A while back, I blogged here about the film Women Talking and how its dialogues tended to break down dichotomies and help its viewers’ minds break through to narratives of possibility about grieving out abuses and moving forward. In this week’s blog post I plan to look at two recently released books–one by Nick Offerman and the other by Robert Hudson–and discuss the ways they present differing but similar visions of what Assertive Spirituality could look like. Both of these books were written by white males, and both use their platforms and voices to illustrate what it looks like for white males to speak from places of intellectual humility and humor to promote visions of inclusive communities taking care of each other and the earth. And yet neither does so in a cloying way.
What Are These Two Books, You Ask?
The first—just released earlier this week—is a novel: The Beautiful Madness of Martin Bonhom by Robert Hudson. The second—released early last month—is a memoir: Where the Deer and the Antelope Play: The Pastoral Observations of One Ignorant American Who Loves to Walk Outside by Nick Offerman.
Hang with me as I delve into each of these in turn.
My Background and Standpoint
As always, I’m looking at these things as the person who started this Assertive Spirituality project. I did so after growing up as a pastor’s kid in a right-leaning white Evangelical church and went on to become a communication scholar.
Digging Into One Reason I Started This Project
Over time, I realized that a lot of views of spirituality tended to expect people to see accommodation to others as the highest form of spirituality. Because it was people in places of privilege who often had the most voice, in conservative Christianity particularly I saw people in positions of power—largely white males—either purposely or unwittingly recommending to other people, often in vulnerable positions, that they needed to be humble.
What this often led to was that the spiritual messages from people in positions of power simply weren’t showing good listening to what people in vulnerable positions further down the ladder may need to hear, which meant they were often doing more harm than good.
Because of that, when I read books by white males particularly, I tend to keep an ear out for this kind of message. I was pleased NOT to hear this in either of the books I’m about to discuss. Instead, what I saw was books that exhibited the kind of intellectual humility that makes sense for privileged voices without unnecessarily projecting it on people with less voice and power.
On the contrary, these books are written by white males using their platforms and voices responsibly—to promote greater inclusivity of voices by others. In short, while these books are written by white males, they are done so in a way to make room for and reside peaceably alongside other voices at the table in delightful ways, using humor in the process.
The Beautiful Madness of Martin Bonham by Robert Hudson
The Beautiful Madness of Martin Bonham is an unusual book for many contemporary readers’ ears, in that it’s a novel of ideas. As the author explains at the back of the book, the novel of ideas used to be quite a big thing. I sort of wish this explanation was at the beginning of the novel instead of at the end, as that information is really helpful in contextualizing this delightful yet unusual novel.
If you, like me, might have spent any part of your life reading spiritually-themed novels by C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and/or Charles Williams, casting your mind back to the way these novels functioned may prepare you for the structure of this book in some ways.
In short, like I’ve previously discussed about the film Women Talking, this novel isn’t just about hijinks and rivalries between people both trying to study different aspects of religion in different ways at a small Midwestern college, it’s also trying to use the characters to think through possibilities of how to work through such conflicts in ways that show inclusivity and care for neighbor as well as self as much as possible.
Definitely Not a Fundamentalist Vision of Spirituality
As a small caveat, if you’re in any way allergic to God-language for whatever reason, that may be off-putting for you in spots as a reader.
That said, the vision of God and God-language presented in this book has very little to do with fundamentalist visions of God. Without giving away too many spoilers, a group of unhealthy Christian nationalists is roundly confronted within the text by those seeking to build dialogue across a variety of healthier faiths.
In addition to the satisfaction of seeing a vision of healthier spiritualities over and against less healthy ones built in this book, some of the hijinks by the characters are truly delightful for those who are fans of P.G. Wodehouse-style situational and character-based comedy.
Where the Deer and the Antelope Play by Nick Offerman
I don’t know about you, but I’m a fan of the 2009-2015 sitcom Parks and Recreation. This show featured a character that brought actor Nick Offerman into more prominence by playing a white male conservative/libertarian dude who was huge into living off the land but terrible at expressing his emotions, worked for the government while hating the government, and so on.
A few years before I noticed Where the Deer and the Antelope Play on the new releases table of my local indie bookstore and decided to take a listen to it, I had heard that in real life Nick Offerman was diametrically opposed to his character Ron Swanson in many ways—that he was a feminist, for instance. When I read the description of this book, I decided it was high time I pick this up.
I was definitely not disappointed. After recently having read a couple of memoirs by successful male artists that seemed less authentically humble in how they talked about their lives, I particularly appreciated Nick Offerman’s willingness to take on unhealthy attitudes in the US today, in himself as well as others, while championing inclusivity and care for the world around us while apologizing for his own complicity and missteps in ways that seemed genuine.
Breaking Through the Stereotypes
In the process of sharing various adventures from his own life in engaging with the natural world in various ways, he ends up musing about various approaches to dealing with it. He also manages to elucidate the problems of things often seen to be “woke” in a very practical down to earth manner, calling out the unhealthy aspects of capitalism, consumerism, colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and Trumpism along the way.
Like Martin Bonham, this book weaves in these kinds of idea-based musings with funny stories and anecdotes about his own interactions with nature in different situations. Like Martin Bonham, the text is filled with an overt awareness of the need for privileged white dudes to acknowledge when they don’t know enough and to poke holes in their own puffery while taking the voices of less privileged groups very seriously.
This in no way would usually be considered a “spiritual” or Christian book, mind you—I can’t see anyone including it in a Christian bookstore. And yet along the way Offerman manages a prophetic voice, calling out Christian nationalism along the way, citing the Matthew 25 passage on “the least of these” passage once or twice.
Books to Consider Picking Up
If you’re allergic to God-language, or looking for a gift for someone who is, you might be more comfortable with the language of Nick Offerman’s book than that in Martin Bonham.
Martin Bonham might be a better gift for someone who’s comfortable with church language but is seeking to understand how a spiritual community might look without kowtowing to the tendencies of white nationalism and making space for religious diversity.
And yet, it was rather nice experiencing these two narratives side by side. They are similar in some surprising ways. I really appreciate the ways both of these authors used their voices to create narratives of possibility, showing us visions of what things might look like if we lived in a world where greater Assertive Spirituality existed. They also offer interesting possibilities for how we may cope with the complexities of living in a world where others would prefer those visions do not exist.
I could go on for awhile about both these books (I’m honestly not sure I’ve done either of them justice), but if you’re looking for some good reads to help you think through some of the topics we’re thinking through here in a mix of ideas and storytelling language in a way that’s likely to make you laugh, I recommend picking up either or both books if you’re able. They’re both worth checking out, in my view.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s continue to do what we can where we are with what we’ve got to stand up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.
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