by Tim O'Donnell | March 19th, 2011
According to a Catholic website, A View from the Back Pew is a work of “heresy” that “should be avoided”.
A View from the Back Pew is in the midst of a virtual book tour where bloggers and book review sites around the (virtual) world post reviews throughout the month of March. So far, it’s been mostly fun.
Some reviews have been extremely positive while others have been critical of my point of view that asks critical questions about organized religion. Some are a bit of both. No real surprises. Religious beliefs are sensitive and can be delicate possessions. I wrote the book for people who are questioning, or considering what they actually do believe, people who may not be completely invested in what they were “taught to believe”. It is an accounting of my own personal voyage of faith, which is far from concluded.
I’ve been clear about stating I wouldn’t recommend the book to those who are spiritually fulfilled by their church affiliation. I am not trying to preach a certain spiritual angle other than one of inquisitiveness. The questions submitted throughout the book make some people very uncomfortable. For this I cannot apologize except perhaps for not placing a warning label on the book. People who are offended by asking questions about religion should not read this book. There, I’ve said it again.
Mostly, the reviewers of A View From The Back Pew have been professional and thoughtful, but more importantly, good or bad, nearly all have been intellectually honest. There isn’t one I wouldn’t welcome a chance to go to lunch or get a cup of coffee with.
I’m selecting two recent reviewers, both faithful Christians of different denominations to offer an example of how the book might affect a reader who is an adherent. Both of these reviewers are not people I would think to offer the book to for at least two specific reasons: one is that they were not the audience I had in mind and two; they are both lifelong adherents to their respective denominations, both asserting to be very fulfilled within those religions.
For some reason they both volunteered to read and review this book; I can’t pretend to know why they chose to but I’m happy and grateful that they did. There is however, an illuminating difference between them – read on.
First, meet Liz who runs a site named Random Thoughts of a Lutheran Geek who reviewed the book this past Tuesday. Liz critiqued the book and made valid, intelligent commentary. She is a lifelong Lutheran who shares that she had been oriented toward inquiry and open to discovery through objective investigation into her beliefs. My guess is both the church of her childhood and her parents are to be commended for encouraging such a leaning of spiritual inquiry. Liz’s Lutheran faith seems to satisfy her intellect and desire for community as well as nourish her spiritual needs – exactly what organized religion should to do.
Liz was not in the least bit threatened by A View from the Back Pew, her faith is secure enough to absorb and consider something outside her own experience. The book did not change her mind about anything (nor does it attempt to). She is a well-educated, grounded and confident Christian who honestly and directly expresses where the book frustrates her but feels no contradiction or betrayal of her faith by also revealing the good she perceives in the work; she even goes so far as to identify the type of people who might benefit by reading it: “if you need an introduction to the idea of questioning the church A View from the Back Pew might be a good place to start.” Perceptive in the sense that this is exactly what the author would say.
Liz demonstrates balance and tolerance in her criticism with comments like: “While I found this book to be a very interesting read, particularly his autobiographical sections, I found myself frustrated as the book neared its spirituality-centric conclusion.” Or: “I respect and honor the fact that O’Donnell calls for real questioning to be a part of our faith, even if I disagree with his final conclusions.”
Liz was careful to point out that I am in no way an atheist and that I still “revere” the teaching of Jesus. She doesn’t denigrate, demonize or condescend simply because we differ in our understanding of Jesus’ true message and purpose.
There is maturity and self-awareness about Liz’s commentary that got me thinking. (And, of course asking questions)
As I thought about Liz, her review and her Lutheranism, it dawned on me that it should be no surprise that she was stimulated to ask questions and explore her faith. After all, her religious tradition came into existence because a Catholic monk and theologian by the name of Martin Luther was excommunicated for questioning Rome. The essence of Luther himself is to inquire and it is alive and well in the attitude of Liz from “Lutheran Geek”. I respect her critique as sound and honest and accept it with gratitude.
The next day, A View From The Back Pew was reviewed Frank Weathers of Why I Am Catholic.
Wow! What a difference a day makes. Whereas Tuesday’s critique was well organized, intellectually sound and journalistically honest, the broadside rant of Wednesday is not. This day produced an personal attack under the pretense of a book review. Although I can’t say I’m shocked at this Catholic’s aggressive response, I’m a little surprised by the underpinning of anger and paranoia. But mostly I’m dumbfounded by the blatant lack of integrity. There are mystery quotes in the review that simply do not exist in the book and that’s just a start. I‘ll not be baited into responding tit-for-tat, refuting the half-truths, fabrications and misrepresentations put forth in this “review” but I would be remiss to not respond in some way.
I have been a Catholic from birth and every moment of my education has been in a Catholic classroom so the attitude of religious superiority is nothing new to me. But still, my rather extensive exposure to the scholarly, academic minded Carmelites and Jesuits was always honest from an intellectual point of view. I found the discourse by this particular Catholic to be alarmingly unprincipled and manipulative.
