Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: One Thousand Gifts

This is probably the trickiest review I’ve ever written. I will start by saying that I’m not a big fan of Ann Voskamp. I tried to read her blog, but the style of her writing (discussed later) is a turn-off for me. After reading a recommendation of her book One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are on another blog, I thought it sounded interesting, so I decided to sign up to try and win a free copy. I won it and that’s the main reason I read it at all.

With that being said, as I started the book, I was pleasantly surprised. I found quite a few interesting quotes that really made me think. That’s a good thing. However, as I progressed though the book, more and more issues cropped up. After reading the final chapter (which was a DOOZY!), reading some reviews by others, and doing some additional research on my own, I have to say that the dangers of this book outweigh the benefits and I cannot recommend it.

I won’t go into tedious detail, but I will break my discussion of this book down into two sections: Writing Style and Theological Concerns.

If you’ve read Ann’s blog at all, then you know that she writes in a romantic, poetic style, ignoring many rules of grammar. To be honest, her writing style bugs me. It bristles against my grammatically-correct senses, and I find myself mentally correcting her grammar as I read, which slows me down considerably. To some readers, though, her beautiful imagery is what draws them to her writing. That’s just a personal preference thing. However, I do think her writing style plays at least some part in the controversies surrounding her writing.

In the book, Ann offers her readers an escape from the mundane through seeing beauty in all things. To do this, she uses very descriptive, sensual terminology throughout the book. This is designed to create a sense of romantic mystery and she’s very good at it. However, there were several places where this sensual language became too graphic for my tastes. One place is in a chapter on anxiety and fear where she describes (in quite graphic detail) her experience as a teen with the problem of cutting. Again, this is a personal preference issue.

Her sensual language culminates into doctrinal error, though, in the last chapter of the book, in which she describes an encounter with God in sexual terms. This is one area where I think the author’s poetic style contributes to the controversy. Giving Ann the benefit of the doubt, she might not have intended some of her language to be taken so literally. However, in other chapters where she used such poetic terminology, she was more careful to address possible misunderstandings. Poetic language is fine, but it should never be used at the expense of doctrinal clarity. This is by far the biggest controversy with the book and I do not wish to go into more detail than that here. If you want to read a more thorough review of this and the other issues in the book, I recommend this review by Jessica at By Grace Alone. Suffice it to say that this chapter alone is enough for me to withdraw my recommendation.

On the positive side, the basic premise of the book is that as Christians, we ought to be thankful people who give thanks in all things. That is a true, Biblically-defendable premise. No thoughtful Christian would argue that we should not be thankful. This is something that we all know to be true but sometimes find hard to live out. Ann is not writing from an emotional vacuum. She has lived through some very difficult trials and is trying, through this book, to share what she’s learned. And as I mentioned earlier, she does offer some good insights and food for thought in the book.

However, there are some negatives. I’ve already mentioned one serious doctrinal issue with the last chapter of the book. The other issue that is generating quite a bit of controversy is the issue of panentheism. You will want to read this next section carefully. When I first read about this, I thought the reviewer had mistyped the word pantheism. That was not the case. Pantheism is a word composed of the English equivalents of the Greek terms “pan”, meaning all, and “theism”, meaning God. It is the false belief that God is everything (trees, flowers, etc.). Panentheism is a little different than that. It is constructed from the English equivalents of the Greek terms “pan”, meaning all, “en”, meaning in, and “theism”, meaning God. Simply put, it is the belief that God is in everything.

Panentheism proposes that, since God is in everything, then God can be discovered and understood solely through encounters with nature. Now, I will grant that the natural world does testify about God (Psalm 19, Romans 1:20). However, nobody was ever saved by staring at the moon. More revelation is needed about man’s depravity and Christ’s atoning work on the cross. That’s precisely why God gave us the Bible.

I had never heard of panentheism until I read some of these reviews, and it’s possible Ann hadn’t, either. On page 110, in a chapter about chasing after a harvest moon, she writes this:

Pantheism, seeing the natural world as divine, is a very different thing than seeing divine God present in all things. I know it here kneeling, the twilight so still: nature is not God but God revealing the weight of Himself, all His glory, through the looking glass of nature.

When I read this, I was actually glad she took the time to explain what she was not saying. However, it does leave the door open to interpret this section and many others as panentheistic. Some reviewers have been extremely critical of her on this point. Possibly too critical. Ann’s statement of faith can be found here and seems to be pretty sound. Seeing no tendency toward any Universalist or New Age theology in her doctrinal statement, I tend to lean on the side of charity and presume that her intention was not to promote doctrinal error. With that being said, though, I agree with Jessica’s comments on this discussion thread that these subtle errors could be taken too far by undiscerning readers and lead them into error.

Ann has a wide audience on her blog, so I expect her book to be a bestseller for quite a while. This gives the book a great opportunity for gospel witnessing. However, I kept waiting for a clear gospel presentation in the book, but never found it. That was disappointing.

Although there are some good tidbits in the book, the negatives far outweigh the positives and I cannot recommend it.


boo4baby said...

So glad to read your review. I tried to read her blog, too, but I can't do the style of writing either. It is a real turn off to me. Then I was given her book for my birthday. A month or so later I read a review of it and the controversy over it and I was intrigued, but I had loaned my copy out without reading it. Every time I was ready to start a new book, there just happen to be many other good books that won out over that one. I will read it eventually just because of all that I have heard and read about it, but I am not excited to read it now. Thanks for taking the time to think through and give us your thoughts. Maybe I'll get to it this summer sometime. Maybe. :) Right now, my Lamplighter books are calling my name!

Baroness Insomniac said...

Her writing style is going to rub the more logic based rational crowd the wrong way.

Her WORDS rub God-fearing, Bible Believing Christians the wrong way.

I think it is important for Christians to know that there are indeed "New Age Christians" sometimes they call themselves "Mystical Christians" - or a host of other names. They speak "Bible" and they are very convincing. The proof of the pudding however...

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