Thursday, January 7, 2016

Book Review: Adventures in Soulmaking (Part 2)

I've had a terrible time getting through this book. I'm only halfway through, not even finished with Part I.  A large part of my difficulty is the overtly Evangelical nature and tone of so much of the book, which I've already discussed in Part 1 of this review.  It pokes too many of my sore spots and makes me twitchy.

But another aspect of the book that is an obstacle for me is something I find in so many self-published books:  the inadequacy of the book design and the want of a dispassionate editor.  At first I thought I was struggling to read because I was furnished with a .pdf version of the book that didn't play nicely with my Kindle iPhone app.  Having to resize and scroll through each and every page was hugely distracting.  Some hundred pages into it, I found that I could read the published ebook version through Kindle Unlimited and promptly downloaded that to my phone.  Quite a bit easier to handle and a whole lot less strain on a nervous system always overwrought by hysterical illness.

The book still felt difficult to read.  I even started from the beginning again once I got the Kindle version and this time I started realizing that it wasn't all me; the book itself is just kinda clumsy. The story illustrations are too long and too fully formed as stories to be effective illustrations.  Caldwell states that his first desire in this book is to be a teller of stories.  If that were his only intention, he could have made a stronger book, something more along the lines of Women Who Run with the Wolves or Kitchen Table Wisdom. Caldwell clearly sees the value in good storytelling in its own right, he is married to a storyteller, but not being a storyteller himself, he confuses a good story with a good illustration.

Then there are the memoir and personal stories.  We follow not only Caldwell's trip around the spiral path but also Debbie, a spiritual direction client, who appears in each chapter in long passages of her own words that sound more like extended answers to an essay question than good narrative.  Debbie's story would be more effective if Caldwell has recapped her relevant experiences in his own voice and kept them much shorter.  Not only do we hear Caldwell and Debbie, though, there's also Duane and Donna, and several others I can't even remember who are brought in to tell us about specific points Caldwell wants to make.  In one complicated section we are treated to Caldwell, Debbie, Duane (or maybe someone else, I forget) and Tom, a patient of Caldwell's residency years, whose story we must enter both through Caldwell's own perspective and, awkwardly, from the perspective of his mother we are instructed to imagine we are,  despite his mother have zero relevance to the point.  Each of these people's stories are told in stop-action and abrupt shifting from story to story.  Added to the multiplicity of stories and the profusion of characters within each story,  the lack of decent formatting (no bold or underlining or other kind of visual marker to denote headlines or section titles) and sometimes no titles at all, I was constantly confused as to who was where, when, and why I should care.

I think Caldwell tried to include too much when he took on this project. All within the same book, he attempts to describe and promote spiritual direction to both those who are completely unfamiliar with the concept and those who already have some knowledge or experience, introduce Christian mysticism (without ever using that word) to readers who would probably be terrified to think they were being encouraged to mystical experience since Evangelicals are kinda neurotic about that sort of thing, describe the Jungian system of the person and make parallels to the Christian theology of the soul, and as if that weren't already more than enough, throws in Greek and German vocabulary with explanations and definitions. Is this a textbook for spiritual directors? a workbook for directees or solitary spiritual seekers? a collection of wisdom tales? a memoir? or three memoirs?

Keep in mind, I'm only not quite finished with Part I, the map of the soul or personality and description of the spiral path of mystics.  Part II is a whole nother beast altogether! Caldwell could have written three or four books instead of one and all of them would be stronger for their simplicity than this one with its excess.

Most of what Caldwell is trying to convey is fairly straightforward and could be conveyed easily and intelligently in a traditional linear outline. And Caldwell himself seems like a mostly left-brained sort of intellect for whom linear thinking is preferential. Yet he writes in this circling around from story to exposition, from the diagram of the soul to the description of mystical life, from too long quotes by  too many other writers to several pages of a meditation that not quite successfully analogizes the design of the Jewish SecondTemple with the architecture of the Christian soul.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, it seems as if he wants to present his material in a right-brained, metaphorical and symbolic outline, spiraling around from topic to topic and back, as if illustrating the spiral path of mysticism itself.  This approach might work well in small groups or one-on-one in mentorship, perhaps even in a classroom over a period of weeks, but it is less successful in book form.

A good editor and book designer could have taken all the separate pieces and given them a better home--perhaps in sidebars, chapter epilogues, and appendices--where they could shine more brightly on their own merit and not clutter up the linear outline that describes the anatomy of the soul and the roadmap of mysticism.  Caldwell has some really strong pieces, though many of them are too long and extraneously detailed, but they don't work as strongly together.  The whole here is not greater than the sum of its parts.

All of those complaints aside, I intend to keep reading.  Despite the weaknesses of the book, Caldwell does indeed know what he's talking about and knows it very well.  He has walked and is walking the walk and writes from his experiential knowledge as much as his intellectual and theoretical knowledge.  Most books I've read of this nature are from only one side of that equation--theory or experience--and are lesser for it.  Caldwell has deep wells of training in both theology and psychology and experience as both a contemplative and a counselor of spiritual adventurers from which to draw and I want to know what he can teach me.

