Katie’s Bookshelf- Ann Voskamp and 1000 Gifts

Katie's Book Shelf

Life’s busy, really too busy to waste time on bad books, and The Sisters of Katie Luther are here to help! Feel free to eavesdrop on Sandra Ostapowich, Holly Scheer, Tabitha Moldenhauer, Annie Riley, and Ellie Corrow as they use technology available to regularly e-chat about books we’ve chosen to read and discuss together. These reviews are informal, probably slightly snarky, but always informative, and designed to help you determine what is worth your consideration. Pull up a chair, a cup of tea, or something else, if you prefer, and help yourself to our conclusions, as we explore what is on offer.

Our book this time is One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are

by Ann Voskamp. From her amazon.com bio, “Named by Christianity Today as one of 50 women most shaping culture and the church today, and a partner with Compassion International as a global advocate for needy children, Ann’s a regular loser of library books, usually has a sink full of soaking pots, sees empty laundry baskets rarer than a blue moon, and believes that the sky and fresh mercy over the farm is large and all is grace. Her blog, one of the Top 10 Christian blogs on the web, has become a daily well for the weary and soul-thirsty: www.aholyexperience.com.”

In One Thousand Gifts, Voskamp gives herself the challenge of naming 1,000 blessings, things she has been given for which she is thankful.

Let’s start with the good.

This book provided a helpful reminder for us to be thankful to God in all circumstances, pushing us to see the link between a posture of thankfulness to God and a joy-filled life. Readers are encouraged to stop and appreciate the little things in our boring, everyday lives that get overlooked. Voskamp does not stop, however, with exploring thankfulness for the “little” things, but also asks how to remain thankful in the trials that life undoubtedly brings. The reader can use Voskamp’s meditations as a tool to evaluate how she has internalized the reality that God does desire good things for us, and provides for all our needs out of His fatherly divine goodness and mercy. Lutherans often fail to think and talk this way about theology.

Be forewarned, however, that the good in this book is not peculiarly Christian, but common sense, reading more like Poor Richard’s Almanac than a treatise on thankfulness to God: “In our rushing, bulls in china shops, we break our own lives. Haste makes waste.” (Kindle page 66) “My mama, valley wise and grief traveled, she always said, ‘Expectations kill relationships.’” (Kindle page 169) “If I focus on humility, I look inward to assess if I’m sufficiently humble, and in the very act, humility darts and I’m proud, self-focused. It doesn’t work.” (Kindle page 171).

Voskamp is, to a large extent, correct. We can create a habit of thankfulness in all things, an attitude of gratitude if you will, and that’s good advice for anyone, whether Christian or pagan. There is some value in seeing the natural knowledge of God in First Article gifts, though that’s not quite how Voskamp sees it: “…we look at the fruit and see only the material means to fill our emptiness. We don’t see the material world for what it is meant to be: as the means to communion with God.” (Kindle page 16) This is where things go steeply downhill. Instead of establishing a Christian posture of thankfulness to God for His gifts, thankfulness itself becomes its own type of mystical experience, transubstantiating good first article gifts into sacraments of intimacy with the Creator.

And now for the bad…

While Voskamp’s basic project of remaining thankful in all things is commendable, she takes it to bizarre lengths, to the degree that the reader wonders how she managed to accomplish anything in her days. She provides her readers with four pages detailing the beauty of soap bubbles (just the beauty of them, not even their usefulness!). As if that wasn’t enough, there are five pages on broken glass — where she also tells us she made her children kneel with her and pray in thanksgiving for it. Sadly, readers are left to surmise on their own whether or not the glass was actually cleaned up before they knelt to pray.

Thankfulness, “eucharisteo” becomes the lens through which she reads Scripture and constructs all her theology. For example she explains, “Satan’s sin becomes the first sin of all humanity: the sin of ingratitude. Adam and Eve are, simply, painfully, ungrateful for what God gave,” (p. 15). And, “Non-eucharisteo, ingratitude, was the fall — humanity’s discontent with all that God freely gives,” (p. 35).

We all found it very troubling that instead of illustrating how even an ordinary, mundane life is a service to the neighbor, Voskamp obsessively paints everything as extraordinary. This ironically enough, works against her basic premise, as it suggests that the only good gifts of God are those ordinary things we can adequately spruce up with gratitude to suit one’s aesthetic fancy.

In this scheme, soap bubbles do not warrant thanks simply because they make doing the dishes easier, but because they have a beauty all their own. In Voskamp’s world, we should be thankful for them because they’re pretty, not because they help us in our vocations. Unfortunately, this also means that when she deals with suffering, instead of seeing it in stark reality, she spends a great deal of time dressing it up, prying into the hidden will of God, and attempting to find beauty for its own sake.

