Feasting: on Reading outside my Comfort Zone

In the past year, I’ve been convicted that my reading list is too white.

In September 2018, I devoured Book Girl by Sarah Clarkson. I’d already enjoyed many of her recommendations and picked up even more. But her lists seemed to be missing something. With few exceptions, the books were written by white, Western authors. While I still enjoy and recommend Book Girl, I was convicted that I couldn’t truly be a book girl if I spent my whole life reading white Western authors.

Since I grew up and live in the USA, have visited only foreign countries who are largely English-speaking, and have attended schools where most teachers are white and Western, my reading life has shown a distinct bias. I know little about the literature of continents other than Europe and North America. This summer, I decided to do something about the vast lacuna of my reading.

For two months, I only read books by authors of color. I didn’t tell many people, but reactions varied. Sometimes, eyes lit up and recommended titles and authors poured forth. Other times, people reacted as if I intended to extract their voice boxes. I’m sure that some years of my life have found me reading no books by authors of color. I’ve read, and will read, hundreds upon hundreds of books by white authors. I doubt my favorite novel will be anything other than Middlemarch. By intentionally reading more diverse books, I’m not cutting white authors out of my life, which would make my seminary studies impossible. Instead, I’m putting on glasses to fix my myopia.

And, y’all, I saw a horizon miles beyond anything I’d seen before.

Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife astonished me. Her detailed world and complex characters still live in my memory, and I have more by her waiting on my shelves.

Soniah Kamal’s Unmarriageable brought the perennial Pride and Prejudice to new, sparkling life in Pakistan. I’m on a quest to read all the culture-swapped P&Ps now (completed: Pride by Ibi Zoboi; currently reading: Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev; to-read: Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin).

Catherine Chung’s The Tenth Muse is one of the few books I wish could be twice as long, and is the only novel I’ve read about a mathematician.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth filled in a big gap in my historical training, and is one of the least gruesome slave narratives I’ve read, though it is gut-wrenching and mournful, with a good dose of hope.

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, one of the few sci-fi novels I’ve read, confounded me, and I have Parable of the Talents in hand.

This is just a small selection of the 20+ books I read. By feasting on the works of writers of color, I’ve gained new favorite authors, subjects, and perspectives. My understanding of the world is more nuanced. I have a tiny, but better, grasp of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese history, and the social intricacies built on a long history.

I thought I was stepping outside my comfort zone by reading these books. Instead, I found myself at home among characters totally unlike me, but still completely human. Stories are universal, and they’re one of the best ways to relate the complexities of culture, identity, and religion.

In the future, I plan to keep reading diverse authors, keep prioritizing their stories, and keep feasting on the bounty of global narratives.

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Future Home of the Living God: Advent through Fiction

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Louise Erdrich’s dystopic novel, Future Home of the Living God, contains many elements familiar to her readers: Native and Catholic spirituality, expansive Midwestern vistas, and journals of a woman with a deep internal life. Future Home is the incarnational story of Cedar, the adopted daughter of Minnesotan liberals, whose Native American heritage was both honored and fetishized in her childhood. As an adult, Cedar finds herself with child in a rapidly changing world, where every childbirth is a danger to both mother and baby. The government begins seizing pregnant women to observe their progress and kidnap their newborns. Cedar, a writer and editor, catalogs her life in journals written to her unborn child.

With the help of a friend, Cedar hides her pregnancy for months before she is taken. Fiercely, she and another abductee escape the prison with the help of Cedar’s adoptive mother. In her quest to make sense of the world, Cedar finds her biological family, living on a reservation, and hides with them.

The language of the entire novel reveals Erdrich’s extensive knowledge of Christianity, and the book was released just in time for Advent in November 2017. Cedar’s descent into madness, a literary device used since the days of Greek tragedy, builds an unreliable narration that is both sweeping and minute. This detailed and expansive narrative creates a sense of particularity and universality, which encapsulates the Advent story. Reading of Cedar’s pregnancy in the apocalypse breathes into Mary’s story, where her out-of-wedlock pregnancy should have meant death. This is relived by global women every year, and the experience of incarnation is real for all of us who have bodies.

Ultimately, Future Home is an untamed imagining of the Incarnation, a catalog of womanhood in dangerous times, and a worshipful examination of the world as God’s future home in the new creation.

But in my mind I answer her, swinging in the blackness, my heart pumping fast with a love that is burning richer and hotter with every fresh new cell of blood, every icy flash of neuron, a love of you, a love of everything. Fierce, merciless, sticking to the world like blazing tar, this love expands. And I’m thinking–of course you will be happy when you see my baby, yes, you will be overjoyed. He is the light of the world!

