Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels
Cathleen Falsani and Jennifer Grant
Hardback: Jericho Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Jonathan Schindler
What happens when a group of contrarians and misfits writes a book of essays about the Bible? You get Disquiet Time: Rants and Reflections on the Good Book by the Skeptical, the Faithful, and a Few Scoundrels, which editors Jennifer Grant and Cathleen Falsani hail as “not your mama’s Our Daily Bread”—a “devotional” that strives to wrestle with the bits of the Bible that don’t often make their way into mission statements or adorn decorative wall hangings.
This is an intriguing concept, and one I was excited about. And in many ways, the book delivers on its title. I have heard several pastors describe their task as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” and there is a certain measure of both in Disquiet Time. There were several times while reading when my comfortable spirit was “disquieted” (sometimes so much so that I scrawled frantic notes in the margin, and while reading one essay I very nearly threw the book), and some reflections challenged the way I’ve interpreted difficult passages. I (mostly) appreciated the authors’ transparency in sharing their thoughts, even when I didn’t agree with where they landed in their interpretations.
There are several essays that I consider highlights in Disquiet Time. I thoroughly enjoyed Dale Hanson Bourke’s reflection on the inerrancy of Scripture (and whether that’s down to the smallest comma), and Caryn Rivadeneira’s essay on the imago dei was powerful and challenging (“what happens when the person who has been created in God’s image is truly a total jerk?”). Margot Starbuck’s lament at the slowness of sanctification is both funny and arresting—I’ve certainly wondered why it takes so long to become like Jesus and wished the process moved a little faster. Steve Brown’s “A High Tolerance for Ambiguity,” while one of the shortest pieces in the collection, generated the most underlining. Bill Motz, Victor Conrado, Rachel Marie Stone, and Carla Barnhill all offered insights on the Bible that, if not fully convincing, at least encouraged a careful reconsideration of the Scriptures. Amy Julia Becker’s suggestion to read the Bible “literalistically” (that is, with each passage’s genre in mind) and humbly is both sane and helpful. Ellen Painter Dollar’s essay “Broken and Bent” is a sharp (and excellent) consideration of suffering and Jesus’ presence in the midst of it. And Brian McLaren’s reflection on 1 Corinthians 13, a passage worth dwelling on, seems a fitting benediction.
Yet despite these (and other) highlights, Disquiet Time wasn’t a book that, on balance, I enjoyed reading, and not just because it is uncomfortable to be disquieted. Disquiet Time is uneven as an essay collection. For all the highlights in the book, I didn’t think the essays were consistently strong. I’ve read enough essay collections to expect some level of disparity between entries, but in Disquiet Time, the low points seemed lower compared to the high points. I would have preferred a book a third its length. But this is subjective; your mileage may vary.
As I puzzle over why Disquiet Time left me feeling cold, I think it’s because I’m not the book’s target audience. The book is described as being by misfits, but it also seems written for misfits (perhaps the “comfort the afflicted” portion of the pastoral mandate). I appreciated the “reflections” mentioned in the book’s subtitle, but I had a much lower tolerance for the “rants,” which occupied a larger portion of the book than I was able to appreciate. That I didn’t care for many of the rants is to be expected—I grew up in what one author describes as a “fundagelical” church, and far from repudiating it, I’m grateful for my upbringing. While there are some decisions my parents made that I wish they hadn’t, and while I’ve had my run-ins with well-meaning but flawed Christians, on the whole I’m thankful for my parents’ (and my fellow churchgoers’) faithfulness. Indeed, the church body I’m currently a part of might still fall under the dismissive “fundagelical” label.
It is notable that in a collection of “diverse . . . voices” and “diverse writers,” the church experiences described are so similar. (I suppose this owes to the authors’ being misfits and to their being “personally connected to one or both of” the book’s editors.) At least two writers roll their eyes at the idea of Jesus granting good parking spots to his followers, the Left Behind interpretation of Revelation seems to have been the only one available twenty years ago, and, more seriously, several authors describe the wounds they received from earnest believers whose interpretation of Scripture was hurtful to them. A reading of God “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children” that belittles the child of a divorce. The Scripturish platitudes that trivialize chronic illness. The interpretations that ostracize and condemn rather than comfort and embrace. This is real pain, and it grieves me that it was caused within the walls of the church by Bible-believing Christians—and that this wounding seems to have been so common.