It may also appear pious when she struggles to remain thankful in the ER after her young son sticks his hand in a barn fan, but it’s strangely surreal that her first reaction was not to rush to help her child, not concern about how he may be feeling, but how she can doctor the situation to suit her pious otherworldly understanding and manufacture some thankfulness. It’s is a disturbing level of self-centeredness.

The Ugly?

The big, glowing, neon, theological error throughout One Thousand Gifts is a sort of mystical gnosticism. Voskamp believes that in “eucharisteo” she has stumbled on the secret power of Scripture, the ultimate hidden message from God that explains the very meaning of life. She discovers this hermeneutic from the Gospel accounts of the Last Supper, where Jesus takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to the apostles. Jesus, for Voskamp, serves as an example of thankfulness. When Jesus raises Lazarus and prays beforehand, thanking God for hearing His prayer she concludes, “Thanksgiving raises the dead!” (p. 35). With this, Voskamp replaces the Lord’s Supper with her fabricated sacrament of “thankfulness,” consecrated not by the Lord’s Word and promise, but by the high priestess of her pure heart. Voskamp has no discernable place for the Lord’s sacraments, and instead relies exclusively upon a feeling of thankfulness to mediate between her and God.

In Voskamp’s religion, thanksgiving precedes miracles…so when a person is thankful enough, miracles happen. When a person is thankful enough, salvation happens! Just look at thankful leper that Jesus healed. “Sozo means salvation. It means true wellness, complete wholeness. To live sozo is to live the full life. Jesus came that we might live life to the full; He came to give us sozo. And when did the leper receive sozo — the saving to the full, whole life? When he returned and gave thanks….Our very saving is associated with our gratitude,” (p. 38-39).

If we may put theology aside, for just a moment, Voskamp’s literary style is so absurdly flowery that it is downright gaudy. At best it is overwritten, sounding, at times, like a theological satire of a cheesy romance novel, at worst it is straight up nonsensical. In short, Voskamp uses many words to not really say much at all. It is as if her goal was to paint the reader a picture with words, but instead she just threw together a word salad of descriptors that would make her appear sensitive and ethereal, all the while distracting the reader from the book’s marvelous lack of substance. In short, her style is not for everyone, as it is very self-consciously poetic, and excruciatingly slow-moving reading.

In addition to the style, Voskamp not only brings artistic focus to the mundane things of everyday life, but she also has a tendency to mystical-ize moments that modest people generally only discuss with their most intimate partners. She literally begins her story with her birth — using her standard, overly-poetic imagery, including graphic details involving her mother’s birth canal, the ring of fire, blood, and vernix. Chapter 11 begins with the statement, “I fly to Paris and discover how to make love to God,” (p. 201). Christians frequently discuss the relationship between Christ and the Church in terms of marital intimacy, but Voskamp takes it to a new level, writing: “I want to be in God and God to be in me, to exchange love and blessings and caresses and, like the apostle-pilgrims, my eyes open and I know it is because of this burning of the heart: this moment is a divine interchange. I raise my hand slightly, finger imperceptibly the air before the canvas and this is intercourse disrobed of its connotations, pure and unadulterated: a passing between. A connection, a communicating, an exchange, between tender Bridegroom and His Bride. The intercourse of soul with God is the very climax of joy,” (p. 217-218).

Lest anyone think that Voskamp only engages in sexual oversharing, she also provides vivid descriptions of her sister’s tragic and accidental death as a toddler. Some women may find the randomly dispersed references to her sister’s death in nearly every chapter upsetting. This incident, which appears to be the only memorable thing of the poor child’s existence, eventually caused a psychotic break in her mother, who was institutionalized during Voskamp’s formative years (more oversharing).

 

Would we recommend?

We are finding it really (REALLY!) challenging to recommend this book to anyone. For kindling? To make someone hate reading words in sentence form? As a blunt object with which a reader could stab out their own eyes? Absolutely. We can recommend it for that.

If you want to read something on thankfulness, even thankfulness in the ordinariness of vocation, there are better places to go. This is just painful.

 

Photo credit: “Bookshelves” licensed under CC.
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Comments

Katie’s Bookshelf- Ann Voskamp and 1000 Gifts — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you. I bought this book for a gift for my mom without reading it first. She called me and said she didn´t like it. By that time, I was half way through it and couldn´t stand it either. Thank you for using concrete phrases that mean something to explain why it is so bad.

  2. Thanks for the review. It’s always interesting to me to see how differently we respond to things (like a book) and the different things we get out of it. I read this book two summers ago and loved it. What stood out most to me, in addition to her writing style, was her inner struggles with trusting God/contentment/motherhood/suffering and in trying to make sense of her life. It’s like writing this book was her way of sorting it out and crying out to God, “I’ve gone blind, Jesus, completely blind! Grant me sight! I want to see!” I completely related with that.

