Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Flirting with Faith includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Joan Ball. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
No one expected Joan Ball to become a follower of Jesus —least of all herself. Flirting with Faith is the story of how she comes to embrace a spiritual way of living. Told with candor and humor, Joan’s story is intimate yet surprisingly universal. As she begins to develop a new spiritual lifestyle and nourish her deepening faith, Joan embarks on a humbling, exhilarating journey that will have readers – both skeptical and devout - reexamining their relationship with the Divine.
- Joan has a sudden and profound spiritual experience while sitting in church with her family. This preliminary spiritual awakening is so intense that she initially thinks she is having a heart attack. Can you relate to Joan’s experience? Why do you think her awakening was so sudden and powerful?
- Before being “struck” Christian, Joan thought organized religion was a burden and unnecessary to live a complete life. Consider your own religious views: do the benefits of religious living outweigh those of an atheistic or agnostic lifestyle or vice versa? Have your views on faith and religion changed now that you have read Flirting with Faith?
- As she reflects on her conversion, Joan writes “the unlikely encounter with the Divine relieved me of the luxury of unbelief” (page 28). In your opinion, is unbelief a luxury? What makes belief or disbelief in God, the Divine, or the Holy Spirit luxurious?
- When describing her years in college, Joan notes that her interest in faith manifested while living with her free-spirited roommate Darcy. If Joan had never investigated spirituality, do you think her story would have followed the same course or do you think her spiritual awakening might have happened differently?
- Long before being reborn as a Christian, Joan explored spirituality through a variety of mediums: in books, with spiritual practices like meditation, crystals and in the I Ching. She then spent seven years pursuing a relationship with a “power-greater-than-herself” in addiction recovery. What spiritual options have you explored? Do you have any successes or failures with these attempts?
- Most of the other Christians Joan interacts with throughout her story were raised Christian or eased into Christian faith with little difficulty, which sometimes made her feel like a “spiritual oddball” (page 47). Do you think that Joan’s spiritual path is particularly odd? What about her story is unique? What about her story is universal?
- Often throughout her narrative, Joan infers that God must be working in her life, for her prideful, rational mind would have never entertained acting against her own desires as she did when leaving her career, selling her possessions and moving from her dream-house. Do you think you can have a spiritual awakening without this sort of a psychic redirection? Should living a life of faith include constant changes in thinking patterns and behaviors?
- Joan takes on a number of spiritual mentors. Her first teacher is Pastor Thomas, who claims “Many people who come to faith have an enthusiasm for sharing it with others, [which] is a good thing. Nothing to worry about” (page 75). What do you think: is belief meant to be shared with others? Or should it be enjoyed on your own? Do you have a spiritual mentor?
- Joan offers insight into her personal history, including her alcoholism and drug abuse and the seven years in addiction recovery that preceded her conversion to Christianity. Compare Joan’s lifestyle during each of these periods (specifically her behavior detailed in Chapter 11, “Illusion of Control”). In what ways do they differ? Are there any similarities? Does her conversion result in a complete moral and attitudinal change, or do you think it will be an ongoing process?
- “Skydiving in the Nude,” details not only Joan’s increasing faith in God’s arrangements, but also her husband Martin’s proclivity for living out his faith more deeply. As Joan shares her burgeoning faith with Martin, he in turn begins to trust more in God’s plans for him and his family. Compare your own faith-based relationships and experiences with Joan’s. Do you think one person’s advancing faith can promote spiritual hunger in another person?
- Once Martin decides to pursue a career in acting, Joan completely supports his decision. She writes “I stood quietly watching him as he wrestled with himself. I prayed without speaking…. It was not lost on me that I was, in effect, praying for financial instability” (page 132). Here we see Joan sacrificing her own needs for the spiritual growth and benefit of others. Do you think this is a foolish or wise choice? Do you think her selflessness nourishes her advancing faith?
- The final chapters find Joan dealing with extremely difficult challenges to her faith: both she and her husband begin new careers; her son Andrew suffers from a severe illness; she even finds controversy in her church when another person falsely accuses her of criminal intentions. “[I]t seemed like the more we tried to follow God and do what we perceived we were supposed to do, the more difficult and unpredictable things became” (page 140). Still, her faith never wavers. Is it more or less difficult to be faithful in times of struggle?
- Although Joan experiences many moments of spiritual uplift, she also wades through times of great despair. Do you think that anyone is capable of complete, ongoing spiritual clarity? What do you think makes a successful spiritual life?
- Despite her newfound calmness and trust in God’s plan, the personality Joan exhibited before her conversion still pops up. This is especially evident in her confrontations with Pastor Thomas regarding accusations made against Joan. What do you think about the instances where Joan lapses into her pre-conversion attitudes?
Enhancing Your Book Club
- Re-read Chapter 8, “Wide Awake.” During the first months after her conversion, Joan spent plenty of time studying the bible. Flipping between chapters and verses, she begins to notice parallels not only within the text, but between the Bible’s stories and her own life, both her current and former way of living. She comes to call this practice “spiritual calisthenics” (page 65). Give Joan’s exercise a try. Skim through random passages of the Bible and see if you notice any patterns. Can you relate to certain verses more than others? Journal on your experience and share it with your friends.
