Witches of America is in some ways the antithesis to other spiritual narratives that have been popular recently, such as Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which focus on practitioners reinventing themselves outside of their respective religions. It is author Alex Mar’s narrative as she investigates Pagan worship in contemporary American society, first as a documentarian for her film American Mystic, which profiles different practitioners of alternative religions, and then as an initiate into the Feri, a self-described “sex cult,” struggling against her inherent skepticism and upbringing as an atheist to experience transcendence for herself.
While Mar has a down-to-earth attitude in the face of mysticism that many readers will relate to, she is also honest about her biases and attempts to approach the weird without judgment. In spite of the sensationalism the subject matter inherently conjures up, her exploration reveals how practicing Pagans are seeking answers to questions all spiritual people ask, including what it means to have a higher calling and what actions it takes to live a “good” life. As an investigator, Mar comes across as a sympathetic interlocutor, actively trying to immerse herself in a society that is extremely conscious of its outsider status and protective of what that status entails. As she puts it, “Groucho Marx would have understood the witches: their clubs do not necessarily want you as a member.” The results of her mining are revealed in her personal development and include several thoughtful observations regarding skepticism and faith.
Whether you’re a recent graduate cautiously beginning your post-college existence or someone who has been fumbling through adulthood for years, you will find something to inspire you in these two new books about living a brave and compassionate life.
Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better: Wise Advice for Leaning into the Unknown by Pema Chödrön was originally a commencement address made at Naropa University to the graduating class of 2014 — which included Chödrön’s granddaughter — on the “fine art of failing.” Chödrön, an American-born Buddhist nun, has written extensively about the themes she touches on in her speech, and her message resonates at any stage of life: Prepare for the inevitability of failure, and welcome the unwelcome. This slim volume with its simple brushstroke illustrations also includes an interview with the author where she addresses a variety of real-life situations, including what to do when your failure is so great that it results in another person’s death.
Memoirist and novelist Cheryl Strayed gives us Brave Enough, a compilation of quotes from her previous books, including Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and her “Dear Sugar” advice column. Rather than recounting anecdotes from 18th century Tibet, Strayed uses metaphors and imagery more grounded in the contemporary experience. “Forgiveness doesn’t just sit there like a pretty boy in a bar,” she writes. “Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up the hill”. Devoted readers will enjoy revisiting Strayed’s most memorable and favorite bits of advice, but new readers will also find sagacity in her straightforward yet gentle voice.
In some circumstances, 10 percent may seem insignificant. A $50 item listed at 10 percent off, in reality, only saves you $5. Yet Dan Harris, in his book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works – A True Story, demonstrates that his 10 percent increase in the happiness department really has made a significant difference. Harris is the co-anchor of ABC’s Nightline. His years of covering international combat, followed by hard recreational drug use, culminated in an on-air panic attack about 10 years ago. Realizing that his greatest battle was with the “voice in his head,” Harris researched non-traditional remedies which led to Buddhist meditation and mindfulness development as a way to improve health and his outlook on life.
Described as a book written for, and by, “someone who would otherwise never read a spiritual book,” 10% Happier provides plenty of practical, authoritative information about meditation and its benefits, as well as Harris’ own journey to master his internal struggles. His time at a meditation retreat is especially telling of his progression and introspection. Along the way, readers learn about his career, his encounters with famous figures like the now-notorious Ted Haggard and James Arthur Ray, and his time with news legends like Peter Jennings. Some of the laugh-out-loud moments include his research into famous gurus like Eckhart Tolle, as well as his memories of yoga class as a child.
I recently read The Last Best Cure, and much of Harris’s research and experiences affirm the lessons in that book: There are scientifically founded ways to “green” your mind and repair your brain’s damaged pathways. Hilarious and well-written, this book steers clear of being a hokey, clichéd self-help guide. I especially recommend the audio version, which Harris narrates.
Blogger, mom and wife, and, in her own words, “recovering Jesus Freak,” Addie Zierman writes the story of her evangelical adolescence and young adulthood in When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Raised by parents who belonged to an evangelical church, Addie caught “fire” in her sophomore year of high school when she and her friends became devout Christians, first joining and then creating their own Bible study group at their high school. These were the 1990s, the days of WWJD?, mission trips to save lost souls and contemporary Christian pop music.
Divided into four sections, Zierman provides the reader with a glimpse into the mind of a young evangelical woman who believes she knows the path that her God has put forth. Pressing her along this journey is Chris, a young man three years older, who seems to Addie to have it all figured out. But as she eventually realizes, nothing she does is holy enough for Chris while he is in his own state of “fire,” and they part on bad terms. This breakup points Zierman toward her disillusionment with her beliefs; nonetheless, she enrolls in a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities. She meets the love of her life, Andrew, who shares Addie’s propensity for standing out from the rest of their classmates. After their marriage, failed attempts to find a church that has everything they’re looking for results in her rebellion against everything. This includes forays into alcohol abuse, a minor infidelity and previously undiagnosed depression. Ultimately, she finds redemption in creating a spiritual center that is right for herself and her family.
Conversationally composed, with very little religious jargon that might bother the casual reader, When We Were on Fire is an exceptional memoir. Relatable to anyone who has ever become fixated on a topic, whether it involves matters of faith, a romantic interest or otherwise, Addie Zierman’s work makes her a writer to watch.
