Years after their original releases, books like Eat, Pray, Love and The Power of Now remain fixtures on nonfiction bestseller lists due to their personal, uplifting messages on the exploration of life and spirituality. But for every captivating memoir of religious journey and self-realization, there’s at least one that tries to pass off a common experience as something unique. Writing for The Smart Set, Bookslut founder and editor Jessa Crispin’s smart, funny essay picks apart the recent influx of mediocre spiritual memoirs, calling out all those authors who assume that “a story being true is a greater virtue than being well written, or insightful, or interesting.”
Crispin uses two opposing examples of the spiritual autobiographies: Danya Ruttenberg’s Surprised by God and Robert N. Levine’s What God Can Do for You Now. Ruttenberg’s book tracks her spiritual journey from renouncing Judaism at age 13 to revisiting faith and tradition after her mother’s death. Her personal story is somewhat intriguing, says Crispin, but in her return to religion she leaves all of her previous questions about religious origin and belief unanswered. Instead the book focuses on her complete acceptance of doctrine and her disdain for those who don’t follow religion as closely as she does. Her ideas come off as frustratingly “half-formed and unsupported,” reinforcing Crispin’s point that “just because you lived through something, that doesn’t mean you have anything interesting to say about it.” Harsh, but true.
Ruttenberg’s second-rate execution contrasts with Levine’s intelligent discourse on God and the Bible. Levine tells readers of his belief that actions like charity, compassion, and protecting God’s creation can all contribute to spiritual healing as much as (or more than) traditional rituals. His message is one of tolerance and personal spirituality: A person can establish a relationship with God even without following all the rules and restrictions of mainstream religion. Though she doesn’t agree with many of his beliefs, Crispin respects Levine’s non-judgmental tone much more than Ruttenberg’s shallow dismissal of the spiritually deficient.