Like a cluster of traffic cops, insurance adjusters, and whiplash lawyers at a multicar pileup, writers of all sorts are trying to make sense of the dangerous intersection of faith and politics in the United States. God Laughs & Plays, David James Duncan’s contribution to the literature of democracy, moral values, and how-do-we-get-out-of-this-mess, is not the book to go to for systematic theology, solemn punditry, or political strategy. I’m guessing equal numbers of readers will find his slicing humor and mystic sensibility either aggravating or inspiring. Sometimes I was both aggravated and inspired at the same time.
But these “churchless sermons”—actually a collection of essays, adaptations of talks and interviews, and spiritual improvisations—are worth checking out for the virtuosic turns of phrase and unique perspective that Duncan offers, as well as some fine analysis of religio-political rhetoric and impassioned hymns to love, trout, and giving a damn.
Duncan is a critically acclaimed novelist (The River Why and The Brothers K) and essayist, as well as an environmental activist. With Wendell Berry, he was awarded the American Library Association’s 2003 Eli Oboler Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom for their jointly authored book, Citizen’s Dissent, a treatise on the destructive ramifications of the Bush doctrine and national security strategy. Duncan’s concerns as an artist and defender of rivers—freedom of speech and imagination, the power of language for good or evil, care and protection of creation—are key elements to the grudge he has with many of the far-Right forces in U.S. politics.
But the strongest thread loosely stitching together God Laughs & Plays is, fittingly enough, God. Duncan is a Jesus-loving, Mother Teresa-quoting non-Christian who as a young man rejected his fundamentalist upbringing but took up reading the sacred texts from most of the major world faiths (including the Bible). His take on God mystically melds these various traditions, which won’t likely impress many readers doctrinally rooted in specific faiths, Christian or otherwise.
However, even as I—a fairly orthodox Christian who’s content to have just Jesus as her co-pilot without crowding the cabin with Buddha and Krishna—struggle occasionally with his characterization of Christianity, I can relate fairly deeply to both his spiritual experience and his understanding of the values that should guide our lives. And when Duncan writes, “I believe Jesus is the bee’s knees,” I confess I find it to be one of the more effective testimonies I’ve heard in a while, perhaps because he backs this up with more focused respect for, and knowledge of, the life, words, and witness of Jesus than some Christians I encounter. (Including myself, some days.)
DUNCAN ARGUES, as others have, that religious language has been distorted by fundamentalists, and manipulated for power by politicians (both believers and secularists alike). He asserts that the correct answer for fundamentalism isn’t secularism, but rather a return to the core of our religious traditions in order to reclaim our “spiritual vocabulary” from those who have distorted or misused the language of faith. As he puts it, “The defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away: The harm is undone when we work to reopen each word’s true history, nuance, and depth.”
Duncan does his part to reopen such words largely through anecdotes, musings on trout fishing and literature, quotes from mystics, attempts to describe some of his own mystical encounters, and a running analysis of the fundamentalist mindset. Shaped essays, such as “What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation” and “When Compassion Becomes Dissent” (first published in the journal Orion), have a deep impact—agree or disagree, the writing is moving and smart. Other more fragmentary or casual pieces sometimes require a little more patience to find the gems. While the publisher promises that Duncan offers “a profound new cosmology,” I don’t see anything quite that grand or systematic. However, within both his lyrical descriptions and snapping rants (think Old Testament prophet, with a wicked sense of humor), I do glimpse some holy truths.
Duncan carries some substantial baggage from his pietistic upbringing, which in the midst of calmer analysis of fundamentalism will slip out in clichéd jabs at organized religion about hypocrisy, greed, uptightness, etc. Like most clichés, these speak of real truths, just not very deeply. But some of his jabs do hit deep and true. The creativity and richness of many of his insights are worth enduring the occasional cheap shot—and since I agree that God laughs and plays, I don’t worry about the Holy Trinity being endangered by a little irreverence and pew-phobia.
At his most thoughtful, Duncan is aware of the self-righteousness in his frustration with the self-righteous—one dilemma of passionate, deep belief. Commenting on a prayer of Mother Teresa’s, “May God break my heart so completely that the whole world falls in,” Duncan writes: “There is a self-righteous knot in me that finds zealotry so repugnant that it wants to sit on the sidelines with the like-minded, plaster my car with bumper stickers ... and leave it at that. But I 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 the world to open my heart still wider, even if this openness comes by breaking.”
Amen, and amen.
Julie Polter is an associate editor of Sojourners.