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Soul Concern

In this consumer culture, spiritual values are often corrupted by cash values. Several authors who've surmounted this dilemma recount how they put their priorities back in order.

December 25, 1996|DAVID L. ULIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Toward the end of the second episode of Bill Moyers' recent PBS series "Genesis," there's a moment that seems to encapsulate the conundrum of the modern spiritual quest. The participants have been discussing the notion of suffering and the spiritual path when Walter Brueggemann, a professor of Old Testament at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Ga., mentions his two grown sons.

"What worries me most," he says, "is that they are tempted to live in the world that is generated by TV consumerism. It is another made-up world. And I believe that the true situation of most of us in U.S. culture is that we are pulled apart by not wanting to choose between these two narrative worlds."

The idea is taken up by Roberta Hestenes, president of Eastern College in St. David's, Pa. "That gets back to who we are as humans," she suggests. "Are we, for instance, primarily economic beings? Are we consumers? And is the way we're to define ourselves in terms of getting, and spending, and having, and acquisition, and all of that? Or, as the story tells us, are we responsible, moral beings?"

Such questions have been relevant throughout human history, but these days, they seem particularly charged. On the one hand, consumer culture tells us that our salvation lies in accumulation, encouraging us to define ourselves as much by demographic standing as the more subtle shadings of our souls. Meanwhile, we seem increasingly hungry for some kind of spiritual affirmation--a hunger that accounts for developments as apparently unrelated as the rise of fundamentalism and the popularity of angels, past-life regression and other indulgences of the New Age.

"Underlying all this," says Peter Gilmour, a faculty member at Loyola University's Institute of Pastoral Studies in Chicago, "is a real quest for meaning that's born out of chaotic times. We live in a world where there are a lot of changes taking place at a rapid rate. And whenever there's rapid change--which is characterized by a certain kind of chaos--it leads to questions about meaning, as well."

Perhaps the ultimate paradox is that, in a society given over to commerce, the mechanisms by which we pursue spiritual discourse are often those of consumption itself. Thus, although it may be ironic for a biblical scholar like Brueggemann to complain about TV consumerism from the soapbox of a television studio, it's also emblematic.

Over the last year, spirituality has grown into a potent force in the media marketplace, with PBS series like "Genesis" and Hugh Hewitt's "Searching for God in America" attempting to re-contextualize age-old issues, and Joan Osborne's Grammy-nominated song "One of Us" imagining a deity who rides the bus, as lonely and confused as any human being. At the heart of these explorations is a sense of spirituality as something profoundly personal, an endeavor that is less about adhering to the tenets of a particular tradition than bending them to fit the exigencies of their interpreters' lives.

Books dealing with spirituality and religion seem to be a cottage industry of their own. Even as worldly a figure as Stephen King has gotten into the act, constructing his latest saga of good and evil, "Desperation," around an 11-year-old mystic with a pipeline to God. This need to personalize the ineffable reaches its apotheosis in what amounts to a new generation of spiritual memoirs, where various modern seekers record their stories in specific, often idiosyncratic, terms.

Given our obsession with confession and autobiography, the profusion of spiritual memoirs should hardly come as a surprise. In fact, it is a diverse subgenre, encompassing books like Kim Chernin's "In My Father's Garden," about the attempt to navigate a middle ground between politics and spirit, and David Rosenberg's "Communion" and "Genesis: As It Is Written," in which David Mamet, Mary Gaitskill, John Barth and others contribute essays about their experiences of the Bible.

At the same time, there is a certain sense of shared perspective, which emerges in conversations with three authors in the field:

Mark Matousek, a former editor at Interview magazine, whose "Sex, Death, Enlightenment" recounts his halting passage toward meaning; Joan Tollifson, author of the journal-cum-autobiography "Bare-Bones Meditation: Waking Up From the Story of My Life," which traces her self-exploration through meditation and retreat; and poet Kathleen Norris, a "generic Protestant" who describes her experience as an oblate to a Benedictine monastery in "The Cloister Walk." These writers are after a way to invest their lives with meaning while keeping in touch with themselves. As Matousek explains, " 'Spirituality' is such an overused word, but all it's about is paying attention. It's as simple as that."

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