Monday, June 02, 2008

Book Review: Wrestling With Angels

Harvest House Publishers, Eugene, OR (2008)
(Formerly: Living the Questions: Making Sense of the Mess and Mystery of Life; Harvest House (2000))

As you can imagine, I read Living the Questions with great eagerness when it was released in 2000. Since the world o' blogs was either not yet invented by geniuses, or else simply not yet discovered by me (my blog history is more than fuzzy here) in that last year of the Twentieth Century,* I had no place to express my thoughts, inclinations, revelations, exuberations, meditations, and so on, other than the Staff Recommendations section at B&N.** There I recommended with all my heart -- squeezing as much onto the insufficiently sized shelf-talker (you retail folks are nodding right now) as I possibly could to cajole and command the unwitting consumer into purchasing this gem of a title. It worked pretty well. At my B&N, we sold over 100 copies of this volume from an overly talented, but under-publicized Canadian singer/songwriter, making Living the Questions a store bestseller and garnering it a place of honor on our year-end round-up table.

As much as my vanity would like to presume that it was my powerful, albeit curtailed, persuasive abilities that drew out the purchases, I cannot help but acknowledge that it was a pen other than mine that held the magic. Carolyn's book is a stand-out in every way. The writing is warm, witty and personable; the themes are big, important, engrossing; the stories are memorable, illustrative and redemptive. It is a joy.

I was reminded of that joy when I recently re-read LTQ in its new incarnation, Wrestling With Angels: Adventures in Faith and Doubt. Other than a spiffy new title and cover, as well as a characteristically Carolyn introduction, nothing seems to have changed from the original; which is good, because the original is so very good. I'm glad that no one at Harvest House was tempted to have Carolyn update it or expand it beyond the intro. If she has another book in her like this one, it deserves its own birthday party -- not a grafting onto its big sister's pages as some sort of conjoined nightmare. So, hurrah for that!

If I had been asked before I re-read this book what my favorites parts were, I would have immediately listed off the following stories: when Carolyn's dad sells his car ("The Bargain" p. 165); when Carolyn's mother fell into the fish pond ("The Fish Pond" p. 87); when Carolyn encountered the angry, swearing man at LAX with unexpected results ("The Donation" p. 183); and the heart-rending recounting of a stark and beautiful Christmas play ("Dreams of Kings and Carpenters" p. 193). And, in my most recent read-through, those chapters are still ones that make me laugh out loud, cry buckets, and ponder far into hours that I desperately need for sleep.

Yet, when I was reading WWA, I found myself wondering how I could have let such stories as "A Summer in the South" -- Carolyn's frightening, paralyzing journey of doubt and spiritual numbness -- and "The Journey Home" -- her startling, life-changing, gob-smacked by the hand of God realization that I AM is -- slip my mind? How did I mislay for so long the compartment of my brain that held "Forget-Me-Nots" -- Carolyn's heartfelt and beautiful paean of hope in the face of the travesty of Alzheimer's?*** And it's hard to imagine anyone who would not relate to the Josephian touch of "A Little Brother" -- or who would not wish to hang out with Carolyn's mother (like Larry Norman did) after reading that chapter's beautiful story of adoption (or "The Fish Pond" chapter, for that matter)?

In her new introduction, Carolyn writes of her difficulty in answering the inevitable question posed by interviewers and fans alike: "So, what's your book about?" Carolyn goes on to answer that question with her trademark humor, underscored by sincerity. She offers a few suggestions -- all of which are true, but somehow incomplete. Then she writes of the Jabbok River -- Jacob's real and her metaphorical meeting place where a fiercely tender God wrestles with believers, neither He nor they letting go, despite the breaking dawn. She writes:

Jacob has God in his arms, and God has Jacob in His. Of all the things Jacob could ask for -- strength to face his brother, healing from his pain, safety for his family -- he asks for a blessing. This is the part that makes me cry. He asks for a blessing. The love and acceptance of God, a chance to have something of His life. Jacob is willing to die for it. He's willing to live for it, too. (p. 20).

In her end analysis, her book is about wrestling with God -- about not being afraid to ask the questions that echo in eternity, answered only in a realm beyond human comprehension; about a tenacity of faith that will not let go without a blessing; about facing the fact that life is a mess and mystery, but God is beautiful and holy and draws us near to Him so that we can house His image fully.

Carolyn also writes in her introduction: I wish I could call up all the people who have read this book and ask them if they know what it's about. But I suspect that might be an unprecedented and slightly inappropriate approach. Also, I don't have most of their phone numbers. (p.12)

Well, here is one of the many reasons I find it so enchanting:

A book like Wrestling With Angels works because it is about the big stuff that gets hidden in the little stuff, and the little stuff that slowly, faithfully builds a believer. We know that life is not meant to be universally fair and fruitful and friendly and fortuitous in this fallen realm; but a life lived in the light of Christ is one that is open to the good, defiant against the evil, steeped in sweet fellowship, soaked in grace, abounding in compassion and good works, and alive with hope. But, on this side of the veil, despite our best efforts, it is also one awash in questions, mired in frustration, obscured by selfishness, choked with countless quibbles and shallow disputes among brethren that keep us from the fullness of the fellowship we desperately need. There is a black pit of aching that lives alongside the brightness of assurance. Ultimately, there is and will be reconciliation.

We can step out boldly in His name, because, though the shadows cloud our human perspective and the fog licks tauntingly at our feet, we stand on more than this faltering ground. When Carolyn shares her stories and the lessons she has extracted from them, she unerringly hits upon our common spiritual ground. We may not all be equipped by the Creator to be songwriters of exquisite caliber, or powerful and wise preachers, or valorous and intrepid African missionaries, or patient and kind teachers, or original and charming authors, but we all are gifted in some way and have a shared stake in humanity and a reason for being here. And we all have questions. And we all have doubts. And in the midst of those, we are blessed with faith. And it is quite the adventure.

*Yes, I was one of those annoying people who postponed millennial celebrations until 2001.
**Barnes & Noble
***Irony noted.

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