Book Review: Congregation

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Congregation

Author: Gary Dorsey

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 1995

Length: 388 pages

Quote: “I decided I could go to church…as a journalist…to understand the mysteries of church life.”

Gary Dorsey warned people that he wanted to write a book about “the mysteries of church life,” about the kind of people who attend church meetings and what they do there. By and large, he assures us, his stories are true.

Dorsey describes “First Church” as part of an old Congregationalist tradition, now identified with a larger “Church of Christ.” I don’t know whether there’s any official affiliation between this “Church of Christ” group and the one in my town. There is little sociocultural resemblance.

Of course, an important part of all church life, whether highlighted or downplayed, is the collection of money. Dorsey’s First Church is affluent; the Stewardship Committee talk frankly about who ought to pledge eighty thousand and who ought to be good for forty thousand this year. There’s actually some controversy about the church’s donating even a small share of these hundreds of thousands to any charitable effort; what these funds were given to the church for was the upkeep of a suitably “inspiring” building.

Wasn’t this what everybody hated about “organized religion” in the 1960s? The ultimate hypocrisy of “giving” money to, well, vanity funds rather than helping poor people? I still see the hypocrisy clearly, and by now I also see the hypocrisy involved in the manipulation of full-time, professional, one might even say career homeless people to promote grandiose, unrealistic political schemes.

Different readers, of course, have different levels of tolerance for different squick factors. While choking down my own squeamishness about churches that collect money for unspecified, perhaps (in my view) unjustified, purposes right in the middle of services, I remember inviting people to church and getting, “Well I’m not going to pray out loud, or hug other men.” Emotional intimacy is what some people—stereotypically, as Dorsey discusses, older women—want to find in church. Emotional intimacy at church can also be overwhelming to newcomers, and off-putting to those who don’t find it easy to “share” the emotions that have been bared.

Emotional intimacy at church often becomes a real barricade for introverts, who may have had, and may long for, the experience of being really intimate with real friends. Church fellowship groups dominated by extroverts use the same words we use for what we’d like to share, but extroverts are physically incapable of sharing that. Extroverts tend to assume that an introvert is really just a depressed extrovert; that just being the center of attention for a few minutes while confessing why we’ve been so depressed will cheer us up and turn us into chattering bores just like them.

Too many churches have hired ministers who don’t even know what they’re as unable to understand as dogs are. First Church’s pastor “Van” can’t handle analysis of what his church is doing and why, thinks ministers who “get so hung up with being solitary and individual [are] in the wrong business! In fact, I think they’re probably sick!”, and warns readers that his church doesn’t have “anything profound” to offer. For introverts, religious activity is either “profound” or a blasphemous fraud, so we now have all the information we need to understand why reasonable Christians might avoid First Church. Or, if convinced that just being seen at church once a week is our duty, might feel that going to church is the worst chore of the week.

Dorsey, however, is there to write about the group who cry on each other’s shoulders and utter sympathetic cliches. He is in fact having emotional feelings about a personal problem. Some part of him resonates with the women who talk about dreams and bereavements and “having to” put their parents in nursing homes. It comes out, at first, as anger. Then social withdrawal: “the group became chattier and I grew more solemn…I imagined headlines that would tell the story: SOJOURNER JOURNALIST GAGGED BY GHOULS.” Then he starts talking about his own spiritual journey with a sensitive Christian counsellor, and with us, telling readers how he “got saved” but was then turned off by the fire-and-brimstone evangelical style of the early twentieth century. For him “real religion” came to mean “rebellion.” Though, within the year, the church will help him solve his problem.

And, of course, per the demographic cliché of our generation, “rebellion” came to mean left-wing politics…and First Church happens to be one of many churches that collect money for international charitable organizations where “the root causes of poverty” are still, religiously, interpreted to mean “the lack of a socialist dictatorship.” Dorsey is cool with that. Because I’ve observed that the root causes of poverty often include even the mildest vestiges of socialism (the U.S. welfare system being a case in point), I’m not too cool with it. I have to remind myself that this book is about Dorsey’s spiritual experience, not mine, not yours.

