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“Eccentricity: A Spirituality of Difference” – Book Review

June 19, 2014

Eccentricity is a recently-released short book with a unique angle on Christian spirituality.  No, it’s not about being eccentric in the way we typically use the word… not about appearing odd or being a bit on the crazy side.

But the book is about how we all are different, as God is different… particularly different from any of us!  We might say the author, David Auten’s, theme is our personal uniqueness.  And how that reflects the image of God in us.  And how that can (and should) lead to using our difference to make a difference.

 Eccentricity is the quality of difference.  Both the state of being different, as every person of every age is, as well as the positive difference (the positive influence) that one can have on one’s environment and the interconnectedness of the two.  Such eccentricity marks the very core of who you are…. [It] is the quality of deliberate difference whereby we intentionally embrace the difference that we are and that we can become in order to make a difference.

I don’t recall whether Auten uses this exact word in relation to recognizing our individual differences, but it’s fair to say he wants us to celebrate the difference we are… that we are different from even our close relatives and friends, in often significant ways.  This is a message that needs to be repeatedly heard by teens or young adults who are often troubled by being and especially by appearing different from their friends.  There is a psychological need to fit in, to be blended, as it were, at a certain stage of development.

The message of this book can help one move one through this a bit faster, learning some things at the same time.  Things beyond mere psycho-social adjustment.  More on this shortly.

One small concern (a mild criticism) about the book is that its prime audience might indeed be mid-to-late adolescents, but that its language and style is probably more suited to college graduates or the more intellectual of college students.  I do consider it quite readable, but probably somewhat a stretching exercise for the average reader, and youth especially.

This is mainly in terms of the vocabulary…. Although I have graduate degrees and study philosophy (some) and theology (a lot), I learned a few new terms myself!  As to being engaging, it was to me. Part of that, in my case, was its philosophical nature.  It gives us numerous quotes from prominent and not-so-prominent thinkers who present insights into our ways of being and acting, in terms of both psychology and theology.  Also included is a suitable and interesting amount of self-revelation.  Presumably with her permission, he also “tells” a bit on his wife and on their relationship – a warm and personal touch to the book. You can tell that Auten’s insights and encouragements grow out of his own experience, not just a summary of the many related books he obviously has read and which are listed in a substantial bibliography.  (The footnotes are sometimes of real interest as well, and should not be skipped.)

In Eccentricity you won’t find any denominational theology (Auten happens to be a United Church of Christ pastor); nor much that almost any kind of Christian would probably object to.  As a progressive, I can and do recommend it for other progressives, though I’m not 100% comfortable with a few statements.  I would imagine that most traditionalists would also recommend it, knowing the orthodox perspective and theology myself from long being on the inside of them earlier in life.

One of the main sections of the book deals with our individual “differentness” as a reflection of the image of God.  There is a good summary of various views on just what is the “image of God” in humanity.  With this, just who God is, how we may properly think of defining God. (As I do here, Auten avoids gender pronouns for God, skillfully, so that it seldom seems strained as it sometimes can be. I find his care especially fitting for a discussion on the image of God as carried by humans… not a male image, nor a female one).

Another long section is on the differences within ourselves – the various personas we take on.  Here he covers the major factors we often get “wrong” in terms of the wearing of masks.  It’s not, according to Auten, that all use of “masquerade” (one chapter title) is unhealthy.  Rather, it is inevitable and proper that we wear “masks”, with certain qualifications.  There are valid, important reasons to reveal or not reveal certain aspects of ourselves in various relationships.  His point is that there is not a single persona within us that we can call our “authentic self”.  Does the way we interact with a close friend represent our “authentic self” more than what we are like with our spouse? (Or vice-versa, as just one sample case?) He also points out the rather common-sense problems with the concept of “radical honesty”.  Not having read Brad Blanton’s popular book on the subject, I appreciated the summary and critique of it here.  We really can’t be 100% honest and “true to ourselves” while being fully loving or “true to others” at the same time…. We use discernment to make what are hopefully balanced, loving choices (with as little lying as possible).

A nice feature of the book is that each fairly short chapter ends with five questions and suggestions for “Reflection and Group Discussion”.  These are helpful both for individuals and for a class or discussion group which may be reading the book.  There indeed is a lot in it to provoke deeper thought.  Some personal journaling and/or group discussion is an excellent way to pound home, in practical ways, this kind of personally helpful material.

I highly recommend the book.  And I expect a group discussion of it would be quite stimulating and helpful for creating genuine and spiritual community among members.   

[A free review copy of the book was sent to me by the publisher, Cascade Books of Eugene, OR, which did not influence the way in which I reviewed the book.]

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