Christianity in Cultural Context
Strength for the Journey: A Pilgrimage of Faith in Community goes back several years, written by Diana Butler Bass in 2002. But don’t let that date make you think the book is out-of-date. For following the latest of trends, perhaps. But this is a timeless story, and told as an interesting first-person-story by Dr. Bass, who’d been raised as an Evangelical and become Episcopalian (Anglican) by her late college days. It’s timeless in that she covers numerous issues we might say are core in the psychology of spirituality. Also timeless in that her description of several church congregations takes on emotional, deeply social/cultural forces impacting worship, beliefs, and church life. In that regard, I’d call it a contribution to a social psychology of religion, comparably important for understanding religion as is personal psychology or other angles of view.
If you are among the many (perhaps in the millions of) former Evangelicals who struggle with finding a new faith community or wondering if you might return to one, I think you’ll find wisdom and support in this book. Or if you don’t intend to attend any church or want a faith community beyond perhaps a couple friends but are curious about American churches, either Evangelical or Mainline or some mixture (as many are, which the book illustrates), you’ll learn from Strength for the Journey.
Stories of Joys and Struggles in Mainline Churches
Bass structures her book around the seven main Episcopal churches she’d been a member of for a good two decades. In this part of my review, I’ll briefly summarize the cultural and denominational or community aspects of the churches she describes. While she focuses on Episcopal churches particularly, most of the issues apply much broader, to Mainline Protestantism but also to all other churches, including Evangelical and Roman Catholic.
I enjoyed the author’s blending of her personal story of struggles and changes with those of the churches… a sort of autobiography which helps the reader feel the atmosphere of these varied churches, from their architecture and decor to their successes and failures. In part two of this review (follow the site for notification), I will highlight a few points from Bass’s career and personal life as revealed in the book.
For now, it will be helpful to know a few basic things about her life and reasons for several moves. Dr. Bass was born in Baltimore and raised initially with regular attendance at a Methodist church. In her teens, she had a spiritual experience in an Evangelical youth group context and became happy with both the theology and the church style of the broad alliance of Evangelicals of the 1970s. (Much of its theology has remained the same to the present, but Evangelicalism had yet to heavily align itself with the “religious right” politically or feel as threatened as it appears to now.)
The author begins her vignettes of churches with one in Santa Barbara, the small California city near the Christian liberal arts college she attended, Westmont. Near the end of her time there, she felt a strong draw to reconnect to something closer to the church style of her childhood in the form of an Episcopal church. Her career and educational interests soon took her to Boston and then to Durham, North Carolina, for Duke University. A teaching career brought her back to Santa Barbara for a few years, after which she landed in Memphis, Tennessee, and eventually in Alexandria, Virginia, attending the final church featured in this fascinating mini-tour of churches across the entire country.
Dr. Bass is a highly respected historian of Christianity and religion in America. Thus, in this book you will find a strong element of careful historical research, both about the local congregations featured and about the larger historical and cultural developments surrounding them. As mentioned, this is done in story form and from her direct involvement, whether at the evangelically-oriented Westmont College, other schools she attended, or the featured churches. Because of this, I think readers with interest in any of several areas will enjoy and learn from the book:
- Finding a reasonable personal fit in a church community
- Handling a crisis of faith, transitioning beliefs
- Religion in America
- Women leaders in church
- Gender roles in the Bible
- Transitions in denominational distinctives and forms of worship
- Decline of Mainline churches
- Functional and dysfunctional church “politics”