I took on the task of reading and reviewing The Art of Helping Others by Douglas C. Mann. As a writer and performer, I was intrigued by the title and the author description as a working artist.
Up front, I'll say I found it a hard book to get into. In fact, I had to read the first chapters twice, thinking maybe I'd read them too inattentively the first time, but even on the second read, it felt like slogging through. It all felt a little familiar and yet vague. It was Mann's personal story of leaving a music executive job to be an artist/missionary. It's personal history without feeling terribly personal. Yes, there are some stories that are potentially vulnerable, but it all felt as if it were told as if from a distance. It's something I puzzled about as I read it. It seemed a singular achievement, although not the kind you want to repeat.
It was around chapter 5 that things began to cook and the rest of the book was engaging. I'm always aware that my experience may not be someone else's---after all someone has made young vampires in love a bestselling genre and I've no clue why---but if you find the rest of this review to spark your interest, I would say skim the first and head as quickly as possible to the middle.
At the heart of this book, it's not a book about art or art-making, which was a little bit of a disappointment to me, but not much of one. Mann is using his experience as an artist---and the inherent risks involved in following that path---as a template for what he is calling all Christians to be. The term is uses is "creative inciter," a term that is broadly enough defined to make it accessible, I believe, to non-artists (if such exist, but that's another argument to be had).
The notion is that we find creative ways to enter into lives, find unusual ways to reveal grace or call for justice or generally bring in the Reign of God. He talks about this requiring sacrifice and that "dying to self" thing that comes up once in a while among Christians. He even relates an amusing conversation he had with a book executive about how books about "dying to self" just don't sell. He also relates how someone inviting him to "come die with us" was the way he heard the call to leave his lucrative executive job. He makes a decent case for that needing more foregrounding in Christianity, how that can be a compelling invitation for some people.
There is a section where he tries to make a case for asking "why not?" rather than "what if?" Mann seems to find some profound difference between the two questions that I didn't grasp. He found one more motivational, whereas I find them to be about equally so.
I do like that at the end of the book, he gives us a few paragraphs about different organizations that he sees as creative inciters. I will refer to those, as I'm always looking for networks to plug into (which I find difficult as a gay, Christian, creative type). I've only visited a couple of sites so far, but will explore further.
It's clear Mann has a great concern for others and has put that into practice, through his art and through his other lifestyle choices. That, at the very least, is admirable.
In the end, I do find it hard to give The Art of Helping Others more than a lukewarm review. It could be boiled down to a really good article, but perhaps the pieces that didn't engage me might be fascinating to others. If you're intrigued enough to give it a try, there is a sample of the audio Book on Noise Trade. I would at least recommend giving that a try.
Meanwhile, I'm going to be watching Mann's website for a bit. I think he's on to something. I'm not sure this book is the best he has to offer. As a choir director use to prod us, "that was so good, it should be better." I'm hoping Mann eventually gives us the "better."
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from
the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review
network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I
have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the
Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.