise, King’s books don’t need reviews, at least not from bloggers as insignificant as I. Some of his novels–The Stand, The Shining–are so well known that they’ve become pop-culture artifacts with lives of their own. I might as well review the sun or the stars. Still, even if King is beyond my reach, I think it’s worth my time, and perhaps yours, to consider my encounter with him.

onwriting

King, in some ways, serves as a bellwether for readers’ tastes. My father read all of King’s books when I was a child, and, knowing that his name was synonymous with horror, I was leery of him. Later, I looked down my nose at King, without ever having read him, of course. A friend of mine sniffs at the mere thought of reading King, despite her interest in urban fantasy, which is to say–not literature, as you might expect. King can have a polarizing effect on readers.

Let me state my own biases up front. I’ve only read a few of King’s books: The Shining, The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three. (And, now, On Writing.) I enjoyed The Shining, found The Gunslinger entertaining, and did not like at all The Drawing of the Three. In other words, my experiences with King have been hit-or-miss, and variable enough that I approach with caution the thought of reading any of his books. So it was that I bought a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, but put off starting it for fear that I’d be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried.

On Writing is easily the King book I most enjoyed, which I think says more about me than it does him. King’s prose here is clear and straightforward, perfectly suited to his “instructional” intent. Quite simply, the entire book is a delight to read. King breaks his memoir into three parts: First, a discussion of his childhood, with an eye toward how an author, or, at least this author, was made; an examination of King’s opinions regarding what constitutes “good” writing; and, briefly, a description of the accident that nearly killed him (and which interrupted the completion of this book).

on-writing-a-memoir-of-the-craft

The recounting of King’s childhood is pleasant enough, soaked, as it is, in nostalgia. Indeed, much of the content of this portion was familiar to me, weaned as I was on my mom and dad’s stories of their mid-twentieth century childhoods. Readers may nor may not acquire any particular insight into King’s career path, but, in any case, it’s damned fine storytelling.

The portion of the book most likely to be of interest to readers is the second part, in which King discusses his philosophy of writing. Interestingly, there are few big surprises here. King advocates extensive reading and writing for wannabe writers. Eschew adverbs, advice I have not taken. Have a door you can shut. The tidbit I found most surprising was King’s claim that he doesn’t plot his books. Rather, he discovers them: The story is a preexisting entity that he “excavates.”

King touches upon his accident in the last third of the book, in excruciating language. He describes, for instance, the unnatural way his lap was shifted to the right, and recalls his screams as the EMTs loaded him onto a helicopter. This portion of the book has little to do with the previous parts, but it serves to assure readers that, even after having been hit by a van, King continued to write. Indeed, writing seems to have been part of what brought him. back. Perhaps it’s a balm to the aspiring writer, too: Although his first sessions back at the keyboard were painful, King soon regained his rhythm. If a man whose body had been smashed can do it, presumably you can, too.

On Writing is my favorite of the few King books I’ve read. There are no pretensions here, just the goal of speaking plainly and entertaining and enlightening the reader. If King’s advice is simple, perhaps that’s because that’s all it really takes, and his honesty is refreshing. A highly recommended look into the writing practices of one of America’s most successful authors.

Fun fact: While writing this review, my browser crashed every time I typed “The Stand.” And then the walls started bleeding.

Review: Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Once, during my senior year of college, when I was immersed in the study of early American Puritanism, I came as close as one can to experiencing the inner lives of our ancestors, people who really believed not only that our lives had some higher meaning, but also that that meaning could be known, that it was made manifest in signs and omens. Stomping along, lost in thought, I wondered what it might have been like to hear in the crackling leaves behind you the creeping of Satan, or to expect the devil to leap out at you from behind the crook of a tree. And, for a brief moment, I experienced the world with horror, and with wonder.

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

And then I snapped out of it, because I am a modern, educated rationalist. (I may be revealing my prejudices here.) Christine Wicker is, too, but she’s made a career writing about people’s beliefs. Wicker wrote about the cradle of American spiritualism in Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to Its Dead. She turns her attention to Americans’ magical beliefs in Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America (HarperCollins, 2005). Wicker is writing about the magical because she’s “convinced that when a good number of people start to do something that makes no sense to the society at large, when they cling to it for a long time and increasing numbers of people take it up, they’re on to something.” She’s not altogether successful in her aims.

