Church, Forrest. Lifecraft: The Art of Meaning in the Everyday (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000)
Church, Forrest. Love & Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008)
Historian and minister Forrest Church is the author of many religious/political books: God and Other Famous Liberals, The Jefferson Bible, and The Separation of Church & State. Drawing on his ministerial experience, Church has also written several other books on the big issues of life, love, and death; I am here examining Lifecraft and Love & Death. Like the late Randy Pausch (who was also a Unitarian), Forrest Church assembled the latter book after being diagnosed with terminal cancer; unlike Pausch, Church is happily still with us.
I use the word "assembled" rather than "written" as Love & Death is largely a collection of sermons and other reminiscences that discuss--not surprisingly--the subject of death and how it informs the ways we live our lives. Some of the stories he tells in Love & Death overlap with Lifecraft, but that is to be expected; I read them together because they cover similar terrain, and because Church tells his stories well.
Not surprisingly for a Unitarian, Church's theology is a liberal one; also not surprisingly for a (lapsed) Unitarian, I found myself largely in agreement with him except when his frequent mentions of god distracted from rather than enhanced his message. As Church wrote in Lifecraft, "You cannot expect to pick up a book by a preacher that doesn't have at least a little bit of preaching in it." (p. 92) His harmoniously common-sense stances only veered into jarring dissonance on rare occasion, as in this passage:
At their dying moment, no one wishes that they had spent more time in the office, made more money, read more books, or become a better squash player. (Lifecraft, p. 117)
As someone who has a to-be-read list exceeding 4000 volumes--which is continually growing--I will doubtlessly prove unable to read them all in my remaining years. My regret over those losses will be mitigated by other (greater) joys related to family and friends, but the regret will likely exist nonetheless. (I don't care for squash, but I may well wish I had become a better racquetball player.)
Of everything Church wrote in these two books, this passage was perhaps the most off-key:
If your neighbor disagrees with your personal theology, short of changing your mind--a prospect that may not delight you--you have only four options. You can convert, destroy, ignore, or respect her. Fundamentalists of the right usually attempt conversion, but sometimes, as we know firsthand from recent experience, they chose to destroy in God's name. Fundamentalists of the left tend to ignore such disagreements as irrelevant, but they, too, may choose destruction. One need witness only the gulags and crematoria to recognize that religious zealots alone have not cornered the market on muting the exercise of religious and political freedom by resorting to mass murder. (Love & Death, p. 81)
Church's mention of "crematoria"--clearly a reference to the (Christian) Nazi regime--turns this passage from mildly bothersome to severely disappointing. He should have known better than to ignore the Christian roots of Nazi anti-Semitism.
Also, as someone who overcame a drinking problem, Church has surely heard the term "dry drunk," which is an alcoholic who has stopped drinking but not yet made the other behavioral changes necessary for a full recovery. Giving up alcohol is necessary but not sufficient for recovery, and I would use this analogy for the Soviet Union's tyranny: a "dry drunk" partial recovery from Czarist totalitarianism. They had discarded the religious trappings, but the blind submission and other aspects of the authoritarian mindset were not purged. As their horrific experience demonstrates, secularism is a necessary precondition for a free society, but it is clearly not a sufficient one.
When writing later about William Blake's angelic visions, Church asks,
Does that mean angels really exist? Who knows. It is impossible to prove the existence of angels without leaving their realm. Like God, angels are beyond proof. Once we start arguing about whether or not angels exist, we have already missed the point. (Love & Death, p. 129)
The point is this: since the existence of angels--like gods--cannot be proven, it is not nearly as pointless to argue about them as it is to believe in them. Aren't there enough real things to argue about without inventing other bones of contention?
Depending on your tolerance for god gibberish and other religious fluff, you may get less out of Church's books than I did, but I can still recommend them as aids toward considering some deep questions:
The answers we arrive at may not be religious answers, but the questions death forces us to ask are, at heart, religious questions: Where did I come from? Who am I? Where am I going? What is life's purpose? What does this all signify? (Love & Death, p. x)
Those are philosophical questions--not merely religious ones, as Church claims--but that's an argument for another time. Here's to hoping that he's around to write a sequel...
< digression >
When Church went into his riff on the movie Titanic, I couldn't help but remember these two scenes, (which I have mentioned before) that take place after the ship's musicians had been assembled to soothe the passengers' savage breasts [typos fixed]:
The band finishes the waltz. Wallace Hartley looks at the orchestra members.HARTLEY
Right, that's it then.
They leave him, walking forward along the deck. Hartley puts his violin to his chin and bows the first notes of "Nearer My God to Thee". One by one the band members turn, hearing the lonely melody.
Without a word they walk back and take their places. They join in with Hartley, filling out the sound so that it reaches all over the ship on this still night. The vocalist begins: "If in my dreams I be, nearer my God to thee..."
WALLACE HARTLEY sees the water rolling rapidly up the deck toward them. He holds the last note of the hymn in a sustain, and then lowers his violin.HARTLEY
Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.
The rest of Titanic was a overwrought mess, but that episode spoke to me in ways that the rest of the film did not: about the power of art even--or especially--in the face of death.
< /digression >