A Patchwork Memory

Title: Everything Sad Is Untrue (A True Story)
Author: Daniel (birth name: Khosrou) Nayeri
Genre: Slightly Fictionalized Autobiography
Pages: 368
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Over the last week, my church hosted a missions conference with the theme of Sojourners. Much of the focus was on ministry to displaced people (a topic much on our hearts and minds as we have a sister church in Ukraine), and as a follow-up I will be recommending this book on Sunday.

All too often displaced people are reduced to political pawns and depersonalized talking points to shame opponents or outrage the voting base. Everything Sad Is Untrue is an antidote to such lack of personal empathy and compassion. In it, Daniel/Khosrou records a barely fictionalized account of his own life as a refugee. He writes from the point of view of his 12-year-old self, speaking directly to the reader about his memories, confusion, heartaches, and hopes.

We are told repeatedly that “a patchwork memory is the shame of a refuge,” and the extremely disordered and fragmentary narration highlights this theme. Khosrou jumps around wildly in his story from earliest childhood memories to present middle school experience to everything in between (including an odd number of poop-related stories…gotta love middle schoolers). Along the way he frequently references The 1,001 Nights of his native Persia/Iran as a sort of parallel to his own desperately throwing out stories as they occur to him.

The scattery style and 12-year-old voice take some getting used to, but it is worth your time to stick with it. The confusion, loss, and hurt that underly most of the stories will sadden your heart and make you angry at the cruelty of mankind, but there are also some beautiful descriptions of his mother’s courage and faith and his own hope that looks beyond present circumstances. This is not a Christian book per se (in fact, behavior by some of the churchy people in the book really ticked me off!), but his mother’s faith in Jesus is a truly amazing expression of the blessed hope that there is coming a day when “everything sad comes untrue.”

Shepherds Who Feed Only Themselves

Title: God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel:
How Truth Overwhelms a Life Built on Lies
Author: Costi Hinn
Genre: Theology / Autobiography
Pages: 224
Rating: 5 of 5

Many of the world’s most popular Christian preachers proclaim a message of unending, guaranteed health, wealth, and prosperity for those who exercise the right kind of faith. Jesus must have misspoken when he told his followers they would experience mistreatment, conflict, troubles, and weakness/sickness, because these men and women can tell you how to have it all right now (in Jesus’ name, of course). You know it’s true because just look at how rich they are! If it doesn’t work for you, you obviously don’t have enough faith, and maybe throwing some money their way would be a demonstration of your faith that would really catch God’s attention.

In this book, Costi Hinn (nephew of faith healer Benny Hinn) confronts this twisted, self-serving teaching. For the first 60% of the book he recounts his own story of growing up in luxury (funded by the offerings of people desperate for healing or prosperity), slowly coming to the realization of the abusive, deceptive nature of this false gospel, and rejecting it. The remainder of the book examines the nature, history, and impact of the prosperity gospel. He emphasizes its distortion of Scripture and the true Gospel (e.g. Romans 5:8-10, Romans 3:23-25, Ephesians 2:4-10). Given his family ties, the teachings and actions he refers to most directly are Benny Hinn’s, but he touches on beliefs shared by Joel Osteen, Oral Roberts, Joyce Meyer, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (a church I was acquainted with where I grew up in Brazil), and many others.

Costi’s overall tone is as gracious as you can possibly be while warning that someone else’s belief system is dangerous and completely in the wrong. The abuse of Scripture and exploitation of people carried out by the prosperity gospel makes my blood boil, so I am impressed with his self-control and ability to “speak the truth in love.” The most scathing criticism in the book comes when he quotes from Scripture. These are the words of Jude, the half-brother of Jesus, writing about exploitive teachers:

These people are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea,foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. – Jude 12-13 (NIV)

Please, don’t be led astray by these people or write off Jesus Christ because of wolves in sheep’s clothing who exploit his name for personal gain. I highly recommend this book as a very readable warning against a pervasive false teaching and a record of God’s grace to a young man who was caught up in it. (And if you want a shorter, blunter explanation of the problems with the prosperity gospel and examples of those who teach it check out Fal$e Teacher$ by hip-hop/rap artist Shai Linne).

