When I first saw the book How To Believe, I didn’t like the title—and to be honest, I still don’t. With such a title, one can only assume this is a Sunday School handbook for people to read and be encouraged to believe what author Jon Spayde believes. This, however, is not Spayde’s aim.
How To Believe by Jon Spayde, published by Random House (2008). $25.
How To Believe is a collection of 34 stories that Spayde, a St. Paul resident, collected from a variety of “theologians” located around the country as he explored the topics of religion and personal faith. Spayde is a recovering alcoholic who grew up in the Christian faith and desperately desired, as he writes in the introduction, to figure out “how I was to express my feelings about God—in a church or no church.” Faith, he continues, “was something I believed I needed to make all on my own, within the cramped confines of my brain.”
The collection of people that Spayde sits down with is what makes his book worth reading. I appreciated the wide variety of thoughts on religion, faith, and God in North America. Kosuke Koyama, a part-time professor at Luther Seminary, talks about how his faith was shaped while living in Japan as his home town was pounded by American B-29s. Cyndi Dale, a psychic and author, explains to Spayde how she is able to see herself as a Christian in addition to being a psychic. Lenard Griffin, a pastor at Morris Street Baptist Church in South Carolina—perhaps the country’s most famous African-American church—gives testimony to God’s role in his life.
These and the rest of the stories present a welcome diversity of perspectives regarding religion in America, the role God plays in one’s life, and the freedom each of us has to explore his or her own faith. With each story Spayde provides his reaction to the interview and things he has learned along the way, which I found helpful. It gives insight into the spiritual journey Spayde was on. However, although each story is interesting, 34 personal stories are simply too many for a 240-page book. I can understand the author’s desire to provide a wide lens for the reader to look at religion, but it’s a stretch to fit so many different stories into such a concise volume.
Although the book is mistitled, it is effective. Spayde gives the reader room to hear stories, relate them to their personal experiences, and grow from what the “theologians” have shared. As Spayde summarizes in the volume’s conclusion: “This book isn’t intended to convert anybody to Christianity, only to explore some of the intricate, beautiful, challenging aspects of that faith in order to suggest how anyone’s faith may be deepened.”
John Hierlinger (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an M.Div. candidate at Luther Seminary in Lauderdale, Minnesota.