Posted by: Andrew G | April 26, 2010

With or Without God – Gretta Vosper

Author

My first intentions were to actually go see this author in action before writing this book review. But my intentions… well let’s just say they got carried away. Gretta Vosper is a community leader (minister in the United Church of Canada), an academic and a mom. And what better way to see how she practices what she preaches than to go to her community, the Westhill United Church? (Check out the website please. It’s actually kind of fun.)

Well, whatever road those good intentions of mine may have paved, it has not been taken. Which is actually a shame, because I think she may have a church and a worldview that has some real integrity and some real future. So I reserve the right to go down that road in the future. And I’ll take my camera, because visual blog stuff is much more appealing than just my wordiness.

Technical Bits

With or Without God has just over 300 pages in the meat-n-bones of the book and is separated into seven chapters. Vosper includes an appendix, or toolbox as she calls it, for the changes she proposes to the church. The toolbox is probably the most interesting thing in the book. In it she illustrates the the power of language, especially in terms of literal vs metaphorical messages and inclusive vs exclusive wordings. She even offers examples of theistic and non-theistic blessings, invocations and otherwise churchy rituals, but they are robbed of their cloudy and vague secret codes and instead presented as spiritual gathering points. This toolbox is a demonstration that community can be built on mutually-assuring values as opposed to revelationbased stories or mystically-restricted loyalties.

There is certainly a smell of scholarship in her writing style, but it’s comfortingly padded with the warm tones of a devout mother. She is calm and expressive for the most part, but there are some charming little bracketed commentaries here and there punctuated with exclamations. What’s so surprising is that with such a motherly tone, firm but forgiving you might say, the actual weight of the challenge she puts before the church caught me by complete surprise.

The book is written with what I think is a very specific audience in mind. And I don’t fault Vosper for it in the least. I’m chagrined of course that it wasn’t directed specifically at me, but I can get over my own selfishness when it comes to an author’s intentions. This book is for the liberal church and a confrontation to address the changes needed in order to be a thriving voice of future spirituality while also embracing the intellectual progress achieved over the last century.

Evangelicals, fundamentalists, literalists and maybe even moderates might have a difficult time even using this book as a paperweight. For one thing, the forward is written by Bishop John Shelby Spong (a name that stirs up the worst kinds of challenges to literalists…). As well, Vosper takes as a given, for example, that the Bible cannot be the authoritative word of God for all time, in any way, shape or form at all.

The uninitiated, such as atheists, will likely not get through the first few chapters since the first half of the book is about recent church history, Sunday school curriculum changes and books from the last 100 years or so that the church really should not have ignored so much. This is kind of a shame. Vosper has, in my opinion, an offering that may just satisfy, as Ronald Aronson puts it, “the most urgent need [for] a coherent popular philosophy that answers vital questions about how to live one’s life.”

Commentary

I’m going to change things a bit here.  Because Vosper’s audience and my audience are quite different, I’m going to try and put just a few sentences down about each chapter. This way it may give a sample of what she covers in the book, but also it might suggest different entry points for different people coming to the book . (Hey, if the Bible has taught us anything, we can certainly open a book now and start to read from the middle if we so choose, and even ignore parts that aren’t really useful…)

1. It’s Time

Vosper uses a few examples from her own experiences growing up in the church and wanting to study theology to show how change has been put aside in the liberal church, or at best, addressed in only a drapes-and-curtains kind of way. She uses the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’ to show how there is a kind of silent agreement between congregation and leadership to not bring up the dangerous issues around faith and language.

2. Constructing Christianity

This chapter is a brief history of beliefs. There is a careful timeline here of how we created belief, what use it may have been to ancients, and then the shifts particularly important to Christianity. She discusses the construction of creeds, early and recent, and looks at how each statement of faith was accumulated through different committees with different inclinations and politics.

3. Challenging Christianity

The two sides of the brain are used in this chapter as a kind of metaphor for how we have treated belief and religious practice. We can shut off one side of the brain and take part in the rituals in the church and feel good, only to later on shut off the other side and critically analyze the rest of our daily lives. I was personally tempted to suggest there has been a kind of mental circumcision on our brains when it comes to religious beliefs, but that’s my extension and not Vospers (I think…)

4. Liberating Christianity

Using Albert Schweitzer and Richard Dawkins as slightly improbable guides, , Vosper highlights and discusses a way forward through these essentials: an open mind, passion, creativity, intellectual rigour, honesty, courage, respect and finally balance (patience, perseverance and pace).

5. Reconstructing Christianity

Vosper addresses the Bible (“If it’s the authoritative word of God for all time, we’re in big trouble!”), the human being of Jesus, the use of prayer by promises and the meaning of rituals.

6. Responsible Change

In an interesting twist, Vosper actually looks at the necessity of seeing things literally, or at least the consequences of what happens when we read things literally and what happens when we dismiss things as metaphorical. She also suggests here the idea of the spiritual toolbox, where the church cannot be an exclusive answer, but rather one offering  in a world of available spiritual tools.

