Monday, July 5, 2010

A review of "Take This Bread" by Sara Miles

I am not writing an overview of the entire book.  It has many outstanding qualities which have been discussed in other reviews in the two years since the book was initially published.  Instead I am focusing on two areas where I would say I have a partial agreement with the author: the enthusiasm and form of the formal liturgy in the Episcopal Church (and within Christianity as a whole) and the value of orthopraxy.  Perhaps, if we discussed it, I would find that Ms. Miles and I agree more than it appears, so I am conscious of the fact that only a small portion of what she thinks and feels could be put in her book and therefore open to distortion or misunderstanding, so my review is written in a spirit of charity where I assume the best of her thoughts, feelings, and motives.


Miles presents several criticisms, but it's helpful to look at the background she presents of herself.  She never had any kind formal training or education in anything and has picked things up as she went along.  She is deeply proud of this background and at times almost defensive about it, making sure her audience realized the value of of such informal education.  There is something to be said for this.  People who undergo formal training often develop blind spots and unchallenged assumptions and sometimes they forget (how) to think for themselves.  They spend to much time in a book and not enough time in the field. It is therefore important to listen to critiques by institutional outsiders and those with an unorthodox perspective.

However, Miles never seems to reconcile with tradition or investigate some of her assumptions, going with the notion that the Apostle Paul was a total misogynist (there is exegesis suggesting otherwise), that the creeds are nothing more than tools for division and exclusion (they can be used as such but that isn't all there is to them), and that traditional liturgies, such as those outlined  in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and practiced in many congregations, are dry and lifeless barriers to true spiritual engagement.  The latter is not unexpected since it was the opinion of the two priests who designed and founded the parish where Miles found Christ.

There is a constant irony in every reform effort that some traditions are kept as valid or genuine while others are restructured or discarded, but this always takes place in community.  One person may become a righteous crusader and with a small flock schism into a new congregation or denomination to follow their own vision of the "true" teachings or experiences of God, and the frequency of this occurrence can be seen in the number of "churches" that have sprung up over the centuries.  But unity is part of community, and efforts to unite people can sometimes have the opposite effect.  Yet if orthodoxy had been completely abandoned, the sacred texts and coherence of even the revised liturgy to which Miles was exposed may not have survived. 

There is always a tension between received wisdom and unfolding revelation, between tradition and innovation.  This tension demands a respect for the former and an openness to the latter.  Miles says she felt bored in a traditional service where the priest mumbled through his part and the congregation lethargically replied in monotone.  But does that say more about the liturgy or those practicing it?  If the priest had been enthusiastic and the congregation had boldly and loudly responded, would that have made a difference to her? 

For some, a traditional liturgy helps them connect to people of the past who spoke the same words, giving them a sense of unity as well as a sense of comfort and even excitement of being connected to something so ancient.  Like a dancer who has practiced the same steps over and over or a musician who has played the same notes over and over, the familiar repetition when coupled with mindfulness, an energy of awareness, can lift the celebrant out of the familiar into a unison and communion with something greater.

So for me the issue isn't just the form of the liturgy, but the form can matter.  Based on her descriptions of the innovative liturgy of her home parish, I think I would be very uncomfortable with (a bit of truth and exaggeration coming up) what sounds like a group of wealthy aging hippies and hipsters and folks from the "it really is art" scene dancing around me in tye-dye robes inviting me to drink the blood of Christ.  I have nothing against people who (sort of) fit such a description nor with their liturgical innovations, but it isn't for me.

That's the key.  The Book of Common Prayer (and a degree of congregational discretion in many other denominations) allows for unity in diversity in such matters.  Within a broad framework there is room for modification to suit people with varying tastes, backgrounds and needs.  This is also the model for the Body of Christ itself.  It is a patchwork.


Having a sense of her issues with orthodoxy (correct belief) I turn to orthopraxy (correct behavior).  She expressed her feeling that the proper practice for Christians is to serve others -- to express a physical and emotional solidarity with the poor as Christ did.  Here I agree with her along the lines of The Irresistible Revolution (Shane Claiborne) and The Case for God (Karen Armstrong).  The latter contains the following insight:

[A] myth would not be effective if people simply “believed” in it. It was essentially a program of action. It could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the “truth” of the myth a reality in your own life. The only way to assess the value and truth of any myth was to act upon it...Myth and ritual were thus inseparable, so much so that it is often a matter of scholarly debate which came first: the mythical story or the rites attached to it. Without ritual, myths made no sense and would remain as opaque as a musical score, which is impenetrable to most of us until interpreted instrumentally.

Religion, therefore, was not primarily something that people thought but something they did. Its truth was acquired by practical action. It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place...

Religion is a practical discipline that teaches us to discover new capacities of mind and heart. This will be one of the major themes of this book. It is no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth—or lack of it—only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action. Religious people find it hard to explain how their rituals and practices work, just as a skater may not be fully conscious of the physical laws that enable her to glide over the ice on a thin blade. The early Daoists saw religion as a “knack” acquired by constant practice...
Perhaps it was just my influence on the reading, but I did get the sense from time to time that Miles had very specific ideas about how one ought to go about such service, but again I return to the model of unity in diversity.  The unity though, I would agree, must contain face-to-face interactions with the poor.  And not just fleeting acts of charity, but the establishment of relationships, often with people you would never have chosen on your own.

Overall the book is well written and inspiring, and despite what I feel are some over-generalizations or superficial observations, the laity and priesthood of the Episcopal Church and other communions and denominations would benefit from seeing the Church from her point of view.

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