John Pavlovitz (right) and family

A Review of John Pavlovitz’s “A Bigger Table”

A Feast to Savour

“A Bigger Table” Book Cover

John Pavlovitz is on my radar as a progressive Christian writer. I subscribe to both his Facebook and Twitter feeds, and I have to say that I’m impressed with how often he writes and posts. Granted, after about the 342nd blog post title that attacks Donald Trump or his followers, I tend to just ignore and scroll on by — not because I’m a Trump supporter (very, very far from the case) but because I suffer from a bit of Trump fatigue (after all, I’m a Canadian and not a U.S. voter — so there’s not much, if anything, I can do about him, and hearing about his latest move gets to be a bit tiring after awhile). I don’t want to seem to attack Pavlovitz, because I’m sure he means well and I know that what he says needs to be said to his audience (assuming that white evangelical voters actually read and listen to him), but there are times when I wish he could move beyond the political attacks because I see that as a weakness among progressives like myself: willing to criticize, but not so willing to put criticism into action.

And I’m not saying that Pavlovitz doesn’t act (when, in fact, he does attend counter-protests — as recounted in his latest book, A Bigger Table), but when he spends the introduction of the book opining about the state of America in a Trump world, your heart sinks a bit. “Here we go again,” I thought. However, before you begin to think that Pavlovitz’s book is a screed against Trump or the evangelicals who put him there, know this: A Bigger Table is much more than that. It is probably the most progressive book to come on the scene in the Christian community in about as long as I remember (which, admittedly, isn’t too long because I only came back to the faith in 2014). I thought walking into this book that it would be about a leftie trying to convince righties that the leftist way is better or more God-centred, but a thread of the book is about actually embracing those of a different stripe and being as welcoming and inclusive to everyone you meet, despite their political leanings and so on. Something that both leftists and rightists need to hear.

“I still seek a Church that is not the least but the most diverse place on the planet,” Pavlovitz writes. “I still dream that the life of Christ can be fully incarnated in the people who bear his name. I want this faith to produce something more redemptive than choosing sides and building silos and pointing fingers. I want it to generate hope and yield goodness and produce mercy in ways that defy description and explanation and denying.”

Wow! That really opened my eyes, and I needed to read that. It made me realize that a lefty like me might not be always right in my positions, and I need to expand my horizons when dealing with people of my own faith tradition (some of whom think I’m going to burn in Hell, but anyhow). While Pavlovitz doesn’t really have a solution from A to Z on how to unquestionably achieve diversity in the church, he does have a few suggestions on how to get there — all by building “a bigger table” for all of humanity to sit at.

A Bigger Table is divided into three parts. The first is a spiritual memoir about Pavlovitz’s upbringing in the Roman Catholic faith and his journey towards not only evangelicalism and then something more progressive, but accepting and affirming gay people. The second part is about the “four legs” of the table that Pavlovitz feels the Church needs to stand upon: radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity (and not just tolerance) and agenda-free community. The third part shows how those four legs would radically change the way many churches would operate, by being more inclusive to the gay community and other faith traditions, and rejecting a doctrine that God is something we should be afraid of in terms of how He might be judging our souls.

All in all, I found that — even though I’m a pretty progressive guy — I needed to challenged by this book. One of the things I liked about A Bigger Table is that it looks at the story (by the way, to interject here, Pavlovitz refers to the Gospels as not Gospels, but, instead, “biographies” of Jesus’ life — a move that I quite admire) of Jesus feeding the multitudes with a few loaves of bread and some fish that was lying around. I’ve always had trouble with this “miracle.” “How does one take bread and fish and feed thousands?” I often ask myself. To me, it’s the one “miracle” that Jesus does that I have trouble reconciling.

However, Pavlovitz says to not look at the “how” of the miracle (which I inevitably wind up doing) and look at the “who” and “why” of it. It’s not important how Jesus managed with some sort of cosmic slight-of-hand to feed thousands, but rather one should look at those who came to hear or see him in person, and then Jesus’ act of gratitude and grace towards all of those who came. I hope I’m not misunderstanding Pavlovitz’s words or over-simplifying things, but that’s essentially what I walked away with. The point of that miracle has, for me, changed radically, and, after reading this book, I have no longer necessarily grappled with the literal “how did He do that?” aspect of it, but what, instead, it represents. Suffice to say, Pavlovitz’s interpretation fits exceedingly well with the subject of the book.

A Bigger Table is not merely trying to set a political agenda (though it may very well do just that) but it is really mind-expanding. Anyone on any side of the fence or stage of their faith journey will be able to read this book and wonder about ways that they need to be more loving, more inclusive and more like Jesus — without feeling as though they’re being preached to. Aside from the obvious disappointment conveyed by Pavlovitz at the outset over Trump’s election, this is not a book, unlike what I think some of the blog posts are about (having admittedly not reading many of them, so I should probably shut my mouth now), that is out to change your mind based on who you voted for. This is a book out to change your mind, period. Everyone, in their own way, is working towards the level of radical life in practice that Jesus taught. A Bigger Table made me wonder about what I should be doing to transform myself and become a much more loving and gentler person who is more inclusive — no matter how messy that process of becoming might be.

I can say, without a doubt, that A Bigger Table is the most subversive book to be written about Christianity this year, because it even subverts the lefties to become even more lefty, without ignoring those on the right who might peddle in more fear-based religion. This volume, as slim as it may be at under 200 pages, is deftly important. It should be read by everyone who is a Christian, at the very least, as this book is as groundbreaking as it may be obvious to some progressives. No matter what you might think about Pavlovitz and his tireless pursuit against the divisive politics of Trump, his expression of faith in A Bigger Table trumps all that and deserves to have an airing with you.

John Pavlovitz’s A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community will be published by Westminster John Knox Press on October 6, 2017.

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