Eat, Pray, Love

As the new issue is out now, I can post my review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love that appeared in the previous issue of Modern Reformation magazine. Have you read the book? Had any conversations about it? Please chime in with your reactions and those others have passed along to you.
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eat-pray-love.jpg Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Penguin Books, 2006
334 pages (paperback), $15.00

Divorced, depressed, and desperate to understand her place in the universe, journalist Elizabeth Gilbert decides to take a year off and travel the world in search of God. Or herself. Or herself as God. Well, it’s complicated, this spiritual tour, and the significance of her desire to take such a voyage of self-discovery to countries beginning with the letter “I” is not lost on her. Italy, India, and Indonesia may have little in common besides the self-defining initial, but Gilbert believes each culture will provide one critical lesson of spirituality she must learn if she is to survive—lessons of pleasure, devotion, and balance. So she packs her bags.

It’s helpful as we push off with her on this voyage to know something about her religious background. “Culturally, though not theologically, I’m a Christian,” she declares in the early pages. “I can’t swallow that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God. Strictly speaking, then, I cannot call myself a Christian….To those who do speak (and think) strictly, all I can do here is offer my regrets for any hurt feelings and now excuse myself from their business” (14). This is a charitable sentiment but does not preclude “strict Christians” from shrugging off their hurt feelings and following her on this personal journey she makes public, analyzing the path to God she follows.

Or should I say paths. Rather than studying various religions and then choosing one—as a reader could reasonably expect in this context—Gilbert takes a consumerist approach. She starts with the closest dish on the all-you-can-eat spiritual buffet and then adds sides on the basis of being healthy or traditional or because she can’t resist the gravy. “This whole book is about my efforts to find balance,” she declares; she wants to “be with God all the time” but not “totally give up worldly pleasures.” Well, who doesn’t? But the world’s major religions involve dietary laws, celibacy vows, the observance of certain fast days or periods of silence, the sacrifice of autonomy—none of which appeal to Gilbert. In fact, she has a better idea: “What if you could somehow create an expansive enough life that you could synchronize seemingly incongruous opposites into a worldview that excludes nothing?” (29)

The buffet metaphor is appropriate since Gilbert spends the first third of her year eating her way across Italy. Pasta, pizza, and gelato are among her companions while she fulfills a longtime goal of learning to speak Italian, fights depression and loneliness by journaling, and explores historical districts with citizens who have endured centuries of hardship while celebrating simple pleasures. Regaining confidence in her value as a human being, she begins to treat herself better: sleeping more, getting exercise, reading, slowing down to enjoy a meal of produce at its peak.

Four months and two jeans sizes later, Gilbert takes herself to India to develop spiritual discipline, a positive decision for someone who seems to have little experience actively cultivating any kind of discipline. She moves into the Ashram of her Guru, where she rises early for prayer, yogic meditation, and floor scrubbing. She studies the Bhagavad Gita, from which she derives a guiding principle: “God responds to the sacred prayers and efforts of human beings in any way whatsoever that mortals choose to worship—just so long as those prayers are sincere” (206). The prayers and efforts she chooses are intended to produce enlightenment, a simple but difficult concept: “OK—so we are all one, and divinity abides within us all equally. No problem. Understood. But now try living from that place” (123). (Fair enough—how would you live if you realized you were god?) After weeks of struggling to quiet her mind, she experiences a moment of rapture in which she believes she has ascended to heaven, and on another occasion calls her ex-husband’s soul to meet her on the rooftop in a mystical farewell exchange of forgiveness.

Finally free from her emotional baggage and centered in her own divinity, as she perceives it, she flies to the Indonesian island of Bali to pursue balance. For the first few weeks, she is apprentice to a medicine man who imparts a variety of wisdom to her, including a technique for “smiling in her liver.” While there, she is moved by compassion to help a local single mother build a house. But mostly what she does in Bali is have lots of sex with an older Brazilian expatriate. Gilbert portrays this sexual abandon as the balancing point of everything she has learned about pleasure and devotion, but it is hard to see how a newcomer spiritualist who spent four months in prayer following 20 years of serial sexual relationships can refer to yet another affair as “balance.”

Gilbert is gregarious, embarrassingly honest, and sincere. She is also impulsive, scattered, and a bit entitled. Her ruminations include excellent insights, such as why many of us have an inability to relax and enjoy pleasure without guilt; or how providing a casserole can be an act of grace; or how we need to “learn to stay still and endure a bit more without always getting dragged along on the potholed road of circumstance” (173). Yet, to a lifelong devotee of any religion, her tone has the feel of a teenager back from two weeks of digging latrines in a South American village with his youth group offering casual advice to a veteran missionary. You want to applaud her for setting aside the clutter of everyday life and pursuing God, but you also want to remind her that a year of eating and praying and having wild sex on a tropical island isn’t the same thing as a lifelong, self-denying commitment to a Person greater than yourself. Her hand-crafted religion is certainly more exotic than mine, but since she has dismissed any spiritual authority other than her desires, on what basis can she claim it is better?

