Sunday, March 1, 2015

Lenten Literary Snob



I recently wrote about how I’m reluctant to reread Mere Christianity and why I’m picky about what books I do read. Sure, it’s a form of self-censorship, but like a diet, one should be careful about what one consumes. This started at the beginning of Lent. I decided to read a book someone had given me last year, part of the “taking something up” and focusing more on matters of faith during this season. I won’t name the book for obvious reasons. A lot of people I knew had read it, recommended it, talked about how good it was. Most of them were cradle Catholics, and I felt that the book was covering a lot of themes I had covered not too long ago in RCIA, so I put it on the shelf and didn’t think much of it until it was time to take something up this Lent.

By page three, I was already not into it. The way the relationship of the Father and Son were depicted didn’t seem right, and the analogy for the crucifixion was either poorly written or an atonement theory I would disagree with (the fact that I’m not sure which is no good). But multiple people said it was good, so I tried to keep reading. Ultimately, I didn’t get far. It wasn’t wrong. But I certainly took issue with the tone and direction. Even though it was geared to young adult Catholics, I wasn’t the intended audience. I felt like the author was speaking to someone two seats over, helping some other person on a completely different part of the journey. I never found a full sentence I didn’t want to reword. 

Finally resigned that I was not going to read this book, or least that I was not going to read it to gain any insights, I checked the author bio on the back. Surely I should have done this first. The author is a motivational speaker for big businesses, who also happens to be Catholic. His Christianity/Catholicism/religion in general isn’t mentioned until paragraph five, whereas a list of his big brand clients makes paragraph three. The entire bio is a mess of big red flags. It also explains the jargon, poor writing, and lack of theology in the introduction and chapter that I did read. 

The lesson here is to read the author bio first. Actually, the fuller lesson is that a source matters. Books from a university, from a theologian, and from a motivational speaker are going to be radically different, even if they address the same topic. It’s good to know the background, culture, and biases coming from an author, and it’s good to know the background, culture, and biases with which you read that author. When I read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I know the Tarzan books are going to be incredibly racist and pro-colonialism. Reading them doesn’t make me racist or pro-colonialism, but those are two good reasons not to read them. I’m able to recognize the author and culture’s biases and suspend the judgments for the sake of the 100-year-old adventure story. I am less inclined to suspend my criticisms when it comes to writing about the faith. This book feels shallow, self-help with a dash of celebration of culture. 

The author’s bio makes me even less inclined to continue. Faith is a paragraph one identifier, especially when the book is about said faith. I don’t need a paragraph five Catholic to tell me about my faith. Perhaps it gets better further in, but I don’t think I will ever know. I’m snowed in with Hugo and Dickens and Eliot plenty of others who never try to speak on Catholicism (ok, Hugo speaks on it, critically), but who will move me closer to God than that book will.

This turned into a ranty criticism. (I actually edited some of the ranty out.) A lot of people seem to like the book, and if it helps them in their relationship to God within the confines of the Church, then great. Clearly for me, it just made me argumentative. So there is no reason to continue with it. I can self-censor. I can control what material I put before me. I can start something, change my mind, and chuck it. I can reject something based on an author bio or who publishes it or what biases it holds.

I’m disappointed I didn’t like the book. I wanted to like it. I wanted to find a new book that really talked about my faith, particularly a book written contemporarily. I liked that it was popular; I wanted to talk about it with others. But now I just feel left out. Again. A little cultural nomad who loves Jesus, loves the Church, assents to the dogma and doctrines joyfully, but still feels that she doesn’t understand how Catholics are. But maybe it’s not just Catholics. Maybe I just don’t understand people. Maybe I’m merely still that nerdy girl who is more comfortable being a literary snob in my glasses with my Wishbone fan club membership (real thing) and stack of books wondering what on earth other people think about all day if they don’t read.

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