Wicker begins by dumping readers into a magical gathering held, aptly enough, in Salem, Massachusetts. (Never mind that the witch trials took place in what is, today, nearby Danvers.) Wicker introduces readers to vampires, witches, and werewolves. All manner of peculiar things happen, although, of course, none of it is obviously supernatural. Wicker is setting the stage for her exploration of what she claims is a surge in modern Americans’ belief in magic. Whether or not there is really a definitive change in the national attitude towards magic is less certain. Wicker notes, briefly, American religious history, including the fact that, for most of the past several centuries, the majority of Americans and their ancestors have been “unchurched.” In other words, contrary to the common wisdom, most Americans have never formally belonged to a particular religious tradition, in the sense that they attended church every Sunday, and so on. Likewise, America has a history of the occult dating to its earliest settlement that has also informed Americans’ supernatural beliefs. (See my review of Occult America.) The trend that Wicker notes, then, is perhaps less dramatic than she asserts.

Wicker’s survey of the breadth of American magical belief is necessarily impressionistic. Although she covers a wide swath of the magical “community” (I use quotes only because the term may imply a cohesion that is, in reality, absent), she cannot get to it all. Wicker remains at a “helicopter level” in the first section of the book, which is more general. Still, the reader is never certain just how many Americans might be involved. Magical belief is, by nature, informal, and data not readily available. (“Magic,” too, is a slippery term, bleeding, as it does, into “mainstream” religion.) Still, Wicker manages to touch on Wiccans, practitioners of hoodoo, and “Otherkin” (people who believe they are lycanthropes, elves, and so on). Extensive portraits of several individuals provide readers deeper insights into certain strains of magical belief.

Lily Dale

Lily Dale

To some degree, every book is about its author, and such is the case with Not in Kansas Anymore. Wicker is forthright about her Baptist upbringing, before the denomination gave itself over to the evangelicalism that peaked shortly after the millennium. She describes a poignant scene in which, as a teenager, she convinces her father to attend a Pentecostal service. The look of disapproval on his face, as he sits patiently observing the pastor’s histrionics, will be immediately recognizable to most readers, and sets the stage for Wicker’s transition to skepticism. She is avowedly atheist, but retains her interest in the supernatural, aptly, as a journalist. Still, to her credit, Wicker is sympathetic to her subjects; she does not put them down or demean them. It is clear, though, that Wicker retains at the core of her being her stubborn Baptist morality, which sometimes interferes with her explorations of the more libertine aspects of the magical community.

Ultimately, Wicker finds meaning in her study of magic. She participates in hoodoo, is blessed by a voodoo priest, and, near the close of the book, takes the Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral. Wicker, rationalist that she is, realizes that magic, or religion, or whatever one might call it, affords meaning to its adherents: “You can call it religion, you can call it spirituality, you can call it magic. Maybe what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t settle for being cut off, that you take the power, that you demand the completeness of human experience…What we must not do…is allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experience of life as it presents itself to us.” Amen to that. Not in Kansas Anymore is an intermittently successful look at Americans’ “fringe” magical beliefs and Wicker’s own relationship with them. General in scope, it’s accessible to the average reader, and serves as a primer for certain movements, for instance, hoodoo and Wicca. Recommended for readers interested, but who do not have a background in, American religious and occult belief.

Review: The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

It takes a particular type of person to wallow in one’s misspent youth, to trot it out, warts and all, for all the world to see. Having escaped the embarrassments of adolescence, most people to some degree disavow their younger selves. This is usually accomplished through mere omission. Life goes on, we meet new people, and we conveniently forget to tell them about those horrid moments that define our adolescence. We recreate ourselves, we leave our pasts behind. Not so with Mark Barrowcliffe, author of The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange (Soho Press, 2008). Barrowcliffe’s memoir goes into excruciating–and comic–detail regarding his fantasy life as a Coventry lad growing up in the ’70s and ’80s.

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

The Elfish Gene, Mark Barrowcliffe

Barrowcliffe was 11 years old when he discovered Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) one afternoon at his school’s wargaming club. (For those who don’t know, wargaming involves the recreation of historical battles using miniatures and lots and lots of rules.) D&D immediately changed his life. By his own admission, Barrowcliffe spent the next five years gaming, reading about gaming, talking about gaming, reading fantasy novels, or listening to music at least tangentially inspired by fantasy. He pursued this not as a hobby, but as an obsession, an addiction that twisted his perception of himself and his place in the world. If that seems like a harsh assessment, know that it is his own. His enthusiasm only begins to wane when, at the age of 16, and dressed in a cloak, a gang of soccer hooligans toss him into a fountain, to the amusement of other people in the area. Just as finding D&D was a transformative moment for Barrowcliffe, so too was that moment of public humiliation, an embarrassment that taught him to more circumspect in his enthusiasms.

