Holy Rascals: Advice for Spiritual Revolutionaries

Rami Shapiro
Boulder, Colo.: Sounds True, 2017. 232 pp., $16.95.

I preface this review with the warning that I have been a fan of Rabbi Rami Shapiro for some time. (For an interview with him, see Quest, fall 2017.) I was familiar with his use of the term holy rascals and therefore was delighted to learn of this book by that title.

Rabbi Rami tells us that a holy rascal is someone who seeks “to subvert stories that trap us in fear, hate, ignorance and violence, and [who tries] to help us tell new stories . . . Holy rascality is about freeing the human capacity for religiosity—the capacity for making meaning—from the confines of brand-name religion.”

The book is logically organized into three parts. The first supplies some information about Rami’s background and is billed as his unofficial autobiography. The second and longest part, called “Religion Unveiled,” contains ninety-two very short essays seemingly aimed at putting down institutional religion. It is full of racy one-liners, some of which are from Rabbi Rami himself: “The problem is not that religions are made up; the problem is that religions can’t admit they are made up.” Others are borrowed from notables from the past: “Religion in so far as it is a source of consolation is a hindrance to true faith: in this sense atheism is a purification” (from Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace). Rami employs a starkly irreverent tone, making true and realistic, but almost snide, comments in regard to aspects of religion that many would still consider too serious to joke about.

Have no doubt, however, that despite the jocular tone, this book addresses serious topics. I was especially impressed with this distinction: “Healthy religions have porous boundaries, welcoming truth wherever it is found. Unhealthy religions have rigid boundaries and obsess over who is in and who is out, who can marry whom and who can pee where.”

While I agreed with most of what I was reading, I will admit I didn’t quite understand what Rami was trying to accomplish until I reached part 3, called “Hacking the Holy.” Here is where the true advice for spiritual revolutionaries kicks in. Rami urges those who wish to effect change to engage in “spiritual culture jamming.” Here “we don’t simply deny the truth claims of any given religion; we play with them, we hack them, we push them to their absurdist conclusions in order to free people from taking them literally.”

Rami describes several tactics for spiritual culture jamming. The most astonishing to me is the use of aphorisms. Sadly, ours is a culture that discourages critical thought and has dumbed down dominant social messages. People are accustomed to simple one-liners meant to sum up complex concepts and discourage further consideration. Rather than fight this trend with excess logic or preaching, as some of us may be inclined to do, Rabbi Rami advises spiritual revolutionaries to go with the flow. Aphorisms, he tells us, must be just jarring enough that they provoke the listener into critical analysis. They should represent thoughts that we are willing to back up personally, be philosophical in nature, and use humor where possible. They should be designed to pull the rug of certainty out from under conventional believers in order to free them for a more authentic form of faith. A hint to how Rami distinguishes between belief and faith: “If your faith leaves no room for doubt, you can be sure you are a prisoner of belief.”

Readers may have difficulty understanding Rami’s overall concept if they are not already attuned to some degree to alternative spiritual concepts—that is, those beyond the limits of traditional religion. But the time for moving beyond conventional religious beliefs has come. Many spiritual leaders are describing an overall shift away from the limitations of insular religious beliefs toward a more open-ended and inclusive spiritual approach. Rather than just providing an alternative spiritual model, I believe what Rabbi Rami recommends represents an important evolutionary shift in how we find meaning in the twenty-first century. Instead of merely describing this shift, as others have done, Holy Rascals offers innovative ways to help it move forward.

As someone naturally inclined toward presenting complicated trains of thought in the most logical sequence possible, it will be a special challenge for me—if I choose to follow his advice—to compact any future commentary into the brief, definitive aphorisms Rami advocates. But I applaud his efforts, and hope this book will have the effect he intended.                                                                       

Margaret Placentra Johnston

The reviewer is the author of Faith Beyond Belief: Stories of Good People Who Left Their Church Behind (Quest Books, 2012) and the upcoming Overcoming Spiritual Myopia: A View beyond Religious Insularity.


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