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March 30, 2011 / Jenny Ann Fraser

A View From The Back Pew

On the rare occasion that it might come up, I will tell people that I’m not a Christian, (in fact I have been known to describe myself with a smirk and no remorse, as a failed Jew) but I am a big fan of Jesus. And the Buddha, and Moses, or Eckhart Tolle, and/or Deepak Chopra or… I think I wrote somewhere before on this blog that I will take my wisdom where-ever I find it.

To many I might be seen a as some sort of sad lost soul, forever searching with the hope of finally finding some brilliant answer that will solve all of my problems, but the truth is that I just can’t stop asking questions. Questions sometimes lead to answers, but they always lead to more questions so it is one thing I am certain of is that there will always be more than enough of. Like Love, questions expand to fill any void if you let them. And they’re way more interesting than television.

Tim O’Donnell’s A View From The Back Pew: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest For Truth had me from the sub-title. It drew me in even further with the first two sentences:

Questions. Beautiful, fantastic, enlightening, and exciting!”

I knew that I was in for a treat and I was not disappointed.

What I did not expect, was that Tim O’Donnell’s book would help me to regain the sense of connection that I have been missing for these past months.

I expected that reading an exploration of one man’s journey through Catholic grade-school, high-school, college and then adulthood to finding a home within his own personal spirituality would be interesting. I suspect that I unconsciously assumed that there wouldn’t be much for me to learn from this as I have long felt comfortable in my own answers to such questions. Learning about Theology fascinates me, and always leaves me wanting to learn more, though it generally confirms what I already believe I know.

This story, and it is a story, alternates episodes of the author’s life with his struggle between the teachings of the church he grew up in and his own personal experience. The end result is not a tidy conclusion of how to reach a place of divine wisdom, but a new way of understanding what Jesus was saying all along. It is an understanding that I think anyone could benefit from, regardless of personal faith.

Tim O’Donnell could have written a book that simply told the story of his own success. How he started out as a young adult determined to make it in the world of sales, becoming successful selling newspaper advertising, starting his own consulting company, moving on to his own newspaper. He then sold it at the age of 40 and built his own log-cabin in the woods. That would have been quite a story on it’s own.

Instead, I found myself laughing out loud reading his descriptions of grade-school taught by nuns. Children getting black eyes for asking questions at school shouldn’t be funny but Tim O’Donnell makes it so. Throw in a teen-aged road trip, College in Rome and finding God within himself and you have a book that is a little hard to put down. (For the record, I read quite a bit of it while on a 5 day trip to Las Vegas.)

Reading accounts of the history of the Church, the canonization of the books of the bible from this point of view broadened and confirmed my own understanding of the teachings of Jesus. I found myself reaching for my bible again, and again, reading the words with newly opened eyes.

Believing as I have for years that much of Christianity has missed the mark (the very definition of sin) when it comes to interpreting the teachings of Jesus, it was fascinating to read what someone who is much more knowledgeable than I had to say.

The sense of duality, or separation from God, comes through in the language of the Church, supported by the dense verbiage of dogma, but not in the words of Jesus. On the contrary, he claims we are all sons and daughters of God. A prevalent motif in Church teaching is humanity’s unworthiness to commune directly with God. Did Jesus come to show us how to heal, or did he come to install an institution on earth as the only way for us to heal?”

I think that part of what I most loved about this book is that the author’s conclusions were not born out of a sense of anger or any rejection of the Church, in fact quite the opposite. It is hard to shake the feeling that all of this came from a deep sense of love and connection.

I think what fascinated me the most was the suggestion, backed by evidence that Jesus did not intend for us to see God as separate but that we find God by looking within. This is information that would not have benefited the Church, so texts that explicitly stated this and more, were left out of what we know as the bible today.

Adding the Gospels of Mary Magdalan and Thomas, has now made my reading list a lot longer than it was.