It’s easy to understand why people have turned hungrily to this bestseller. Gilbert says prior to her journey that she was “tired of being a skeptic” and that many of her friends long “to have something to believe in”; indeed, this is perhaps the defining heart cry of her (and my) generation, the impulse that leads to the act of setting out with a searchlight. What’s not easy to understand is what people get out of the book. True, it’s a fascinating account, but almost a case of the emperor has no religion. Her “worldview that excludes nothing” has not synchronized the “seemingly incongruous opposites” as she intended, but has in fact excluded those bits that don’t fit in—bits like, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Eat, Pray, Love is an accurate barometer of contemporary spirituality, telling of the confusion and anguished seeking of the young professional generation that has grown up in an increasingly global world under the banner of toleration at any cost. Christians involved in communities that are unwilling to respond openly to bare existential questions will find some aspects of Gilbert’s passionate approach appealing—and therefore, Christian leaders will find this book useful for informing themselves and preparing for serious discussion. But young (and old) spiritual pilgrims seeking encouragement and insight for their journey would do well instead to turn to Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God, a similarly styled—but significantly sounder—spiritual memoir.

Mindy L. Withrow is co-author of a series of church history books for children and host of a literary review blog (mindywithrow.com). She currently lives in Northwood, Ohio.

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This book review originally appeared in Modern Reformation (Jan/Feb 2008) and is posted with permission from Modern Reformation. For more information, visit www.modernreformation.org or call (800) 890-7556.

03. March 2008 by Mindy
Categories: Reviews | 10 comments

Comments (10)

  1. Mindy – What a great review! I just finished reading this book about 2 weeks ago or so. I enjoyed it and I didn’t enjoy it. It was interesting to read about Gilbert’s adventures and accounts of her soul searching but I couldn’t help thinking that this lady is crazy! I heard somebody once refer to her as seemingly bipolar and I couldn’t help but think, what if? I also asked myself the question: did her book come out of her experiences or did her experiences come because she already had the book deal? It’s hard to tell. Thanks for your review concerning Christianity. Being a devout Christian myself I found it hard to believe that the culmination of all of her experiences was shutting herself up in a room for seemingly months and having sex nonstop. Hmmm . . . .

  2. Thanks for the review. I’ve seen this book around and wondered about reading it, but somehow couldn’t convince myself it was worth it despite the hype. I’ve got Lauren Winner’s book in my “to read” pile, so I think I’ll just go with it.

  3. Maw, I just your review at your blog and appreciated it, too. It seems that overall we had a similar response to the book. Good food for thought, well written, interesting to consider, but to be taken as a personal experience and not a blueprint to follow. And your question is a good one—I suppose not even Gilbert could say for sure how much she was influenced by the existence of the book deal.

    Joyce, I’d say Gilbert is definitely worth reading, but if you don’t have time to explore many different spiritual memoirs, go with Winner instead—I found it insightful and encouraging. Do let me know what you think of it!

  4. I followed you here from Semicolon, and am impressed with your review. You do a good job of celebrating the strengths, while also pointing out the weakness. I find it interesting how polarizing this book is, and I think you capture it here:

    Gilbert is gregarious, embarrassingly honest, and sincere. She is also impulsive, scattered, and a bit entitled.

    I think it’s an interesting phenomenon how many spiritual books become bestsellers; I think there’s a great hunger out there, in spite of, or perhaps because of, a lack of religious or spiritual affiliation. I also find it interesting that lapsed Christian so often go haring off to Eastern traditions, when many of the same things–feminism, meditation and prayer specifically–are historically in Christianity too. They just take some time to look for.

  5. You’re absolutely right, Girl. That’s why I love church history so much, because it shows us how our historical faith is incredibly richer than what our limited particular traditions suggest, especially in evangelicalism. As I was reading Gilbert, I wished she would have had occasion to encounter some of that, instead of automatically seeking elsewhere. Thanks for your comments!

  6. I always appreciate your insights, Mindy. I’ve read about this book, but I haven’t read it because I’m almost sure it would annoy me.

  7. Mindy,

    I haven’t been by your blog in a while, and I’m so glad you’ve done this review to bring me back.

    This book is on my to-read list for this month because our book club is discussing in a few weeks. I’ll have to leave my thoughts on this book for another day. But, I suspect they will not be too far from your own.

  8. Thanks, Sherry. Annoying, yes, but in a way that provokes careful thinking. For me this book falls into the category of “so many people are reading this that I need to read it too just so I can engage with them about why they like it.”

    DebD, thanks for coming back! I’m interested to hear your take on this when you’re read it, as well as the general consensus of your book club.

  9. In the last year, I’ve read this book twice and wouldn’t be surprised if I read it again in the next year. I loved it. As a matter-of-fact, whenever I find a copy at a used book store or garage sale, I buy it and give it away. I am not sure I’ve ever done this before.

    How amazing to find a book where someone discovers the TRUTH. That God can not be contained in any man’s viewpoint of what He is. God is everywhere, in every thing, all knowing, all powerful, and most of all – LOVE.

    Thank you Ms Gilbert for this amazing amazing amazing book.

  10. Welcome to my blog, Ben! Thanks for adding to this discussion. I have to shop used stores for books to give away, too, because I’m rarely willing to part with my own copies!