Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Review: Breaking Up With God by Sarah Sentilles

I was at the pool today finishing up Sarah Sentilles' new book Breaking Up With God (Harper One, 2011) and a lady walked by, saw the cover and said, "wow, that must be a powerful book" and my response "yep, you got that right!"

Breaking Up With God is indeed powerful. It's also brutally truthful and honest, just the type of book that I enjoy reading! I cannot stand sacherine spirituality, you know, the "just believe in Jesus and you'll be okay" or "just have Jesus in your heart" type of spirituality. Trust me, after 11 years in parish ministry and talking with a lot of people I can smell fake spirituality and faith a mile away. People often reduce Christianity to simple formulae or ideas (also called theology or doctrine) and that is that, forget about actually "thinking" or "reflecting" on what you believe! Breaking Up With God is the perfect antidote for a reader who wants to read an honest memoir about a spiritual journey. Breaking Up With God IS NOT a "feel good" type of book.

Sentilles started her life as a regular Church goer, first in the Catholic Church where her parents brought her and then later on in the Episcopal Church. At one point in her life she finds a very healthy and vibrant Episcopal Church in Pasedena, CA called All Saints. They are deep into social justice, radical hospitality, friendly to gays and lesbians, and committed to serving the hungry and homeless. Sentilles finds her home there. She finds God there. She finds holiness and goodness there. The people in the pew actually believe what they say in the prayers rather than just mouthing them week after week. But then things change. They change in big ways.

Through various by-ways and highways Sentilles persues graduate work and later an MDiv. and Ph.D at Harvard Divinity School. Soon after she enters into the ordination process in the Episcopal Church but then has a major crises of faith. I don't want to give out too much, so you'll just have to buy the book and see for yourself what happens to her! The title may give you some hints!

While reading Breaking Up With God I felt as if she were in the room speaking to me from her heart, that is how honest Sarah is. Surely there is some more to the story, something in her childhood faith upbringing or parents that may have precipitated her faith crises which she has later in life. A few times she confesses that she wanted God to love her and tried to change her life to make that happen. She does mention that she was seeing a therapist but never explains details as to why she is doing this.

Yet we do get some glimpses of what pastor's hear all the time: simplistic and often infantile images of God. A long time ago I was frustrated with some people about their notions and ideas about God, the Church, and spirituality in general and I told a friend about it, who happened to be a class mate of mine at seminary. She turned to me and said, "Bill, unfortunately most people have a 10 year old image of God and they stop learning, we have 50 year olds in parishes thinking like 10 year olds!" She was 100% correct. I had to laugh when reading a portion of the book where Sarah outlines a Church School Version of God: one God, three persons, Father, Son, and Spirit, 7 Sacraments, and so forth.

Throughout her story Sentilles questions the real problems in Church life these days, parishes that worship on Sunday but have very little to do with the local community, parishes that do not engage in radical hospitality and philanthropy, and Christians who would as soon send a prisoner to the electric chair rather than follow the command of Jesus to love and forgive, which does not mean let back on the street but it certainly means not killing another human. Christians tend to set aside the scriptures that they don't like for ones that they do; enough said.

While I don't agree with everything in the book, I do agree that those of us in parish life and in the Christian Church, need to continually take the Gospel for what it is and no sugar coat Jesus, turn him into a puppet and tell him how to act or say. We often do this to make our life easier, yet Jesus never promises that discipleship is easy. Jesus always got himself in trouble because he questioned the religious authorities, hung out with prostitutes and sinners, and challenged the status quo. This is the Jesus that I want. This is the Jesus that Sarah is searching for.

I commend Sarah for her brutal honesty and truthfulness. Breaking Up With God would certainly create a lot of good conversation and dialogue in the greater Church. I hope others agree.