Art historian Paul Koudounaris has developed a grotesque but incredibly interesting research niche as he uncovers Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. In this, the follow-up to his 2011 Coup de Coeur award-winning Empire of Death: A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses, Koudounaris continues to delve deep into the centuries-old mystery of the veneration and bejeweling of full skeletons and individual bones of Christian “saints” in Europe. In the past, the relics have made their appearances only once a year at festivals, but the author was granted unprecedented access to examine and photograph these unique marvels.
Beginning in the early middle ages, the remains of various Christian martyrs were buried in the Roman catacombs. Long forgotten, the skeletons filled the underground passages until the era of the Protestant Reformation. In the late 1500s through the following century, many Catholic churches were looking for relics that would help to invigorate their parishioners to remain devoted. These churches, mostly in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, were sent authenticated bones from The Vatican with official documentation identifying them as having belonged to early Christian martyrs. In the intervening years, many of these unofficial saints have been “decanonized” by Roman Catholic officials.
Individual examples and stories of the relics and the stunning manner that they are displayed make up the bulk of this fascinating look at the crossroads of religion, art and history. Sumptuous photographs of the artifacts in all their dazzling glory, including a breathtaking double-page spread of the “Chapel of Bones” at the Basilica of St. Ursula in Cologne, complete this unique volume.
Punk-rock bassist and Soto Zen monk Brad Warner’s There Is No God and He Is Always with You: A Search for God in Odd Places takes its title from a well-known Zen Buddhist quotation. Warner believes that it “expresses the Zen Buddhist approach to the matter of God very succinctly.” As he explores the question of what God means to Buddhists and what non-Buddhists can learn from Zen teachings, Warner addresses spiritual and practical considerations through his experiences.
Having recently traveled the world doing book tours, spiritual retreats, and lectures, the author considers the roles of the body and mind and how people of various religious and cultural backgrounds conceptualize them. He travels to the Holy Land and meets and stays with an elderly Palestinian peace activist who owns a hostel that only takes donations. Warner also finds himself teaching and learning in places where Zen Buddhism is quite unknown, such as in Mexico and Northern Ireland. In one section, he discusses how Buddhism rejects the common Western perception of the body and mind as separate. The opposite, in fact, is a core belief of Buddhists, as the Heart Sutra explains there is no division between body and mind.
A good choice as a beginning-to-intermediate look at how Zen Buddhism and Western traditions can complement and contrast, Warner’s conversational musings are accessible to anyone wanting to think about his or her own spiritual background and understanding. Readers of comparative religion authors such as Karen Armstrong and Thich Nhat Hanh will find much to consider in this thought-provoking book.
When the average Joe hears the word “Scientology,” Joe might think of celebrity devotees like Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Perhaps Joe thinks of founder L. Ron Hubbard and remembers the vast array of sci-fi pulp fiction stories authored by Hubbard. Does Joe, however, know what Scientology is? Is it a religion, a philosophy, a science or a cult? Lawrence Wright, in his book Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief takes an in-depth look at Scientology’s founder, Hubbard, and his successor, David Miscavige, the history of the organization, and its beliefs. Miscavige’s niece, Jenna Miscavige Hill, has a turn telling her story in Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape, which she co-authors with Lisa Pulitzer.
In Going Clear, Wright begins with an overview of Hubbard’s erratic early life, which includes stories of bigamy, psychological disturbances, and the near-death experience in the dentist’s chair which led to his formulation of the Scientology doctrine and the publication of what may be its bible, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health. Wright explores the growth of the movement, its appeal to the Hollywood crowd, and especially looks at the elite, highly committed and rigidly controlled Sea Org corps members.
Hill opens Beyond Belief by describing how she, at seven years old, signed a contract binding herself to “the Sea Organization for the next billion years...” As a Thetan, a sort of immortal soul, she would continue to inhabit bodies to fulfill the contract terms. Living on a ranch with other Sea Org children, she saw her parents only on Saturday nights. Her dedication to Scientology remained strong but as the demands of the group worked to increasingly both isolate and punish Hill, she broke ties with the community, as did her parents. Hill’s book is a very personal account of her Scientology experience, while Wright’s take is more scholarly, but both books examine the dichotomy of an organization espousing independent thought as essential to enlightenment while using coercive and intimidating tactics to maintain its membership base.
Baltimore-born Diana Butler Bass has written extensively about the state of matters of faith in America over the past thirty years. Now, in Christianity after Religion: the End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, she argues that we are once again in a spiritual upheaval in the United States. This, she posits, is yet another in the line of spiritual “awakenings” that has gripped people of faith during times of change, such as today - the early 21st century.
Bass discusses some of the religious changes that have taken hold in the United States: the falling away of many from the faiths of their parents and ancestors; the loss of membership among large Christian denominations, such as Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant groups; and the current rise in self-made spirituality. A surprising piece of information is how megachurches, which grew out of the most recent spiritual awakening of the 1970s, have largely plateaued in popularity over the past decade. Testimonies, analyzed polls, and quotes from religious scholars and leaders comparing the beliefs of Americans over the decades are interspersed throughout, lending considerable validity to her arguments.
The current awakening the author describes is the way in which Christianity is evolving beyond traditional religious structures. Our global connectedness and increased access to communication has allowed individuals to choose spiritual elements from many religious backgrounds, such as prayer, yoga, meditation, and joyful traditions to create their own connection with a higher power. These faiths are also instilled with valuable information coming from the secular world, such as environmental and social considerations. This is a provocative and eye-opening work from one of today’s top religion writers.