Sunday, November 20, 2011


Flunking Sainthood has to be the most entertaining introduction to spiritual disciplines ever written. For that matter, it may be the only entertaining book ever written in that genre. Never mind—it would take first place even if the field were crowded.

It's been out since November 1st, so I'm coming late to the party. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and then named it one of the ten best religion books of 2011. Emergent pastor and radio host Doug Pagitt interviewed Riess three times. On the Patheos website, Holly Welker wrote that "it's hard to imagine a religious memoir with wider appeal." Welker's review is excellent, if you want to know more about the book. Or hey, just Google "review Flunking Sainthood." Everybody's talking about it.

When her publisher asked her to spend a year reading and writing about spiritual classics, Riess upped the ante: she decided to supplement her reading with practice. She would choose a different spiritual discipline for each month of the year, and she would chronicle the results. Wonder what happened? Note the title.

Instead of commenting on what Riess wrote (click on some links in paragraph 2 above if that's what you want to know), I'd like to suggest different ways this book might be used.

First, of course, you could just sit down and read it. That won't take long unless, like me, you keep it in the bathroom and read it in multiple sittings. And maybe it's good to take it slowly—after all, it's about a whole year of Riess's life. It's so engrossing, though, that if you settle down in a comfortable chair and start reading, you might forget to eat, drink, or pay the bills until you've finished.

Then you might want to do your own experiment. You could pick out a dozen disciplines and investigate them through reading and practice, as Riess did. Or you could choose one or two of the practices that appeal to you and devote six months or a year to making them part of your life.

But the further I got into this book, the more I thought that it really needs to be read with friends. Do you already belong to a book group, a prayer group, a support group, a study group? Your group could read and discuss Flunking Sainthood all at once or—much better—read a chapter each month, try out the spiritual practice described, and meet to share your experiences (this will work especially well if you enjoy laughing). As Riess says in her powerfully personal Epilogue,
One of the main lessons I learned this year ... was that I was ... an idiot for trying so much of this by myself rather than in community. Spiritual practices help the individual, sure, but it takes a shtetl to raise a mensch. There's a particular kind of hubris in the DIY approach I took to all of these spiritual practices, most of which weren't intended to be tried alone.
In fact, Riess makes it easy for you. You don't have to jump in with both feet: January is about choosing practices. February, when the liturgically inclined are probably feeling guilty anyway for not doing more about Lent, Riess looks at fasting. December is about generosity.

But she doesn't make it mindlessly easy. There are no thought questions, prayer starters, or similar irritants.  Flunking Sainthood is a memoir, not a tool. Riess comes across as a friend, not an instructor. And even though she says she flunked every practice she tried, she also learned a lot along the way—though not what she expected to learn—and her readers will learn a lot too.

If your taste in spiritual discipline runs to hair shirts and beds of nails, you probably won't care for this book. As an honest, funny, irreverent introduction to time-honored Christian practices, however, it can't be beat.

Full disclosure: Jana Riess is a friend and colleague. I used to be on the editorial board of her publisher, Paraclete Press, and Paraclete sent me a review copy of Flunking Sainthood. Actually, Paraclete sends me review copies of just about everything they publish, and I rarely review any of them (recent exception: Sarah Jobe's delightful Creating with God, which I reviewed last month). Publishers and authors never pay me for writing reviews. I'm poor, but honest.

1 comment:

  1. Since Jana actually IS a member of my book club, then that could certainly make for some interesting discussions! Way to go Jana!