A Review of Diana Butler Bass’ “Grateful”
An Attitude of Gratitude
Diana Butler Bass is easily in the Big Four women writers on matters of Christian theology, along with Barbara Brown Taylor, Jen Hatmaker and Rachel Held Evans. If you have any doubts about the importance of the wisdom of women emanating from the pulpit, read one of these writers. The effect may be transformative. (I would consider adding Nadia Bolz-Weber to this list, too, to make it a Big Five — though she only has a couple of books currently out there.) I’ve read every mainstream book that Butler Bass has written, and you can see a marked progression in everything from her writing style to train of thought. Grateful (which is on the topic of being thankful) continues that progression because, in many ways and in line with her previous A People’s History of Christianity, this is a departure from her usual trend-spotting accounts.
There’s a bit of irony at play here. On the day I’m publishing this review, I went to church in the morning, only to be surrounded by a theme today of thankfulness. The pastor recounted a story of being at a conference where he was given an eagle’s feather to help an indigenous leader with smudging, and then was given the feather as a gift to take forward. (Smudging and feathers come up in Butler Bass’ new book!) And the reflection (our church’s word for homily) featured a large percentage of its run time on the value of being grateful — just as this book does! Honestly, was the cosmos or God lining things up in a certain way for me? I wonder. It just goes to show that questions surrounding thankfulness are being asked in the broader Church right now.
In any case, Grateful is — as the author admits in her foreword — less a Christian book than one that draws upon Christian themes that Butler Bass has been exposed to all her life. Therefore, this might be something of a mature stepping away from Christianity in the hopes that her message may be shared by a broader “spiritual, but not religious” audience, one that she helped identify. The book is rather complex — and paradoxically rather simple — in that it touches on the health, emotional and physical, effects of taking on a posture of thankfulness, which is, of course, not always easy. And those effects lead to benefits that are not only personal, but more community based. As Butler Bass points out, we’re currently not too thankful as a society because the rise of populist politicians such as the Orange One Who Shall Not Be Named is built on a foundation of a belief in scarcity and fear. So this book is a bit of an antidote to that — a call to move away from that state.
That said, Butler Bass doesn’t have any really prescriptive ways to be more thankful, aside from a few pointers culled from another author towards the end of the book, along with the odd suggestion to try journaling. This is less a “How To” book and more of a “How Did We Get Here” book. Essentially, Butler Bass looks at the ways that benefactors have doled out gifts to beneficiaries throughout time with the expectation that the gift somehow be paid back in some form of service. However, moving towards the Santa Claus model — you get something from someone without the ability to repay the gift — might be more of a way to move forward. Basing this thought on the Golden Rule, it imagines that there is enough for everyone and we need to wipe the concept of “sin” or “debts” to be repaid out of the equation.
At this point, it should be noted that Butler Bass is a progressive — she seems to have been an evangelical in the past, but now is more apt to be found in women’s marches. Which reminds me, if you’ll grant me this bit of self-indulgence, it was a joy to read her account in taking part in the march the day after you-know-who’s inauguration, because I recalled seeing pictures of that day in her Twitter feed. In that sense, Grateful is a means to tie together Butler Bass’ public persona with something — a movement — that is much larger than her. To that end, the book is fascinating, not only as a bit of a memoir (which this book really isn’t) but as a slight trend-analysis piece that the author is more known for.
I enjoyed Grateful and found that it spoke to me, but I have to admit that given the subject matter, it also seemed lighter and fluffier (perhaps more feel-good?) than her earlier works. Butler Bass has important things to say here about the individual and the context of the individual in a much larger society, but the lack of concrete ideas for how the larger society should function was a bit of a black hole. After all, how can one feel grateful when you have an absolute fascist as leader of the free world? (And Butler Bass goes on to note this in her own book, which you can tell seemed to be a difficult one to write given her disdain for Trump.) It seems that the best one can do is simply give thanks daily for the fact that the world hasn’t blown up yet. And what you do to counteract that as part of a community doesn’t get much, if any, air-time — other than offering up an examples of the Women’s March and the Chicago Cubs’ celebration of winning the World Series and being besieged with thanks from people on the street. However, there might be a method to the madness, so to speak, as I’ll go on to note.
Is the solution to being thankful in a much larger context a matter of following losing sports teams and being grateful when they finally win? I don’t think so, and I don’t think that’s the point that Butler Bass is trying to make. My guess is that there are ways of giving thanks in a broader sense that goes beyond the mere scribbling down of things in a diary. What those ways are are still somewhat unclear in the book, but perhaps the author is on a journey with others to make this more of a community solution. And maybe the goal is to start with yourself first, and gradually broaden that sensation of gratitude to larger interconnected circles such as family, church, work and neighborhood, as Butler Bass illustrates towards the end of this largely wonderful volume. Grateful is challenging but easy (to read), just as the simple act of giving thanks is. Time will tell if it joins the ranks of other Butler Bass classics, but, for now, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to read this work ahead of its release date, and that I could put words down on the page here where I was initially unsure of where to begin. Grateful is a book to be thankful for, and we may need it now more than ever.
Diana Butler Bass’ Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks will be published by HarperOne on April 3, 2018.
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