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Plan B Further Thoughts on Faith Anne Lamott Riverhead Books: 320 pp., $24.95

March 27, 2005|Bernadette Murphy | Bernadette Murphy is a regular contributor to the Book Review and the author of "Zen and the Art of Knitting," a work of narrative nonfiction.

People of faith (Christian and otherwise) disappointed with the results of the last presidential election have reason to raise their hearts and voices in thanks and praise -- for the writings of Anne Lamott. A left-wing Christian who's a recovering alcoholic with a checkered past and a wicked sense of humor, Lamott writes essays (many of which first appeared on Salon.com) that are howlingly funny mini-sermons, reminding us of what's important in life, pointing out the ways she believes our country has strayed from its core values and exhorting readers to go easy on themselves and with each other.

"It's called real life," she writes in "Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith," "and it's cracked and fragile, but the glue for me is the beating of my heart, love, and whatever attention I can pay to what matters most to me."

With self-deprecating humor and rigorous honesty, Lamott follows up on her last book of essays, "Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith," by telling readers about her life as a single mother raising her teenage son, Sam, introducing Sam to his father and the 40-year-old half-brother he'd never known, working to forgive her own mother and the pain caused by her Alzheimer's, turning 50 and going through menopause, watching friends die, helping others to live, trying to have faith when fear keeps popping in and practicing radical self-love, even for "the aunties" -- the jiggly parts of her legs and backside that show when she puts on a swimsuit.

Lamott's version of Christianity is a far cry from that of the conservatives who tout "family values." She clearly identifies with the plight of the sinner, the oppressed, the tax collector, the prodigal son -- allowing readers to see the many ways we are alike and the degrees of imperfection we share. Hers is not a preachy faith or one steeped in heavy theology, but one that is down-to-earth and practical. "I didn't need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity," she writes. "I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees."

Throughout her essays, she reiterates the central message preached by Jesus and held in common by other world religions: Help the poor. Feed the hungry. Visit the imprisoned. Work to make life better for everyone. By hesitant, faltering example, she shows how one might try to live up to this message. Christian or Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, she affirms, we are all members of the human family.

Lamott is clearly furious with the direction our country has taken under President Bush, particularly with the war in Iraq: "I was angry that our country's leaders had bullied and bought their way into preemptive war. Hitting first has always been the mark of evil. I don't think one great religious or spiritual thinker has ever said otherwise." According to Lamott, almost every religious tradition agrees on five things. "Rule 1: We are all family. Rule 2: You reap exactly what you sow, that is, you cannot grow tulips from zucchini seeds. Rule 3: Try to breathe every few minutes or so. Rule 4: It helps beyond words to plant bulbs in the dark of winter. Rule 5: It is immoral to hit first."

In the essay "Loving Your President: Day 2," she writes of her efforts to extend unconditional love to George W. Bush, the kind of love preached by Jesus, Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It's a struggle, she tells readers, but God is in the struggle with us. Besides which, "trying to love the people in this White House is the single most subversive position I could take."

For readers trying to live a kind of faith that's centered on social justice, who are saddened at the state of our nation and feel mired in a world gone mad with war and greed, Lamott and her quirky, funny perspective are nothing short of a salve for tired souls. *

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