I struggled with what I thought about David Gregory’s first book, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, so when I saw he had a sort of companion book, focused on a female character’s interaction with Jesus, I thought I would check it out. Unfortunately, A Day with a Perfect Stranger didn’t clarify my thoughts much.
Here is a basic synopsis:
What if a fascinating stranger knew you better than you know yourself?
When her husband comes home with a farfetched story about eating dinner with someone he believes to be Jesus, Mattie Cominsky thinks this may signal the end of her shaky marriage. Convinced that Nick is, at best, turning into a religious nut, the self-described agnostic hopes that a quick business trip will give her time to think things through.
On board the plane, Mattie strikes up a conversation with a fellow passenger. When she discovers their shared scorn for religion, she confides her frustration over her husbandâ€™s recent conversion. The stranger suggests that perhaps her husband isnâ€™t seeking religion but true spiritual connection, an idea that prompts her to reflect on her own search for fulfillment.
As their conversation turns to issues of spiritual longing and deeper questions about the nature of God, Mattie finds herself increasingly drawn to this insightful stranger. But when the discussion unexpectedly turns personal, touching on things sheâ€™s never told anyone, Mattie is startled and disturbed. Who is this man who seems to peer straight into her soul?
The story here is basically the flip side of the previous book. Dinner covered the husband and Day follows the wife. Dinner dealt with a workaholic who had drifted away from faith as his adult life got to busy. Day deals with his wife’s reaction to having a religious nut as a husband and her reluctance to accept his faith.
One thing that got under my skin about this book is the whole “I hate religion” refrain. This is very popular with certain types of evangelicals. They decry religion and talk only about a “personal relationship” with God. This is all well and good on some level. After all religion, like everything else, faces the temptation of becoming route and rule bound and ceasing to function as it was intended. One can mistake the practice of faith with faith itself.
But on the other hand this is really quite silly. Because no one practices their faith in some sort of free flowing non-religious manner. Religion develops from belief because man is a creature of habit and structure. We gather together and begin to worship and serve; develop and defend theology, etc. This is natural and inevitable. After all God imbued the Israelites with a religion and the structure of Christianity came from people living out their faith and building on what they had experienced.
In other words, it is easy to say “I hate religion” far harder to practically live out your faith without it.
The strength of this second book is the character Mattie. She has a depth and realness even in such a short book. You can feel the tension she feels as a working mom, a spouse disappointed in how her marriage has developed, and someone wondering how to make things right. Her concerns and her wrestling with her husband’s newfound faith are interesting and thoughtful
The way Gregory outlines why God loves mankind and wants to connect with them may not be philosophically rigorous but it does have an emotional strength to it; it is a conception you can understand. For the most part, however, the book introduces – or begins explore – why this connection with God is the key to a fulfilling life rather than making a well rounded argument. It is a short conversation after all.
From a stylistic standpoint the suspension of disbelief gets a bit difficult after a while. All of the “and then I took another sip of my coffee” or “he smiled and made faces at the baby in the seat in front of us” are rather thin distractions from the fact that this is clearly a sort of seeker friendly sermon disguised as fiction.
And I think that is why these books leave me flat. There is very little artfulness involved. Gregory has some skill in weaving a conversation, but the rest of the fictional nature of the story is meaningless. The fact that they are on plane or in an airport adds nothing to the story. The fiction aspect is just not that creative.
And theologically the appeal is also rather shallow. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that a basic conception of God and his relationship with mankind isn’t important; or that deep theology is necessary. It is just that having Jesus be a wonderful, friendly, understanding, gentle stranger whose answer is love is always in danger of falling into over-simplified saccharine Christianity.
As I noted before, I have a hunch these books appeal to Christians more than non; that they are better at reminding Christians about the simpler aspects of their faith than they are at convincing unbelievers. But it could be that I am simply not the target audience. That my cynicism, intellectual approach, and literary standards just don’t match up well.
As far as I can tell, the books are quite popular in the Christian community and have sold well. So someone must like them. And it isn’t as if I hate them. It might be more accurate to say I wanted to like them more than I did.
All I can say is what has become the sort of unofficial and often unstated philosophy of this blog: your mileage may vary. Sounds relativistic I know, but there it is.