Tuesday, July 31, 2012

One Thousand Gifts, chapter 6

This may be rather long. Just warning you.

In chapter six, Voskamp seems to shift to a new theme. She's been pounding thankfulness. Now she moves on to seeing. The events of this chapter occur on a chaotic day that all mothers recognize. She is overwhelmed, grumpy, weary at suppertime. Then she is called outside to see the moonrise. Voskamp spends the entire chapter describing her new discoveries about herself, while watching the moonrise. She is overcome with beauty, glory, humbleness and the presence of God.

It sounds so ordinary to say it that way. Voskamp rarely uses ordinary terminology, and that's part of what makes her rather ordinary cathartic moments sound very extraordinary. She does a good job of describing the occasional senses of wonder and bliss that we experience with God, that we often cannot describe ourselves.

I mentioned before, in my "Ann Voskamp Revisited" post, that two pastors had reviewed Ann's book. Both men criticized her mystical approach to her faith. I imagine their "mystic radar" started humming when they read chapter six. One pastor has removed his review, and has since put up a sort of apology to Voskamp. (He doesn't apologize for critiquing her book, nor for the content of his review, but for the lack of love in his tone.) The other review by DeWaay is more academic and detailed. The first area of concern he addresses is Voskamp's panentheism.

Panentheism. A word that is not in my 1962 Oxford English Dictionary. Nor is it found in my 1980 Webster's. Hmm. Online, I find this: Pantheism is the belief that God is the universe. Panentheism is the belief that God is in the entire universe. It goes beyond mere omnipresence, which states that God is not limited spatially -- He is a spirit, and His spirit is not limited by space. Panentheism sees the world as existing in God, and God existing in the world. It seeks to avoid the concept of transcendence, which places God distinct from His creation. Panentheism goes beyond merely seeing God's glory in creation, or hearing His praise in creation. It goes beyond simple General Revelation, which states that man may look objectively at the created order and infer the existence of God and traits about Him.  Many believers see Panentheism as a Biblical concept. They refer to verses like Romans 8:36: "For from him, and through him and to him are all things," or Ephesians 4:6: "There is one God who is father of all, over all, through all and within all."

It all boils down to one concept: Unity. Christians have unity with Christ; we are "one with Him." This unity is what Voskamp longs for, in chapter six. "I long to merge with Beauty," she says. In her terminology, she "aches" for this union. We speak of "knowing God and being known by Him."  For Voskamp, this union is preceded by seeing God rightly -- her perception being changed to realize that God is "all Eye,"  that He is seeing her. Remember the Eye of Mordor from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?  Well, imagine a good version of that -- an eye that always sees you, no matter where you are, that knows every part of your thinking and loves you. The Eye that lays you bear. Voskamp says God's Eye "leaves the soul disrobed. I am naked and I am right ashamed. I know how monstrously inhumane I can be" (116).
But unity comes when she is willing to look back at the Eye, to look God full in the face (well, not really -- she's looking at the moon) and not be afraid. Voskamp harkens back a couple of times to Jacob's encounters with God, the nights he saw the ladder and wrestled with God. Only ... God literally spoke to Jacob in a dream the first time, and the second time, Jacob physically wrestled with the flesh-and-blood body of the second person of the Godhead. He wasn't interacting with the moon, nor was the moon some sort of Beauty Symbol for God. Voskamp does know the difference. "Is worship why I've run for the moon? Not for lunar worship, but for True Beauty worship .... I do not deify the wind in the pines, the snow falling on hemlocks, the moon over harvested wheat. Pantheism, seeing the natural world as divine, is a very different thing than seeing divine God present in all things .... nature is not God but God revealing the weight of Himself, all His glory, through the looking glass of nature" (110). I do hope her goal, and ours, is to see God as He is, and not through a looking glass at all.

You cannot say that Voskamp is a panentheist simply because she sees the glory of God in nature. David saw the same, and wrote many psalms about it. If Voskamp hears God's praises exclaimed in the moon or the wheat fields or the ocean, she's only hearing what Scripture tells us we should be hearing. This is not news, friends. And just because she uses somewhat bizarre, flowery, poetic language doesn't make her heretical. Pastor DeWaay quotes often from this chapter, in his accusation that Voskamp is a panentheist. First he claims that panentheism does violence to the person of Christ: "If God in His essence and essential being is found in everything, then there is nothing unique about Christ. Biblically, Christ reveals God and His glory in a way nature does not." He is right, but I'm not sure Voskamp errs this way. Of equal concern is his statement that Voskamp finds her experiences in nature to be salvific. "Voskamp describes an experience where she finds salvation by gazing at a full moon in a harvested wheat field."

Panentheism seems to be a moving target. I'm not exactly sure what it means, and I'm not exactly sure if Voskamp espouses it. Does she claim to find her salvation in an experience with Nature? I don't think so. She happens to be in a natural location, in a wheat field, with the moon. But the important thing is that God is there. The presence of God's glory, His beauty, His eye, her longing and awareness -- these are the crucial elements. And the salvation she experiences is not the initial saving of her soul; she's already a Christian. She is, however, saved from a former darkness and ignorance and unwillingness to see and embrace and cry out for the God who loves her. So her experience in the wheat field is one of those wonderful moments that occur in the Christian's life, when she sees something new. Voskamp is certainly not telling the unbeliever, "Go look at some beautiful element of the natural world, feel united to it, and it will save your soul." DeWaay, in my opinion, has been hasty in his criticism.

