Monday, January 21, 2013

Eliza Wood Creates God In Her Own Image

Eliza Wood, Crisis of Faith

Eliza Wood wants to be Dan Brown for the loyal opposition. She wants to have God, and she wants to have Christ, but she wants to exclude any Scriptural content that seems outdated or makes her uncomfortable. Her first book attempts to kick-start debate about the future of religion in America. Sadly, people don’t debate boring, obtuse books that treat readers like cattle to be herded.

In the wake of Christian terror attacks, the President convenes a blue ribbon panel. Their mission: to examine the Holy Bible, purge it of impure influence, excise any passages that offend modern tender sensibilities, and push a new, nonprovocative religion on the world. Christian Identity extremists in California, meanwhile, somehow take offense at this and start planning a violent pushback to assert their own religious and secular primacy.

The format Wood chooses is an annoying contrivance. Novels are driven by action and dialog. But entire chapters go by in which no action takes place. The characters don’t converse, they discourse at one another, in monologues which lap over pages and pages, interspersed with block quotes, in-text citations, and bullet lists. Yes, inside the character monologues. They aren’t speaking, they’re reciting the author’s position paper.

Wood further peppers these monologues with endnotes. Some of these notes direct readers to her appendices, of which she has twelve. Many include lists extracted from the interwebs. Others include citations of “sources.” Ms. Wood is insufficiently discerning in her sources. I may disagree with his conclusions, but Bart Ehrman is at least a serious scholar. Dan Brown is not. Likewise, Christopher Hitchens: strong source. Glenn Beck: weak source.

Stop rolling your eyes.

Not that her narrative completely lacks action. In rare moments, something beyond oration actually happens. Take the scene, around page 100, when “Radical Christians” come gunning (literally gunning) for an Ayurvedic lecturer for “the book I wrote on Jesus.” Because Richard Dawkins lives in fear of his life. Yeah. By making the rare action about the conflict between unrelenting virtue and nameless straw men, Wood weakens an already flimsy story.

This slovenly research and contrived format result in prose that ballyhoos its weakness. Wood doesn’t bother to know anything about conservative Christians on their own terms; she simply reduces them to their most ridiculous outliers. She completely fails to see them in context: mainstream Christianity has not warmed to religious extremists. Scott Roeder and Eric Rudolph were reportedly astounded when their violence failed to hasten a Christian revolution.

Readers will probably greet the objections Wood raises to conventional Christian theology with shock and horror if they haven’t cracked their Bibles since grade school. Me, I grappled with her “astonishing” finds about, say, the changing role of women or slaves, clear back in 9th grade. Thinkers from Augustine and Aquinas to Bonhoeffer and King dealt with them even earlier. Her professed stupefaction makes Wood look merely uninformed.

Basically, Wood’s characters, acting as her voicebox, want God and Jesus, but none of the hard scriptural content that makes faith unpalatable for so many. Wood’s characters want to remake God in their own modernist image, bland, affable, and neutral. If the Bible that already exists doesn’t support their secularized liberal values, we should write our own Bible to remind us we’re good enough and sanctified as we are.

But scripture isn’t supposed to make us comfortable! Read the Tanakh or the Gospels: Jesus and the prophets did not come to confirm common earthly values. They came to call people out of worldly self-satisfaction, to remind us that living fully can often mean abjuring ourselves. The Hebrew and Christian scriptures (and you’ll see it in Confucius, the Buddha, the Koran, and elsewhere) preached against the very ethos that motivates Wood’s characters.

Personally, I’m with John Polkinghorne, particle physicist and Anglican priest. In Testing Scripture, Polkinghorne writes that we cannot read scripture in a vacuum, as Wood evidently does. Genesis was not written on Monday, and Revelation on Tuesday. Changing historical context matters. The mores of the audience matter. The Bible is not a novel to read cover to cover; it is a topic to meditate on, pray over, and love.

Wood’s official bio calls her “a social thought instigator on religious topics.” Well, this book might earn cheers from readers who already agree with her. But anybody who has spent any time contemplating ancient beliefs in modern context will find her contentions old hat, and her style tedious. I suspect Wood sets her cause back several paces with this tone-deaf book.

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