Gospel Musings by Younger Authors


Edited by Rick Moody

and Darcey Steinke

Little, Brown

247 pp., $23.95

A thought-provoking anthology of essays, "Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited" is a conscious attempt to enter into today's public debate about the values we live by.

Concerned that public discussion on spiritual and moral values is dominated by fundamentalist Christianity, the two editors - raised in religious households - called on fellow artists to speak about their personal experience with the Bible. They sought fresh insights about familiar scriptures to serve as possible models for ethical behavior.

The contributors are from a generation of young adults that, the editors say, often shies away from saying what it believes about spiritual values. But novelists Rick Moody and Darcey Steinke persuaded their colleagues to share private musings and personal interpretations of New Testament texts. The result is a heartfelt, surprising, frank, sometimes sad, and often funny book whose literary quality is consistently high even as its spiritual messages vary greatly.

Not all of the contributors are Christians. A Jew (Jim Lewis in "Was") discusses his admiration for the poetry and vision of John 1:1-18, even while disagreeing with its worldview. And a few speak of the community of secular humanists to which they belong. But the pleasure of this work lies in the way most delve into specific texts to find a passage's relevance to their lives.

In "Jesus Was a Convict," novelist and TV producer Kim Wozencraft discusses the power of Jesus' crucifixion between two criminals and his conversations with them, as presented in Luke 23, and how this has colored her perspective on the death penalty and her work with people in prison.

In "A Love Supreme," novelist Madison Smartt Bell tells of his life-long encounter with I Corinthians 13, and its message of a love that can unlock the door to the prison of self.

In "Within and Without," painter and art critic Stephen Westfall ponders Jesus's teaching on the kingdom of heaven within (Luke 17:20-21), the power and authenticity of the contemplative experience, and the realization that "I cannot experience the kingdom of heaven within me and remain blind to its innateness within you."

Some essays head off in unexpected directions - to the lessons of a communal voodoo experience in Haiti or observations on a Southern Christian sect whose members handle poisonous snakes.

Yet the value of the anthology rests on how it demonstrates that, if we are seeking, God speaks to us in ways we can understand and at the place where we are.

One of the freshest, most amusing essays is Jefferey Eugenides's "Underdog: The Holy Spirit of Acts" - an appreciation of the Holy Spirit and its effects on humanity. After reviewing its astonishing activities throughout Acts and laughing at his failed attempt to speak in tongues, the writer says: "These things are important to keep in mind: that the apostles were constantly amazed at what the Holy Spirit did; that the Holy Spirit went where it wanted to, into the unclean people it wanted to; and that the nature of the Holy Spirit is progressive, inclusive, emancipating, and demanding in ways we cannot foresee."

These various encounters with the New Testament highlight humility, inclusiveness, love, trust in the power of the Spirit, selflessness, and the demand to judge not. Whether this book broadens the debate on values, it offers fresh evidence of the power the gospel message holds for those seeking spiritual and moral anchors.

* Jane Lampmann is the Monitor's Features editor.

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