If I had to choose only one spiritual book to take with me to a desert island, it would be Godzone: A guide to the travels of the soul by Mike Riddell. Riddell’s first book (pub. 1992) and for my money still his best, it’s a little-known treasure that I firmly believe deserves a far wider airing than it’s yet received. It’s also probably one of the only ‘Christian’ books I’d be happy to lend to agnostic or atheist friends.
I first met Godzone about four years into my new-found charismatic/evangelical faith, and I’ve never been quite the same since. It put a kind of ache in me for a bigger, wilder, freer, more poetic Christianity. It opened up my eyes to wide, heady vistas of new possibility and perhaps bears the greatest responsibility for where I am now, slowly emerging from my evangelical chrysalis. I fell in love with it instantly and I’ve not yet found anything else quite to match it, though some of Frederick Buechner’s and Peter Rollins’ writings come close – indeed there are many shared qualities and resonances between all three authors.
At just over 100 pages, Godzone is short enough to read in one sitting, yet deep enough to return to again and again. It’s funny, quirky, sharp, poetic, moving, rude, occasionally outrageous, even mildly blasphemous; above all it’s deeply human and honest. Every page contains lines crying out to be quoted. It’s bursting with arresting turns of phrase, wrong-footing metaphors, daft jokes and provocative parables – some old, some new, several borrowed and a few definitely a touch blue.
So what is ‘Godzone’, apart from the name Riddell’s fellow New Zealanders use for their homeland (‘God’s own country’)? Put simply, Godzone is wherever God is. Riddell explains ‘Where God’s love is returned, there is Godzone. That is why it is everywhere and nowhere. It is your home; the place of your belonging. God is the Stranger you have always known; Godzone the house of your secret longing.’
Godzone then is the country of the Spirit, through which runs the eternal Road. Chapters deal with the lie of its land – its mountains and valleys, seas and rivers; with its customs, language and currency; and with the dangers and travelling companions you will meet on the journey. It’s a kind of Rough Guide to the terrain encountered in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, but any similarity between the two books ends there. Puritan this isn’t. Spiritual it is, in spades.
Probably the best way to give an impression of the book is to let it speak for itself. At the risk of breaching copyright, here’s a bunch of quotations.
Quotations from Godzone
- Three things are sacred: the journey, the people, and stories.
- A lot of people live in prisons they have built for themselves, and curse the bars. In Godzone the wind is called freedom, and it’s heady stuff.
- To see Godzone is to be a part of it. Or, if you prefer, it is only when you are a part of it that you can see it. The first and overwhelming discovery is that God is in it – everywhere. Waving in the trees, laughing in the thunder, shining in old eyes, speaking in the silence.
- Being lost is a wound of humanity that everyone carries but nobody shows… From this wound springs all that is great in human art and music, and the most piercing artists and musicians are broken people… We are lost in the sense of a child separated from its parents, uncertain and frightened in the world… The awareness of being lost is an indication of grace.
- The teaching of the universe is that all things live together. Nothing is totally independent, including God. All that has life is in relationship.
- We are the ones who have forgotten even the story of what it means to be human.
- Finding the way is all about coming home. Its heart lies in the discovery that the One you feared to face is not your enemy but your Lover.
- There is some deep instinct which makes it plain to us that to face God means to face yourself, and that’s not always an attractive proposition.
- You can never learn enough about God to satisfy the hunger in your soul. Only getting to know God is sufficient for that.
- God enjoys a good fight as much an Irish publican. From hearts that struggle there is the hope of honest love.
- Suffering is not an algebra problem to be solved. It is an agony to be borne. Like a bloody birth, suffering springs from letting-be.
- God is the Primeval Hitchhiker… God has never ‘settled down.’ God does not own a television set, or play bowls. God does read poetry, and rage.
- To be healed does not mean to be fixed. It is not only possible, but likely, for a paraplegic who has been healed to remain in a wheelchair.
- Sometimes if you twang a note on a guitar, you can make a string on a different guitar vibrate. It’s called resonance. Joy is when your heart picks up the vibrations of God, and for a brief period of time, beats in harmony.
- To celebrate is to transform; it is to make the ordinary special – or perhaps it is to recognise the specialness of the ordinary. Sometimes a shaft of sunlight picks out an apple on a fruit bowl, and that apple becomes the gateway to the mystery of the universe.
- Advice to the suffering is insufferable. When someone cries ‘Why did this happen?’ they do not want an answer. They want someone to hold them.
- With both prayer and sex, the depth of the experience depends not so much on technique as on love.
- The riches of Godzone are such that you cannot lose them by giving them away.
- The pilgrims of the Zone have cleared the house of their spirit so it is barer than a nun’s glory box.
- There are those who know Godzone and those who know about Godzone. Those who know about it know nothing.
- The thorny nut of cynicism gives little comfort in the long safe nights.
- For those whose hearts have been shafted by love, worship is as natural and as unavoidable as a tree coming into blossom with the warmth of spring.
- There is no sillier question than that as to whether a story is true or not. If a story is heard, it leads to truth; if not, it is an empty tale. The listener is the one who decides.
- It’s sometimes easier to love God than to love God’s mates. The trouble is you can’t do one without the other.
- Donkey-faced pragmatists analyse the world into fragments, and miss its Maker… They know all about method and nothing about mystery.
- This land between the ages is not our homeland, and we can never settle here.
- At times Godzone will seem a romantic dream. You will think yourself gullible to have entertained its existence… You will hurt yourself and others to prove how cool and clever and tough you really are.
There are plenty of great stories in the book, but this is my favourite.
A capitalist was horrified to find a fisherman lying beside his boat, smoking a pipe.
‘Why aren’t you out fishing?’ he asked.
‘Because I’ve caught enough fish for the day.’
‘Why don’t you catch some more?’ the capitalist persisted.
‘What would I do with it?’ asked the fisherman.
‘Earn more money. Then you could have a motor fixed to the boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. That would bring you money to buy nylon nets, so more fish, more money. Soon you would have enough to buy two boats… even a fleet of boats. Then you could be rich like me.’
‘What would I do then?’ asked the fisherman.
‘Then you could really enjoy life,’ the capitalist replied.
‘What do you think I am doing now?’ responded the fisherman, refilling his pipe.
Unfortunately it’s not all that easy to get hold of a copy at the moment but there are usually a few ‘new and used’ lurking around on Amazon. Buy it, buy it, buy it. 🙂