Steven James is primarily a storyteller, and a professional one at that. So whenever you notice that he has written another book, you can pretty much expect to find stories inside, and that's true of SAILING BETWEEN THE STARS --- a book full of stories about his family, his friends and his experiences that help illustrate his "musings" on faith in all its mysterious glory.
If, like me, you're the kind of reader who actually checks out the table of contents first, you'll be pleased to know that James is as cryptic as ever with regard to the chapter titles. "Thoughts on Dung and Grace" and "The Monk, the Chainsaw, and the King Tut Life-sized Sarcophagus Cabinet" certainly are attention-grabbers but are no competition for "Joy on the Front of My Pants." That one sounded vaguely familiar and turned out to be a story I once heard him tell in some other context. Still funny, though.
There is a point to all this storytelling, and that point is to try to make sense of the life of faith that James and other Jesus-followers have embraced. As he points out, it's a life filled with paradox and incongruity and mysteries we will never solve this side of heaven, abounding with questions about why God allows the innocent to suffer and all that. And as he also points out, he doesn't have any more answers than the rest of us do; he is simply inviting us along as he contemplates such things as…the navel (honest!) along with somewhat larger issues. (The navel thing really does have a spiritual point, and a fairly dramatic one at that.)
Occasionally, James surprises us, and probably himself as well, with some extraordinary insights. One of the most profound involves the story about the time when Jesus as a boy was inadvertently left behind in Jerusalem and eventually found in the Temple. Like most of us, James took that story at face value --- until he began looking at Scripture through a different lens. These days, he writes, "I look for the struggle, for what doesn't fit, for what goes wrong, for the things that truly set the story in motion." He assumed this particular story was about Jesus naturally wanting to be in the Temple --- his Father's house. Then James "started looking for…the heartbeat of the tale, and I realized this story is about something else entirely." That "something else" is truly revealing, but I'll let you discover that for yourself; let's just say that James believes the story is not about Jesus at all.
And make sure you don't skip the chapter titled "Lost in Space," in which James considers Jesus's teachings about giving freely to others. I'm still musing on that one, along with its image of a God who "doesn't seem too worried about being taken advantage of." No doubt about it, James gives us a thing or two to think about.
Fans of James's previous books, particularly STORY: RECAPTURE THE MYSTERY, will not be disappointed in this release. Like STORY, SAILING BETWEEN THE STARS offers a mix of prose, poetry and prayer-poems. Poetry is a tough sell, and James's style may not be to your liking. But the prose more than compensates for that and makes the book a worthwhile read.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on September 1, 2006