Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True and Boring

Mark Yaconelli started the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project at my alma mater, San Francisco Theological Seminary. He came to speak while I was at seminary to announce the publication of a book based on the project, "Contemplative Youth Ministry: Practicing the Presence of Jesus." I've heard him speak 2 or 3 times since then and always liked his style and message. I've been intending to read this book for a while, but finally got around to it.

Here's the good: he's dead right. He speaks with refreshing candor about diverse situations and arrives at unflinching assesments of many of the diseases which plague ministry in general, but youth ministry in particular. His examples are superb. His style is engaging, and he offers solid practical advice. This is no cookie-cutter solution manual, but it would be hard not to get a good idea or two for youth ministry here. I'm going to have my adult volunteers and mentors read this book.

Here's the bad: despite all of that the book didn't excite me. I floated along with it, gently amused, but it never sunk its hooks in. I agreed with everything, but not with any passion, and I was never surprised. I find this to be a common theme among books that treat the subject of "spirituality". There is a pleasant airiness in the reading which makes me nod my head, but then I nod off and fall asleep.

The worst thing is that great spiritual teachers are rarely boring people. Yaconelli in person is electrifying, but somehow in print he was very tame. The same is true of Richard Foster, Parker Palmer, Pema Chodron, and the Dalai Lama. Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon, but there is something about spiritual truths that is very prosaic and dull.

Or maybe the prose is the problem. More and more I grow convinced of the need for truth to be expressed in artforms like poetry, music, theatre, and fiction. Want to read a book about spirituality that has teeth, and is not at all dull - try Frederick Buechner's "Godric". Somehow when spiritual truth is presented naked in nonfiction prose, such as in all of these "how to live your life better" manuals it loses something. The functional aspect is there, but the aesthetic pulse is absent, and thus it is hard to absorb.

None of this nullifies my positive remarks above about Yaconelli's book. It is right on the money when it comes to the challenges and rewards of youth ministry. It will be useful. That is about the extent of it.

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