Enlightenment Hat by Hat:
A Skeptic’s Path to Religion
by Nevada Barr
Putnam & Sons, 2003
commentary by John Tintera
“Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and striving after the wind,” writes the author of Ecclesiastes (RSV). “The righteous considereth the cause of the poor; but the wicked regardeth not to know it,” we learn from Proverbs (KJV). These days the wisdom books of the bible are probably its most neglected chapters. Since they contain no foreshadowing of Jesus, they are rarely if ever read in church. In addition, their message always seems to be flying in the face of the hope and joy promised by the New Testament. For this reason, those who open their bible for a daily shot of inspiration skip over its Wisdom literature. This wasn’t always the case. For centuries, Christians viewed the joy of the New Testament as something attainable only after death; this life was just as Ecclesiastes described it, a “vanity of vanities.” Today, we listen to “The Hour of Power” and feel guilty when our Christian joy does not measure up to the ideal. Somewhere along the line Christian culture gave up its collective meditation on the imperfections of this life and began to preach the text that has now become dominant, John 10:10 “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (KJV)
Along comes a slender book of Proverb-like meditations by erstwhile mystery novelist Nevada Barr, called, Seeking Enlightenment Hat by Hat: A Skeptic’s Path to Religion. In the same strong, yet plainly spoken voice that gives so much appeal to her Anna Pigeon mystery series, Barr sets forth her personal philosophy – a philosophy strikingly reminiscent of the biblical sages of old. The book opens with a brief overview of her life and a description of how she stumbled from a failed marriage, fairly serious depression, and life-long hostility toward organized religion into becoming a church-going Christian. True to her style, the story of her conversion contains no visions or voices. One day she walked into the house of worship nearest to where she was living, which happened to be an Episcopal church. She started going to Sunday services and even a bible class on Wednesday nights, but it was a long time before she actually believed what was being enacted or taught. She writes,
By March, I wished to be confirmed in the Episcopal church, though I knew I did not believe and I was not a Christian. I knelt and I wore the cross openly now, but I was not a Christian. I went to Father Andrew and told him this, told him I saw the lessons as metaphors, stories to help us work and play well with others. I told him I didn’t believe, and I wanted to be confirmed. I asked if this was okay. He said it was.
I find this story remarkable. If it were told in the third person, it could easily be used as a parable – the kind that Jesus used to tell. How many ministers today are willing to condone a parishioner’s faltering faith? Yet that’s just the sort of thing Jesus was always doing. Also remarkable is the fact that Barr’s conversion seems to have been more to the aesthetics and rituals of Christianity than to its creeds or beliefs. Coincidentally, Elaine Pagels confesses to much the same kind of conversion in her latest book, Beyond Belief. While two books don’t make a trend, I suspect that this sort of thing is more common than gets reported in the secular or ecclesiastical media.
For those wondering where the “Hat by Hat” comes from in the title of the book, it ties into this singular way in which Barr came to believe. She writes, “There have been many Sunday mornings when the only reason I attended church was to wear a particularly wonderful hat.” In another place, she tells the story of how she first understood what it means to be a child of God, which happened while she was listening to a sermon on another topic. I can totally relate. I can’t tell how many Sunday mornings an external obligation at church was the only reason I got out of bed. The irony is that, afterwards, I’m usually glad to have made the effort. It’s the same with seeking enlightenment “hat by hat.” The effort is what matters, not the outcome or the purity of our intentions.
From the story of her conversion, Seeking Enlightenment moves on to forty-three 2-3 page meditations on a variety of topics such as forgiveness, gratitude, prayer, stillness, humility, and guilt. Several themes run through the book, but the theme that stands out most to me, and, given the current situation in the Middle East, strikes me as the most important is the theme of turning the other cheek. She writes,
Turning the other cheek was always an unattractive option to me. I was raised in ranching country. We all loved John Wayne—men, women, and kids. Though few of us could live it, the Code of the West permeated our lives: honor, courage, strength, no trespassing, and “smile when you say that, pardner.”
Barr goes on to tell how her “fire with fire” code of ethics began to wear her down over the years:
Hostile words, met with hostile words, bred only a continuance and escalation of hostilities. I never walked away from a verbal confrontation feeling good…there was that creepy, hollow adrenaline burn of anger that could last for days…where I’d rehash the incident again and again…
Finally, in a flash, it dawned on her that violence only breeds more violence:
[T]urning the other cheek, taking the hit, absorbing it, not striking back with your body or your spirit effectively says, “The violence stops here, with me. I take it. I hold it. This stream of hate will flow no farther.”
Another theme that runs through Seeking Enlightenment is the notion of responsibility. Just as with evil, Barr is reluctant to admit that God has a hand in human misery. While she does not address the age-old question of why the innocent suffer, it’s clear that at the nexus of her own suffering, clinical depression, she’s reached a point in her life where she is able to take ownership of her disease. She writes,
I have come to believe that it is a duty to relieve our own pain. It is a responsibility to stay fit and healthy to live long and well for our children and friends. When we hurt, it is a duty to relieve that pain so we do not inflict it on others, so we do not lose our kindness and productivity.
Related to her concept of personal responsibility is her belief that God is not responsible for the material vicissitudes of human life. In her chapter on prayer she writes,
As long as I thought of God as a cross between Superman and Santa Claus with a cell phone and myself as a lobbyist for my own needs, I was doomed to atheism, confusion, and resentment…. Now I pray for things of the spirit: compassion, strength, guidance. I pray for the spirit to sustain me when the world sucks and to grace me with humility and generosity when I hit a winning streak. Nowadays, more often than not, my prayers are answered.
If one should accept such wisdom, dwelling on our own suffering or even the abstract notion of “the suffering of the innocent” becomes moot. As the writer of Ecclesiastes said, “There is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?” (KJV)
While there’s little new information here, Nevada Barr has a refreshing way of putting her life experiences to work in creating a cohesive and attractive philosophy of life. In reading this book, I was gratified to discover that a person as intelligent, successful, and worldly as Nevada Barr would come to embrace the legends, rituals, and core values that I hold dear. Furthermore, Barr, seemingly through her own deductive investigations into the nature of things (she is a mystery writer, after all), dredges up for us a vision of what it means to be a Christian that is more in sync with the New Testament than anything I’ve read in a long time. (If you’re interested in a more systematic study of the meaning of “turning the other cheek,” check out the unparalleled Violence Unveiled by Gil Baile.) Hopefully, we Christians will be able to recover this vision and bring it to fruition before it’s too late. For as the author of Ecclesiastes says, “By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through” (KJV).
Copyright @ 2004 John Tintera