7. Crucial Change

Vosper gives some good examples of just how powerful and valuable the network of churches around North America can be. “Dunkin’ Donuts and Tim Hortons, should they wish to reach the full extent of their market, would be envious of the number of outlets the church has managed to establish in every kind of neighbourhood… it would be safe to say there is not a community in Canada or the United States of America that does not have a church of some kind in it.” This illustration can be taken globally too, if we are willing to include other faiths and practices…

.

When I first read this book, I had already shed most of my Christian leanings and so her ideas weren’t that stressful to me or even revolutionary. But now that I have entered back into the conversation, I see just how scary Vosper might be to mainline Christianity. And like I said above, it’s a shame. Stress can be positive. Change can be the best solution to problems that just don’t go away. As she puts it, she doesn’t want to get rid of the baby or the bathwater. She’s drawing our attention to the monster in there, the mammoth or very human devil we have put there, and she is asking for your help to lift it out and show it the door.

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Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by New Book Reviews. New Book Reviews said: With or Without God – Gretta Vosper: Author My first intentions were to actually go see this author… http://bit.ly/bFD2gZ #books #writing […]

  2. Andrew:I think I will just copy your review and use it as a guide for my next reading of Vosper’s book. It is a great breakdown of what Vosper’s book is about and how it might help the established churches to formulate a new approach to faith and church and living in the modern world. She really doesn’t talk much about a spiritual life in all this change, but that is also where the religious life is moving at this time in and throughout the world.
    Jim G.

    • Thanks Dad.
      Yea, she flattens all the flowery wording of spirituality, that’s for sure. But there is spirituality in the simple words like honesty, courage, etc. I will highlight a little of this more in the quotes part Wednesday.
      Um, I’ve written a lot of stuff in the margins, so I hope you don’t mind if your book comes back to you with all my pencil marks. 🙂

  3. The uninitiated, such as atheists, will likely not get through the first few chapters since the first half of the book is about recent church history, Sunday school curriculum changes

    Since most atheists don’t mingle with the Christian world, I can see why they would not enjoy. Only a small percent are still involved with Christians in some way. Christians, for the most part, are exclusive and hare to be genuinely close to because of that. Vosper is a good force undoing orthodox Christianity it seems.
    Thanx for the post

    • Christians come in all makes and models. But there is certainly a troubling “exclusive herd” mentality. So dangerous.
      Glad to hear you enjoyed it.
      So out of curiosity, what would your “local Christians” do with Vosper’s book? Would they be able to get any of it?
      I honestly have very little reference when it comes to hardline Our-Way-Or-The-Highway-To-Hell Christianity.

      • My local fundies wouldn’t read it. They may read a Cliff Notes version written by their favorite apologist. That is how “adventuresome among them digest any other religion or alien thought.
        Sad, eh?

  4. Greetings Andrew,

    I wanted to pass along my musings (they follow excerpts from your excellent work of yesterday – separated by …) so here goes:

    1. Hey, if the Bible has taught us anything, we can certainly open a book now and start to read from the middle if we so choose … I liked this comment very much – dear to my heart çause I do it all the time!
    2. It’s Time – She uses the idea of ‘the elephant in the room’ to show how there is a kind of silent agreement between congregation and leadership to not bring up the dangerous issues around faith and language … I sure experienced this in several of the organized religions I participated in. It works all right if you go to church to sleep and not think, me thinks.
    3. Responsible Change – In an interesting twist, Vosper … suggests here the idea of the spiritual toolbox, where the church cannot be an exclusive answer, but rather one offering in a world of available spiritual tools …. We’ve sooooooooooo much to learn from our world; for me one of the sources that offers incredible lessons in instruction and organization (including spiritually) is the natural world – there lies a fascinating community teaming with life and growth. I’ve grown to welcome the freedom of expression offered us in nature and the plant world – provides nourishment for our minds, bodies and souls with such little effort from us. A toolbox overflowing with spirit-building material awaits us completely outside the walls of any man-made structure!
    4. Stress can be positive. Change can be the best solution to problems that just don’t go away … I’ve found that sometimes it is only change which helps to restore and strengthen when one is undertaking or going thru a stressful situation within the ‘çhurch’ of choice; positive outcomes can and do result if stress is managed instead of letting it ‘manage’ us.

    Thanks,
    Rose Naomi

  5. Mercy Rose! 🙂
    I’m happy to see this got you thinking, and on so many levels!

    Listen — a while ago I had an idea that it would be fun to put together a “Gospel According to Nature”. Sort of a look at what the natural world could offer us in terms of spirituality. We should maybe have a more horticultural conversation next time I see you!

    • That’s me, Andrew – I believe in Lifelong Learning; like Johnny Five said, “Need more input!”

      Your idea of a gathering on The Gospel According to Nature might gain a good audience afterall we are all part of it in one way or another, eh?

    • Why not set up a “WIKI” to write a “Gospel According to Nature”.
      As for me, I have no fondness for nature — the book of Genesis is right, we must dominate her. I am 3/4 serious!
      Our genes, for instance, care not the least bit for our happiness.

      • The WIKI idea is so good. It could only really work as a collaborative thing. And, it would just be more interesting that way. I never really thought about like that though. How, um, do you set up a wiki anyway?

        (btw, the “3/4 serious thing” — so awesome that we now ‘measure’ our level of irony, sarcasm, seriousness. This might be a great tool in terms of looking at our ‘sacred texts’.)


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