by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
I was invited to check out a book group here in our new City. Meeting new people while sharing books and ideas is a great combination, discovered by lots of people. But after my first half hour among them, I knew that this was an unusual and lively spot. Its composition is large and unexpected. They all seemed to like each other. The content requires intellectual and spiritual traveling that takes considerable courage and zest.
What’s The Group About?
The group meets in a United Church, and is composed largely of Church women, with a couple of outsiders like me. Weekly, up to 19 members meet around a big square of tables for 2 ½ hours and taking turns, read the chosen book aloud, from beginning to end (it may take a month to cover several hundred pages). The ethos is one of unconditional welcome, with license to interrupt with comments if one is so moved. The choice of books is open to suggestion and preferred titles are those exploring the liberal edge of Christianity. Here is where the rubber keeps meeting the road, as the challenge to cherished ways of understanding faith are held up to critical analysis by an array of intelligent commentary. Politics and economics enter the discussion, of course, as members – not obvious radicals – face the implications of old illusions being stripped away in favour of the fundamentals of what Christ came here for.
The average age of the group is, at a rough guess, 75 years. There are several in their late 80’s and a few under 65. If I ever thought that baby boomers had a monopoly on open-mindedness, I’ve had to dump that idea.. Slap on the wrist, for sure. This is as open-minded yet principled a group as any I’ve had the chance to mentally tangle with.
The Ethos and Atmosphere
The members are also witty, ready to laugh; from chuckles to outright guffaws when there’s a wisecrack. Their comments are relevant and move the discussion along. As they assemble, there’s evident pleasure in seeing each person come into the room. (Is this characteristic of a long life: the reappearance of each other every week as a relief, because you can’t take it for granted? [joke]) Some were professional women in their work life and now travel for whatever reasons they like. We take an interest in each other’s adventures and there’s time for telling stories.
Competition isn’t in the air. Permission to question and disclose is. One of the few rules is “no apologies for what you’re about to say”. This was apparently hard to learn and for a while there was a fine for every apology that slipped out. One learns personal things about one or another and it doesn’t seem jarring but rather appropriate. I think that is because everyone there has arrived at a point of leaning toward the truth about what matters. The personal is understood as being intricately mingled with the spiritual.
Big Changes in Vision
It is the Wisdom Jesus, not the traditional Apocalyptic Jesus, that resonates as theologians and commentators of that persuasion gently argue their positions with a variety of literary styles and approaches.
Many weeks, one or another member will comment on the shift in her previously unquestioned attachment to the ‘faith of our fathers’. Participating in this book group over several years, some of their old beliefs have been stripped away. But they don’t seem bereft, left with nothing. Rather the new ways of regarding God and Jesus are quite vital and true. Such revelations, of losing and finding, are quite moving. We can keep growing and changing – here are people doing it.
Trust as One of the Fundamentals
The trust seems to have developed among these women that we are not alone. We don’t have any idea how creatively the human and holy spirit can function to help us re-invent a way to carry on but we’re trusting that it will. Before and perhaps even after the end of human life. I like to think that the women who, like me are more close to the end, are finding newness and confidence in a relationship with a God who can’t be put in our pocket but who is here, among and in us.
Yesterday, a participant in The Jesus Seminar (the scholarly biblical panel that worked through the Bible to find what they could of historical truth) came to speak with the group. Not too scary any more for this intrepid group of seniors who won’t stop questioning and learning. What a remarkable thing – to find oneself among such people.
Are You Part of an Inspiring Group?
If you have a group you’d like to write about, please send to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some of the 25 books that this group has read since 2005:
The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions by Marcus Borg & N.T. Wright
The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels by Thomas Cahill
The Sins of the Scriptures Exposing the Bible’s Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love by John Shelby Spong
What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East by Bernard Lewis
The Ethical Imagination: Journeys of the Human Spirit by Margaret Somerville
With or Without God: Why the Way we Live is More Important Than What we Believe by Greta Vosper
The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind: A New Perspective on Christ and His Message by Cynthia Bourgeault
Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell