Lovers in the Wilderness by Stephanie Rutt (Review)

Lovers in the Wilderness: Awaken Mystical Unity and Create a Joyful Life with Mantra Prayer by Stephanie Rutt

I am a Christian who has always been interested in other religions. When others were worried about the relationship of science and faith, specifically in regards to the theory of evolution (which literally never bothered me one iota), how my faith relates to other religions has always been my big question. If there is one God, why are there so many religions? This is partly why I majored in religion in college. Through whatever various twists and turns of study, conversation and prayer it seems both obvious and non-controversial to note two things: there are areas where Christianity is similar to other religions and there are points of stark difference between religions.

One similarity is that we all, whether we are Christians or some other religion or no religion at all, are journeying through this life as spiritual beings (I suppose some of our naturalist atheist friends may dispute this). We are in the wilderness, as Israel once was long ago after being liberated from Egypt. It seems there is a universal truth of spiritual growth – you must enter the wilderness. Moses did and saw the burning bush. Jesus did for forty days and was tempted by Satan. If you’re Muslim, you remember that Muhammad did and met the angel Gabriel.

The reality that all humans are on this journey and the universal truth that entering a metaphorical wilderness seems necessary for growth is one reason this book caught my eye. I’m always willing and interested in learning from different perspectives. As I read, I found a lot in there that is helpful and good yet I also left the book with mixed feelings, of which I will get into below.

First, the good. Rutt’s work is incredibly practical. It kind of takes a while to get there, but when she gets into the nitty-gritty of spiritual practice and specifically creating a “mantra prayer” the book hits its high point. Of course, this is not the sort of book you read and put down. The book is meant to be put into practice. I have read and said this about quite a few books, so I suppose its worth saying this is one of the few I actually DID put into practice. I used the tools in chapter 8 and appendix A to create a prayer and to sit in silence for a while.

That said, I think the description of the practice of this could have been expanded, as I have a few questions. Following her outline, I created a specific prayer for focus. She encourages doing this practice for 40 days until it builds a habit. Does that mean I should recite the same prayer for focus for all forty days? Or do I create and meditate on different things each day, creating a new prayer daily?

Apart from that, I can say my prayer time (just the one day) was wonderful.

Now for the mixed feelings and a bit of criticism. I said above I am a Christian who appreciates both the similarities and differences between world religions. Rutt certainly appreciates the similarities, but she seems to ignore the differences. The writer of the foreword commends Rutt for mining from the wisdom of different traditions. Rutt writes in the introduction that she is a lover of God “who is called by many names.” A quick internet search led to her website which provided a longer biography. Learning a bit more about her demonstrated that this book is a microcosm of her larger project. She’s clearly focused on a universal perspective where differences are simply laid aside and people of all religions are united in faith and practice.

I do not think the best way to approach religious difference is just to ignore them. To put it another way, what gives Rutt the perspective or authority to tell Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus that our religious differences ought to be ignored? Its reminds me that while saying all religions are the same sounds very open-minded, it is actually just as closed minded as saying they are not. Imagine two friends – a Muslim and Christian – discussing their disagreements. A third person comes along and says, “don’t worry about those disagreements, all that matters is what is similar!” This sounds more open-minded, but in reality this third person is still making a specific truth claim over against others. The Muslim thinks she is right, the Christian thinks she is right and the third person coming in thinks they both are wrong because she is right! But again, who is this third person to tell the other two they are both wrong?

I am skeptical that the way to living together with different religions and perspectives on God is to simply pretend we’re all the same. This is why I prefer writers who write from within a specific tradition. As a Christian, I appreciate the works of Abraham Heschel, writing from the Jewish tradition. I recently read a book by Thich Nhat Hanh writing in the Buddhist tradition. I’ve books about Islamic prayer. I am sure Rutt has read and engaged with other perspectives far more than I have, and I come away from this book valuing her voice. My point is that I prefer learning from people who are explicit about their own specific context. There is value learning from what we all have in common, but to do so we still sit in our own perspective.

So again, what is Rutt’s perspective? Being clearer on where she is situated would have given the book more value. Though, if she is situated as an authority on all religions, implying she knows something practitioners in each of those religions does not, I would value this book less. I honor her in trying to be all things to all people, but I’m not sure its the best path. Further, she seems to use language that indicates she writes from the Christian tradition. In chapter one, for example: “our blessed creator longs for us as much as we could ever long for him.” As a Christian, I agree. Though I find it interesting she uses a masculine pronoun for God. As a Christian who adheres to the Nicene Creed and the literal resurrection and doctrine of Trinity, I am actually uncomfortable with masculine pronouns for God. That aside, do Hindus and Buddhists speak of “our blessed creator”? It seems Rutt is mostly writing from a Christian perspective. I suppose I wish she had just owned it. Writing from a specific perspective, approaching other religions from a specific context, is unavoidable. I wish Rutt had just owned more where exactly she is coming from.

To be fair, her focus is on practice. Perhaps she would say I’m way too focused on theology and what’s going on in the mind. Maybe she’s right. Her point is the heart, the spirit and practice and I shouldn’t fault her for not analyzing differences of theology in a book on practice. She even says the point is not to know how it works but to do it. And it is true that while the great religious traditions disagree on dogma, there is much overlap in practice – silence, prayer, solitude, meditation.

The reason I spent so much time on it is because it is a practical question: who is this book for? In Appendix A she lists sample mantra prayers from Judaism, Christianity, Sufism (not Islam?), Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism. I suppose this book is then for everyone, regardless of what religion you are, there is something here for you. Fair enough. And truthfully, its a good book and I imagine people from different religious perspectives can find good stuff in it.

But, as a Christian, I’d rather read a book on The Jesus Prayer or Emotionally Healthy Spirituality or other works of Christian Spirituality. I think of church small groups and I can imagine them reading Richard Foster, Tish Harrison Warren, Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Henri Nouwen, Barbara Brown Taylor and many others. In other words, I can’t imagine many Christians I know choosing a general book on spirituality seeking to transcend religions over these books within the Christian tradition. Beyond that, if I want to learn about other religions I’d want to read books from those situated in other religions (though, Rutt’s book on the Bhagavad Gita does look intriguing).

Overall, maybe that’s sounds harsh. I’m a nice guy who always fears anything critical is going to sound too negative. To be clear, I am not saying Rutt is disingenuous or intentionally glossing over religious difference. She is clearly loving and kind, probably (certainly!) much more so than I am! Maybe if you’re someone fed up with institutional religion, you’re ‘spiritual but not religious’ and one of the increasing number who claims ‘no religion’ then you’d love this book! Its possible my desire to stick in the particulars and specifics of the Christian tradition while respecting other traditions as fellow travelers is just me being old-fashioned.

That’s a good place to end this review. If you’re “no relgion, spiritual but not religious” and you’re looking for a book of spiritual practice, check this one out. But if you want something more specific to one tradition, this probably is not for you.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

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