Some reviewers have criticized Barrowcliffe for looking down on players of roleplaying games, and it’s true that he takes his shots at them. Some of this is sensitivity to Barrowcliffe’s sense of humor, which is sardonic and tends to the cruel, although, it should be noted, that he is himself the target of many of his barbs. I believe the English would refer to this as “taking the piss” out of his subjects of mockery. In other words, his jokes are pointed; they reveal an essential reality about their victims, most often himself. There is personal psychology at work here, too. It’s been said that people hate most in others that which they hate most in themselves. Given that Barrowcliffe fled D&D (quite literally after an attempt to play as an adult), it’s not unsafe to assume that he is projecting onto others his feelings about himself.

And Barrowcliffe is certainly conflicted. He borrows the title of his book from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which posits that altruism is an evolutionary adaptation by which individuals with similar DNA are more likely to help each other, thus preserving their DNA. In other words, selfishness is “good” for individuals. Perhaps Barrowcliffe intended his title to be merely a play on words, but it is better fitting than just that. Barrowcliffe’s wholesale absorption in his fantasy world is indicative of a level of selfishness beyond that of the average teenager. He relates with remarkable clarity, it must be said, that he was, to use his language, a “twat,” taking sides against his best friend in an argument merely in order to curry favor with another boy who despised him. He doesn’t see his friend again for 25 years.

The Elfish Gene, UK cover. The UK always has better covers.

The Elfish Gene, UK cover. The UK always has better covers.

Despite all the scorn Barrowcliffe heaps on the game, and himself, and his fellow gamers, though, it’s clear that he is nostalgic for his childhood. He considers playing the game as an adult, even tries, only to run back to “reality.” And even though most of his childhood friends sound like horrible human beings, it must be said that they were teenage males–a particular breed with a specific sense of humor. There are individuals, too, who stand out in a good way, for instance, the painfully shy Dave, whose only character is “a man in a cloak.” Oh, could he be a ranger? “No, just a man in a cloak.” Special attention is given to Billy, Barrowcliffe’s best friend for two years of his life. Barrowcliffe paints him as a figure larger than life, releasing a fountain of rakish wit when he wasn’t smoking or eating (which was often).

Barrowcliffe has a fine sense of humor, and if a reader wonders, “why would anyone publish a book about someone’s obsession with D&D,” it’s for the comedy. Barrowcliffe’s is a sense of humor that demonstrates genuine insight, whether it’s into England during the ’70s, the plight of “nerds,” or universal truths about teenage boys. There is a particularly funny chapter in which Billy and Barrowcliffe, bored, and at wit’s end, decide to create incendiary devices from balloons and lighter fluid. Just when you think the story can’t get any better–it does, with a joke about “wanking.” That the story includes a two paragraph interlude in which Barrowcliffe muses on the differences between genders when it comes to risk only indicates his insight and timing. I admit that I laughed, not something I do often when reading.

In The Elfish Gene, Barrowcliffe lovingly recreates the England of his youth, giving attention both to the setting, Coventry and Birmingham, but also to the “characters” who populated his life. Barrowcliffe is a gifted storyteller with an intuitive sense of character, dialog, and pacing. Dyed-in-the wool gamers may complain about Barrowcliffe’s superficial treatment of D&D, but, as a nongamer, I found it sufficient, and, it should be noted, the book is less about D&D than it is his need for an outlet for his adolescent fantasies. A well-told, amusing, and surprisingly affecting memoir hampered only by the author’s occasionally condescending attitude. Recommended.

Review: Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult. <Adj.> Not revealed; not easily apprehended or understood; hidden from view; not manifest or detectable by clinical methods alone. (Definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster.)