One example of the flagrant disregard of veracity (there are several) by Mr. Weathers is when he marginalizes a key event in the book where I explain my youthful interpretation of events that took place in Rome (I tell of two interrelated events, he chooses to relay only half) where he spins the following quote which is made to look like it comes directly from the book – I suppose he is inferring here that God is talking to me: “I will make you rich, while you’re young, so you can retire early and spread this good news.” This is not only taken out of context (even real journalists do that all the time) this is fabricated entirely! Period. I don’t know what else to say about a blatant falsification. The quote he cites does not exist anywhere in the book. Why? I guess so he could portray the passage in the light he wanted to; he simply made up a quote to suit his intentions. (Anyone who has read the book will see what this reviewer intends to do.)
I could continue to dissect the problems with this written piece from a professional, ethical point of view but it would get tedious and technical so I won’t. But I will say this: I do not think this writer is at all ignorant about what he’s attempting to do.
But more importantly, beyond the absence of ethical standards, Weathers demonstrates the precise attitude of primacy that drove me to begin questioning Catholicism, the religion of my birth in the first place. There is sanctimoniousness in believing one possesses absolute truth which I failed to see for a very long time. The insistence that Catholicism is superior is what prompted me to ask questions. If it is in fact superior, which like Frank, is what I believed; I set out to understand why. The imperiousness (assuming authority) to me began to feel like a contradiction to the humility of Jesus himself. So, I began to ask questions.
The haughty belief of having religious and spiritual superiority can lead to a lack of moral accountability. When one believes he or she holds the absolute truth, one justifies any means in attacking or discrediting those who question or hold different beliefs. In other words, if you begin with the presupposition that your religious belief system is perfect, whole and complete then there is no reason to inquire and those conducting inquiry of any sort are then labeled infidels or heretics.
In quintessential Catholic parlance, Mr. Weathers resorts to calling the book “heresy”. OK – whatever. Stick and stones…. Blah, blah, blah.
That has been the way of this church for centuries – when someone actually proffers an original thought, or when one searches an independent interpretation they are deemed heretics. If, like in the good old days of Catholicism, that accusation carried a death sentence, I might be quaking in my Uggs.
I’m quite certain the infinite mind of God is not threatened by my inquiry.
I’m also not surprised a vintage Catholic like Frank Weathers feels threatened by a book, especially one written by a Catholic, that challenges ancient doctrine. When a person is bound to specific doctrine and refuses to allow themselves to even consider what other systems may contribute, he or she resorts to labeling and lashing out. It’s not OK to just believe what you believe, you must also condemn those who don’t prescribe to or share your doctrinaire world-view. These are the attitudes and assumptions that lead to rationalizing violence in the extreme that is so dominant in Church history and survives today among some factions within organized belief systems.
I am not claiming truth is relative, only that we humans, using the inadequate tool of human language, have no way to articulate divine truth absolutely.
Catholicism is indeed a beautiful, rich articulation of truth, one I spent a great deal of my life learning about, but to say that this edition of truth is complete or that it is evolving along with mans ability to comprehend such truth is either naïve or intentionally misleading. “One of Mr. O’Donnell’s main arguments against the Church here is that she just doesn’t change, or evolve. Which is ridiculous on it’s face because of course she does!” Calling this position “ridiculous” is not a well-reasoned argument; claiming, “of course she does” with pious tone and little rationale doesn’t cut it. It is however, very typical.
“I state flatly that this book should be avoided.” I find this a little flattering. Furthermore, depending on who this message is being delivered to – I may actually agree. If you are perfectly content with doctrine ritual and dogma, you would find no real purpose in reading it. In fact, I’m on record stating the book is not for those who are satisfied with religion wherever and however they come to it. A View from the Back Pew is specifically written for the person who will not, or cannot, ignore the inevitable questions that come to mind as they read, listen to or learn about the ancient doctrine of their particular belief system. Not recommending a book, movie or piece of art is a far cry from instructing people to “avoid” it. It makes one wonder: what is contained in this book that is to be feared?
My basic treatise is that we as a species continue to evolve in most areas of human life and that to many (but not all), the ancient doctrines of our systems of belief are not satisfying the spiritual urge we humans intrinsically possess. I do not pretend to have answers. This book only attempts to start asking questions – very few conclusions are drawn and the ones that are, are clearly personal. I’m not preaching a new truth, I don’t have an axe to grind nor am I trying to debunk anything. I’m just asking! So, if you don’t care to ask, or witness one who does ask – this might not be for you. On this point I agree with Mr. Weathers. But don’t worry, you don’t need to avoid it, there is likely nothing contagious or nothing to fear contained in its pages.
I know it chafes some people, but asking questions has become a central activity in my spiritual practice. Liz the Lutheran approves; Frank the Catholic does not. My spiritual journey would be much easier if I had no need to question but it would be stagnant and lifeless to me if I didn’t.
I am grateful to all the reviewers on the blog tour for taking time to read, consider and review A View from the Back Pew. And I respectfully and sincerely want to thank Liz and Frank – Liz for prompting new questions for me to consider and Frank for reminding me why I began asking such questions in the first place.