    Ann Voskamp is a poet and writes as one. I can see where people think she’s over the top. I think she was just trying to savor, create, and have some fun with her craft. Think of the Song of Solomon where the lovers go on and on about every inch of each other’s bodies. It wasn’t at all about usefulness for each other, just pure delight in each other. There’s a time and a place for everything under heaven, including the search and enjoyment of beauty.

  3. I’ve always said this book is like jazz, as Louis Armstrong said, “Man, if you gotta ask…”. You gals obviously missed it. I can agree with your remarks about her style, but then Theresa of Lisieux has the same style. And her chapter on sex is, well, over the top, but so isn’t another Theresa and John of the Cross. I just point those out, which are acknowledged spiritual classics, to say that poor Ann Voskamp has some pretty solid spiritual heirs.

    But the deeper point is that I think, lost in that aesthetic judgement, you missed both: a)that she has an audience in mind and b) a very Lutheran point. Her audience is people who are mad, and they are mad that they don’t have control. Her audience in Augustinian terms are those curved in on themselves. With each loss they experience they reach for more control which leads to more loss and a deeper inward curve. Her message to them is “an emptier fuller life(p23)” or putting it in scriptural terms “the one who loses his life will keep it.” This is her confrontation with the law. The start of grace for Ann is when she turns from fear of loss to thanks for what she has been given. And that thanks starts explicitly with Jesus and the Lord’s supper (p31). She’s got law and gospel all through those first two chapters aimed directly at her audience.

    She then moves on to learning how to live that grace i.e. sanctification. P43 has the refrain “you’ve changed”. Yes she has. P44 “It is the beginning…”. Yes, it is. Especially when you have to give thanks for hard offensive cross like grace (p55ff), especially p58 where this hard grace is not a “rejection of joy” but more akin to Hebrews line “for the joy that was set before him he endured the cross.” This is pure theology of the cross stuff. And it is always a call to return to grace (blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom).

    The rest of the book after chapter three just takes poetic looks at what this new life could look like. Chapter four is a changed view of time (chronos vs. chairos). Chapter 5 is a changed perspective on the beauty of the world which can only really be seen through grace – a world transfigured through trial and tribulation and tumult of her war for that final vision glorious, which we get glimpses of now. And each chapter follows.

    Is it very self-centered, yes. But so isn’t her audience and the age. It is a memoir after all. And in many ways she is just repeating St. Paul “be imitators of me as I am of Christ (1 Cor 11:1)”. To the right audience it is a very powerful book, a protestant Seven Story Mountain.

  4. I’ve been bothered by her writing for a few years and appreciate your review. I haven’t read the book. (Because I love poetry, I’d rather not be influenced by the flaws in her theology because of her emotional writing style.) From the excerpts and what I’ve read on her personal blog, I think her writing is dangerous.

    Because of her poetic style, I try to give her the benefit of the doubt in certain things. Maybe she means some things figuratively that readers take too literally (because, while poetic in style, she writes about her actual, non-fiction life in blog and memoir formats). However, the lack of Christ and clear cut gospel (particularly discussion of sin, not imperfection or weakness or the losing of library books, but downright sin and the forgiveness of it) I think is the real danger. Though she may try to bring readers out of themselves to see Christ, this lack will cause readers to curve more inwardly (to reference Mark’s comment).

    She seems to promote “your best life now” thankfulness style. The very title – “A Dare to Live Fully” – suggests this. She seems to think we can make beauty by being thankful. No, we receive beauty humbly from God as a gift, and we receive trials as gifts that lead us to fuller rest in HIM, not necessarily fuller lives (as she seems to mean it).

    She may present this “fuller life” as a life communing with God, but communion with God is meaningless and mystical and whatever you want it to be apart from Christ and His cross. It’s not her poetic language, but her misunderstanding of communion with God through His word and gospel that bothers me. (As you mention, she goes to Paris to love and be loved by God, not to the cross of our Savior.) Without Christ, her communion with God seems to become more an enjoyment of His gifts. It’s as if she’s trying to make God like His gifts rather than enjoying God and the gifts as poor, broken shadows of Him.

    True communion with God must be connected with the true gospel, and we don’t earn this communion by being thankful, as her focus on “eucharisteo” seems to suggest.

    Our greatest communion with God is not through creation or His gifts to us but through the Word, sacraments, and prayer as He reminds us of the gospel. We are loved and love God at the foot of the cross as He freely gives us faith in His Son. We see Him best on this side of heaven not in shadows, but by seeing our sin forgiven and His arms open wide to welcome us because of Christ’s work, not ours.

    Again, I haven’t read the book, but these are my thoughts from what I know of it.

  5. I read 1000 Gifts a couple of years ago. I think the review that K.L.’s sisters have written is a good assessment. Thank you, ladies. This review by Bob DeWaay (he’s been on Chris Rosebrough’s show) expands more specifically on the mystic, pagan nature of the book, also pointing out the well-known mystics frequently referenced by Mrs. Voscamp. http://www.cicministry.org/commentary/issue120.htm

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