Location and Times
 

Library Learnings: Libraries Change Minds


“Reading can sometimes totally change our minds”

“Reading can sometimes totally change our minds about things we thought we were sure of!”

It was with this sentence that, in May, Britain’s Book Depository began its promotion of a new Instagram feature, one that has authors telling “which books have bolstered their opinions, expanded their horizons, and challenged their perspectives.” It got us thinking: sure, it’s a come-on, but it’s nevertheless true: reading books can amend one’s understanding. We know that. And we’re going to try, in this essay, to convince you that it’s true, this in order to get you browsing, borrowing, and reading the books in your church Library. 

(But first a waggish word about Book Depository Ltd., UK: it’s an online bookseller that seems to house most any book you could want…and which sells them at discounted prices…and ships them—no minimum to spend—anywhere in the world for free, which has to be a small-m miracle. Which explains why we place with them the occasional order for a religion book, and why we’re happy to be on the company’s e-mailing list. And then there’s this: its street address in London is 1 Principal Place, Worship Street. Honest.)

That this is so, that the printed word can recast our thinking, is attested to routinely. Consider even these few affirmations:

 This September, America’s Library of Congress used its annual National Book Festival to point out, “Open a book, open the world.”

 In mid-summer, The Globe and Mail’s contributor Marcus Gee told how simply “browsing in a bookstore…broadens your field of vision, and exposes you to other ideas. Goodness knows, we need that these days.”

 Barely a month later, that newspaper’s columnist Elizabeth Renzetti told how she’d spent her summer “pillaging the contents of Toronto’s little libraries,” those “treasure boxes that have sprung up in front of people’s houses.” She concluded, “I’ve come to think of books not so much as books, but as seeds.” 

 Earlier, in June, the dailyOM observed how “Every book has the potential to touch the human soul deeply, arousing patterns of thought that might otherwise have lain dormant. …The words we read are merely a starting point for a process that takes place largely within our minds and hearts.”

 Back in 2017, author Darius Foroux, writing in the Observer Daily Newsletter, reported how he’d “formed the habit of asking everyone for life-changing book recommendations.” He explained how reading is “one of the habits that has truly changed my life. Reading is my favourite way to develop my mind, because it’s the most effective way to learn something,” and it can have a real “impact on the way I look at the world.” 

 In Freeing Jesus [throughout, books available in SSUC’s Library are bold-faced], author Diana Butler Bass both declares, “I read myself into a new universe of faith,” and tells how “nearly all of my Christian friends” have read books “that made them reexamine what they thought about the Bible, doctrine, the church, or even God.”

In the earliest stages of researching this piece, we came upon a “Religion & Ethics” essay by Richard Kearney, which the Australian Broadcasting Corporation posted two years ago, “God after the loss of God: what comes after atheism”. In it, the author, who holds a named chair in philosophy at the Jesuits’ Boston College, puts the proposition this way: in the “odyssey from author through text to reader, we may witness certain possibilities of transfiguration….”

Understand that we had no such lofty end in sight when we took early retirement some 14 years ago, discovered we suddenly had time to indulge our interests, and ended up restarting our faith journey, sidelined for decades by parenting and work. There had to be more to it—to religion and church and faith—than denominationalism and devoutness, dogmas and doctrines, cannon and creeds, rote and rites, liturgy and formularies. Didn’t there? 

To find out, we did what’d be customary for a bookworm to do—we read books. Hundreds of them, by now; it goes on. No, not those written by the so-called Four Horsemen of the so-called New Atheism, not right away, nor even those by UCC maverick Gretta Vosper. The searching began gingerly, with writings by the likes of Marcus Borg—he, too, was a mild-mannered mid-westerner who’d been brought up in the Lutheran Church—then, if memory serves, Jack Spong especially, and afterwards a multitude of increasingly progressive Christian writers, folks given to envelope-pushing.

And what, should you be wondering, was found in all this turning of pages? That the questioning of one’s “purpose, practice, foundations, and beliefs,” in Vosper’s words [yes, she came to be read], can be challenging. But that those who do wander and wonder, “will see themselves progress along that endless continuum of what Christianity can be.” 

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“Doing your part to better the world”

“I’m astounded by people who have the intellectual honesty, courage, and fortitude, to examine their most deeply held beliefs. Not just examine, but challenge and reject beliefs that shape how their entire world is constructed—beliefs that they have been told were unequivocally true, by their most trusted sources, since they were little—beliefs that have been deliberately and systematically ingrained.”

With these words, Andrew Seidel opens his September 20 religiondispatches.org essay, “A Love Letter to #Exvangelicals and Those Deconstructing Their Toxic Faith”. Once a Grand Canyon tour guide, he, a constitutional and civil rights attorney, is an author, whose next book, Weaponizing Religious Freedom, is due out next year. He is, as well, the director of strategic response at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. He continues:

“…I think that deconstructing and leaving one’s faith behind—or, at very least, moving away from a narrow and authoritarian faith—is goddamned remarkable, a true intellectual achievement. Consider this my love letter to everyone deconstructing their faith, questioning the beliefs imposed on them as children….

“And if you’ve deconstructed to a healthier faith, free from authoritarianism, bigotry, sexism, and abuse—and if you’ve shed the tribalism, and the need to impose and convert and separate the religious from the humane—you’re doing your part to better the world, too.”

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By way of example, here are just 10 of the determinations, the insights, the outside-the-box notions, that came to light, all excerpted from books you’ll find in your own church Library. Read the books for yourself, others too, and see if the American Library Association has it right when it claims—this on one of its posters you’ll find hanging amidst the bookcases—“Libraries change lives”.  

