Denial is My Spiritual Practice. (And Other Failures of Faith) by Rachel G. Hackenberg and Martha Spong. Church Publishing, New York.
I received my “advance reader’s copy” of Denial is My Spiritual Practice about a week after it was available for purchase. Which is bad in the sense that I couldn’t get this review done before the book came out. But good because now you can buy it right away.
Also, it seems fitting that a book subtitled “(And Other Failures of Faith)” would experience some bumps along the publishing road. Nobody is perfect–not the vulnerable, honest, engaging authors, Martha Spong and Rachel G. Hackenberg, and not, apparently, whoever was in charge of sending out advance reader copies.
The honesty with which Martha and Rachel1 share their missteps, sorrows, and moments of grace makes this book a quick and compelling read. The authors alternate writing short chapters on topics such as body issues, prayer, parents, and divorce. Their subject matter and styles have enough similarity and overlap to make the book work as a cohesive whole, and enough of each individual voice to open up space for the reader’s thoughts and voice as well.
I certainly recognized my life in some of the writing: the little girl who gets all the right answers in Sunday School, the intimate coffee dates (except substitute the chai mentioned in a different chapter), the failed prayer practices, the issues with adopted children and birth parents, the beauty of officiating a funeral. And I can’t remember another book I’ve read that brought so many friends to mind: Stephanie needs to read “You Should Feel This Pain;” Gina needs to read “Five Cups of Coffee;” Kara needs to read “Secrets Too Deep for Words.”
Of course, nobody from my church is allowed to read “Lost in a Labyrinth” (which opens with: “Is it too strong to say that I hate labyrinths?”) until we are well and truly finished with our renovation project—that includes a stained concrete labyrinth in our new worship space.
This book is far too specific and honest for me to be able to relate to all of the experiences and feelings that Martha and Rachel share. As a pastor—and as a person—the points where I can’t relate are at least as much of a gift as the points where I do. I have new insight into, and renewed compassion for, people whose experiences are far outside the realm of what my life has brought (so far).
The last thing I need to say about the book is a little touchy, because I consider Martha and Rachel friends. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this book, for all its honesty, has a misleading subtitle. While the stories they tell may indeed reveal the “failures of faith” to operate in the ways we churchy people might expect, it is ultimately a book about the success of faith. Not that faith is successful because Martha or Rachel or any of us are spectacularly faithful, spiritual, people; but that faith is successful—it abides with us, it pushes us, it carries us through hard times—because God, apparently, needs so little to work with. Whether our spiritual practice is labyrinth walking or chai lattes or denial, this book helps us glimpse God’s faithfulness in the midst of messy lives.
1I know that convention dictates I refer to authors by their last names. And I am generally especially careful to do this for female authors. But I know Martha and Rachel from online community and when I tried referring to them as Spong and Hackenberg it felt too weird and went against the honest, vulnerable vibe of the book.