Like a cluster of traffic cops, insurance adjusters, and whiplash lawyers at a multicar pileup, writers of all sorts are trying to make sense of the dangerous intersection of faith and politics in the United States. God Laughs & Plays, David James Duncan’s contribution to the literature of democracy, moral values, and how-do-we-get-out-of-this-mess, is not the book to go to for systematic theology, solemn punditry, or political strategy. I’m guessing equal numbers of readers will find his slicing humor and mystic sensibility either aggravating or inspiring. Sometimes I was both aggravated and inspired at the same time.
But these “churchless sermons”—actually a collection of essays, adaptations of talks and interviews, and spiritual improvisations—are worth checking out for the virtuosic turns of phrase and unique perspective that Duncan offers, as well as some fine analysis of religio-political rhetoric and impassioned hymns to love, trout, and giving a damn.
Duncan is a critically acclaimed novelist (The River Why and The Brothers K) and essayist, as well as an environmental activist. With Wendell Berry, he was awarded the American Library Association’s 2003 Eli Oboler Award for the Preservation of Intellectual Freedom for their jointly authored book, Citizen’s Dissent, a treatise on the destructive ramifications of the Bush doctrine and national security strategy. Duncan’s concerns as an artist and defender of rivers—freedom of speech and imagination, the power of language for good or evil, care and protection of creation—are key elements to the grudge he has with many of the far-Right forces in U.S. politics.