Disclaimer: Future Home of the Living God is not orthodox (by any definition) in its theology, since it is somewhat syncretistic and Cedar speaks of her unborn child as the “light of the world.” However, we do not go to novels to form our theology, and the incarnational experience of Future Home is worth the questions raised.

Jacob Have I Loved: Advent Through Fiction

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The rivalry of Jacob and Esau in Genesis is familiar to siblings. Few families experience the tension as deeply as the Bradshaws do in the young adult classic by Katherine Paterson, Jacob Have I Loved. Tomboy Sara Louise has lived in the shadow of her talented twin Caroline for years. As a teenager, “Wheeze” has had enough–of her nickname, her unappreciated place in the family, and her grandmother’s vitriolic Scripture quotations. Even hearing her sister Caroline sing “I Wonder as I Wander” with heartrending beauty cannot melt Sara Louise’s bitterness.

At a crucial moment, Sara Louise’s grandmother curses at her: “Jacob have I loved, and Esau I have hated.” Sara Louise puts the pieces together. There is a historical precedent for the conflict she experiences with Caroline. It’s in Scripture, and the words of love and hate are spoken by God. Taking these words as a curse upon herself, Sara Louise escapes the island where her family lives and makes a new life for herself as a midwife in a rural mountain village.

What does the story of Jacob and Esau, told through teenage girls, have to do with Advent? I wondered this as I read Jacob Have I Loved last week. Advent is a season of painful waiting: O come, o come, Emmanuel. Ransom captive Israel. Jacob, the chosen brother, becomes Israel, trudging the slog toward redemption, joining Adam and Abraham and Isaac. Any story truly of Advent is characterized by a detailed picture of suffering. A pregnant woman on a donkey, a barn floor birth, the slaying of innocent children. Hope carries the narrative: instead of ending in the bleak midwinter, Advent stories are driven by hope, lighting the path toward redemption.

In the final chapter of Jacob Have I Loved, Sara Louise attends the birth of twins in the middle of winter. The first baby is born healthy–just as she was–and the second is born frail and cold, like her sister Caroline. A skilled midwife and new mother herself, Sara Louise takes the weak child by the fire and feeds the newborn from her own breast. While tending to the baby, she reminds the family to care for the healthy infant, remembering how she was left in the cold as Caroline’s cries overcame her parents. Paterson writes,

Hours later, walking home, my boots crunching on the snow, I bent my head backward to drink in the crystal stars. And clearly, as though the voice came from just behind me, I heard a melody so sweet and pure that I had to hold myself to keep from shattering:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky..

Sara Louise finds redemption in the birth of these twins. She changes their story since she cannot rewrite her own. Instead, she turns toward the sky, numbering herself among the numberless descendants of Abraham. Her wandering leads her back to where she began, bringing hope into her relationship with her sister.

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus my Savior did come for to die
For poor orn’ry people like you and like I
I wonder as I wander out under the sky

3 Children’s Books That Build Empathy

In the Year of the Boar and Jackie Robinson, Bette Bao Lord (1984)

Builds empathy for: immigrants, people who do not speak the dominant language, people from different cultures

Shirley Temple Wong’s elementary school experience in New York City in 1947 captured me from the first page. She and her mother join her father in NYC, building a new life from scratch as Chinese immigrants. She becomes obsessed with baseball, identifying herself with Jackie Robinson. I vividly recall her experience babysitting a pair of Irish twins named Seamus and Sean as she tries to listen to the Dodgers game on the radio. As a kid, I didn’t grasp all of the ethnic, cultural, and racial subtexts. But I now realize this novel built my worldview about immigrants: they’re people with stories, and I want to hear them.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Mildred D. Taylor (1976)

Builds empathy for: Black people, economically oppressed people, bullied people, victims of violence and their families

Set in Mississippi in 1933, Cassie Logan’s story is powerful. She and her family fight to keep their land, which is not only property to them, but is also their independence, future, and home. Roll of Thunder examines economics in rural towns where minorities have limited economic options. The novel deals with people being burned alive and lynched, which gave me an early experience of phenomenological grief. Cassie’s story must be read, digested, and remembered for the continued reformation of American society. As I read news reports about community and national tragedies, my heart returns to this book as I celebrate how far we’ve come and face how far we have to go.

 

The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare (1958)

Builds empathy for: people of different religious traditions and cultures, non-conformists, the elderly, abused children, people of different education levels

In 1687, Kit Tyler travels from her colorful, native Barbados to a dreary Puritan settlement in Connecticut when her guardian dies. Kit befriends Hannah, an elderly woman who is cast out of the Puritan community because she is a Quaker. Kit has difficulty understanding the nature of her new community, the lifestyle of her adoptive family, and the strange politics of the Americas. Though Blackbird Pond stretches Puritan culture to an extreme, it does not over-exaggerate the (witch) trials of women like Kit in the seventeenth-century Americas. This book is rare in its ability to build empathy for people on the “wrong side” of the story. Speare gives everyone a heart. I learned that oppressed people aren’t the only ones who need my empathy. All people are God’s people, and all need to be heard and understood.

