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Book Review 

by Ann M. Colford & r & & r & God Laughs and Play by David James Duncan & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 've always known that Montana writer David James Duncan has a spiritual bent, most frequently expressed through the miracle of trout streams and pine forests and the redemption to be found there. But I've never thought of him as a spiritual writer, or -- God forbid -- an evangelical one.

And yet that's exactly the title he claimed rather reluctantly for himself in his essay, "What Fundamentalists Need for Their Salvation," which appeared last summer in Orion magazine. In the essay, he took fundamentalist Christians to task for deifying the letter of their holy book while neatly excising its spirit -- the love, compassion and stewardship of creation that was lived out by Jesus in its pages.

As a rather unorthodox believer who sees the current conflation of biblical literalism and neoconservative politics as a most dangerous mixture, I ate it up. I circulated the essay among friends and family, undertaking my own form of evangelism. Imagine my delight, then, when I learned that the essay was excerpted from Duncan's newest book, released this spring.

Duncan grew up in a scripture-quoting, God-fearing family of Seventh-Day Adventist matriarchs, so he can go toe-to-toe with any Bible-thumping fundy, even though he exercised the option to "leave the faith" many years ago. Since then, he has immersed himself in what he calls the "Wisdom literature" of mystics from the world's religions and philosophies -- along with a few of the aforementioned trout streams. From these influences emerged a kind of post-Christian panentheism, where enlightened people can be God's hands on earth, while the nature of God remains unknowable and unlimited. He no longer calls himself a Christian, but he thinks Jesus is "the bee's knees" and he's deeply offended by people who spout intolerance and enrich the wealthy while impoverishing the poor, all in Jesus' name. Duncan is a passionate defender of the least among us, the voiceless and the powerless; he's a lover of the world who sees life and creation as a gift, a modern-day mystic. An evangelist.

And he's a heckuva writer. This collection of essays is great fun to read, even if your beliefs may diverge from his here and there, because Duncan never preaches; he weaves his words into a rich tapestry of thought and image, and then places the product gently in front of readers. The result is something like an easy-going jeremiad, a sermon in poetry's clothing that might just save a few souls.

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