A View from the Back Pew: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth by Tim O’Donnell

I feel like you come to Regular Rumination expecting nothing less than honesty, am I right? So let’s get some things out of the way: I am not feeling well and I’m grumpy. BUT while that may in fact affect my delivery of this review, I don’t think it is affecting my opinion of the book A View from the Back Pew by Tim O’Donnell. I began reading this book weeks ago and I promise you I wasn’t quite as cranky then.

A View from the Back Pew and I immediately got off to a rough start. In his introduction, O’Donnell makes a remark I have heard before that infuriates me: “I’m troubled by reports of people declaring themselves agnostic and leaving their churches in droves. To me it’s a kind of cop-out. I may not agree with  the conclusion an atheist draws about God, but at least he has asked enough questions to draw a conclusion. It’s all too common today for people who become disillusioned with their religion, frustrated with dogma and ritual, to stop asking questions altogether. They just walk away – inadvertently turn their backs on God as well.” (xiv) Unfortunately, O’Donnell is making a lot of assumptions here. He assumes that all people who classify themselves as agnostic have simply stopped asking questions. For me, it is being in a state of constantly questioning, which is ultimately not so different than the path that O’Donnell finds himself on. In his mind, he is superior because has reached a covenant with God, which he blatantly calls a “Deal”, and thus can know God. I don’t presume  to have the answers to the questions that O’Donnell asks, and answers himself, but I do ask them.

If I didn’t ask them, I would still be Catholic or Methodist, the two religions I was raised in. Perhaps it was this dual upbringing that originally led me to question belief for the sake of belief. I asked questions that my Sunday School teacher wasn’t pleased with. I questioned too much. I could relate to O’Donnell in that sense, but when his questioning suddenly went from wondering to knowing, I questioned that transition as well. What if “God” had not kept up his “deal” with O’Donnell? Would he still feel the same way about God?

I think I need to take a break from the religious non-fiction. I’m sure a lot of you wonder why I even bother, when I’ve so clearly laid out my beliefs here as non-religious, non-Christian, and constantly questioning. I don’t know. I guess I’m interested in faith as a journey, in the Bible as literature, in the scripture as history. Unfortunately, I haven’t run across the books that agree with me yet. I’m just being honest – grumpiness makes me honest to a fault. It’s not necessarily that I want every book to agree with me, because that would be presumptuous and ignorant, but I just want to read about that journey a little bit, somewhere. I think that’s why I loved Blankets by Craig Thompson so much. That journey was so much like my own. But that also doesn’t mean I’m not willing to read books that differ in opinion, I love to! I love the discussion that comes out of it, but where my problem begins is when an author asks me to accept something as fact that is not a fact, but it is a belief. I suppose to the truly spiritual, there is no difference.

Unfortunately, I’m just not capable of making that leap. And that is why I’m a heathen. (A joke! Sort of.)

I think there is certainly a reader out there for O’Donnell’s book and there are probably far better people than I who can separate their own beliefs from what they are reading and can admire this as a personal journey of faith. But to me it reads as a “how-to” guide in a way and one that is much too impractical for most to follow. So I could tentatively recommend this book to a certain reader, but overall? I’m just not convinced.

Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me this book to review. In the interest of getting this review up on time, I’m currently posting it without a cover image or links because my connection is slow. I will come back later and add in links and images when I can!

13 thoughts on “A View from the Back Pew: God, Religion & Our Personal Quest for Truth by Tim O’Donnell

  1. I would so love to find a “Bible as literature” source. I just joined a book group IRL called Gods and Monsters, where we’re going to read books through the lens of religion (but not from a religious viewpoint). But like you, I still have lots of questions (and I’m a lot older than you, so I hate to tell you, the answers aren’t all that quick to find!) and would love to find better sources of information.

  2. Have you tried Marcus Borg? He’s a Christian, but a Progressive Christian, and as an agnostic myself I find his books fascinating and inspiring.

  3. I like your grumpy review. It doesn’t really sound that grumpy at all 🙂

    That quote is a little off-putting to me, too. I was not raised going to church at all, and I honestly don’t spend a lot of time questioning my religious or not religious beliefs, nor have I thought about trying to label myself. It seems like labels get people in trouble.

    Anyway, good review 🙂

  4. I’m a Christian, and I can see the flaws in his statement there. I tend to think of agnostics as people who are constantly questioning and who own the fact that they don’t have the answers. There are Christians who tend to feel this way too but who have decided they’d rather err on the side of belief if one is to err, but that is a choice we each have to make. (The book I reviewed today on my blog talks about this, but I don’t think you’d like it much either because he paints non-belief, as well as confident belief, with too broad a brush.) Anyway, I read lots of books about Christianity, but I’ve learned to avoid the ones that look like “how to” guides. I’m not a fan of easy answers.

    I was going to recommend Marcus Borg, but I see Eva has already done that! I’ll add Karen Armstrong and Bart Ehrman as possibilities as well for authors who take an intellectual approach to scripture and Christian history. Armstrong calls herself a “freelance monotheist” and Ehrman is an agnostic and former Christian. (I disagree with some of Ehrman’s conclusions, but his actual scholarship is solid.)

  5. Having much the same feelings on faith as you (thoguh far more muddled and unconfident), I think this is why I like reading classics in part – because they are gone, crystallized in a past of which I am not a part, it is easier for me to read them,s ort of, as they are for me, to feel like I can relate to, say, the religious implications of Dante, even thoguh if it were written today, I’d find the ideas threatening and disturbing, quite often. There is a tendency for us each to think we’ve reached some point of truth – reading someone dead simply gives the historical perspective to know that, yes, they said some ownderful and beautiful things, but they, too, have a context they were embedded in – just like I do, blindnesses just like mine, so I can respect and learn from them without agreeing with them. They no longer need to convince me. Contemp books its harder to do this with, because they short-circuit their context – since it’s my context already, thus harder for me to use as a filter.

    1. It really is difficult to read a contemporary account of beliefs without thinking they’re trying to convert you or impose their beliefs on you.

  6. I am endlessly interested in God (and what people think and say and write about God), and ultimately, for all my reading, thinking, prayer and discussions, I can’t claim to know too many specifics about a Being who, by all accounts, is beyond human imagination. But I am pretty certain S/He doesn’t make deals with people. Loved your review, and totally agree with you: agnosticism is a difficult place to be, but its lack of certainty and constant questioning posture are the humble and praiseworthy opposite of a faith that dares not question itself.

    1. One of the interesting things about O’Donnell making that statement about agnosticism in the first place is that he truly believes in questioning your religion, but he doesn’t believe that anyone cannot know what they believe and that being an agnostic is simply lazy. That’s unfortunate, because I think one of his central beliefs is in fact questioning.

  7. Oh that is is so annoying, that quote about agnostics. It’s very intolerant! And also not nice to sneer at other people’s religious experiences. I rarely find books that reflect my own religious experience either — and I’m Catholic! What the hell, nonfictional world? :p

    1. O’Donnell is Catholic, too, but doesn’t really seem to believe in a lot of the pillars of catholicism. It’s such a personal thing, I don’t know if a book that would be like my personal religious experience would even exist (or that of anyone’s for that matter…). I’m much more interested in books like In the Land of the Believers or the Unlikely Disciple.

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