- Evangelical Zen: A Christian's Spiritual Travels with a Buddhist Friend by Paul Louis Metzger, with Kyogen Carlson
Evangelical Zen is a bit unusual as a work in the Christian-Buddhist encounter genre. Such books often fall into one of a few patterns: they are exchanges between liberal representatives of different religions looking for common spiritual ground, they are examinations of how one religion might have influenced the other during its historical development, they are comparative projects that match similarities between Jesus and Buddha or the Bible and the sutras, they are appreciative expressions by dual-identifiers that explain how two different religions provide a rounded whole for an individual practitioner, or they are intermonastic encounters that speak to concerns and perspectives from a clerical perspective.
Evangelical Zen isn't really any of these, and the fact that it's not easy to categorize helps us to discern the well-worn patterns that we've become accustomed to. Its nonadherence to genre also means that there are times when its goals are a bit unclear, but the primary author's intention is that the book be "part travelogue, part confession of faith, and part philosophy of life" (p. xiii).
The anomalies of the book begin right away, with its atypical structure. The book has two authors, a main author (Paul Louis Metzger) and a supporting author (Kyogen Carlson). Metzger is a professor of theology and culture at Multnomah University and Seminary in Portland, Oregon. He is also a blogger for the site Patheos, and his short chapters read much like slightly extended blog posts—intelligent and reflective, but [End Page 285] aimed at a nonspecialist audience, not an academic one. This is not a work of research, but of heart. Importantly, Metzger is a conservative Evangelical Protestant.
The second author is Kyogen Carlson, a Soto Zen priest and abbot of Dharma Rain Zen Center, also in Portland. He provides the foreword and short replies at the end of each of Metzger's chapters, creating a sort of one-way dialogue that allows us to see how a Zen priest might react to Metzger's musings. Carlson passed away unexpectedly prior to the completion of the book.
The primary topic of the book is Metzger's time in Japan and the thoughts and insights stimulated by being a double outsider (a Christian American in Buddhist Japan) at the same time as being a partial insider (an extended resident in Japan, married into a Japanese family). Much of the book is about Metzger's encounters with the foreignness of Japan and how this naturally provokes self-discovery—a well-known phenomenon—but Metzger's brief chapters are often compelling and provide an interesting look at how an open-minded Christian Westerner experiences Japan.
One might wonder why the Zen Buddhist Carlson is included in such a book. The answer lies in the unusual relationship between Metzger and Carlson. Metzger is—for a conservative Evangelical Protestant—unusually interested in genuinely understanding and working with other religions. He brings Buddhists, modern Pagans, and others to speak with his seminary classes, working to dispel stereotypes and misinformation. He has also sought to bring conservative Christian and liberal Buddhist communities together as conversation partners, motivated in part by a desire to heal some of the fractures arising from the American culture wars. In this capacity, he worked with Dharma Rain Zen Center and became close friends with Carlson. Thus the dialogue in the book is the culmination of years of earlier face-to-face dialogue around matters of religion, truth, and meaning.
Conservative Evangelical Protestants are rare in the Christian-Buddhist encounter genre, making Evangelical Zen a noteworthy volume. Some sense for why such voices might be uncommon may be gleaned from how the different religious communities have reacted to Metzger and Carlson's work and friendship. When Tricycle: The Buddhist Review covered the topic of their encounters, they titled their article "Beloved Community." When Christianity Today published an article on the subject, the title was less...