I would not recommended that you read this book if you are personally threatened by ideas that differ from what you already believe. A View From The Back Pew is among other things about spiritual evolution. It is a book that is for those who wish to question, explore and grow.

I would however recommended this book to anyone who does yearn to explore different points of view, regardless of personal faith. It most certainly opened my eyes in a way for which I am grateful. Expanding my own understanding of Catholicism and Christianity, has actually increased my respect, not diminished it.

I would like to thank Tim O’Donnell for inspiring me back towards my meditation chair, prayer, and my own sense of connection, and I would also like to thank TLC Book Tours for once again inviting me to participate in this virtual tour.

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18 Comments

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  1. Kathy Loh / Mar 30 2011 11:43 am

    This is a beautiful, authentic and courageous post Jenny. Thank you. I want to read the book and share it with my extended family, some of whom are fundamental Christians.

    Synchronistically (or not perhaps) the Rilke poem for today in 365 Rilke is The Last Supper – I cried and cried as I read it. I, like you, am a questioner and curious seeker and unlike you, I was raised Christian and like you I do not follow any religious dogma. I don’t sit in any pew anywhere other than, perhaps, a park bench.

    Rather than write out the entire poem here – I’ll give you this link: http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-last-supper/

    I was perplexed when Jesus showed up as my Reiki guide. I expected Buddha or something more palatable to my anti-church energy, but I did not reject him. I’ve come to know why as the years have passed and forged a healing for myself in which I find a connection that is free from the religious and patriarchal dogma.

    You are a bright star in the dark night Jenny!

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Mar 30 2011 7:32 pm

      As always, thank you Kathy!
      The poem was as inspiring as your words always are. I am dying to hear what you think of the book!
      One of the recurring thoughts I had while reading it, was how wonderful a read it could be for those who have left Christianity behind for all of the reasons that I could not embrace it. I have found that delving into any religion from a place of openness towards the teaching, not the dogma of the institution, is always enlightening. The key I believe is to never get attached to one limited perspective, but to examine from as many angles as possible. I truly believe that we would all be better off if this was our way of engaging with the world.
      You also have an open heart Kathy, and while that might not be the easiest way to live life, I think it might be the only way to truly live!
      You too are a bright star! We would all do well to commit to our own light as you clearly have!

  2. Patricia / Mar 30 2011 1:52 pm

    This was a great review and I put the book on my wish list right away, though the list is quite long, I am sure that I will get to this one sooner than later.

    As I child I was fascinated by theology and religion and how it played out and played into the lives we lead. I did not grow up Catholic, but Christian and I love reading about all the faiths and practices around the world – how people were guided and confronted with religion. I could not understand as a child why religions did not evolve as the rest of creation. I could never understand why some folks just need to think they were following correctly by trying to live out centuries old words in a contemporary context? I know some folks need to live by doctrine, but why do they have to attack what I believe and not “right” or “truth”?

    I think those questions are very important. I have found that my faith and spirituality comes from within me and that issues of justice are they way I celebrate my faith. I just can not follow all those rules.

    I do like the company of others who believe and share their faith in similar ways of living – and I think community is important – I just do not need 5,000 in my flock…and to attend every Sunday and Wednesday…the church is man made.

    Nice job…Thank you

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Mar 30 2011 7:44 pm

      I could never understand why some folks just need to think they were following correctly by trying to live out centuries old words in a contemporary context? I know some folks need to live by doctrine, but why do they have to attack what I believe and not “right” or “truth”?

      Oh, when I muster up the courage to tackle that topic… 🙂
      In truth it is a brilliant question and one that I think we would benefit from delving into deeply. The short answer I believe is FEAR! Big fear! But if I type beyond that it will turn into another blog post… or maybe a book.
      When I pay close attention to what and who is around me, I so often find that we attach ourselves to certainty about all kinds of things that we cannot really be certain about so that we can feel safe. It is why I often argue that Religion in and of itself is not the cause of all of the problems that seem to stem from it. Dogmatic inflexible minds can be found everywhere.
      Thank you for the lovely compliments. I often wish that I could find some sort of group, (aside from a couple of close wonderful friends that I am very grateful for) to share my spirituality with… (even an open-minded organized religious congregation could be helpful) but I also worry that communing together could turn into the very thing I don`t want… but your words have made me think that I should really consider that.

