I’m not sure what is going on at Peace Mennonite Church in Lawrence, Kansas, but the place is producing a lot of good writing and writers now. Carol Grieb has a book out on Hamlet, Ryan Ellett has written a great account of early African American radio, plus one about the Texas Rangers, and pastor Joanna Harader blogs regularly for The Christian Century. (I trust my friends at Peace to update me if my list is incomplete.)
Long-time PMCer Roger Martin was a good writer before he started attending Peace two decades ago, as proven by Cows are Freaky When They Look at You: An Oral History of the Kaw Valley Hemp Pickers, which he co-edited with Susan Brosseau and David Ohle. And he made a career shaping words for the University of Kansas, winning lots of awards for his work with the university’s research magazine along the way. As a former member of Peace (and continuing booster), I’ve been privileged to hear Roger’s words on many occasions, and they are always a delight and a challenge. So I was eager to get my hands on Roger’s new book, A Doubter’s Guide to God.
Despite the title, it’s not a how-to book for those searching for a religious experience. Instead, it’s a spiritual memoir (if spiritual memoirs are allowed to cite peer-reviewed scholarship) that will speak to those whose head and heart are both committed to the chase of a God who is always cutting out, one who knocks on the door but doesn’t respond when you ask “Who’s There?”, the God who absconds.
Roger is wise enough to know that that this is a serious chase that might never lead to the discovery of God—and that’s a good thing. Lutheran theological Gerhard O. Forde argues in Theology is for Proclamation (Fortress Press 1990), “The constant temptation of the theologian of glory in us is to try to penetrate the ‘hidden majesty’ of God. Were we able to do that… nothing but destruction would result. Enough mischief is accomplished by our unsuccessful attempts to do so” (20).
Roger isn’t a mischief maker, at least in this regard, and so A Doubter’s Guide is less about God and instead about the stumbles forward over a Baby Boomer’s lifetime of looking for faith. The story is told in uneven chunks—we hear a bit about Roger’s childhood, mostly in terms of his mother’s faith, his father’s moodiness, the curiosity-dulling sermons of his childhood pastor, and a few moments in adolescence that affirm that, like most smart kids, Roger had some doubts about the relevance of religion, and, from there, the story skips over big parts of his life to focus on the moments where his life took unexpected turns—a foray into studying dreams; an arrest, complete with helicopters circling his house, for growing marijuana; a chance encounter outside the campus chapel.
Even these “plot points” are less important to the story than are the people—Roger’s mother, whose quiet and consistent faith impress him, especially when he is able to view it against his own youthful condescension toward religion; his wife Barbara, with whom he has experienced the maturity of love, which means not only actively loving but also withholding your unkindness; and Steve, who is the straight man to Roger’s color commentator during years of team-teaching youth Sunday school. One of the treats, for me, in this book is Roger’s account of his relationship with Steve, a person I have long-admired and who is a model of steadfast friendship and dedication to church and community. Steve might be seen as the anti-Roger, which clearly tickles Roger—and which makes me value Steve’s contribution to their friendship all the more. Roger is passionate and can be too often in love with love and too sharp with words, even if he is right. Steve is mindful and can lower the heat of a conversation, helping people to tap into their more noble selves and building their capacity to tolerate dissent and discomfort in the quest to hold sometimes fraught relationships together.
The relationships that feature most prominently in The Doubter’s Guide to God are those that turn and then push its author in new directions and support his skeptical but committed pursuit of God. If, in his effort to catch a glimpse of God, these friendships are what Roger captures instead, he’s blessed.