This review is a first for me in a multitude of ways. I never read self-help books. Nothing against them, they just aren’t my thing. And while I might read religious-themed works from time to time, I certainly don’t read religious self-help books. Leave that for church youth group/Sunday school crowd. Not for me, no thanks. I’ve never been one to wear my religion on my sleeve. That type of thing strikes me as somehow… contrived, maybe? Like if I did it I’d only be trying to prove something to a bunch of people who don’t matter anyway, and therefore any religious sentiments would be somehow cheapened. Therefore the prospect of reviewing what is ostensibly a religious self-help book seems both a wee bit pompous and a wee bit sad. But for some reason (maybe it’s sheer mule-headed obstinacy) I feel compelled to record my thoughts on this one.
Don’t worry, I won’t try to convert anyone.
A coworker lent me a copy of John Eldredge’s Walking with God during what was one of the more difficult times in my life. I won’t go into the details on everything, but suffice to say that when I got my hands on this book I was going out of my gourd. I needed something to latch onto, something to steady a world that was spinning out of control. That’s probably the only reason I gave it a shot. If things had been peachy keen, I’m sure I would have just gone on to the next crime story on the to-read pile and passed it off as yet another book I would never have time to read—and I am so glad that didn’t happen.
So what is this book about, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s about talking with the Big Man Upstairs.
Well, there’s slightly more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Eldredge presents the book as almost a personal journal, a series of anecdotes and personal recollections over the course of a year. It’s divided into four sections, one for each season starting in the Fall, and walks you through some pivotal events in his family’s life where communication with God intersected with their lives. He then extrapolates those events into guidance about how to communicate with and find guidance from God in a variety of ways.
All that’s well and good, right? But how does Walking with God differ from every other book out there about “The Christian Walk” (which, by the way, is one of those insipid religious catch phases that annoy the shit out of me)? There are a lot of other little things, I’m sure, but the primary way it’s different is that Eldredge advocates direct, personal communication with God. Not simple prayer (though there’s that, too), but direct dialogue in which you talk to God and God “talks” back. Stuff like asking God what you should do in a given situation, seeking His counsel for the direction of your life, and really listening to the response. Sounds crazy, right? Yeah, I thought so too until I tried it, and now I’ll never go back.
I’ve been a Christian since I was 16 years old—granted, a foul-mouthed, mildly inappropriate, “world”-obsessed Christian, but a Christian none-the-less. I mean, the reason we need Christ in the first place (if you buy into the whole thing) is because we’re flawed, imperfect beings, so why not own those flaws? Up until recently, I’d taken a scholarly view of Christianity. No surprise there, given my educational background, but it was still a far cry from what’s illustrated in Eldredge’s book. My version of Christianity was a series of texts to be studied, interpreted (sometimes in very non-standard ways, I might add), and codified into a code of beliefs, not a personal relationship with the almighty creator of the universe. That all changed after Walking With God.
Now, I don’t want you to think that Eldredge advocates walking around having made-up conversations with God in your head all day. It’s not exactly that. He cautions people against inserting what they want to hear in the space in their minds and using that to justify whatever it is they want. And it’s not like a schizophrenic who hears audible voices in his head (though, if you do hear something like that from time to time, evidently you aren’t crazy). It’s more like emptying your mind and allowing the God’s word to fill the void. Most of the time it’s just snippets—words or phrases that filter in as unbidden thoughts—or an answer you know before you even ask the question. One of my earliest memories of trying this stuff was sitting on the toilet (yes, the toilet—last I heard it wasn’t against the rules to pray in the middle of your morning constitutional) saying, “I love you, God,” and like an electric jolt to my medulla oblongata, the word/thoughts coming to me, I love you too.
Ugh… did that come off as sappy as I think I did? I’m going to have to say some crass stuff to balance out my smartass karma. Hell. Fart. Dead puppies. Ke$ha.
Whew. O.K., I think the balance has been restored. Moving on…
Another tidbit that struck me as particularly poignant was Eldredge’s advice to make sure that you “don’t waste your pain.” Pain—emotional or otherwise—is often the first step in change that fundamentally alters a person. What is it Flannery O’Connor said? “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.” Something like that. Whether you believe in a higher power or not, oftentimes pain is the stimulus for some of the most fundamental changes in our lives. You can either let that pain consume you (or never learn your lesson from said pain) or you can grow from it, becoming stronger, more resilient, and alter your life for the better. Walking with God also describes a technique for asking God what scripture to read. It’s kind of like playing dress-up with scripture, mentally “trying on” sections of the Bible, seeing what feels right, and eventually narrowing it down to a specific chapter or two. It takes a lot of trust to do a thing like that, but I guess the whole religion takes a lot of trust (or belief, if you prefer) in the first place. So maybe it’s not all that different. Call me crazy, but it’s amazing how often I’ve tried the technique and ended up reading just the thing I needed to hear.
That being said, there was some stuff in the book that I just couldn’t buy into. For instance, Eldredge says that evil spirits can come into your home via objects that they have been imbued into, which can then affect your family’s mood, make you fight with each other, keep you distance from God, etc. I call bullshit on that one. Then there’s one story he tells in which he got thrown from his horse while riding with his wife and broke both his wrists. He says that the reason it happened is because he didn’t ask God if he should go riding that morning, and if he had, God would have told him to stay home. It smacks of what I call “The Nostradamus Effect”—interpreting an event in hindsight and saying that you should have known it was going to happen to because of X, Y, or Z, but the only reason it’s possible to interpret it that way is because it’s already happened, and therefore, it was never a viable portent of the future. Know what I mean? At any rate, I suppose those sorts of things are going to happen when you’re reading a self-help book. The key is to take the parts that you can use and ditch the rest.
So where does that leave me? Am I one of those crazy kooks who “talks to God”? Do I cozy up to The Big Guy and chat like a little boy with his elderly grandfather huddled ‘round a winter’s fire? Maybe not exactly like that, but yeah, I guess that’s me. If the shoe fits, wear it, my mama always said, so I’m wearing it. Call me nuckin’ futs if you want. Maybe I’m that, too.
I once heard somewhere that the definition of a “good book” is a book that fundamentally changes you after reading it. For me, Walking with God is that book. It has expanded my perspective on God, family, and life in general like no other book I’ve read before. Based upon that criteria, you could make the case that it deserves a five-star rating. But considering some of the junk I had to ditch along the way, five sounds a bit excessive. Four, on the other hand, sounds just right.
About the Reviewer: He makes a living in the world of corporate IT, but he gets his jollies through the nirvana of armchair literary criticism. Blame it on a liberal arts education and liberal quantities of whiskey. It's a dangerous combination, one that has resulted in a blog called I Read a Book Once, where Jonathan can express his cantankerous inner literary critic to the fullest extent. When not reading, writing, or getting his geek on (i.e. working), he mostly hunkers down in the bunker with his redhot smokin' wife and tries to survive the hurricane that is his half-crazed toddler.