  3. Ollin / Mar 30 2011 2:07 pm

    Thanks for another great review Jenny. I, too, I’m okay with wisdom, anywhere I find it. I guess we’re both “wisdom hoars.” Haha!

    • Ollin / Mar 30 2011 2:08 pm

      correction: “wisdom whores”

      • Jenny Ann Fraser / Mar 30 2011 8:10 pm

        LOL!
        When I read your first comment, I knew exactly what you meant, but I also thought “Wisdom Hoarders”. I suppose there are worse things that you can hoard, and worse things you can be a whore for… 🙂
        Thanks Ollin, I think I’ll adopt both labels.

  4. Emily Jane / Mar 30 2011 3:34 pm

    Oh my goodness, I have to get this book! “To many I might be seen a as some sort of sad lost soul, forever searching with the hope of finally finding some brilliant answer that will solve all of my problems, but the truth is that I just can’t stop asking questions.” This is me to a T. I remember when I first read “A New Earth”, and my (very Christian) boss saw me reading it in the lunch room, and made some snide comment about there being “no shortage of people ripping off the good bits from other religions and calling them new ideas”. It was refreshing to read this post, and see someone who’s just as okay with being a fan of lots of different things and not labelling themselves with one religion as I am! I find that I can’t stick a label on myself unless I am 100% behind everything it encompasses. There are parts of Christianity I agree with, and others not so much at all – same with some other religions. I prefer to just think of myself as “spiritually curious” 🙂 Thanks for sharing this!

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Mar 30 2011 8:23 pm

      I thought of you more than a few times while reading this book Emily. I am certain that it will move you as it did me!
      I’ve listened over the years to far too many comments like that from all sides. I think that people should read the books, and explore the ideas they criticize, but then, that takes more effort.
      As I have explored religion and spirituality for most of my adult life now, I have come to a place where I don’t know if I could ever limit myself to a particular religion, just out of fear of what I may be missing. (see response to Ollin. :p)
      I can’t wait to hear what you think of the book!

  5. Tim / Mar 30 2011 6:21 pm

    Jenny,

    First let me say that if I had your email address, I would be writing this note to you in that more private forum. There is something that doesn’t seem right to me about an author injecting his thoughts and words to a forum where his or her book has been reviewed and is being discussed. I’ve been encouraged to do so but it seems an intrusion on the reviewers space so I’ve refrained.

    I am making an exception to my own rule because your review touched me in a powerful way. As a matter of fact, everything you write bowls me over. There is an honesty, a full on, no-holds-barred, raw, voracious veracity to your prose that actually intimidates me as a writer and captivates me as a reader. It is a rare gift I sincerely hope you continue to share with the world. (If readers of this note want an example check out Jenny’s post called “Connecting the Dots”.)

    Now, about your review: Thank you for taking the time to read the book, for considering its message and for writing a beautiful, personal and provocative review. I am rewarded by the fact that you found benefit to this work. I am proud that someone such as yourself really “gets it”. I knew as I was writing it, it would not be for everyone – some people are uncomfortable asking questions of religion and others, like us, simply have to ask. If in the asking, this book puts the reader in the space you describe in your review, my book is better than I hoped it would be.

    In the course of this virtual book tour, I’ve been vilified by people of my own native religion, accepted by people of other religions and embraced by people like you – those who were the intended audience from the start.

    I’m lucky that A View from the Back Pew found its way to you; I’m grateful for your kind words and I’m honored and humbled that it brings you “back to your meditation chair, prayer and (your) own sense of connection”. The book tour could not have ended on a better note – I am a very happy and grateful author.

