Book Review: A Walk Through the Wilderness
Reviewed by Madeline Barbush
A powerful account of one man’s awakening
In A Walk Through The Wilderness Dan Conger tells a cautionary tale of the dictatorial power that religion can hold over your life if you do not examine its teachings and practices closely.
This memoir is thought-provoking and holds many universal truths about how our desire to do right can easily be stretched to extreme proportions—and eventually be abused and manipulated—if put in the wrong hands. He displays for us the vulnerability and courage you must have in order to break free from harmful patterns and essentially change your life.
Although it is all placed in the context of the years he spent in a religious cult, his story is one that an array of readers can benefit from. It will give you a newfound empathy for anyone stuck in a situation that makes you want to judge and say, “How could they be so foolish?” But if you take a closer look at your own life as Dan has, you might see you are in, or have been in, a very similar place. That is the power of A Walk Through the Wilderness.
Dan grew up in Canoga Park, California in a middle-class family of two parents and a sister. They went to church every Sunday and attended religious events and gatherings, but it was always understood that the Bible was not to be taken literally. The messages were symbolic and overall taught to be loving and respectful.
Shortly after moving to Eureka, California for school, loneliness sets in. Dan searches for ways to fit in and fill up his time, and he comes across a Bible study group. He learns about the religious group, the Assembly, becomes a member, and becomes so engrossed in its literal teachings of the Bible, so busy and controlled by guilt, that everything he does is in servitude to the group and its leaders. What was once just another part of life begins to rule his entire life.
Dan relays some of the abusive manipulations of the group: If you fail a chore, you fail God. If you are not observed placing cash in the box where donations are to be received every Sunday, you are going to be watched. If you go to the movies, you can expect to be shamed. If you have money for entertainment, it should go to the work of the Lord.
One particularly upsetting moment is when you consider that he lived so close to the Trinity Alps Wilderness, but he’s so engrossed, so busy and controlled by the group, that he doesn’t take a single hike or backpacking trip into the mountains. Nature had been a source of happiness for him, and he is made to believe that this is all in good servitude to the Lord. It is no wonder that in looking back, he considers his years in the Assembly as years of his life altogether lost.
A Walk Through the Wilderness is an act of reconciliation. It is empowering to read a man reflect so deeply on his life and his mistakes. His vulnerability is awe-inspiring, and his self-reflection makes you want to do the same—and now. Without a religion, Dan finds ways to redeem himself and his time lost. He vowed, as an adult, to take trips through the mountains with his wife and son, and he’s not going to waste any more time.
In no way does Dan encourage you to drop your own religion, if you practice, but he does show proof of his personal research into the scholarship of various translations of the Bible and where he went wrong in previously believing that every word of it was true and reliable.
Although his story may seem extraordinary, Conger makes it a universal one. He beautifully captures the essence of what it’s like to grow up and have to deal with so many new thoughts and feelings of doubt rushing at you from every angle. When we are most lonely and vulnerable is when we are most likely to seek out help in dangerous places. Not one of us is above that.
The natural beauties of California frame this memoir, and Conger makes them at once wondrous and melancholic, symbolizing his truth. Where are you now? Where do you want to go? Where did you start? These questions helped Dan back onto the path of living a truthful life. He graciously offers them to us in case we might need to do the same remapping of our lives. A Walk Through the Wilderness is a story of hope and recovery that we all could use.
Publisher: Atmosphere Press
Print Length: 240 pages
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