This summer, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Christian educator Debbie Houghton invite readers to get a copy of Diana Butler Bass’s new Grounded: Finding God in the World and read along with us. For five weeks, David and Debbie will offer five reflections on Bass’s book with questions to consider. Here is Part 1 …
By DAVID CRUMM
In the beginning …
We all know that phrase. According to an often-cited Gallup study of Bible readership, Genesis ranks as the second most popular book of the Bible (right behind Psalms)—and that’s where Christian scholar and educator Diana Butler Bass begins the transformative book that she calls “the first book of the second half of my life.”
If you want to glimpse how different—how personally urgent—this new book is within Bass’s body of work, then look at her Amazon author page. You’ll find wonderful books that many people who care about Christianity in America—preachers, teachers, lay leaders, journalists, scholars—already have on their shelves, especially A People’s History of Christianity. She’s famous for her deep understanding of how religion took shape in America and where faith is headed today. She’s a sought-after speaker and retreat leader, often invited to help religious leaders grapple with trends in American culture.
But in this new book, she’s taking a giant step literally into the world—this book opens with her walking an outdoor labyrinth—and she is inviting readers in a new way to come on a pilgrimage with her.
Next week, Debbie Houghton is going to share some of her thoughts about the first three chapters of this book, called Dirt, Water and Sky. This week, I’m explaining the context of this unusual series, urging you to get over to Amazon and order a copy of the book so you can read along—and I’m sharing reflections on the book’s introductory section called Genesis. Debbie and I also will share with you some questions that we are asking as we read this book—so you can enrich your reading by reflecting on them with us.
WHERE IS GOD?
In Genesis, the book’s opening section, the first question is easy to formulate:
Where is God?
Diana poses that question to readers repeatedly in her opening section. For centuries, Christian preachers and teachers described God as somewhere high above us—in one era even describing the detailed geography and levels of Heaven like a Michelin guide to the cosmos. Or, on a very practical level, millions of Christians thought of their churches as God’s home on earth. Or, for many centuries, Christian leaders taught that they were especially empowered to be God’s authorities in the world, so a lot of people looked up at hierarchical figures as somehow the gatekeepers of God’s kingdom.
So, Diana asks us: Where is God? Where is God for you—now?
It’s not a spoiler to say that returning to the book of Genesis is a clue to re-envisioning God with us right here in the garden of this world. That’s why Diana opens this section with a description of her walk in the outdoor labyrinth.
If you are like Debbie and myself, reading a good book is like setting off fireworks on the Fourth of July. We read an especially moving passage in a book and—even as we are savoring the scene before us—we also have a cascade of images and memories bursting around us. That’s often what we mean when we talk about “a good book,” isn’t it? We mean that the world within this particular book connects with our own world in unexpected ways.
When reading the opening section of Grounded, two images popped in my mind. One is the NASA satellite image of the world, shown above. And the other is far more—well, far more grounded. It’s this photograph from many decades ago of my father in law, Michigan dairy farmer Leo Weil, harvesting wheat. When he died, we featured this image in his memorial reflections. He devoted his life to understanding the earth around him, producing countless quantities of food and milk, supporting his community—and raising a family.
Where was God for Leo Weil? No question, as Diana would put it, he was grounded. I wish Leo was in his prime today and could come to a workshop or a retreat discussing Diana’s book. If that were possible, I would simply ask him to tell his life story, how he started his farm and developed it over the years and explain what matters to him in life. In one man’s life, you’d have a pretty powerful perspective on what Diana is trying to convey to us.
In the opening section of her book, Diana explains that right now, tens of millions of Americans are “crafting a new faith.” For those of you whose connective fireworks are reaching for a more technical term—Diana is describing this new era in spirituality as bricolage, assembling something new from the materials we have at hand. She is inviting us through these pages to look around and to freshly consider the meaning of all the stuff we can find around us.
Where is God? When you read that question, what images pop into your mind?
How does God connect with us from wherever God is today? That’s a question Diana poses herself in this section of the book.
When you think of the opening passages of Genesis, what images come to mind? Adam and Eve? The creation of the animals? Water? A garden?
If you were going to talk about these questions with someone you know—who would you invite to sit down, have a cup of tea or coffee and talk for an hour?
Consider adding some notes to a journal.
Add a comment below. What questions would you add to our list? In effect, we’re building a public study guide here. Perhaps you’ve got some questions you’d like to ask your class or group as you consider this book. Share them with us.
Got an image you’d care to share? Email us at [email protected] because we’d love to hear from you with thoughts, questions and even images that fire in your memory as you go on this journey with us.
Want to learn more about visionary Americans who tried to “ground” themselves spiritually in the unusual homes they created for themselves and their families? Read our review of Don Freeman’s new documentary Art House.