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David James Duncan’s ‘God Laughs & Plays’

They don’t make writers like David James Duncan anymore. A novelist (The Brothers K, The River Why) and essayist / fly-fisherman (My Story as Told by Water), screenwriter (the documentary Trout Grass), academic lecturer and environmental activist, the guy’s been all over the map, a regular road show of impassioned curiosity. Unsurprisingly, then, his newest book, the wonderful God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Triad, Books, $22.95), tends to resist comfortable categories. An important book, absolutely; a fierce and polarizing call to arms, you bet; a tender tribute to his cohorts in the fight, no question. But, really… what is it?

As published by The Triad Institute, if you had to boil out the common themes from God Laughs & Plays (essays, interviews, parables), you would tend to arrive at sensibilities rather than ideas. These writings are all about wonder and mysticism, pity and anger and love, they’re about doing what you can — doing anything — in the face of impending environmental, political and spiritual catastrophe. Quoting Mother Theresa, Duncan writes, ‘God doesn’t ask us to win. He asks us to try.’ Duncan is a talented writer, an astute intellect, but above all he is a guy moved to defend his world (his rivers, his spirituality, his beliefs) from the literal and figurative armies of the self-righteous and self-interested. In this lamentable late age of ecological and spiritual bulldozers, and as this book makes clear, defense has become a full time job.

“…the great religious traditions of the world stand in need not of a secular turning away, but of a compassion rebellion against the certainties of cocksure zealots claiming to own each tradition. The fundamentalists of every faith remain blind to the truth that ‘the sigh within the prayer is the same in the heart of the Christian, the Muhammadan, and the Jew.'”

As the title implies, perhaps the principal bulls eye for Duncan’s wandering cross hairs is the current infestation of fundamentalism being visited upon Christianity. His opponents are the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells of the world. Men who have taken a faith based on the notions of love and poverty and twisted it to support their own ideals of intolerance and wealth accumulation. In his essay “Unsaying the Word ‘God'”, Duncan writes,

“Many fundamentalists have no patience for even a word of mystical belief — then wonder why others have no patience for listening to what the fundamentalist believes. I can explain my own such impatience with a parable:

“If you were basking in bright sunlight and hugely thankful for it, and a man a quarter-mile away suddenly shouted, ‘Hey you! I can see the sun from over here! Stop what you’re doing and come over where I am! Hurry! You’ve GOT to come here! I see the SUN! Come out of the darkness, sinner! Get over to where I am!’ is there any reason to obey him? On the contrary, if you obey, you indulge the shouter’s peace-shattering belief that the sun is so limited that it can only be seen from where he is standing, and you reinforce his false assumption that everyone but he is a fool living in darkness.”

And later, in a brilliant reduction that should be cut and pasted onto the front door of every Baptist church in the country, he continues, “If Americans of European descent are to understand and honor the legacy of Celtic, European, Middle Eastern, and other Christian traditions and pass our literature, music, art, monasticism, and mysticism on intact, the right-wing hijacking of Christianity must be defined as the reductionist rip-off that it is. To allow televangelists or pulpit neocons to claim exclusive ownership of Jesus is to hand that incomparable lover of enemies, prostitutes, foreigners, children, and fishermen over to those who evince no such love.”

Duncan wrote this book, implicitly, for you and me. For us the folks still offended by the religious and political proselytizers of the world, those arrogant and insecure who keep knocking at our doors, assuming (by their very presence) that they know more about god than we do. It’s unlikely, then, that his opinions, no matter how cogent or impassioned, are going to do any real neocon convincing. What they do admirably, however, is give voice to our own hesitations, to clarify our own confusions.

“The gulf between historic Christianity and politicized, media-driven fundamentalism is vast. Misreading its one book, condescending to all others, using the resultant curtailment of comprehension and tolerance as a unifying principle, industrialized fundamentalism seeks to control minds, not open them; seeks the tithe-paying
ideological clone, not C.S. Lewis’s ‘windows into others’; seeks a rigidification and righteousness of self, not literature’s enlargement of self, or Christ’s
recommended effacement of it.”

As well-informed and well-read as Duncan might be (his background in the world traditions of wisdom literature is formidable), as cogent as he makes his opinions, they remain still opinions, and so are invitations to discussion. It’s impossible to read this book without quibbling and finding fault (early on, for instance, Duncan argues that the spirit of pre-fundamentalist Christianity is environmentally friendly, a notion that a host of other environmental philosophers would strongly disagree with), and yet, therein lies the final value of this book: It is an intricate and much needed invitation to the narrow-minded zealots of the world for a good knock-down-drag-out debate. As such, it couldn’t be more successful.

God Laughs & Plays is one of the most unusual and satisfying collections to come down the pike in years.

About Allen M. Jones

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