- In addition to the Bible and other Christian literature, Joan reads many spiritual texts on her journey. Examples include the Bhagavad-Gita, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and a others. Read some or all of these texts. Are there any parallels between these books and Flirting with Faith? Are there any other books you think Joan would’ve enjoyed or learned from in her early days as a new Christian?
- Joan finds religious comfort in many other places outside of church: at the beach, a monastery, in temples, even in coffee shops. Spend an afternoon or a day exploring different locations you think might promote spiritual calmness. Where are some of these places? Is there one you prefer more than others?
A Conversation with Joan Ball
1. What compelled you to write Flirting with Faith?
Flirting with Faith was not my first book idea. I had written a proposal for a book called “From Debate to Dialog: Bridging the Spiritual Communication Gap” that included a rather self-righteous treatise on the ills of self-righteousness. I was completely unaware of the hypocrisy of the organized-religion-has-it-wrong-but-I-have-it-right posture I’d taken in that first proposal until I was told that it it “felt like someone was wagging a finger” at the reader. Once I recovered from the bruising to my ego, I became curious about this apparent blind spot and decided to stop writing for publication until I could better understand the disconnect between my desire to share the story of my faith and my impulse to condescend. After 18-months of soul-searching I began writing again and Flirting with Faith was the result.
2. You plumb some harrowing moments in your life, both pre- and post-conversion. Were any particularly difficult to revisit?
I have said more than once that the years following my conversion to Christianity have been some of the most wonderful and most difficult in my life. Revisiting the challenges we’ve faced since 2003 and the years I spent as a single mother in the 1990s was both difficult and cleansing. I am sure I have more depths to plumb as I continue forward as a writer.
3. Did you learn anything new about yourself while writing this book?
I’m not sure if it is new or just a confirmation that I have a tendency to be a perfectionist. While this might appear to be a virtue, perfectionism can hamper creativity. I wonder how my writing will change as I continue to learn to let go and let God.
4. You go into great detail about specific moments and experiences during your first years as a new Christian. How did you recall these instances? Did you utilize journals or other artifacts to remember the specificities of these memories?
In the months and years following my conversion I filled dozens of journals and notebooks with thoughts, reflections, prayers and questions. I initially thought I would reread all 40+ of them prior to writing the book, but things did not evolve that way. Instead I would recall a situation and find a journal that covered that time period. Some day I would love to take them to a little house by the ocean and read them all cover to cover. I’m guessing there are some more interesting stories in there.
5. Because this is a work of non-fiction, the reader can infer that the other people who populate your story are not constructions, but flesh and blood persons who you know personally, like your husband and your various mentors. Were you afraid that these people would not like how they are portrayed in Flirting with Faith?
I did my best to respect the privacy of the people I write about in this book. Names are changed in some cases and details (expecially regarding my children) are kept to a minimum. I did my best to get things right, including giving early drafts to my family and people who lived through circumstances with me to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. That said, I am sure there will be people who are made uncomfortable by my story and the parts they played in it. I’ll have to cross those bridges when I come to them.
6. In the last few years there seems to have been a resurgence of spiritual memoirs and tales of people seeking religious guidance. What do you think this says about our current social and moral climate?
I think that we are living in a very complicated society at a very complicated time in our history. Rapid changes in the way people live and communicate with one another are resulting in us being both more and less connected than ever before. Post-modernism and the propensity for relativism challenges traditional concepts of faith, morality and virtue in a way that raises a lot of questions and people, rather than keeping quiet, are asking them. I hope that this book becomes part of that conversation.
7. The ending of Flirting with Faith is exceptionally evenhanded. Rather than supply an overly optimistic finale, you close with a complete transcript of Brother Robert’s speech and hopeful reflections on the difficulties and joys of religious living. What message were you hoping to convey with this conclusion?
I’m not sure I had a particular message in mind other than it being an honest assessment of where I am on this faith journey. The story of my experience with God does not create a pristine Hollywood arc: girl meets God and everything ends happily ever after. This is a process, a commitment, and I am still unclear about exactly where all of this is taking me. The best I can do is listen and try to do the next right thing.
8. Your do not shy away from sharing with readers your moments of doubt and confusion about religion and God. What advice would you offer to people who might be experiencing similar struggles? Are there any particular methods you found healing or that alleviated extreme doubt?
The best advice I could give someone who is confused or in doubt is to allow themselves to stay there rather than attempting to take steps to make it go away (such as pretending to believe or hastily abandoning faith to return to comfortable answers). The doubt, confusion and uncertainty are part of the process and there is much to be learned by pressing through them in pursuit of a deeper understanding of God.
9. You’ve made serious lifestyle changes during the course of your life. Not only have you embraced a Christian way of life, but you’ve battled alcoholism, changed career paths multiple times, and even uprooted your family from your home. Do you wish any of these events turned out differently? Do you regret any of the paths you’ve followed on your spiritual journey?
If I regret any of it I would have to regret all of it, since I needed to live every moment of the life I have lived to become the woman I am today.
10. How has your faith grown now that you’ve completed Flirting with Faith? Have your beliefs changed in any way?
My faith grows and changes every day. I recently had some experiences that are pointing me in the direction of my next book. I learned so much and changed so much in the process of living and writing this book, so I am confident even more will be revealed.