Then there’s the flap about gender-inclusive language, in which a teacher leans into the faces of bewildered small children: “Did it ever occur to you boys and girls that God might be a…woman?” Afterward a church lady expostulates, “Some of us actually like the image of God as an old man with a beard.” Some of us, also, think the idea of God being a woman is a step backward from the idea of God as a man. Of course the Bible does plainly say that God possesses the qualities metaphorically associated with female body parts; that’s not the issue. The issue is that, by reacting against the cartoonish image of God as a man, we grant that image an authority the Bible never gives it. God is more than a woman, a man, a dove, or a pillar of fire.

Despite this schism, however, First Church rakes in enough money for church members to travel…to England, in search of their “roots.” They compare notes on fundraising with a typical English church, dependent on “these little fairs to sell cakes and cookies to raise money,” where they’re asked to pray for Britain.

(Rant alert! At this point in typing the review, I notice a bit of Christian indignation bubbling up. I personally don’t go to church often. I’m an introvert, my digestion won’t tolerate either bread or wine, and if I observe a weekly day of rest it’s Saturday not Sunday. But when I was a member of a church, although I was a student working for student-labor wages, I practiced the discipline of tithing. And I think that if church members do that, then the church has neither a right nor a need to bore them with further appeals for money. Any further displays of Christian generosity should be provoked by human needs—about which the church should be doing its bit, too.

There’s probably some explanation why the tithing system is not working smoothly for either First Church or their ancestors’ church back in England, but the idea that it’s not working smoothly, when members of both churches seem well-to-do, irritates me. Biblical language comes to mind: It is a disgrace for petty pecuniary concerns, especially those that have nothing to do with anyone’s survival needs, to be spoken about in the church. I don’t mind an emergency appeal to a church when a house has burned down or an organ transplant seems necessary, but show me in the Bible where Jesus asked anyone for money to finance a vacation tour.

End of rant.)

Back home after the trip, Dorsey is invited to document the perhaps surprising “mysticism” confessed by a competent, responsible, gainfully employed, apparently even rich church lady. He’s taken through an historic churchyard. He attends Bible studies. He meets Pastor Van’s more intelligent assistant, Bill, and suspects Bill of being the one Dorsey can “credit” for Van’s left-wing position. (I don’t; extroverts can always blunder across things that are really trendy, all by themselves.) He attends meetings of “the Men’s Club” at the local nursing home. He tries to get some personal testimony from Van, but becomes “more perplexed and annoyed” by the fact that Van’s only capable of inane, mundane, repetitious chatter.

The fad for AIDS ministries hits First Church. Meetings where people with AIDS can pray for healing are offered. Tasteless men act out their Christian-phobia by smooching during these meetings. Dorsey predictably confuses churchgoers’ reluctance to sponsor “trysting spots for homosexuals” with a “phobia” of the homosexuals themselves. (The church I used to attend didn’t ask members to be vegetarians at home, but did ask those who wanted to bring food to church dinners to bring vegetarian food. By Dorsey’s logic, does that equate to “carnivore-phobia”?)

After a final spasm of pious revulsion at his fellow believers’ “homophobia” is relieved by emotional confession scenes and the bullying of these believers into attending more AIDS “healing” meetings, Dorsey realizes he’s been converted to the idea of being a churchgoer. “To go from observer to subject to enthusiast” was something he had originally wanted not to do, but he just likes the idea of “belonging” to First Church.

Who needs to read this book? Anybody who appreciates well-written nonfiction stories will probably enjoy it; Dorsey usually writes short articles about science, but he’s done a good job with a long book about faith.

Does Congregation describe what you’re likely to find if, after years of church-avoiding, you start attending a church? I think Dorsey has a keen eye for significant details, even when he doesn’t seem to recognize their significance. First Church has an extrovert pastor, but has enough introverts in positions of influence to compensate and allow people like Dorsey to “belong.” This may make the difference between churches where ex-members are content to remain ex-members, and churches where “belonging” may be possible.

How well would Congregation prepare readers from different religious or ethnic backgrounds to attend a Protestant church in the United States? That’s not really the purpose of the book, but I’d like to know the answer to this question, myself. I’m posting this on a Sunday. Have you readers gone to church this morning? Will you go this evening? Please comment on your churchgoing experience, or lack thereof, in the space below…

Anyway, standard Fair Trade Book paragraph here: Fair Trade Books are books by living writers that are widely available secondhand, which this web site resells online at prices that allow us to send 10% to the author or a charity of his or her choice. The minimum price is $5 per book + $5 per package, for a total of $10, out of which Dorsey or his charity gets $1. Payments may be sent to either address at the lower left corner of the screen.