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 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.