 

Which books built empathy in you?

Over the Bent World Brooding

Olympia, Washington
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

Moana, Church History, and Me

(C) Disney

Moana resonates with me. Though I’m from the suburbs, while Moana is from historical Polynesia, we have something in common: a love for family history.

Though Moana could consider the coconut and its uses, list the names of her parents and grandparents, and give a detailed explanation of her role as the chieftain’s daughter, that’s not the family story she tells. In the song “We Know the Way,” Moana discovers that her family tapestry is richer than she realized. After she learns the ancient secret, she runs out of the caves, shouting, “We were voyagers! We were voyagers! We were VOYAGERS!”

When I study church history, I feel the same excitement. Church history isn’t about dry old men quibbling over trivialities. It’s our family history of believers who lived, struggled, and changed as we do. My church experience is limited to my brief years and vantage point. As I breathe the words of history, I enter a larger story. Church—the body of Christ—no longer concerns my liturgical comfort, theological ease, and social satisfaction. Church is an everlasting mystery of unity with the Godhead, and it is my privilege be part of it.

History gives perspective. The latest scandals, disappointments, and cruelties are less overwhelming when I stand with the historical body of Christ. I don’t study church history for convenience, but for challenge. The patterns I see in the lives of historical Christians push me closer to the Trinity, testing my ability to contextualize faith and live the redemptive power of the Gospel.

In the film, Moana’s gifting leads her away from her immediate family for a time. She reclaims her family’s past while providing for later generations. History saves their future.

Through a series of long events, American Christianity developed less historical focus than other streams of the Church. Though evangelicalism has commissioned dozens of thousands of missionaries, made Scripture easily accessible to billions, and seen a huge growth in the family of God, we are losing our family history. By ignoring the past, we ignore our brothers and sisters who faithfully spoke the word of God to spiritual generations that led to our conversions.

Moana offers a powerful warning to those who forget history: we lose perspective, drown in fear, and are unable to face contemporary problems. History doesn’t have all the answers. Yet, history can give us perspective and courage in facing our troubles.

In “We Know the Way,” the ancestors sing, “We tell the stories of our elders in a never-ending chain.” We can’t separate ourselves from our historygood or badany more than we can remove our DNA. Let’s learn from the past, ground ourselves in the present, and prepare for the future.

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Hebrews 12:1-2 NASB

Interested in digging into accessible church history? Start with online articles, a book on historical devotional practices, and an overview of significant historical events.

How Love Appears

Photo by Mason James Photography

Before I met and fell in love with my now-fiancé, I wondered, “How will I know when I’m in love?”

Maybe it’d be the electricity from the touch of his hand, the fast beats of my heart, dreaming in the color of his eyes.

After I met him, I forgot about that question. As the months became a year, the reveries became a ring. It happened slowly, naturally, without astonishment. I looked back on the previous year and realized I’d fallen in love without noticing.

When did it happen? I can’t quite say. How do I know? I don’t, really.

I no longer feel the shock of holding his hand. I know the contours of his fingers. My heartbeat slows around him, because with him, I am peaceful. I see his eye color in greenish blues and golden sunsets, but my dreams are about us.

Our love happened without fanfare. It grew in the soil of our hearts, was watered with our tears, and blossomed under the sunshine of our laughter.

As L. M. Montgomery writes in Anne of Avonlea, “Perhaps [love] revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music.” As I read the pages of my life, I didn’t notice that they were slowly becoming music, until I looked up from the pages and heard it enveloping me.

When Jesus walked on earth, he didn’t frequently proclaim his status as the Messiah. He let people perceive it on their own. “This is how God’s love has appeared among us,” John writes. “God sent his only son into the world, so that we should live through him.” (1 John 4:9 NTE) Love was sent in the form of Jesus. He stands before us, hands outstretched, voice calling, eyes beckoning. Yet, it is our place to recognize that this love is God’s.

Love is my quietest companion and my loudest defender. It’s as present as my body and distant as the sky. It changes my desires, awareness, and demeanor. Love is appearing, and in its appearing, I am being transformed.

Love is peaceful participation with another person. Peaceful, because wholeness and holiness abound. Participation, because love withers without reciprocal interaction. Love comes back stronger after storms. And love is more than two people fancying each other. It’s fostered by communion. The love I have for my fiancé is possible because of the love I have from God. I am loved by my fiancé because of the generosity of our well-loving God, who mirrors the magnificence of his story in our tiny story.

Love appears long before we observe it. Incidental to us, intrinsic to us, love appears.

“God is love; those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. ” (1 John 4:16 NTE)