☀︎  In “human domestication” our whole belief system is formed — from The Four Agreementsby Don Miguel Ruiz

“You didn’t choose your religion…. As children, we didn’t have the opportunity to choose our beliefs, but we agreed with the information that was passed on to us” by family, teachers, religious leaders, society itself. Our “belief system is like a book of law that rules our mind. Without question, whatever is in that book of law is our truth. […] These beliefs are so strong that, even years later when we are exposed to new concepts and try to make our own decisions, we find that these beliefs still control our lives. […] That is why we need a great deal of courage to challenge our own beliefs.”  

☀︎  A “thin place” is anywhere “the sacred becomes present to us” — from The Heart of Christianity, by Marcus Borg

“[T]here are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality—the visible world of our ordinary experience, and God, the sacred, Spirit.”  Borg then quotes Thomas Merton: “‘God is everywhere and in everything…. The only thing is we don’t see it.’ But occasionally we do ‘see it,’ do experience God shining through everything. ‘Thin places’ are…places where the boundary between the two levels become very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts, and we behold God, experience the one in whom we live, all around us and within. …a thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. …A thin place is a means of grace.” 

☀︎  Jack Spong includes in many of his books what can be thought of as his mantra — from Jesus for the Non-Religious, by John Shelby Spong

The same “God presence” seen in Jesus “calls us to live, to love, to be. …The call of the God experienced in Christ is simply a call to be all that each of us is—a call to offer, through the being of our humanity, the gift of God to all people, by building a world in which everyone can live more fully, love more wastefully, and have the courage to be all that they can be. …God is the experience of life, love, and being….”

☀︎  Belief and faith: there’s a difference — from How to be a Bad Christian, and a Better Human Being, by Dave Tomlinson

“There is…a common misconception that being a Christian means you have to believe certain things—give the nod to a pile of religious ideas and theories. This is simply not so. Beliefs are important; I have lots of them. But I don’t think any of my beliefs are going to get me into heaven, or keep me out. […] Let’s get it clear: Christianity is about faith, not belief. There is a difference. Faith is about having trust, whereas belief is more akin to having opinions. […] [T]rust is not about beliefs, creeds, opinions, arguments; it’s more instinctive, more fundamental. It doesn’t need words. It’s in your belly.”

☀︎  How to make the kingdom of God come true — from The Folly of God, by John Caputo

“…the folly of the kingdom of God [is that it] does not need God. In fact, the Supreme Being would ruin everything.” Why? Because it’s our job to forge the kingdom, in the here and now. “We are ones whom God is waiting for, the ones…to pick up where God leaves off. We are the ones God needs to…make what is being called for in the kingdom of God come true. […] [T]he weakness of God requires our strength to make God whole, and the folly of God is to let so much depend upon us.” 

☀︎  This book’s dust jacket asks, “What if the most important word is the one in the middle?” — from Faith and Doubt, by John Ortberg

“If you were to ask me why I believe in God, I suppose I would tell you a story about a baby.” And he goes on to tell the story of the birth of his first child. “On the other hand, if you were to ask me why I doubt, I suppose I would tell you a story about a baby, as well.” He then tells how friends lost their daughter in a swimming pool accident. “[W]e need both faith and doubt. The birth of every infant whispers of a God who loves…; the death of every infant calls his existence into question.” He then quotes another writer: “[D]oubt is not so much a dividing line that separates people into different camps as it is a razor’s edge that runs through every soul. […] I believe. And I doubt. The razor’s edge runs through me, as well.”

☀︎  “[T]hose who embrace mystery are set on a lifelong path of discovery, growth, and gratitude” — from Living the Questions, by David Felton & Jeff Proctor-Murphy

“The author Maya Angelou speaks of the lifelong journey of faith. She says, ‘I’m startled or taken aback when people walk up to me and tell me they are Christians. My first response is the question, “Already?”’” In other words, ours is, or should be, “a story that is always evolving, one in which the ending is not yet written. […] It’s the journey that’s important. It is what we learn along the way in relationship to the Divine and to one another that matters most.”

☀︎  “Genuine religious knowledge,” this book’s publisher claims, “is grounded in faith beyond reason” — from Faith Beyond Reason, by C. Stephen Evans

“[T]o the degree that reason insists that there is nothing that lies outside its power, it finds itself in tension with a faith that insists its object exceed’s reason’s grasp […] To come to faith, reason must recognize both its finitude and its own ‘damaged’ character; it must see that its tendency to reject the object of faith is due to a prideful, egotistic character that is in fact an impediment to truth.”

☀︎  Step #1: “[A]ccept that doubts are not negative, but positive” — from In Defence of Doubt, by Val Webb

“What doubters need is for someone to recognize their isolated captivity, and give them permission to take the first step out of it. […] The question church communities need to ask themselves is, ‘How do we provide a space of safety where people can voice their struggles…and not be banished back into silence because of their “doubts”?’ Even those churches who acknowledge in theory that there may be different ways to come to God have not provided, in practice, safe spaces to come out of the closet of doubts….” 

☀︎  “Progressive Christianity does not wish for a new creed or set of beliefs” — from With or Without God, by Gretta Vosper

“Progressive Christianity is…very careful not to create new prisons of ‘what-we-must-believe’. Progressives themselves stand on a continuum of thought, some going much further than others in their rejection of traditional arguments, but there is a conscious effort to keep Progressive groups as safe places…. The emphasis is about being on the way…rather than signing on the dotted line for a new set of rules. […] [W]hen you allow people to trust their experience as a guide to life, and think for themselves, you find a great diversity of conclusions.” 

— Ken Fredrick