After I joined CCBlogs, the webring sponsored by The Christian Century and moderated by Gordon Atkinson of Real Live Preacher, I got an email from Mike Morrell of The Ooze, asking if I would be open to reading free books and then writing about them.
That was my first reaction, and then I wondered what sort of books they would be. Because, if you know anything about my reaction to Emergent people/churches/websites, etc., you probably know that I find the movement frustrating and/or puzzling. My own approach to discernment, both personal and corporate, does follow a path of trying to see the way opening, or what is emerging, if you will, from the particular place and time and gifts and talents of the individual or the community in conversation with the movement of the Holy Spirit, so I'd like to think I'm an open person who "gets" the notion of emerging. But what I don't get is–well, I don't get a movement that appears to be progressive in some ways but in this country, at least, seems to take a pretty old-fashioned view of women's roles in ministry and the family.
However, Free books!!!!!
I decided to see what might come my way, in part wondering if I would find by some Holy Kismet, some God-incidence, that I had been wrong or had more to learn about what's emerging from the evangelical churches. Because if Emergent people are ticking off Evangelicals, we must have something in common, right?
Mike sent me two books by Tom Davis, the President and CEO of Children's HopeChest, "a Christian-based child-advocacy organization helping orphans in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Africa," and both books reflect those interests and what Tom believes God is calling Christian people to do to help those in need in the world.
I first read Red Letters: Living a Faith That Bleeds, and it's hip format and clear attempt to reach people who may not know what's really going on in the world was pretty appealing. I'll lay aside the differences in the way we were educated about how sure one might be that Jesus said all the things some Bibles print in red letters and say I liked the passages on which he focused and loved that he used "The Message," which is so accessible. He wasn't telling me anything about AIDS that I haven't known since the mid-1980's (general disease facts) or been aware of for the last ten years (the scourge the disease has been particularly in Africa). But his matter-of-fact and encouraging tone, directed at people who might still be stigmatizing AIDS as God's curse on gay people, really worked. The book ends with a long list of ways people can get involved in helping others. I felt much as I did when I finished reading Rob Bell's "Velvet Elvis"–"Well, that's a good book, but it's nothing new to me." That doesn't mean it isn't a good book for people who are not aware, however, and its mixture of scripture and personal stories and challenge to the conscience works effectively.
I then went on to Fields of the Fatherless.
I'm glad I read the other book first. In Fields of the Fatherless, though his purpose is similar, Davis approaches the task very differently. This book is written for a churched audience, one very comfortable with "Father" language for God. I used to be one of those people, and I'm not anymore, and because I spent a long time (again, twenty years ago) working through my own fondness for Father God and my own resistance to suggesting God could be looked at any other way, I am sensitized to the subtle damage overuse of the Father metaphor can have to the place of women. Although the book is, again, devised to encourage faithful people to help those in need–and that is both clearly a good thing and a demand Jesus places on us and a goal for people of all faiths, as well as many with none at all–there is a subtle message throughout that women are lesser and more helpless. The example that stands out for me is the tragic story of Davis' wife, Emily, who lost both her parents. After her father was murdered, her mother sank into depression and eventually committed suicide. Davis stresses that Emily and her siblings were "fatherless," and I know he is getting at a metaphor about how we all feel orphaned or parentless and need to find that parenting in God, and oh, just changing the metaphor makes all the difference to me! Emily and her siblings were also motherless, probably in some sense from the moment their father was killed. To describe them as fatherless suggests that we still live in Biblical times, when losing your father meant a loss of status that no mother could redeem for you. And while single mothers today do face strains and challenges, it's not the same as it once was. It really isn't. And if it is in the minds of Davis' readers, then they need a corrective applied to that misbelief, too.
This book also supplies lots of references to help people plug in and help children on the margins throughout the world in a variety of ways. With the books I received a sample of Saint's Coffee, a Fair Trade coffee being used as a fundraiser for Children's HopeChest, which by the way has a 3-star rating from Charity Navigator, not their highest, but equivalent to Heifer Project. (I'm drinking the coffee today, and it's very good, in case you're interested.)
Davis writes well and effectively in both books, in their varying styles, so he is clearly a versatile person. I was charmed to see he recently published a piece called "Why Christians Suck." I like a guy with a sense of humor who also has a sense of what matters. We're just coming at it differently. And I fear a world in which we begin to take for granted the strides women have made in ministry and in life in general by sliding back to old-school language. As our friend Barack is always telling us, words matter.
I'm glad to have read these books and look forward to the next shipment.
Edited to add: these are Books # 36 and 37 for the 2008 Book Challenge.