Good News 4: Flunking Sainthood with Jana Riess

What happens when an ordinary person—like you or me—tries to become a saint? What happens when we summon up our spiritual fortitude and take our best shot at practices like centering prayer, fasting, reading Scripture, keeping Sabbath? Well, the spoiler in this saga is: We fail. Most of us simply can’t keep pace with the spiritual Olympians who wrote some of those classic works.
But—in the striving to reorient our lives—we discover some of the timeless treasures in the pathways they lay out for us!

That’s what Jana Riess—the well-known journalist and author—spent a year discovering and now has is unfolding for the rest of us in the delightful new memoir Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor.

That’s why our interview with Jana fits into this Good News about the Church series.
You might want to jump back and read earlier parts in this series: First, our interview with Stephen Rossetti on why priests are among the happiest professionals in America (and you can read excerpts of Rossetti’s book, including tips on prayer).
Or, read our interview with Thomas Groome about the powerful influence of religious education—if we pursue learning throughout our lives.


DAVID: You earned a masters in theology from Princeton and a doctorate in American Religious Studies from Columbia, but I suspect you may be best known as editor for books about religion at Publishers Weekly (PW) magazine for a number of years. You left PW but you’re still involved in religious media from a journalist’s perspective. How does the discipline of journalism shape your exploration of spiritual classics in this new memoir?

JANA: Paraclete Press actually approached me about doing this book. They wanted someone to write a memoir about reading spiritual classics. Paraclete publishes a significant list of spiritual classics and they’re always interested in finding new ways to make the classics relevant today. I realized that it wasn’t enough just to read these classics. Just providing my commentary on the classics wouldn’t have been all that interesting. So, I suggested that I do monthly practices from my readings. That became the focus and, as I started, I didn’t expect to keep screwing up in all these practices. Each goal just proved harder than I anticipated.

It’s a fascinating question: Does my background in journalism shape this kind of a book? First, I should explain that I never was trained as a journalist, really, so the fact that I went into magazine journalism while I was in graduate school surprised everyone. My goal was trying not to wind up as an academic in an ivory tower. When the PW job opened up, I thought of it as a perfect opportunity to blend my study of religion as an academic discipline—with writing about this for ordinary people.

Journalism is a good fit for me. Journalism requires you to have curiosity about people and their lives. And, I’m nosy. So, that’s a good fit. When you carry that interest in people’s lives into your writing, I think it makes a huge difference. My curiosity leads me to learn more about other religions that are so important in people’s lives. I’m open minded and curious about all of this. I’m willing to find new connections. I’ll bet there aren’t many books on spiritual classics that quote both Dorothy Day and Billy Joel.


DAVID: And, at the moment, your creativity extends far beyond this new book. You’re actually in the middle of tweeting the entire Bible. Or, I should say: You’re giving us Jana Riess’ clever commentary on every verse of the Bible. We will give readers a link to your Twitter feed and we also should tell them to look for the hash-tagged #Twible—for Twitter-Bible—while they are on Twitter.

JANA: Yes, that’s a big project! I’m somewhere in Isaiah now. The idea behind the Twible is to approach the Bible in its entirety but to be looking for the humor and fresh insights along the way. I’ve been using the Protestant canon of the Bible, although once I’m finished with the Protestant canon I have been thinking about tweeting the Apocrypha. The best humor in the Twible actually tends to come when people respond to something I tweet—usually something they think they’re familiar with but then they see it from a different perspective as they follow my tweets.


DAVID: There is some humor in this new memoir, Flunking Sainthood. It’s not like people will guffaw as they read it, but this is fun reading. It’s entertaining, mainly because it’s so darn true. As I was reading the book, I often found that you voiced my own everyday struggles as a reader. I thought of C.S. Lewis in some of his books, like The Screwtape Letters, in which the humor and the revelations really come because you understand our anxieties, foibles and fears.

