Okay, as promised, my negative review of Does This Church Make Me Look Fat? by Rhoda Janzen. Let's just get that right out there--I'm not enjoying this book.
So I have a thing for spiritual memoirs, especially of a certain sort. I'm particularly drawn to the ones that hint at the possibility that the author might be able to explain to me how faith works. Because I'm fascinated by religion, read a lot about religion, and am very drawn to a lot of the qualities of religious life--community, conscious living, bringing abstract values in line with day to day life--but I just don't understand how to believe in what is essentially a mythology. Abstract ideas of God, sure, but for Jesus, miracles, and so on, I have no context.
So I'm always reading spiritual memoirs, especially by converts, intellectuals, and people who share my values. Anne Lamott is a great example of the latter--she's very Christian, but also very liberal, and she does the best job of any modern writer in explaining to me how her relationship with God works and makes sense. She doesn't spend a lot of time on the notion of the supernatural, just the spiritual. Lauren Winner is an intellectual, and the accumulation of quotations, anecdotes, and minutia with which she populates her books at least bring an academic, footnoted heft to the argument. Janzen is a convert; I was hoping she'd be another good example.
But really, she's only kind of a convert; she was raised in the Mennonite church, spent about 30 years as a liberal intellectual East coast snob of an English professor and poet, and then converted to some sort of Pentecostal church--whether it was when she started dating her new boyfriend or when she was diagnosed with breast cancer four months later is a little vague.
In fact, let's start here with the problems in this book. Let's not start with the theology or rational arguments or her attitude--let's start with the very bare problem of her really patched-together writing style. I can't follow the timeline to save my life. I understand that the chapters are organized thematically and that the sections on gratitude and tithing and breast cancer and aging parents all overlap in various ways. But even within a chapter, it's very unclear when she started tithing vs. when she was cured of cancer, or when she got married vs. when her fiance/husband tried to teach her to shoot a gun.
There are also a LOT of anecdotes that are vaguely amusing but not related to what she's getting at. Using anecdotes like parables is a tried and true way to talk about faith, construct a memoir, or just fill pages of a book (ding ding ding!), but these anecdotes are not at all thematically related to any of the things that are supposedly the point of the book. In fact, they are often topically related without being thematically related. She'll tell a story about a really great shopping trip she once went on where she bought some fabulous shoes as a segue into a story about going to church in which she happens to be wearing those shoes. The story has nothing to do with shoes, shopping, materialism, or anything remotely related, but she remembered the shoes and so told the whole story because she thought it was an amusing anecdote. Wasn't.
Okay, so that's the reason I don't think it's terribly well-written. And this post is already super-long. But I'd like to spend some time on why I don't like the narrator. We'll start with that racist quote from the book that I posted about before. We'll move on to some of the things she realized about herself in the discussion of tithing.
She was amazed at how tithing made her feel more relaxed about money, made her feel like she had more even though, by definition, she had less. The example she gives is of a time when a church acquaintance--a newly married 20-year-old woman with a toddler--mentioned that her family of three slept in a single bed and wasn't getting much rest. It just so happened that our narrator had just moved in with her new husband and so had a bunch of extra furniture to get rid of. She shocked herself by deciding to give it to these people instead of donating it to Goodwill, which would have given her a tax deduction.
Jesus Christ, you have a bed you need to get rid of an a bedless person enters your life, and you are stunned at your own generosity when you feel the urge to give her this bed? What kind of a person are you? I'll tell you what kind--the kind of person who is really amazed by her own tolerance at hanging around with people who are so much less intellectual than she is. She's so proud of the fact that her boyfriend/husband isn't an academic, thinks Sylvia Plath was kind of a whiner, and hasn't read any literature. He's a big, muscled studly man. Isn't she wild marrying him?
There's all kinds of weird, magical, crappy theology (when you tithe, extra money magically shows up, like the secret! When you convert, your breast cancer is cured between one MRI and the next, as if by magic). It's like The Secret. She's always having very heavy feelings at important moments; she's always feeling moved to do something and then finding out her husband was moved--CLEARLY by God--to do the exact same thing! Like, OMG, I was just thinking that! LOL.
Let's see, healing, giving, magic, racist, confusing, not funny. Was there anything else? Oh, yes, I didn't want to forget to mention her discussion near the beginning of the book about how one of the things that kept her away from church (especially the Pentecostal church she eventually joined) was their position on a lot of social issues, like gay marriage (well, really, gay people in general) and ordination of women. But then she decided to see what they had to offer without judging. She never mentions the issue again. Does she continue to hold this concern? Or does she realize they've been right all along that gay people will burn in hell? Oh, who knows--not relevant to the narrative, right?
Is that enough? I mean, this is clearly enough. But I've been suffering through this because I wanted to talk about it, so I need to make sure it all gets out there. No, I think we've hit the high points. There's definitely more, but there's no need to get further into the nitty gritty.
I do want to point out, though, that this is one of the books that I have a review copy of. Now I have to go post this review on NetGalley for the publisher to look at if they want. I'm a little afraid big goon-types are going to show up at my door tomorrow night. If they come looking for me, tell them I'm at the library, checking out something by someone who's been dead 100 years.