In her book Take This Bread, Sara Miles presents her spiritual autobiography. Much like Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, she shares how she come to the improbable place of Christian identity. The path to faith is described with reference to communion primarily, as well as the role of food in people’s lives, particularly those who come to benefit greatly from the author’s work in developing food pantries throughout the San Francisco area.
Sara Miles describes a Christianity that will be difficult for many Christian to recognize. Miles sees this as an indictment against Christianity, especially evangelicalism and fundamentalism (all essentially lumped together with abortion clinic bombers and related characterizations of the so-called “Religious Right”). The point I think Miles makes is that not many Christians really care for the poor in practical, tangible ways, and her writing here is convicting; there is much to be gained from reflecting on praxis integration and taking practical steps to respond to real needs in one’s community.
That the author’s Christianity is difficult to recognize, however, may also be an indictment of her approach to spirituality. She rejects both politics and religion as “simply a matter of opinion” [p. 160] and is convinced that “faith” is “about action” [p. 161]. But there is a disregard, here, of the early church and attempts to live faithfully before God and to live faithfully in community. She seems to agree with the observation made by a friend that the Creed (the Apostle’s Creed) is “basically a toxic document” because of it’s attempt to “standardize belief and overturn heresies” [p. 191]. This ahistorical perspective will be a concern to some readers along with her willingness to overlook (or disregard) orthodoxy in favor of orthopraxy alone. Of course, orthodoxy and orthopraxy are widely understood by Christians as two sides to the same coin: that Christian doctrine informs life in ways that make meaningful practice and service that much more likely – often as an expression of gratitude for what the believer recognizes as God’s grace and mercy in his or her own life.
In keeping with this view, Miles places great emphasis on the kingdom of God as ocurring right now rather than in the future (she appears to reject any discussion of an afterlife): “The kingdom was the same old earth, populated by the same clueless humans, transformed wherever you could glimpse God shining through it” [p. 222]. The concern she raises reminds me of the saying, “He/she is so heavenly minded that he/she is no earthly good.” This refers to people who are so caught up in the next life that they overlook or avoid responsibility for addressing needs this side of eternity. But the Christian affirms that the Kingdom of God is both now and extended into eternity. What we do here matters, yes, but not because there is no afterlife, but precisely because there is no great wall separating the Kingdom of God as experienced and practice in the here-and-now and that which will be experienced in eternity.
In the end the reader cannot help but be impressed by the impact Miles has had on so many of the marginalized in the San Francisco area. She has helped start nine food pantries – a remarkable accomplishment and expression of love for one’s neighbor. The reader will be left wondering whether they agree with Miles that this is Christianity or whether this is what Miles wishes was Christianity – acts of love independent of doctrine about love. It is certainly a spirituality that is concrete and practical in its regard for humanity; it can be this without dealing with transcendent reality, without transcendent purposes, without the miraculous, without the Virgin birth, and without the return of Christ.