The occult, in short, is that which is hidden from view. The term is used to refer to the belief that there are powers in the world unknown or undetectable by peoples’ earthly senses. Although unseen, the irony is that the occult is all around us. The pyramid and “all seeing eye” on the back of the dollar bill? You can thank Freemasons FDR and Henry Wallace for that; prior to their administration, paper money tended toward the more mundane eagle. Mitch Horowitz explores the vagaries of the American occult in Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Occult America, Mitch Horowitz

Horowitz defines the occult as “a wide array of mystical philosophies and mythical lore, particularly the belief in an ‘unseen world’ whose forces act upon us and through us.” That’s an ambiguous statement, and, given one’s inclination, could be applied to mainstream religions, which Horowitz assumes exist in contradiction to the occult: “These religious radicals [i.e., practitioners of the occult], acting outside the folds of traditional churches…” The occult, then, may be said to exist in parallel, or in opposition to, mainstream religions, but even that is simplistic: The borders of both the occult and traditional religions are porous, and the two were often in dialogue with one another. Consider Christian Science, Christianity infused with “New Thought,” or the occult notion that, in order to be cured of an illness, a sufferer must change her belief about the illness. It’s easy for readers to see how “thinking makes it so” traversed from a marginal belief to one enshrined in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century’s “prosperity gospel.” It might be said that the occult is that which lacks legitimacy according to the majority of society.

Definition, or lack thereof, assigned, Horowitz sets himself the ambitious task of synthesizing several centuries of religious history in less than 300 pages. Horowitz gives short shrift to the eighteenth century and post-World War II era. In truth, his subject is the American occult in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Readers interested in the “New Age” movement, still developing today, will find a perfunctory chapter at the end of the book.

Horowitz treats his true scope, the nineteenth century American occult, extremely well. He devotes two early chapters, “The Psychic Highway” and “Mystic Americans” to the influential topics of the Burned-Over District (so-called) of upstate New York, and the founding of the Theosophical Society, both of which set the stage for the occult movements of the late 1800s. Some readers may be surprised to know that the Church of Latter Day Saints traces it origins to the Burned-Over District, of which Joseph Smith was a resident, and where he practiced “scrying” with a “peep stone” prior to his religious epiphany. Henry Steel Olcott and Madame Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, which primed America for an explosion of occult activity by insisting upon the equality of all religions and introducing Eastern beliefs to the West.

Subsequent chapters vary in quality. Topics range from the aforementioned New Thought, predecessor of The Secret and influence upon Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), to various mail order schemes, to the quasi-fascist occult ideologies of the 1920s and ’30s. Of these, the strongest is, perhaps, “Go Tell Pharaoh,” an exploration of African-American occult belief that touches upon hoodoo and the mysticism of Marcus Garvey.

Horowitz employs a certain formula that identifies the main movement of a particular period and sticking to that them, with some variation in terms of his discussion of historic personalities. Horowitz briefly sums up whatever occult system he’s discussing. Some readers may wish for more detail, but Horowitz’s brevity is probably a blessing, given the profound tendency toward minutiae of which all religions, occult or otherwise, are capable.

Horowitz is sympathetic toward his subject, perhaps too much so; he tells readers, halfway through the book, that he has arranged for the publication of various occult volumes long out of print. Still, it’s refreshing to have a perspective that isn’t snide or contemptuous of occult subject matter, and Horowitz seems to recognize that occult seekers are motivated by the quest for meaning and truth. The phonies and charlatans one finds in occult movements have their peers in other human enterprises, from religion, to business, to politics.

Some readers have criticized Occult America on the grounds they they expected more out of it, that its subject matter would point toward an enormous occult influence on American history. Horowitz takes pains to demonstrate the beliefs of Henry Wallace, one of FDR’s vice presidents, and their effects both on his support for particular policies and his career: He was turned out of office, in part, because colleagues perceived him as too credulous. Likewise, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated at governor of California several minutes after midnight, a time chosen by his astrologer. And Horowitz cites on numerous occasions the circulations of various occult publications, which are doubtless low estimates, as the believers shared their books and pamphlets with friends and family. One is hard pressed to imagine how Horowitz might have better demonstrated the influence of his subject matter. Perhaps readers expect to learn that Kennedy’s response to the Cuban Missile Crisis was guided by the stars?

Occult America is a fine introduction to subject little explored (until recently) by scholars. Horowitz is a sympathetic chronicler who makes accessible to readers the major themes of American occult history. Although Horowitz gives some topics short shrift, readers will find in Occult America a useful primer and a starting point for further exploration. Recommended for readers of nonfiction with an interest in American religious history.