Strength for the Journey -- Review

Diana Butler Bass. Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community. Foreword by Phyllis Tickle. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2002. xix + 293.

We read memoirs for two reasons. We read them so as to get to know an author better. Indeed, memoirs take us deep into the psyche and experiences of an individual. We’re especially intrigued by famous figures or authors we’ve been reading. We also read them as a way of getting to know ourselves better. Sometimes as we read another person’s story, we see a mirror image of our own, and that mirror enlightens us as to who we are and where we’ve been.

Diana’s husband, Richard, told me that of all her books, his favorite was her memoir, Strength for the Journey. It’s possible that is because he figures into the story, but I think there is more to it than that. This isn’t the newest of her works – it was published in 2002 – but on Richard’s recommendation I purchased a copy and put it on the “to do” shelf. Finally, feeling the need to read something just a bit different, I picked it up and began to read. As I read I quickly saw parallels between our stories. To be honest, I already knew that our lives and stories overlapped at points – even though we didn’t meet until last year. But we’re about the same age, have lived in similar places, and likely our paths crossed even if we hadn’t formally met. So, as I read Strength for the Journey I saw my own story in her story.

This is the story of a person born into the church, who never left the church, but who at important points along the way struggled with her faith and her church. Like many of us who are of this generation (Baby Boomer), her journey led away from the church of her birth to a different one. The stories begin with her earliest memories of church life as a Methodist living in the Baltimore area. During her teenage years she moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where her family joined a conservative Bible church, one that emphasized an inerrant Bible and a wrathful God. From there it was off to college, seminary, doctoral studies, and finally a job in the academy. We read of her travels, her first marriage, its failure, and a second marriage that has sustained her journey. In the course of the chapters, we learn of her struggles to come to grips with her own faith and vocation.

That story is linked to a series of congregational studies. Diana began her life a Methodist, turned conservative Bible-believing Evangelical, and then in college found herself amongst the Episcopalians. It is her experiences in a series of Episcopal congregations across the country that forms the foundation of the book. We learn about her faith journey and about these very different churches. For the most part she names the names of people with whom she had positive interactions, and left unnamed those with whom she didn’t – though a few clergy are so mentioned, but not all. This is more celebration of the journey than expose.

My story is similar, in that I started out in the Mainline, verged to the Evangelical side, and then returned to the Mainline. As similar as this trajectory is, the stops along the way are different. She started out Methodist, but I began my life as an Episcopalian. She became a conservative Evangelical, while I spent my time with the Pentecostals. Her journey led to the Episcopal Church of my birth, but I ended up with the Disciples. All of this means that while our journeys are similar, there are significant differences as well. But our church experiences aren’t the only parallel tracks. We both attended Christian colleges, though mine was both smaller and perhaps a bit more moderate. We both attended Evangelical seminaries – she went to Gordon-Conwell and I went to the more moderate Fuller Seminary. As I read her decision to choose Gordon-Conwell over Fuller, I wondered if things would have turned out differently for her had she joined me – unknowingly of course – at Fuller. My own journey was has proven to be challenging at times, but my movement from Evangelical to Progressive has been more gradual and less heartrending.

Let me give an example of how our differences in context shaped us – interestingly, it is the issue of women’s place in the church. Diana had significantly more of a struggle with the issue than did I. Part of this is due to the fact that she married a man whose views on this issue were very conservative. It is also likely due to the fact that I had spent time in a denomination founded by a woman and then went to a seminary where women’s issues were paramount. While I may have been a chauvinist at points in my life, my ideology on this issue never hardened. On the issue of homosexuality, our struggles were closer in nature, but for different reasons we have come to a similar point, although the way the issue is being handled denominationally is different.

The stories of the churches are interesting, because we see a denomination in the midst of change. The Episcopal church of my youth was an establishment church, even as it remains to this day. But some are more so than others, and in this journey we encounter old line traditional congregations struggling with modernity. We see churches struggling theologically, especially in congregations influenced by Evangelicalism. We encounter churches, like Santa Barbara’s Trinity Episcopal Church, a church that is led by an openly gay priest. Trinity has become over the years a safe haven for all manner of seekers. It has a high church liturgy together with a strong social justice emphasis. Seekers are welcome. And though it is by definition an establishment church its participants run the gamut from the homeless to the wealthy.

