Erin was giving a book reading when we first met, from her chapter in Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith.
I was in my final year at Duke Divinity School at the time; she was just a year out of the same program. We soon realized that we shared a number of things in common: we'd both recently traded a PR career for theology and we'd both lived in the Pacific Northwest (Erin works with Parker Palmer and the folks at the Seattle non-profit Center for Courage & Renewal).
When I noticed Erin also had a book releasing in early 2015, I suggested swapping book reviews, crossing my fingers she'd think it was a good idea. She was generous enough to agree. Thanks, Erin.
Vulnerable & Insightful
"The thing I am most desperate to keep you from finding out about me," Erin writes in her new book, Lessons in Belonging: From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP Crescendo), "is I want to belong, but I don't know how."
Those words resonate with me as much as they do with many others of our twenty- and thirty-something peers, I am sure. It was reading these words that assured me I would appreciate Erin's work not only for her vulnerability but also for her sharp insights.
As my beloved Duke professor Willie Jennings likes to say, "You have your finger on something very important here," Erin. Something so true, I think, that many of us aren't even aware of it. "The most obvious, ubiquitous important realities," David Foster Wallace once noted, "are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about."
That's exactly the kind of insight Erin has her finger on in this book.
We Want To Belong, But We Don't Know How
As Erin points out, our generation has lost the art of belonging. And while it might look like we don't care, the truth is just the opposite: We care very much.
"I think many young people have found no echo for our longing in the church," Erin writes, "not because we don't care but because we care so much it hurts" (187).
We want to belong. We just don't know where to begin.
Through the lens of her own experience struggling to fit into a local church in Durham, NC, Erin makes for a witty, smart, and trustworthy guide that you're likely to enjoy as much as I did. She's also a talented writer who is as fun to read as she is insightful.
A self-described commitment phobe ("the only thing I've joined in the past year is Costco" she quips) and "anthropologist of belonging," Erin confesses that she's not always sure how to take the next step in commitment.
Again, she's not alone.
I frequently found myself nodding my head in agreement with Erin while reading Lessons in Belonging, surprised by just how many times I drew a vertical line beside paragraphs (as much for their beauty as their thoughtfulness), scrawling the word "Good" or "Ha" in the margins (keep your eye out for her interactions with her mother, "Perk," which are brilliant), or even using the rare, coveted three-star annotation.
Like this gem: "Despite being almost thirty, I still feel awkward trying to make and sustain adult friendships" (121).
Yes. Yes. Yes.
Thank you, Erin, for putting your finger on so many important truths of our generation.
As a couple who has now moved several times and lived in multiple states (and countries) over the past five years, my wife and I can relate to the tension Erin explores in these pages in profoundly personal ways.
We want to belong. We genuinely do. We want to make sustainable friendships in rich community. But where do we even begin?
Using a just-right balance of helpful endnotes and a powerful, poignant narration of several biblical stories, Erin offers a number of helpful suggestions. Without giving it all away, here are a few.
Lessons in Belonging
Perhaps most important for our generation, particularly when it comes to the Church, is Erin's suggestion that we could do with a bit of humility. When it comes to our frustrations with the Body of Christ, it wouldn't hurt to admit that we are at least part of the problem.
The Church is awkward, sure, but part of that awkwardness is our own doing, a result of our own lack of "showing up," even. And if we're unable to do that, then any critiques we might have will do little good. As Erin writes, "It's hard to call the church out when we're not faithfully under its shelter" (187).
Also of note is Erin's emphasis on the importance of vulnerability and earnestness.
“Irony, ridicule and parody are the basic tools with which this postmodernist goal is to be achieved,” writes cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar in Postmodernism and The Other, describing the reality millenials grew up in just as much as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, after-school episodes of Saved by the Bell, and MTV. Sheltered from one another in our own little self-enclosed sarcastic, ironic bubbles, its no wonder our generation has such little hope of belonging.
If ever we hope to cross the seemingly infinite chasm between "you" and "me," we've got to start with a refusal of such subtle social stiff-arms. We've got to trade our ironic rapport for more earnest exchanges.
"Healthy community," Erin points out, means "a community in which we can be real" (165). Far from merely tacking on a cringe-inducing buzzword like "authentic" to our existing agenda, Erin is here describing the kind of community that helps us shed our false selves, those pesky selves we've spent so much time carefully crafting with our wardrobe and home decor as much as with our technology. As Philosopher Judith Butler points out, it is the vulnerable body that binds humanity together.
"The church is a vulnerable body," Erin writes. "It can't not be if the body on whom our life together is patterned is the vulnerable body of Christ" (118).
Belonging and Longing
Also of note are the seemingly contradicting terms of belonging and longing, which Erin asks readers to hold in careful tension throughout Lessons in Belonging, without sacrificing one for the other.
Belonging, at least in any Christian sense of the word, is a reality promised to us. It is gifted to us, not a reward given in exchange for our hard work. What it means to be God's creation, at least in part, is that we belong. Belonging is simply God's gift.
And yet, it is also a reality we participate in, actively, together, now.
Of course, that doesn't mean that we sit self-satisfied, beaming at how great it is to belong, Erin rightly points out. Instead, we are honest about the longing that still calls out to us, This isn't home. We still "wander about like strangers with home-shaped holes in our hearts" (188). But we do so willing to admit that the only way we'll ever get home is together.
Do You Really Need the Church?
Perhaps her most poignant question in the entire book, the one that will ring true for most people of religious faith (Christian and otherwise) in our generation, is: "Do you really need the church?"
It's not a question anyone else can answer for you, of course. But it is one that Erin answers not only honestly, but in a meaningful and helpful way.
"I need the church to remind me what's real," Erin confesses (172).
There are so many different voices calling out to us today, offering their version of reality, that it is far too easy to get caught up in the cacophony of illusions and lose our way.
That, Erin suggests, is where the Church is needed now more than ever, in the active work of dis-illusioning us from all the terrible narratives we're faced with on a daily basis, narratives like self-sufficiency, control, and separation: "Disillusionment, remember, is what the cross is all about" (175).
When we're unsure, the Church ought to remind us which way is rightside up. And that re-orienting work happens in active, intentional, vulnerable community. The kind of community that recognizes its own faults, but keeps its vision fixed firmly on the Way home.
"Sure, each of us could move faster unencumbered," Erin admits. "But this race is not about efficiency (120)."
Amen and amen.
A Worthy Recommendation
Lessons in Belonging: From a Church-Going Commitment Phobe is available now. While there is an obvious emphasis on belonging to a church community explored here, Erin's insights are sure to prove helpful for those beyond church walls, and she's always careful to explain any ideas or traditions that those who are outside of Christianity might not be familiar with.
If you're like me and want to belong but struggle with where to begin, I highly recommend you pick up Erin's book, and I recommend you share it with any other commitment phobes you know.