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Jerry Earl Johnston: 'Designer faith' trend here to stay

Published: Sunday, Nov. 25 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

The trappings of American individualism can be seen everywhere. At restaurants, diners show up wearing everything from tennis shorts to tuxedos. Thanks to technology, nobody listens to a lick of music they don't choose to hear. We live in our own little worlds.

And in religion, more and more young people are opting for "designer faith" — a personalized, individual approach to believing.

In fact, a corps of authors has sprung up that this new crop of freethinkers embraces. The name Marianne Williamson comes to mind. So does Annie Dillard.

But the writer most cherished by these free-seekers may be Anne Lamott, a 58-year-old San Franciscan who recently became a grandmother.

Lamott's most influential book is probably "Traveling Mercies," a self-effacing, brutally honest memoir that tells of the author's quest for spiritual meaning in a turbulent world. It is a pilgrim's journal written for fellow pilgrims.

Other books soon followed — including "Plan B," and "Grace (Eventually)."

Now comes Lamott's handbook of prayer, which she has titled "Help, Thanks, Wow." It's a slim book that can be read in one sitting. I picked up a copy last week and did just that.

A feel for what Lamott is up to can be found in this swath from her introduction:

You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word "prayer."… It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let's say it is communication from one's heart to God … what the Greeks called the Really Real, what lies within us, beyond the scrim of our values, positions, convictions, and wounds. Or let's say it is a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L's.

Welcome to the world of Anne Lamott. I've heard traditional believers describe her type of writing as "wind chime religion." It has a floating, unanchored feel. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there seems to be "no there, there."

But to a budding generation of Americans who've grown suspicious of organized religion — kids who see no way to separate religious history from folklore or drain theology of superstition, the Anne Lamotts of the world are a safe harbor. They offer a way to keep the baby (i.e. faith and spirituality) while chucking the bath water (stodgy institutions).

Of course, these new "wind chime" believers are easy to dismiss and even ridicule, but I think that would be a mistake. Each new poll shows their numbers are growing. Personally, I wonder if they aren't New Transcendentalists — that spiritual movement put in motion 200 years ago by another band of American religious renegades. They weren't named Lamott or Dillard, however. They were named Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa Mae Alcott and Margaret Fuller. And they changed the face of American faith.

Over the next few years, watch for the name of Anne Lamott to start showing up in textbooks.

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com