Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Women that Rock My World: Two Book Reviews
Neither Anne Rice nor Sara Miles would be obvious choices to represent Christianity in American Culture. Rice is the renowned author of vampire novels and an erotic romance trilogy; Miles is a feminist lesbian former war-correspondent and chef. Both have walked difficult roads, far outside of, and often strongly critical of, the Church in America. And yet both experienced a conversion in their lives, not unlike Paul on the road to Damascus. While running from God, both were met by God and began new journeys as Christ-followers.
Miles told the story of her conversion in her previous book, Eat this Bread (read my review here). Out of that encounter came a passion to serve the people of her inner-city San Francisco neighborhood. She began a food ministry which has since grown to a city-wide endeavor. In Jesus Freak, Miles tells of the ongoing work of that ministry, and of her life, to feed the hungry, love the broken, heal the sick, provide for the destitute, offer friendship to the desperately lonely; to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the sharp brokenness of people's lives. This is a ministry to the immigrant, to the schizophrenic, to the addict, and to those who work amongst them. In beautiful prose, with humor and candor, Miles introduces us to the people of her world, tying them into the larger vision of the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus come to life in her community, and by revealing them to us, Miles challenges the rest of us to be about the work of God in our own world. This is raw, gritty stuff; often uncomfortable and painful, but it is the real stuff of life, and a prophetic message to the Church in America today.
Rice comes at it from a different angle; she is one who was raised in the church, but wandered away for many years. Only after decades of literary success and acclaim did she return to a faith she was convinced was dead. Whereas Miles came face-to-face with God in one completely unexpected moment, Rice came to a slowly dawning awareness that God had been pursuing her ever since she left. In her words, she was "Christ haunted." Drawn in by sacred images, by statues and paintings and the holiness of small South American sanctuaries, she felt her resistance fading, and finally stepped back into the embrace of God.
Both Miles and Rice offer the interesting perspective of newcomers, those looking at Christianity with fresh eyes. Both struggled (and continue to struggle) with the cultural and social trappings of the Church. Both describe the power of meeting Christ in the Lord's Supper, both speak of the impact of liturgy and art and language and song. Both have had difficulty bridging their progressive, liberal, left-leaning beliefs and ideologies with the conservate, fundamentalist, right-leaning American church. In fact, Rice would famously later 'quit the church in the name of Christ.' Miles, on the other hand, speaks regularly of her begrudging acceptance of the fact that, in the name of Christ, she willingly shares in the Kingdom of God with many who would cast her out, who disagree with fundamental issues of her life. In the words of one of the characters gracing the pages of Jesus Freak, "Since Jesus loves the knuckleheads who are running things I must try to, also, but I don't have to agree with them."
Rice reminds us of the beauty of God's presence in creation, in liturgy, in the soul's hunger for transcendence. Her descriptive passages of childhood memories of sanctuaries, flowering trees, and school gatherings remind us to open our own eyes to God's presence in the world around us. Miles reminds us of the image of God present in every human being, be they wealthy lawyer or tweaked-out crack-head. Her humor, and her obvious love for the outcasts and ragamuffins remind us to take people seriously - and not take ourselves so seriously. Both challenge the reader to take faith seriously; not as a hobby or accessory, but as the very thing that defines life.
Not that I don't find frustrations here, as well. Miles, in developing an earthy spirituality, grounded in the dust and grime of the Tenderloin, seems to miss out on the possibility of the supernatural showing up. Healing, to Miles, comes about when the soul is mended, when the heart is healed even if the sickness carries on. Comfort and hope are found in accepting the way life is and the way people are. Stories abound of people laughing in the face of death, or finding moments of grace in the midst of severe brokenness; on the other hand, the possibility that God might actually cure a disease seems missing. I agree that often-times the miraculous is hidden right there in the real stuff of life; sometimes, though, the miraculous blows us away and the lame do, in fact, walk again.
In Rice's case, the frustration comes in knowing the end of the story. Called Out ends so hopeful, with so much expectation; knowing that a decade later her frustrations overwhelmed that hope clouds the message. And yes, that frustration lies just as much with the Church as it does with Rice. We do lose sight of Christ in our debates over lesser things; we do focus too much on people's supposed sins, and don't care enough about their longings, their pains, their hopes and dreams. It's just sad that Rice felt the need to disassociate, giving up the possibility of engagement.
Near the end of Called Out, Rice writes, "The Lord Jesus Christ is where my focus belongs. And my commitment to Christ must remain unchanged." Near the end of Jesus Freak, Miles writes, "But Jesus is real, and so, praise God, are we." In the end, that's what is important in these two books. They are the autobiographical struggles of women trying to follow Jesus in the midst of a fractured world. Through fits and starts, failures and glorious successes, they continue on that journey. Through it all, they keep Jesus at center, and challenge the rest of us to do so. Neither is a sinless Saint, but both responded to the Call, and both are witnesses to the power of God's Spirit to change lives. They are, in many ways, examples of 21st century saints, following Christ in spite of long odds, and inviting us to do the same.