(lyrics by Queen)
“Content” and “doctrine” are not what I am alluding to with lyrics from the Queen classic, though they could easily substitute for what is eating dirt here. What else is biting the dust? From where I stand, the true casualties include true Christian spirituality, a communal understanding of Church, and a counter-cultural witness to generic individualism. Why commune with God and pesky people in the pew next to me on Sunday when I can commune with myself in a kayak on Saturday? Why submit to a tradition of teaching over the centuries when I can experience the freedom of thinking for myself without hindrance or interference?
Take a recent article in the Christian Century that she wrote entitled Telling Truths: “As gladly as I served the public truth for years, I had a lot of private truth left over. Some of it was petty, some of it was shameful and some of it led me to question the public truth I proclaimed on a regular basis, so I boxed it up and put it in my spiritual basement. Then one day when I was looking for a place to set a new box, I realized that some of my best stuff was down there, and that going up and down the steps was wearing me out.”
As she began to write the memoir that is now Leaving Church, she asked questions like: “Where was the line between self-disclosure and self-absorption? At what point did confession putrefy into complaint? Should I worry about going places that might not be safe for my readers to go? Because no one else could navigate the private truth for me, I had to find a different compass from the one I had used before.” (Telling Truths)
Excuse me for saying so, but part of the reason I love the Church is because it saves me from my own myopic truth that is always chalked full of pettiness, complaint, and putrid self-absorption. Don’t get me wrong, I have always had burning questions about faith, doubt, God, and evil, but I never thought that stuff shouldn’t be in the living room with all my other baptized sisters and brothers, subject to discussion, correction, and exhortation. Brown has an interesting way of putting things, to be sure, but before reading that article I was almost sure “public” truth that differs radically from “private” is a dictionary definition for hypocrisy. If there is a line between self-disclosure and self-absorption, then I have a sneaking suspicion that it has been crossed … and for a voyeuristic generation weaned on Jerry Springer and his ilk, most of us can’t get enough.
Those who think I am misreading Barbara or being too harsh here may still be basking in the light of her wit and eloquent turns of phrase, both of which I continue to learn from as a fellow writer. But there is another lesson to be learned here, if only by negative example: if there is anything that can lead to burnout, disenchantment, “compassion fatigue,” and a preoccupation with the “basement,” – it is “me, myself, and I” – the new (and very old) trinity that seems to penetrate so much of her recent writings and interviews. In the words of Queen, “another one bites the dust” – for here lies another casualty to rampant individualism and private spirituality, the dynamic duo that keeps playing dress up as something fresh and novel – and we keep buying.
I am not saying Barbara’s book is not worth reading, or that she should be shunned like a pariah. Certainly there is much for pastors, priests, and lay people to resonate with in these pages, even if we do come to different conclusions. What I am saying is that this book is new in one important sense that most people seem to be missing – that it is now right at home with everything else under the local Barnes and Noble heading “spirituality.”