    I leave you with one request: For the benefit of your readers (me being one) I encourage you to post more often – to let us know the result of your rededication to meditation and inquiry. I have a sense you are about to embark on a period of growth and enlightenment that will likely benefit us all. Please share your journey.

    If there is anything I can do for you or if you wish to scold me for this intrusion into your space, you know where to find me. I look forward to following you and connecting again.

    Thanks again,

    Tim O’Donnell, Author
    A View from the Back Pew: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Mar 30 2011 8:40 pm

      Hello Tim,
      Your response could not be less of an intrusion. Just like your book, it leaves me thinking that I don’t know what to say… and then I type.
      I am truly grateful for your book. I am an avid reader and lover of books, easy to please but difficult to move and so thank you so much for your work and sharing your story.
      I do believe from the bottom of my heart that religion needs to be questioned, explored, re-evaluated and then re-evaluated again to prevent us from using it to damage… I am grateful for your book, and all books like it.
      Thank you so much for all of your kind and inspiring words. Writing your review reminded me how much I want to pursue writing and your wonderful comment has reinforced my commitment. I am beginning to settle into my new career, and look forward to more time spent here. I will be sure to share my journey, while also expanding this blog into less personal topics.
      Thank you again!

  6. Fjola Sprague-Cole / Mar 31 2011 6:45 am

    Thanks for your post Jenny!! I recently started attending church again with my boyfriend. For me it was primarily to see what this whole Christianity thing was all about – I was baptised United when I was a baby, attended Sunday school until age 6, and haven’t been back until age 30 now. I am very intrigued by the Pastor at the United church I’ve been attending, he is able to reach a lot of demographics and inspire thought and reflection during his sermons. He builds the bridge between religion and spirituality. I really think I can get into this regular Sunday thing!

    I am absolutely picking up this book, tonight if possible. I asked the universe, out loud, two days ago to send me a book to read because of my “election widow” status…I have all the free time in the world right now…and here it is! I am grateful for your review, and I can’t wait to read it!

    PS I am deeply moved that Tim responded to you personally, and it was heart warming to hear his thoughts! Thank you both for your words!

    -Fjola

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Apr 1 2011 7:37 am

      Hi Fjola!
      Wow isn’t it funny what can happen when we ask?
      As with others, I would love to hear your thoughts on the book. It would be especially interesting to hear your thoughts now that you are attending Church for the first time.
      I have been aware for some time that there are plenty of churches that do practice a more evolved understanding of Christianity, and it really gives me hope.
      I myself have been listening to the sermons of The Rev. Ed Bacon of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA for months now. His message of equality, inclusion and caring for the whole world has been known to send shivers up my spine…
      It just goes to show that all organized religion can’t be painted with the same brush.
      Good luck with your temporary “widow” status. Elections don’t last forever, they just keep happening. 🙂

  7. Mommylebron / Apr 5 2011 3:02 pm

    I’ve missed you Jenny! You have such an eloquent way of stating your position without being judgmental and pushy. I think that, in and of itself, is a gift. I whole heartily agree with Tim. You’re writing is incredible and thought provoking. This was a great review and I would love to read this book!

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Apr 5 2011 5:57 pm

      It is so nice to “see” you Amanda!
      Thank you as ever for your kind words and encouragement. These past months have been insane and yet I now realize that I needed to step…no, fall away for a bit to realize how important it is that I never let it happen again.
      Please read the book. It is a beautiful and inspiring work for true seekers, and I am quite certain you will appreciate it as much as I do.

  8. Lisa Munley / Apr 12 2011 2:37 pm

    Jenny, I’m so sorry for taking so long to get over here to comment. Your review is amazing and I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on A View from the Back Pew with your readers.

    • Jenny Ann Fraser / Apr 13 2011 7:53 pm

      Hello Lisa,
      Thank you for giving me what has turned out to be a magnificently rewarding opportunity from beginning to end!

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  1. Tim O’Donnell, author of A View from the Back Pew, on tour March 2011 | TLC Book Tours

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