As I kept reading, I came to this conclusion: Wow! So much of our spiritual struggle in all of these various disciplines comes down to a battle with consumption: Food and money and gadgets! We can’t get enough! It’s all about what we love to consume, what we try to deny ourselves for the larger good—and what we decide to share with the community.

JANA: You’re a very astute reader. Yes, that theme of consumption kept coming up, especially in the chapter on fasting, the chapter on generosity and tithing. Yes, you’re right: That’s the great temptation of our age: Excess! We live in the most affluent culture in world history. So, the temptations of our time are very much geared toward overconsumption and it’s everywhere we turn. I certainly have not figured out a good answer to the question: How much is too much?

One of the classic spiritual challenges is to eliminate all that isn’t necessary in our lives. To find contentment, we need to control how much we consume. We need to limit our lives. Yet, now we are in the era of smart phones and email and Facebook—and we are expected to be available to the world 24/7—so we never stop communicating. We can’t find time for silent meditation, time away. I can’t keep living like that. So, one thing I try to do is strictly restrict my computer access on the weekends. I’m not an absolutist about this, but I did try to practice a more orthodox Sabbath while I was working on the Sabbath chapter. From that experience, I carried away some important lessons—like planning for the Sabbath in advance so we can actually make it happen.


DAVID: One thing that fascinates me in your book is that you aren’t urging people to reject media or new-media devices. There are a number of books on the market about spiritual simplicity that try to pluck the low-hanging fruit for people and urge things like: Stop all newspaper and magazine subscriptions. Get rid of your Facebook page. Dump your cell phone. There are books on the market that make those recommendations and that may sound good, if you’re really burned out. But the truth is: We need to navigate a middle course and your book really is not about “flunking.” It’s about moderating. It’s about learning and adapting what makes sense in our lives.

For example, there’s a passage in your book where you write about using your MP3 music player and noise-cancelling headphones—both high-tech devices—to create a little sanctuary of sound while you write. That’s a great idea. You’re not rejecting these gifts out of hand, right?

JANA: I like that word for this: gifts. And, I think the question is: Are there smart ways to use these gifts that are available us? My iPhone now does marvelous things like: It gives me the freedom to keep from getting lost. If I need them, there are maps right there to orient me. My iPhone also gives me the freedom to be connected with people in miraculous ways.

However, we have to figure out the limits we should set. People never want to hear this from an author, I suppose—but I don’t think there’s one rule for everyone. I think the limits must be different for each person. I can’t just hand each reader my list of Five Things that are sure to improve your life. In my life, for example, I’ve found that I really need to unplug on the weekends. There are other people who go further than I would go with that. There are people who refuse to watch movies or TV on the weekend. In our house, that’s one of the cool things we look forward to on the weekends: family movie night on Sunday nights. We’ve made a decision that one day a week, we won’t go to stores or spend money—but we sometimes go to restaurants on Sundays. I can’t set the rules for everyone. We each have to work out what makes sense.

DAVID: I think people will enjoy your new book and pick up a lot of ideas along the way. I also think that it’s a great choice for small-group discussion. I could see groups reading one chapter a week—and trying some of these practices for themselves. What do you hope readers will find here?

JANA: I hope people will have fun with it. I am inviting people to learn and to laugh with ourselves and with our religion. I want this to be an enjoyable experience. And, while people are having a good time with the reading—I hope that the book also challenges people spiritually. Since the book was released, I’m hearing from early readers and I’m pleased that readers are identifying different chapters that they tell me are their “favorites.” That’s what I want. We all respond in different ways to spiritual practices—some resonate with people more than others.

Readers will realize from the first page of the book that I wasn’t perfect with any of these spiritual challenges. Too many people want to be perfectionists about this and there is a real danger in concluding that, if we can’t do a spiritual practice perfectly, then it’s not worth doing at all. What I discovered is that it’s absolutely worth trying even if you can only get 25 percent of the way there.

REMEMBER: You can get Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor from Amazon.

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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

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