Sunday, February 8, 2009

A sampling of churches

Is it a violation of ethics to borrow a bunch of 14-day books, not expecting to return them on time? I read all week, but I still have a pile...

Here is one that I finished. Yay!

Sundays in America was written by New England novelist Suzanne Strempek Shea. In this particular work she travels all over the country, but I think that her Massachusetts political leanings come across...

Sundays in America is subtitled A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of a Christian Faith, and that's a pretty apt description of the book. Shea is emerging from having grown up Roman Catholic, and after not being involved in a church for several years, decides to go on a journey exploring various Protestant congregations (I would argue here that several of the churches, such as an interfaith gathering, are not technically Protestant, but that is her stated goal).

As the author begins to visit churches, she notes very thoroughly her first impression upon entering the church, including decor, dress code, racial make-up, and attitude towards guests. As the meeting progresses, she records her reaction to each part of it. Shea's descriptive skills are superb. For example, she uses groups of words to distinguish a certain person or object which she encounters, and uses this language throughout the vignette, so that it becomes familiar to us. "...I rest on blue-green upholstered cushions and stretch out in the kneelerless space behind a middle-aged local couple and a man with his own Book of Mormon in a tiny leather cover that closes with a snap...The man with the snap Book of Mormon tells a neighbor that he is originally from Minnesota, now working in Boston." (65-66)

I hadn't read any of Shea's work before, and found her style refreshing. In the beginning, I was struck by her openness and optimism. She approached each visit with a childlike curiosity, and walked away with something positive to say about each experience. One visit leaves her less than impressed, yet she is determined to learn something...“That is it. A tidy hour in wording and mind-set from another time. Yet I sit. I wait. I want something to sink in. The walls’ words on health and healing remind that we all have an expiration date, and I grab that as today’s souvenir.” (40)

Even when describing situations that many of us would criticize, Shea chooses words very carefully. She seems so eager to embrace everything, that I wondered what she could find fault with, if anything.

A few chapters into the book, I learned what it was that she found objectionable. One female pastor seems to have hit on a sensitive topic.
Shea describes, "She turns to Isaiah, bemoaning sinner. Isaiah says woe to those...woe to those...We could say the same today. She singles out those promoting the homosexual agenda, abortionists, killing off the next generation, an athletic team accused of rape, a minister's wife charged with murder. Here it is, all around me, and I'm glad I know my way to the door. This is take-no-prisoners fundamentalism, an ultraconservative movement born a century ago at Princeton Theological Seminary that stresses rigid belief in every letter of every word of the Bible, rejection of opposing views, and disdain for the secular." (27)
Just as Shea had her moment of truth in the church, I had the same moment of truth reading her book. Here it comes, the liberal view.

I increasingly noticed Shea's embrace of liberal churches, using words like "inclusion" and "love" to describe them, while her disapproval of references to hell, sin, and homosexuality became evident.
A heavy side dish of disappointment in an otherwise pleasant morning is the reality of the fundamentalist viewpoint. Behind the happy shirt and face, this is still someone who sees gays and Jews as doomed and who believes that a woman's right to choose is wrong." (145)
About halfway through, the book gets a little monotonous as the reader has figured out by now the author's preferences. I've come to expect her focusing on whether or not she is warmly greeted, and on the number of children and people of color in the congregation. She'll mention the sermon topic and maybe glean a useful piece of information or two, but she'll close her ears if she hears anything too conservative.

In the beginning I wondered if Shea would eventually renew her relationship with God. But as I became acquainted with her viewpoint, I began to doubt that she would come to a conclusion that I would agree with. She seemed to not understand that God could both comfort and discipline, both unite and divide. Though her book claims to be a search for "Christian" faith, she seems to have a misunderstanding of what that is.
"...the past year has distilled for me the qualities I'd need in a new church home: a community that welcomed me warmly, didn't give a whit about my politics or lifestyle, gave tons of whits about the social justice needs locally and beyond, contained little-to-no hierarchy, allowed congregants a say in decisions..."(307)
I certainly hope that my church family would care about my lifestyle. What's the point of community if we're not helping each other make good choices? My list would look a bit different...

It's been awhile since I was in Shea's place, evaluating churches. Like I said, I certainly would have different criteria than she. I felt a little resentful at her judgments that focused on first impressions. But on the other hand, a candid impression can be very informative.

Sundays in America is helpful in understanding what a church visitor notices. I am not sure how helpful the information is in ordering a church service, since there is a limit to how "comfortable" you can make people feel, especially if they don't share the same views. But it can help us to be more sensitive towards guests and to be careful to prepare them and explain to them different aspects of our service.

I also think that an aspect of Shea's search is common to what many of us look for in a religious congregation: we look for people with the same views as us. We look for people with whom we can share something and alongside whom we can worship as brothers and sisters.

Shea, Suzanne Strempek. Sundays in America: A Yearlong Road Trip in Search of Christian Faith. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008


  1. Да, интересно какое впечатление складывается о нашей церкви после первого ее посещения? :))

  2. Зависит от того, чего ищут! Думаю, важно, чтобы человек знал, что ожидается от него. Я например переживаю если не знаю как одеваться в церкви, когда стоять или сидеть, что делать во время хлебопреломления, и т.д. Инфо. листок тоже помогает!

  3. Great review. Thanks for stopping by my blog, and you can certainly link to anything you find useful. Many blessings as you prepare to return to Russia.

  4. I heard this author interviewed on public radio and heard enough to know I didn't want to read the book. But I appreciate your very balanced review. (You're a better person than I am...) I suppose the base premise - escape from Catholicism was a bit off-putting to a Catholic convert, anyway!

    I did a bit of church-shopping in my day - before going where God directed me. Frankly, too much friendliness made me very uncomfortable. I guess I didn't want to be welcomed unless I'd made more of a commitment. I wanted to be a fly on the wall. Just goes to show - you can't please everyone.

  5. Thanks, Jennifer!

    Annie, this was definitely a case of church-shopping for the sake of church-shopping, if you know what I mean. But maybe the Lord will bring fruit from it. I did find it a little amusing that she seemed to think Protestantism was anything non-Catholic! Although, she may have explained somewhere that she was broadening the criteria, and I just missed it.

  6. Hi Elizabeth - Thanks for reading my book.
    Enjoy your time in St. Petersburg.
    Suzanne Strempek Shea

  7. Elizabeth,
    I read with interest your write-up on Suzanne Strempek Shea's 'Sundays in America,' and wanted to say what a nice overview you gave. It really is a great book! I felt like I was traveling with her whie reading it! I especially liked her trips to Hawaii, San Fransisco and Portland, Oregon. Also: If you loved her non-fiction, you will definitely love her fiction! Try 'Becoming Finola' and you will be hooked!
    Mary Ellen from Chicopee Falls

  8. Thanks for visiting my blog, Suzanne! I feel honored!

    Thanks for the info, Mary Ellen.


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