Vivid Glimpses of History & Culture

Title: Tell My Horse:
Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: History / Anthropology / Autobiography
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5

Zora Neale Hurston’s record of her travels in Jamaica and Haiti provides colorful glimpses into the history, daily life, and religion of these nations. The historical sections in the early part of the book skillfully gave a sense of the extreme racism, pervasive corruption, simmering  rage, and explosive violence that accompanied their early history. Unfortunately the arrangement was haphazard and elliptical in the extreme. Unless you are already well-acquainted with Haiti’s history, Google and Wikipedia will be your friend here.

The later part of the book that focuses on voodoo/vodou is fairly fragmentary as well, but no less interesting. Apparently Hurston was a first level initiate (she mentions preparing for her second level, but never directly tells us about her initiation). Her level of credulity seems to vary depending on the passage, but she mostly manages to present it fairly neutrally as “this is what people believe.” While I would tend to agree with the view that the pantheon/loas of Vodou are identical to the demons/evil spirits of the Bible (e.g. Ephesians 6:12), I think it is important to understand people’s beliefs from their own perspective, and this book is helpful in that regard.

Overall, this isn’t a systematic treatment of the topics in the title, but Hurston’s personal experiences and vivid writing make this a worthwhile read.

Lewis’s Spiritual Journey

Title: Surprised by Joy:
The Shape of My Early Life
Author: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Autobiography / Philosophy
Pages: 238
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Here is the first in the promised series of C. S. Lewis books from the class I am auditing. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis chronicles the journey that led him to reject his (nominally) Christian upbringing for atheism and then slowly return to faith through agnosticism, basic theism, and finally trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Throughout this time of his life, Lewis was pursuing what he called joy. When he talks about joy he is referring to a desirable longing for “something.” That “something” was at first very ill-defined, but over time he came to understand it as a longing for something unattainable in this world.

Lewis was far more interested in his spiritual journey than in telling about his life events for their own sake. This leads him to omit or rapidly pass over some major life events (e.g. his service in WWI, his long-lasting poorly-defined relationship with Mrs. Moore) that he feels did not have deep spiritual impact. This results in all kinds of second-guessing from people who write Lewis biographies as to what really influenced him and what really happened, but I think that such reading between the lines is unhelpful and misses out on enjoying the story as Lewis chooses to tell it.

Overall: interesting as a unique spiritual autobiography and even more so as a starting place in exploring the works of one of the 20th century’s greatest Christian authors.

Of Spies & Lawyers

Image result for strangers on a bridgeTitle: Strangers on a Bridge
Author: James B. Donovan
Genre: History / Espionage
Pages: 375
Rating: 3.5 out of 5

When I picked this up at a used book sale a few years ago the cover blurb of “As compelling as The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” led me to shelve it with the rest of my spy fiction. Turns out, it is actually the true story of the trial and eventual exchange of Soviet spy  Rudolf Abel as told by his lawyer who also negotiated the prisoner exchange. In 2015 this book was adapted into the Tom Hanks movie Bridge of Spies. As I type this I’m wearing a sweatshirt that says “the book was better.” This book might be one of those “exceptions that prove the rule.”

I did find the book to be fairly interesting in subject matter, but the author’s tone is dry as dust. He writes as a lawyer giving a mostly emotionless, detailed summary of events.Far more time is spent on the trial and various appeals than on the international negotiations (the trial/appeals take up 306 of 375 pages!).

I felt that there was a pervasive tone of both self-justification and self-congratulation regarding his role as a good patriotic American who cares enough about impartial American justice that he vigorously defended a Soviet spy and ensured that he received a fair trial in the American court system (and just in case I haven’t said it enough times: “American!”). His smugness aside, it did provide some interesting parallels to debates over the treatment of captured jihadists and suspected terrorists.

Overall:a bit of a slog, but worth the time (especially if you are interested in criminal justice in  cases that involve international politics).