Book Review: Adventures in Soulmaking (Part 1)

Despite the acres of books being sold in the category of Christian Living, the concept that one might benefit from anything other than solitary prayer and Bible reading in the making of the righteous Christian is bordering on sacrilege.  Reading the Bible for oneself is after all probably the single most significant tenet of being Protestant.  Finding it fully sufficient for salvation and sanctification, needing nothing else, is foundational to Protestantism and Evangelicals use that doctrine as the basis to denounce all kinds of spiritual practices from praying with beads or even praying memorized prayers, to meditation (except as they define it--conscious prayer and intellectual consideration of Scripture), to the lighting of candles or veneration of icons or saints or mandalas.

Although in practice Evangelicals often don't read their Bibles as often as they claim nor as completely or with the open-minded curiosity and willingness to question that marks the spiritual scholar, depending instead on the weekly exposition of the text by one's preacher and the writers of Bible study guides to interpret their religion to them, and though Evangelicals like spiritual mentoring lookalikes such as accountability partners or discipleship group leaders (both of which tend to focus more on behavioral changes in one's life that are supposed to demonstrate profound spiritual growth, but in my experience rarely do), actually entering into an intentional mentorship with a spiritual teacher or director for the purpose of open-ended spiritual development is rare.  It was unheard of when I was fully immersed in Evangelicalism a couple decades ago.

For this reason, Troy Caldwell's book on spiritual direction, written by an Evangelical for Evangelicals is a very significant mark of progress.  I heartily applaud Caldwell's desire to bring spiritual direction and other aspects of contemplative Christianity to Evangelicals, for whom it has long been anathema.  Educating Evangelicals in such a foreign concept and its long-ridiculed related practices is a huge undertaking.  Caldwell's heart for his mission is obvious and a credit to him and his work.

It is that same Evangelical flavor, however, that I consider to be the biggest flaw in this book.  Schooled both in Jungian psychology and Baptist theology and practicing both, Caldwell appears to have made his own peace with the inherent contradictions between the two.  I suspect he has done this by simply ignoring the Evangelical theology when it doesn't quite fit his Jungian perspective.  He clearly has embraced the broader theology of the greater Christianity beyond Evangelicalism (quoting from authors in Orthodox, Celtic, Anglican, Catholic, Medieval European Christian, and other non-Evangelical traditions).  In itself this embracing is no bad thing, as a Heretic myself indeed I commend him for it, but it makes his use of Evangelical language and theology awkward and jarring. His voice sounds much more authentic when he writes from his Jungian or contemplative traditional perspective.  His use of Evangelical language, cultural assumptions, or doctrinal stances stands out to me as being a bit forced--as if he really isn't much of the paternalistic, chauvinistic character that is quintessential contemporary Evangelicalism.

Fundamentally, Evangelical Christianity is a theology of renunciation and annihilation.  It is, or has become, a religion promoting simultaneously exceptionalism and shame culture. One is identified as a sinner worthy of death and is expected to own that identity.  Only in owning that shame and subsequently renouncing one's identity (to take on the identity of Christ, or to cover one's own shame in the blood of Christ as Caldwell's imagery in the temple meditation describes) can one become redeemed.  Upon redemption, however, one is immediately transformed into something far more exceptional than those evildoers still outside the righteous few. Furthermore, one is expected then to conform to culturally determined Christian behaviors or to experience further shaming, even to the experience of threatened or real excommunication in the form of social shunning, which is a psychological annihilation either in the shunning or in the renunciation of the self to become or remain one of the group.

In the same way that salvation or the renunciation of oneself, is the goal of Evangelical Christianity, the goal of Jungian psychology is individuation, becoming wholly oneself, through the integration of the opposing aspects of one's being.  Evangelicalism is all about identifying with the Good and renouncing the Evil; Jungian psychology is about integrating and transcending any such dualism.  In Jung's system there is nothing is wholly evil nor wholly good.  In fact, good and evil eventually cease to have absolute meaning because any aspect of the person or any belief or experience one has contains within it both good and evil, as well as the means for using both the good and the evil in any aspect as a tool for transcending the moment and becoming more fully whole and more fully the Self.

While there has been some excellent work showing the parallels between Jungian psychology and broader Christian theology, the more limited and dogmatically dualistic Evangelical theology is more difficult to synthesize successfully. I think Caldwell's attempts to do so fundamentally shortchange either Jung or Evangelicalism.  Admittedly, I am biased about Evangelicalism and find acknowledging its finer aspects all but impossible.  I try but my efforts are insubstantial against the weight of my prejudice.  Without doubt, that bias colors my reading of the parts of this book that are more overtly Evangelical. Almost certainly, an Evangelical reader of Caldwell's book would not notice or care about what I find so disconcerting--partly because they would be reading from within the Evangelical mindset and thus unlikely to be too critical about it, even more because they likely have little or no experience or exposure to depth psychology, mysticism, or contemplative Christianity. So to that target reader, the Evangelical layperson, study group leader, or counseling clergy, Adventures in Soulmaking is probably an excellent resource.