September 13, 2006

An Open Letter to David James Duncan

2006 1525 pg29 capear Mr. Duncan:
I received your new book—God Laughs & Plays—in the mail recently. It arrived in one of those neat little boxes from, and as I opened it I was gripped by the excitement of new books. Your volume was among the order.
First, let me say how much I appreciate your work. I read The Brothers K a while back in connection with my university study, and earlier this year I spent a pleasant few days being entertained, inspired, and challenged by your fishing-inspired ode to natural spirituality, The River Why.
From your obvious knowledge of Adventism in The Brothers K, I had suspected your familiarity with our branch of faith and so was intrigued to read a little of your history and a more direct critique of your Adventist upbringing in the preface to God Laughs & Plays.
2006 1525 page29Your attack upon the Adventism of your youthful experience is both sobering and refreshing. It hurts most because it also resonates to some extent. Your burgeoning sense of the spiritual also caught my imagination, as described in this brief personal history: “Intense spiritual feelings were frequent visitors during my boyhood, but they did not come from churchgoing or from bargaining with God through prayer. The connection I felt to the Creator came, unmediated, from Creation itself. . . . In even the smallest suburban wilds I linked to powers and mysteries I could imagine calling the Presence of God. In fifteen years of churchgoing I did not once feel this same sense of Presence” (God Laughs & Plays, p. xiv).
But while I shared your interest in a more free spirituality, I was simultaneously saddened by your narration of your choice to “leave the faith” as soon as you were old enough for such a choice. My sadness was not primarily directed at you, but us—that we had so misrepresented our faith as to continue to be seen by you as inconsistent with your “prophetic” call to a better representation of God and the more generous and embracing way of life Jesus preached and lived.
I am sad you rejected some of the things I believe. But I am more upset that we as a church were unable to somehow connect you with the larger redemptive vision that should be at the heart of our faith.
So—as one voice among many and with no significant authority to speak on behalf of the church—I’m writing to say sorry. I’m sorry for you and the many like you to whom we have misrepresented Christianity and created a barrier to our faith. And sorry to God—who calls us to be agents of hope, beauty, justice, mercy, truth, and goodness in our families, in our communities, in our world, and in and through the church—and whom we so often disappoint.
Thank you for being a great writer and for describing your “sincerity and attentiveness” to the “Presence of God” as you experience it in the world. Thank you for the contribution you have made to my spiritual understanding and for challenging our understanding of what it means to be an Adventist.
That you are unwilling to be part of the church you describe is why we need voices like yours to prod us toward becoming a better church. I believe we have more in common than you might suspect. Your writing contributes to a conversation we need to take seriously.
 As you concluded in your afterword to the twentieth-anniversary edition of The River Why, our faith and our understanding of God’s purposes in our world should be the foundation of how we live our lives: “And knowing justice is inescapable, and not in human hands, I want to ask, finally, Why judge? Why hate or rage? Why not just serve, wherever and however and for as long and as gratefully as we can, step by step, heart to heart, move by intricate move?”
Nathan Brown is editor of the South Pacific Signs of the Times and the South Pacific Division Record.