And I ask, "Why?" Why doesn't he get it? Has he never, ever lain on the sand by the roaring ocean at night, opened his eyes wide to a sky full of meteorites, and been overwhelmed by what God does? Has he never been lost in a cool forest full of old trees and felt in his soul that there was more present than just trees and him? Is he such a calculating academic that he knows nothing of such wonder? I doubt it. Most Christians experience at least a little of this. Ann experiences it a lot. I have too, more when I was younger. Some Christians experience actual miracles. Oh how we long for moments in this fallen life when God is so obviously near! It's merely a longing for heaven.

Did I like this chapter? Oh, I don't know. I can't say I've really liked the book. I find the writing a little disorganized and meandering, so it doesn't work for my particular brain. It does for some. I think Voskamp sees the order in it, but the key is to be able to communicate it to others. What is a moment of euphoria for her, is something interesting to read about to the rest of us.  I do find it a good reminder of the childlike wonder and joy we have in the presence of the Father. How long since you've felt that way? Ann twirls in her skirt as she returns to her house with her children in the growing dark. She has the joy of a girl. Never lose that.

A few loose ends in this chapter before we leave it:
1) Voskamp is prepping us for her "cathedral imagery." She says she is "struggling to make a cathedral of the moment, to hallow it with the holy all here" (102).  She comes close to "desecrating the space" with an inappropriate response (103). She seeks "even one thousand more gifts, sanctuaries in moments" (105). And, "How do you open the eyes to see how to take the daily, domestic, workday vortex and invert it into the dome of an everyday cathedral?" (121).  I believe this is where she's headed. It's one thing to run out of the house just before supper and spend an hour kneeling before the moon. Wouldn't it be better to find the Beauty in your house, in the kitchen, at the sink, where the mess is? This is her struggle -- to find it there.
2) She begins the sexual imagery in this chapter, and I am first uncomfortable with it here. She describes "the great-bellied moon, it all heaves, heavy with the glory" (106). It's the "harvest moon aching ... womb swelling round with glory" (105). That's a fairly familiar, if rather personal, image. On p. 111, however, she sits in the shorn wheat field with her camera, looking up at the moon through a few remaining wheat stalks. "It is still, stalk still. One lone stem of wheat bows its head before me. Behind it, the perfect backdrop of pure moon full, pregnant with the grandeur. I reach out my hand, run my finger up its silk slender shank. This is how. I learn how to say thank you from a laid-low head of wheat."

Hmm. Perhaps the pregnant womb of moon is too much when combined with the phallic symbol of the wheat stalk, together with her stroking it. I apologize for any offense. But this is exactly what I've bought into, reviewing this book; this is exactly the imagery I've promised to address, much as I'd like to avoid it.  Why am I uncomfortable? Am I a prude? No. Do I think Scripture does not use marital imagery? Of course it does. I'd just prefer that Voskamp not go beyond what Scripture does. The Bible uses the picture of husband and wife to show God's relationship with His people -- Israel, or later, His church. The church is the bride, not just little ole individual me. There's a big difference. The familial relationship that Scripture repeatedly uses to describe God's relationship with me, is that of father and child, not husband and wife. Even the most familiar passage from Isa. 54 is in reference to Zion, when the prophet says, "Your husband is your Maker." The "wife" is a city with battlements, foundations, walls, and gates.

Keeping things clear, enumerated, distinct -- this is not usually the mystic's gift. God is my Father, both literally and metaphorically. He is not my sexual partner, in any sense. I wish she would clarify these roles, but mystics don't clarify much. Is Ann Voskamp a mystic? She says no. Here's a good definition of a mystic: " a person who seeks by contemplation and self-surrender to obtain unity with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or who believes in the spiritual apprehension of truths that are beyond the intellect." What do you think?


  1. Excellent review, MK!
    I AM a prude. Really, I am. I think all fairy grandmothers are.
    Not to oversimplify, but letting go of her grief allows her to feel more and she wants to feel as much as possible. I wonder if she'll slide toward a more pensive and liturgical spot in the future.

  2. In agreement with PomPom...excellent review, your best yet and also, I am a prude. Prude comes from the Old French meaning an honorable woman. Yes, I am an honorable woman but that's not always been the case. Since being washed by the blood of the Lamb, I wear the title proudly!
    I think we in the western world are uncomfortable with words like "mystic". That's a shame as I think I fit the definition you gave. I'm also a practicing Christian and don't believe nor feel those two things are at odds with one another.
    Sometimes I think sexual imagery is used simply for the shock value. Other times I think it's the differences in generations. Each generation becomes weaker both physically and spiritually. The Bible says this will happen and history bears it out as well.
    Frankly, I think Voskamp comes close, dangerously close, to worshiping the creation and not the Creator.
    There's a fine line, a very fine line, and she's beyond toeing the mark, imho.
    My mother has a saying, "The mind is the devil's playground."
    Ain't it just the truth?!

  3. Great review and great comments. I would hope that all Christians are mystics. Don't we all want to be united with Christ? To become less while he becomes more? And how can our faith be explained logically or intellectually? It's beyond our comprehension how salvation works.

    If I were the one to come up with a way of salvation for the human race, I certainly wouldn't have picked the way our Father did. I would have done something more logical or practical. Don't ask me what!

  4. I'm pondering whether to do a post just on mysticism, and on exactly how we express our worship (2 different topics). I agree that mysticism is not a negative thing, that mystics are useful and necessary. Sandra, I do think she needs to be much more careful about describing exactly how she's worshiping. She explicitly says that she is NOT worshiping the creation. However, I feel sure that the worship experience she had in the wheat field would never have occurred without the presence of the moon. I don't think she's worshiping the moon, but I definitely think she's worshiping God-in-the-moon (panentheism is all about location), and that it's difficult for her, at that point, to remove God from the glory she sees in the moon.

  5. Me again...can't seem to leave. The sexual reference was just the thing that offended a friend of mine who read the book. Another friend just loved it, and just passed on by this chapter with no trouble.

    You just never know.


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