February 26, 2010

'Chosen Land' aims to show Shakers as a living faith


— By

Judging a book by its cover comes with many risks, among them the danger of misjudgment. So it is that an apparent coffee-table book about the Shakers, replete with lush photos, proves to be much more.

''Chosen Faith, Chosen Land: The Untold Story of America's 21st Century Shakers'' by award-winning TV journalist Jeannine Lauber is arguably two books in one. Foremost, it's a portrait of the Shakers from their founding by Mother Ann Lee in 18th-century New York through their current-day practice at Sabbathday Lake in Maine.

Indeed, Chosen Land, as the Sabbathday Lake village is called, is the faith's sole surviving community, where members work the land, renounce worldly living and otherwise aspire to emulate the life of Jesus here on Earth. To that end, they practice the Shaker tenets of pacifism, communalism and celibacy.

Therein also lies the sect's underlying plight: since celibacy precludes the birth of new Shakers, the future of the religion relies upon new converts. But they aren't lining up to join. When Lauber completed her research in 2005, the world's tiniest religion had only four members.

In part, the problem is one of perception. Mention the Shakers, and people envision famously simple artifacts -- flat brooms, oval boxes, ladder-back chairs -- but not a living faith.

A 1984 PBS documentary by Ken Burns only encouraged that notion. The film highlighted a Shaker village in New Hampshire that had closed its doors to new converts, leaving the impression the Shakers were no more. Burns later amended the record in a book, but the film still airs.

Nor could requests to PBS, made by Sister Frances Carr, the eldress of Chosen Land, undo the damage. That's where the author's professional and spiritual lives converged, and the book's second storyline came into play.

When Lauber moved to Maine in 1992, she sought out a local church. A neighbor suggested she try the nearby Shaker church, whose small, informal services are open to the public. Lauber went one Sunday, and never looked back.

''The Shakers fascinated me,'' she says, ''and I was captivated by their peculiar, yet totally appealing faith. I became one of the 'regulars' who joined the Shakers nearly every Sunday for worship.''

Over time, Lauber learned of the distress that the Burns documentary had caused. Sister Frances took her aside one Sunday, and asked whether Lauber could persuade PBS to stop showing the film. Lauber demurred. She offered instead to redress the balance by producing her own documentary and book.

''What I now realize is that this project is my public testimony,'' she writes.

An esteemed reporter, Lauber took considerable risks with this project. Her avowed dedication to the Shakers -- at one point, she dubs Sister Frances her ''earthly spiritual mother'' -- effectively clouds any sense of detachment. Her outspoken bias may give some readers pause.

Yet her gamble appears to have paid off. The rapport she established with the four living Shakers results in portrayals of unexpected candor and depth. Her interviews probe issues of faith, the quandary of the religion's future, even the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In so doing, Lauber has rescued the remaining Shakers from their presumed demise.

Nor do members speak with one voice, or only about spiritual matters. We learn their views on topics ranging from tractors (Deere handily wins over Kubota) to Martha Stewart and divorce.

When the author's marriage was ending, Sister Frances helpfully chimed in.

''(She) advised me to get a good attorney,'' Lauber writes, ''and to 'keep your eye on the money, dear, because I know a lot of women who were taken advantage of by their ex-husbands.'''

''Chosen Faith, Chosen Land'' includes illustrations of Shaker art and texts, and photos of the Maine village and its residents.

Through this book, Lauber has fashioned an intriguing blend of scholarship, advocacy and memoir.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews for numerous publications. She lives in Kennebunk.

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