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Review of “Discovering the Essence”

April 11, 2021

The descriptive subtitle of this delightful, practical book is “How to Grow a Spiritual Practice When Your Religion is Cracking Apart”. I’ve not read another book that blends the disruption of changing one’s beliefs (often while losing, for practical purposes, friends or even family members) with the calming, grounding effect of building up a meditative practice. I’ve not heard of such a sustained thematic weave in another book, either, though it may well exist.

The author, Jeff Campbell, is giving us an extended story of his own experience … finding himself adrift and anxious in the midst of his changing theology and relationships with his friends and church community. This is a situation familiar to tens of thousands of people, or more, in recent years. I went though that kind of situation myself around 25 years ago (gradually in my case, with relatively little trauma – I know it’s more intense for many, as it was for Jeff).

Campbell starts off immediately bringing reassurance to his readers that, if they are deeply disturbed, they will get through their “deconstruction” period and things will become calmer and clearer eventually. He rightly points out that deconstruction is more than a merely academic term… it has caught on widely. I read it used often when Christians (or former Christians, as self-labeled) speak of their process of doubt and revision of beliefs. However, I know of no precise definition for when questioning or changing certain beliefs becomes “deconstruction” and potential “reconstruction”. But the author shows well how it generally involves revision of relationships also, which can be the most emotionally challenging aspect.

Such a structure, as he skillfully applies it, makes the book valuable for virtually anyone… settled Christian, transitioning Christian (or person of other faith), or non-religious person. I doubt readers will be put off by Campbell’s sections discussing his own inner and community-of-faith challenges. And those reading mostly for those sections should not be put off by the meditative practices he copiously spreads throughout the book. There are 31 of these, and they are set apart from the main text plainly.

Thus they can be skipped for those not caring about them and preferring the rest of his story and insights. Reading this way, one will still learn about the role such positive habits of the mind and heart played in his healing and development. This includes life circumstances not related to religious beliefs or affiliations. There is some real drama to some of the on-the-job challenges Campbell faced, as a newcomer particularly, to the world of special education with older, sometimes violent kids.

The approach of Discovering the Essence is to interweave the theme of faith shifts with that of building a spiritual practice which has very little to do with theology – with one’s beliefs. Rather, the kind of practice Campbell guides readers to and significantly into is one of inner quieting and allowing peace (or even guidance) to enter. One can attribute the fruits of such a practice to God or some other source but that won’t change the results.

The detailed, specific guidance on the use of meditative practices and Campell’s wise advice not often found fills a significant need not being adequately covered by similar books, to my awareness. You will also be guided to the website he continues to add further practices and advice to…. the book and this are resources well worth a good look. You may find yourself using and benefiting from his examples. If you happen to be in a “faith shift” process but not much interested in meditative practice, there is good support and wisdom for you as well in Discovering the Essence.

If you have read or yet read this book, please come back and comment here; and I know the author will appreciate positive reviews posted to the publisher or any sales site featuring reviews.

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