For most people, polite conversation avoids all things spiritual. Fortunately, Ruth Laker has no problem sharing with readers her honest and humorous opinions and observations as she searches for the perfect church in How to Choose a Church or Synagogue: A Twenty-One Pew Adventure.
The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, wife of a “recovering” Catholic and stepmother of two boys involved in Quakerism, Laker herself is a potpourri of traditions. Not entirely happy with the church she most recently attended, she embarks on a yearlong quest for a new place of worship. She takes us with her to modern synagogues, palatial holy spaces and humble, no-nonsense places of prayer. We join her on her personal journey but are welcome to come to our own conclusions along the way. In fact, she half-jokingly includes a rating chart for readers to customize for their own spiritual shopping.
Each chapter describes an experience with a different denomination. There is no church she’s not willing to give a chance. She experiments with varieties of Judaism and with a range of Christian groups from conservative to liberal. She enters each sanctuary with an open mind and tries to leave behind her preconceived ideas about the people she joins. Therefore, she is often surprised by what she finds. The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t bombard her with their evangelism. The Presbyterians might have more money than God. Some churches have convenient parking and clean bathrooms.
One common thread throughout the book is a concern about the role of women in each religion, and Laker frequently questions ministers, male and female, about leadership positions available to both sexes. More than half the people who regularly attend religious services are female, and Laker seeks an environment in which women are welcomed as members of the clergy and not just relegated to duties in the Sunday school. The writing on this topic is the book’s most clear, convincing, and heartfelt.
In an account that has the potential to take itself too seriously, Laker manages to write about religion in a way that is both sincere and entertaining. She has many more positive experiences than negative and shows that choosing a church or synagogue does not have to be weighted down with the political and cultural baggage we might expect. As she says near the end of the book, “…church people are basically pretty gosh darn nice.”
-Review by Kerri Schuster