Book Review

Point of Contact: books your neighbors are reading

Mindy L. Withrow
Elizabeth Gilbert
Wednesday, January 2nd 2008
Jan/Feb 2008

Divorced, depressed, and desperate to understand her place in the universe, journalist Elizabeth Gilbert decides to take a year off and travel the world in search of God. Or herself. Or herself as God. Well, it's complicated, this spiritual tour, and the significance of her desire to take such a voyage of self-discovery to countries beginning with the letter "I" is not lost on her. Italy, India, and Indonesia may have little in common besides the self-defining initial, but Gilbert believes each culture will provide one critical lesson of spirituality she must learn if she is to survive-lessons of pleasure, devotion, and balance. So she packs her bags.

It's helpful as we push off with her on this voyage to know something about her religious background. "Culturally, though not theologically, I'm a Christian," she declares in the early pages. "I can't swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian….To those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings and now excuse myself from their business" (14). This is a charitable sentiment but does not preclude "strict Christians" from shrugging off their hurt feelings and following her on this personal journey she makes public, analyzing the path to God she follows.

Or should I say paths. Rather than studying various religions and then choosing one-as a reader could reasonably expect in this context-Gilbert takes a consumerist approach. She starts with the closest dish on the all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet and then adds sides on the basis of being healthy or traditional or because she can't resist the gravy. "This whole book is about my efforts to find balance," she declares; she wants to "be with God all the time" but not "totally give up worldly pleasures." Well, who doesn't? But the world's major religions involve dietary laws, celibacy vows, the observance of certain fast days or periods of silence, the sacrifice of autonomy-none of which appeal to Gilbert. In fact, she has a better idea: "What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing?" (29).

The buffet metaphor is appropriate since Gilbert spends the first third of her year eating her way across Italy. Pasta, pizza, and gelato are among her companions while she fulfills a longtime goal of learning to speak Italian, fights depression and loneliness by journaling, and explores historical districts with citizens who have endured centuries of hardship while celebrating simple pleasures. Regaining confidence in her value as a human being, she begins to treat herself better: sleeping more, getting exercise, reading, slowing down to enjoy a meal of produce at its peak.

Four months and two jeans sizes later, Gilbert takes herself to India to develop spiritual discipline, a positive decision for someone who seems to have little experience actively cultivating any kind of discipline. She moves into the Ashram of her Guru, where she rises early for prayer, yogic meditation, and floor scrubbing. She studies the Bhagavad-Gita, from which she derives a guiding principle: "God responds to the sacred prayers and efforts of human beings in any way whatsoever that mortals choose to worship-just so long as those prayers are sincere" (206). The prayers and efforts she chooses are intended to produce enlightenment, a simple but difficult concept: "OK-so we are all one, and divinity abides within us all equally. No problem. Understood. But now try living from that place" (123). (Fair enough-how would you live if you realized you were god?) After weeks of struggling to quiet her mind, she experiences a moment of rapt ure in which she believes she has ascended to heaven, and on another occasion calls her ex-husband's soul to meet her on the rooftop in a mystical farewell exchange of forgiveness.

Finally free from her emotional baggage and centered in her own divinity, as she perceives it, she flies to the Indonesian island of Bali to pursue balance. For the first few weeks, she is apprentice to a medicine man who imparts a variety of wisdom to her, including a technique for "smiling in her liver." While there, she is moved by compassion to help a local single mother build a house. But mostly what she does in Bali is have lots of sex with an older Brazilian expatriate. Gilbert portrays this sexual abandon as the balancing point of everything she has learned about pleasure and devotion, but it is hard to see how a newcomer spiritualist who spent four months in prayer following 20 years of serial sexual relationships can refer to yet another affair as "balance."

Gilbert is gregarious, embarrassingly honest, and sincere. She is also impulsive, scattered, and a bit entitled. Her ruminations include excellent insights, such as why many of us have an inability to relax and enjoy pleasure without guilt; or how providing a casserole can be an act of grace; or how we need to "learn to stay still and endure a bit more without always getting dragged along on the potholed road of circumstance" (173). Yet, to a lifelong devotee of any religion, her tone has the feel of a teenager back from two weeks of digging latrines with a youth group in a South American village offering casual advice to a veteran missionary. You want to applaud her for setting aside the clutter of everyday life and pursuing God, but you also want to remind her that a year of eating and praying and having wild sex on a tropical island isn't the same thing as a lifelong, self-denying commitment to a Person greater than yourself. Her hand-crafted religion is ce rtainly more exotic than mine, but since she has dismissed any spiritual authority other than her desires, on what basis can she claim it is better?

It's easy to understand why people have turned hungrily to this bestseller. Gilbert says prior to her journey that she was "tired of being a skeptic" and that many of her friends long "to have something to believe in"; indeed, this is perhaps the defining heart cry of her (and my) generation, the impulse that leads to the act of setting out with a searchlight. What's not easy to understand is what people get out of the book. True, it's a fascinating account, but almost a case of the emperor has no religion. Her "worldview that excludes nothing" has not synchronized the "seemingly incongruous opposites" as she intended, but has in fact excluded those bits that don't fit in-bits like, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Eat, Pray, Love is an accurate barometer of contemporary spirituality, telling of the confusion and anguished seeking of the young professional generation that has grown up in an increasingly global world under the banner of toleration at any cost. Christians involved in communities that are unwilling to respond openly to bare existential questions will find some aspects of Gilbert's passionate approach appealing-and, therefore, Christian leaders will find this book useful for informing themselves and preparing for serious discussion. But young (and old) spiritual pilgrims seeking encouragement and insight for their journey would do well instead to turn to Lauren Winner's Girl Meets God, a similarly styled-but significantly sounder-spiritual memoir.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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