- Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America
If the value of a book could be measured by the number of people who spontaneously strike up conversation about it when you carry it around, then Godtalk by Brad Gooch has touched the tenor of the American passion for faith in a particularly important way. While toting around this nearly 400-page book over the course of a few weeks in airports, coffee shops, and restaurants in Boston, Washington, San Diego, and Palo Alto, strangers regularly asked me about its contents, its title, or my opinion of it. I cannot remember ever lugging around a book that evoked such a frequent everyday curiosity.
There is much more to this book, however, than its intriguing title. Its pages are a sort of Frommer's of spirituality in the early twenty-first century, taking the reader on a travelogue of American faith today. Gooch has been meditating, kneeling, praying, chanting, and studying with several very different faith communities for many years. Written in the temper of a series of extended essays for a highbrow magazine, this is as good an introduction as any to the sights, sounds, and smells of spirituality on the ground today. [End Page 235]
Gooch commences with a chapter that focuses on a relatively obscure text called the Urantia Book [UB], along with its pockets of U.S. adherents, numbering into the thousands and gathering regularly in small groups that resemble AA groups. They read the text aloud and share comments or questions about its meaning for them. The UB claims to be a missive from supernatural beings who spoke through an anonymous man in the early 1900s, sharing all manner of metaphysical and scientific secrets of the universe, including the nature of matter, progress in the afterlife, and the relationship between nature and the supernatural. The transcription and editing of these revelations was overseen by a psychiatrist and surgeon named William Sadler. As the short history of this "religion" unfolds, and as more literate UB readers begin to question its purported divine origins, Gooch shows how readers have both participated in and resisted the dismantling of the book's claims.
Christian theologians who read Gooch's discussion will see in the UB a contemporary case of what historical consciousness and a demythologizing spirit is continuing to do to the Christian scriptures themselves (for those who can keep up with today's most critical New Testament scholarship). The UB has given rise to a text-based religion that has been born, rationalized, liturgized, then demythologized and historicized all in the quick space of a century. How its adherents handle this adventure is a lesson for Christian spirituality. One member who has struggled with the substantial shift from reading the UB as a transcription of a divine message, to an artful compendium by Dr. Sadler of Depression-era popular science, summarized humbly the profundity of the shift Christian spirituality itself must undergo in its relation to a thoroughly historicized scripture: "It's a complete and major turnaround," he admitted, "in the sense of what I now have to work with" (61). While other readers' faith depends on saving the UB from deconstruction, some are able to see a strong historicizing of this sacred text as a religious responsibility itself.
Gooch's second chapter walks the reader through some realms of popular American Hinduism, and unlike the text-centered UB groups, we are suddenly in the halcyon fields of divine celebrity. Gooch takes two figures as expressive of this moment of American spirituality, Deepak Chopra and Gurumayi Chidvilasananda. Chopra is a physician who has sought to integrate Western medicine with insights he has gleaned from the Vedas, for the sake of a more holistic sense of health that integrates mind and body. In the process, he has become a bestselling author, retreat leader, and pop-culture guru. Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, by contrast, is revered by many as a genuine guru in the Siddha Yoga tradition. She fosters a more refined set of followers through controlled access to her ashrams and an emphasis on the demands...