Thomas Wictor

The Dave Test

The Dave Test

I’ve just finished The Dave Test: A Raw Look at Real Faith in Hard Times, by Frederick W. Schmidt. Dr. Schmidt is an Episcopal priest and professor; the Dave in the title was his brother, who died of brain cancer.

The book is only 153 pages long, but it punches far above its weight class. It’s almost a library, in that it describes the many mistakes we make when confronted with hardship, explains why what we do isn’t functional, and offers alternatives.

Each of the ten chapters asks a question. For example, Chapter Six: “Can I Stop Blowing Smoke?” It’s a refreshingly down-to-earth view of God that avoids the trap too many of the religious fall into, which is to claim that incomprehensible suffering is part of a plan.

Dr. Schmidt quite bluntly calls this what it is: self-deception. The reason so many of us deceive ourselves into thinking that mere chance was actually preordained or deeply meaningful is that we have a need to bring order out of chaos.

Though sympathetic, Schmidt rejects what he calls “stained-glass language,” the gobbledegook that so many religious people throw out in the face of terrible pain and loss. “It’s a blessing in disguise” or “The best is yet to come” are the sorts of thoughtless, unintentionally cruel things said to the suffering.

For a man of the cloth to write the following is genuinely remarkable.

To blow smoke distorts or hides the truth. To blow smoke is to manipulate. It connives or coerces those we love to make the choices we think are “good for them.” It patronizes, assuming that we know more and better understand the choices that should be made. Worst of all, shading or hiding the truth assumes a role that belongs to God alone. It robs those we love of choice and, therefore, of the agency that belongs to the children of God.

Honesty empowers those we love. It recognizes the integrity of their journey. It creates a space in which the one who struggles can find new opportunities for spiritual growth.

Finally, remember that telling the truth involves more than delivering a message. Talk is cheap. Even when we impart information that is hard to hear, it is far easier to drop the information and run.

If the truth is really told in love, then that implies a relationship. And a loving relationship involves walking with the person for whom we care. That can be a demanding journey. The person in our care may or may not be able to come to grips with the truth right away. It may take some time to formulate a response or make the necessary choices. And when life really unravels, sharing truth in love may simply entail walking through the ensuing pain with the one we love.

Remember that knowing the truth is often the beginning of a difficult journey, not the key to its resolution. But loving and allowing ourselves to be loved on that journey is a far better choice than hiding behind a smoke screen.

There isn’t a single bromide or pat answer in The Dave Test. The message is “Crap happens. You can choose to deal with it, or you can lie to yourself.”

I find it an extraordinarily courageous book, made even more impressive by its lack of drama. Having spoken at length with Dr. Schmidt, I find it difficult to reconcile this tremendously powerful work with the soft-spoken, humorous man I met. The Dave Test keeps taking you by surprise.

“No, he didn’t!” you say at passage after passage.

Yes, he did. Quietly and without apology, Dr. Schmidt slays a lot of sacred cows. There’s no disclaimer to assuage hurt feelings. The Dave Test is uncompromising without being offensive, controversial only because it’s packed full of inarguable truths.

Dr. Schmidt is a deeply religious man, and The Dave Test is ultimately a book about religious faith. But it has much to say to atheists, agnostics, and those of non-Christian faiths. It’s a book about us, not the Schmidt brothers.

The foreword is by Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary. In it he summarizes The Dave Test.

Truth makes free…not happy, not easy, not successful, but free!

This is a book on how to ameliorate suffering. That makes it an act of great mercy and humaneness. It’s also a manual for how to free yourself from pointless chains that bind. At some point, we’ll all need a book like this.

Thank you, Dr. Schmidt. Your writing has the power to change peoples’ lives for the better. This is a great thing.

Photo by Tim Wictor.

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