Santa Barbara is one of those places were our stories overlap. Diana had been a student and then later a professor at Westmont College, facts that placed her in Santa Barbara. I came to Santa Barbara to pastor the Disciples church there, just as she was leaving for Memphis. I was introduced to her – not personally but intellectually – through her Sunday columns published in the local paper. Because of her time in Santa Barbara, I know Westmont and three of the churches that she participated in. I know pastors that she knows in those churches – and so her stories of these churches resonate with me.

An interesting factor in this book centers on the reasons why she became an Episcopalian. I think this factor goes to the heart of how we choose our faith homes. For most of us, it isn’t about structure or even theology. Often it is, as it was for Diana, the liturgy and the spirituality of the place. The structure is secondary, and even the theology can be secondary, though she would struggle theologically, because the Anglican tradition is not generally biblicist nor uniform. She struggled early on with its inclusiveness – “How could you have a church with no ‘uniformity of belief’?” (p. 86). But this struggle was softened by what she was experiencing in worship.

We learn in the course of her journey that church people can be gracious and loving and accepting of us. We also learn that churches and their people can be narrow, mean-spirited, and self-centered. There are churches that are open to renewal and others that are not.

On this score, I’ll simply reflect on her experiences at the one church in her journey that I know the best – Trinity in Santa Barbara. Trinity is a large, growing, influential congregation, that two decades ago was nearly dead. It was an establishment church that no longer attracted large numbers of establishment types in a community where spirituality is often non-institutional in nature. But, even during the most difficult of times, a remnant was there to continue the practices of faith. When Mark came, however, he brought a sense of openness to the Spirit that enlivened the old stone building. New things began to happen and the church burst open with faith. What is important to note is that it grew not by becoming more conservative, but by embracing a an open spirituality, allowing people to be seekers and in their seeking find a home that provided context and substance. They embraced Taize and the labyrinth. They served the poor and pursued biblical literacy. She speaks of a biblical vision of God that stirred her heart.

A more biblical vision of God – not as a vengeful and distant Father – richly plumbed for its paradoxes began to heal our wounds. We called it the love and justice year. As Mark explored these twin characteristics of God, we discovered that God’s love justified us, it made us right. And doing justice was God’s love. We had all been, in the theology of Martin Luther, justified by love and made right by mercy, and we were to be God’s people in the world. Broken, sinful, and welcomed. Healed, redeemed, and sent on mission. Gathered around the table, dispersed into the world. Two sides of the same thing. Journey inward, journey outward. God’s love
and justice. (p. 218).

Readers of this book will in the end discover that her journey proved to be the foundation for the important books she we write concerning Mainline renewal and faith practice. In the final chapter, an epilogue that brought her journey up-to-date, she talks about learning of intentional Christian practice. A member at that point of one of the most historic Episcopal congregations in the nation, Christ Church of Alexandria, she notes that it wasn’t the establishment nature of things that determined her faith. The fact that George Washington or Robert E. Lee had sat in its pews was of little ultimate importance. It was instead, the faith of the spiritual pilgrim that warmed her heart.

Diana’s message is clear – there is hope for the Mainline, even churches deeply rooted in their establishment roots. It isn’t the judicatories or the theological statements that make for renewal, for true renewal is local and grass roots. Your experience of Diana’s book might differ from mine. My story parallels hers in such a way that I was drawn into it spiritually and emotionally. With that confession made, I believe that this is one of those memoirs that will prove spiritually enlivening for all who read it.

And to Richard I say – you’re right, as good as Diana’s other books are, this is my favorite as well.


Richard said…
I knew you'd like it. And for the record, my journey (at least the part until I met Diana) could not be more different from both of yours (it's best described as intermittent mainline). The struggle to make church worth it (the time, the attention, the bother) is there for so many. Testimony like this, about why it is worth it and how churches can help make it worth it, is very valuable. She's gone on to describe very well--better than anyone else, I think--how churches do that, and the difference it can make when they do, but I still think "Strength for the Journey" does a great job of telling us why we should care, on very personal terms.

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