Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mudhouse Sabbath

Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline 
© 2008 Laura Winner
162 pages

Increasingly, Christian religious scholars are examining Jesus in the context of his Jewish roots. While the works I'm familiar with have done this primarily to understand his teachings as portrayed in the New Testament,  Laura Winner's Mudhouse Sabbath asks: how can Jesus' Jewishiness inform contemporary Christian spirituality? In Mudhouse Sabbath, she examines eleven aspects of Jewish spirituality and discusses how they can be applied more broadly. While her intended audience is Christians,  this slender work can be of some use to any person with a 'spiritual' bent.

Winner is in a unique place to write this book, because despite being Jewish and raised in the conservative tradition, somehow while  studying in England she became an Anglican priest. She writes in her introduction that upon conversion, she at first did away with all of the elements of her Jewish roots -- the practices and tools of her childhood faith -- but then realized she felt as though she was missing something. Restoring those practices in a new context  made sense to her after she realized that since Jesus was Jewish,  taking inspiration from practices that might have been his, even if the contemporary Christian faith has forgotten them,  would mean being more like Jesus.  In this slender little work she addresses the sabbath,  keeping kosher, mourning, hospitality, prayer, body image, fasting, aging, candle-lighting, weddings, and doorposts. Some elements are distinct to Judaism (Shabbat and nailing mini-Torahs to doorposts) while the majority address a given issue in a Jewish context.

Mudhouse Sabbath leaves me with mixed feelings: Christians should explore Jewish spirituality. They should explore Muslim and Buddhist spirituality, too,  and the reverse is the same. No religion, philosophy, or worldview on Earth has a monopoly on truth, and  few are entirely bereft of it. Our minds find strength in exploring diverse pools of thought: homogeneity is stagnation and death.  Mudhouse Sabbath focuses more on what Christians can learn from Jews, but the value of certain practices transcends all boundaries. I'm particularly partial to the idea of sabbaths, for instance, as an affirmation of human dignity. In the United States, we are feverish with activity -- working long hours, then filling our leisure time with scheduled activities. We are constantly "connected" to the larger world, never free to just rest.  I like the idea of people declaring: Enough!.

The slenderness of the volume prevents Winner from developing her ideas, though. She offers sparks of potential insight rather than a roaring fire of enlightenment. Take the chapter on kashrut, or keeping kosher. She doesn't advocate that Christians or anyone else start keeping two separate sets of cookware because pots that have contained milk can never, ever contain milk; instead, she looks at the broader application of food mindfulness, and her example is the value of eating seasonally instead of letting the supermarket fool us into thinking that tomatoes in January are perfectly appropriate. A more salient example would be that of over-consumption -- or more pointedly, a  given company's sanitary standards or labor practices, both of which are in dire shape in the United States.

Although Winner didn't flesh out her ideas as expansively as I would have liked, it may be enough that she prompts Christians to draw inspiration from a broader source, especially given that Christianity tends to be dominated by beliefs instead of practices, and Winner principally addresses ways of working spiritual themes, like awareness, into the fabric of everyday lives.  Actions are more substantial than beliefs and ideas; as Epictetus groused in his handbook, what we intend matters little. ("Your dumbbells are your own affair, O slave; show me your muscles!")

So, may Winner's sparks be enough to ignite a few ideas in those who read his.


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