Best American Spiritual Writing 1998

Michael Joseph Gross reviews 'Best American Spiritual Writing 1998' by Philip Zaleski

Published December 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"The Best Spiritual Writing 1998" makes you want to take a shower. The
essays and poems in this first volume of an annual series (modeled after
Houghton Mifflin's "The Best American Short Stories") describe ways of
living that make you long for greater cleanliness and simplicity of life.
They are also the products of a somewhat grubby business -- the booming
niche market of spiritual publishing. Encountering "The Best Spiritual
Writing," readers face a familiar dilemma. Believers, like the
contributors to this anthology, are, by and large, inspiring, radiant
people -- they live big, lovingly, truthfully, openly. Yet their
collective presence (in churches, synagogues, yoga classes and
anthologies) often conveys a stifling orthodoxy, which can impart a
big-time case of the creeps.

The reigning orthodoxy of "The Best Spiritual Writing" is the business of
professional spiritual writing. The book is a hit parade of spiritual
bestsellers (Thomas Moore, Kathleen Norris) who pray for pay. Even the
three contributors whose biographical notes indicate involvement in
conventional ministries also contain long lists of publishing credits
that make clear where their first vocational loyalties lie. There's
nothing nefarious about believers wanting to see their work in print. For
those of us who believe that religion is a central aspect of human
existence, it's encouraging that some of the best new American books
consider spirituality to be an integral force in personal, political and
cultural struggles -- in novels such as Robert Stone's "Damascus Gate"
and Allegra Goodman's "Kaaterskill Falls," poetry such as Adam
Zagajewski's "Mysticism for Beginners" and Edward Hirsch's "On Love," and
nonfiction such as Bruce Bawer's "Stealing Jesus," Stephen Dubner's
"Turbulent Souls" and Marilynne Robinson's "The Death of Adam."

Yet the bestselling products of the religious publishing boom are books
like "Conversations With God," "Tuesdays With Morrie" and now, "The Best
Spiritual Writing," most of whose contributors write as if spiritual life
were an essentially self-centered enterprise, with only tangential
connections to communal religion. "The Best Spiritual Writing" contains
no straight sermons, academic essays or plain prayers; nothing that comes
directly from the life of a community of worship, seminary or yeshiva.
Also, there's not one piece of third-person reportage. Martin Luther
King Jr., George Herbert, Howard Thurman and Wallace Stevens, had they
been eligible for inclusion this year, would probably not have made the
cut. The book's editor, Philip Zaleski, seems to have a sweet tooth for
memoirs that have been mashed through the grinders of the magazine biz,
where inspiration can't be published without a prewritten proposal. So,
heartfelt as much of the writing may be, it also reflects the commodified
notion of spiritual relevancy in a world whose appetite for autobiography
has made "I" the dominant character of American spiritual life.

Most of the memoirs in "The Best Spiritual Writing" find God in cozy,
universal formulations: "It is the journey not the destination that
matters" (Joseph Epstein); "Lush nature invites us to look upward to find
our spirituality" (Thomas Moore). There are a couple of
religion-and-pop-culture pieces as well, including a soft-hearted paean
to Princess Diana by Leonie Caldecott: "I feel that she is reaching out
especially to one very grief-stricken, courageous man, who like her has
spent his life searching for love, for the deeper meaning of life (are
not the two, after all, one and the same?). That person is her husband,
Prince Charles." And there's a kitschy essay by Marc Gellman on "the
literary and cultural angel explosion" ("I want you to write a letter to
your angels"). Even the volume's least egoistic selection, an
explication of the Sabbath by Cynthia Ozick, is so lovely as to be
practically useless. "The Sabbath inspires us all to become the best that
we can be," Ozick avers, without considering the ethical barriers that
contemporary life throws up between us created beings and "the Sabbath's
focus on spiritual and moral elevation."

Yet the swamp of sap sometimes stirs with wisdom: Andre Dubus' vision of
Eucharist infusing the world; Anne Lamott's humble suggestion that "right
behind the cliché is the original message;" Rick Moody's two-sentence
indictment of postmodern linguists' dismissal of God: "God is a
theoretical repository for the idea of meaning, nothing more, a
repository who reflects meaning back onto a scarily empty system of
signs. You can't pray to that."

If "The Best Spiritual Writing" falls short of its title, that's to be
expected. We live in a fallen world -- writers have to make a living,
and readers should be thankful that publishers, whether from motives
false or true, are making some bucks off goodness, truth and beauty.
Besides, seekers who truly want a Word that speaks to them probably know
they can't buy it in paperback. A bedtime book like "The Best Spiritual
Writing" can offer vague and worthy inspiration, like the stars and sun
and moon. For most people, however, the really transforming words appear
in the harsher light of everyday life. The best spiritual writing comes
from writers who are writers incidentally, whose words are rooted
somewhere other than their word processors.

By Michael Joseph Gross

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston.

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