Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: One Thousand Gifts, chapter 1

One Thousand Gifts: Chapter One

[This is my promised review of Ann Voskamp's book, One Thousand Gifts. I think I'll review it one chapter at a time. My previous post explaining the purpose of these review posts, is here.]

The death of Ann's sister was a horrible tragedy, and worse perhaps because Ann and the parents had to physically witness the violent death. As Ann's father says, the child didn't just die, she was killed. This left a visual scar on Ann particularly. It does seem that the family handled the tragedy as badly as a family can: extending the damage, nursing the wound, not finding any redeeming aspects to it at all, harboring bitterness and anger. That's the worst possible way to handle any negative event.

That said, the event damaged Ann deeply, into her adult life, when it did not have to. Her parents were probably at fault there, and should have sought ways to keep the death from harming the other children, even if they couldn't keep it from harming themselves. The father's nurturing of the pain seems mimicked in Ann's attitude and feelings. “Losses do that. One life-loss can infect the whole of a life.” They should have kept the initial tragedy from spawning additional ones. They didn't.

Later, Ann describes a better response in her brother-in-law's handling of his boys' deaths. The man attempts to look deeply into God's will and purposes, and is at least able to come to the wise conclusion that life events are best left in God's hands; His acts are perfect even when they include death. Especially when they include death. (I like his understanding of Hezekiah and Manasseh.) Our perspective on death is so skewed, so wrong, so blinded, we cannot assess it correctly. God chooses to remove a precious child from this dark, damaged planet, and take her to safety in heaven, and we humans scream in anger at the rescue? Why do we do that? Because we're selfish. We want the dead loved one here, with us. Ann's parents never helped her to see death correctly.

All that to say, I'd still insist that I've known people, particularly Christians, who have suffered much more grievously than Ann did, and did not respond in such a hateful way. But I think she'd agree with that – that her response was wrong, and needed correction. So that's no criticism of her; it's just an honest statement. Although the death of a child is a deep wound, suffering can get much, much worse than the death of one child, but the real issue is how we respond. Ann responded with darkness. Some people (even pagans!) respond with light. Ann's story will, I think, be about struggling her way to the light. And that is certainly a story worth telling!

I'd like to address one theological issue in this chapter, which she talks about on pp. 14 - 16. She asserts that mankind's fundamental sin is ingratitude – a desiring for something better, not accepting what God gives us in this world. She says, “...what I have, who I am, where I am, how I am, what I've got – this simply isn't enough.” This well of dissatisfaction in her soul is an agony to her, and she sees it as the first sin, as the basic evil.

She does well to examine the Garden of Eden in this chapter, but I look at the issue differently. When humans long for something more excellent, more beautiful, more secure, more fulfilling, I don't see that as a sin. I see that as a longing for heaven – for Eden again, for the New Earth. Are we supposed to be satisfied on this fallen Earth? I don't think so. We can be thankful for many good things God gives us here, but we should never think that we can be satisfied here. We can't. We're designed for heaven, and we can never be fully joyful until we are there with Him.

Ann blames the evils of this broken world on man, on our ingratitude, our lack of satisfaction, on the poison of the first sin. She admits, “I thirst for some roborant, some elixir, to relieve the anguish of what I've believed: God isn't good.” Longing for an elixir for sin isn't a bad thing. It's exactly what we're supposed to long for. For some reason, Ann labels that longing as a sin.

What I'm saying is that I'm supposed to be dissatisfied with this world. It's broken. God doesn't expect me to pretend otherwise. I'm not to put on rose-colored glasses, look around me and say, “It's all beautiful! It's all good! It's all holy!” Because it's not. That kind of adulation is reserved for only one place: heaven. It's an offense to describe other places using language and feelings that are reserved for God's home only. She does not go this far in the first chapter, but I mention it because I've read her blog a lot, and I think I know where she's headed with this idea.

Otherwise, however, I find this first chapter to be very readable, very engaging, and often beautiful. The writing is occasionally disjointed and choppy, but when she sticks to story, she does well.

There is no evidence of the mystic here, that I can find. But I'll say this: Ann's life began with a massive, life-changing experience. She was visual witness to a horrific act. Her sister didn't die of disease in a hospital bed, or die in her sleep; she died a bloody, violent death in front of Ann's eyes. It's possible that this engagement with first-hand experience, early on, made an indelible mark on her, and caused her to look for other, later experiences as a means of compensating for this first one.


  1. I've popped over to Ann's blog to see what she and her son are doing in Haiti.
    Her book has really touched hearts and I wonder what her next book will be (I haven't explored this).
    I like her and I think her book glows a little. Seriously, when I go to the book store and see all the good books on the bargain racks and tables, I trust that The Creator of all, understands us so well and knows what our hearts and minds will respond to. It's a money making business, publishing. I guess the real test is the individual who is journeying toward the King and longs for Him more after reading a book. Sending a book out into the world seems like a very serious calling. I bet you've felt that about your books, too. I could tell from Ann's words that she is scholarly and literary. She's a word lover. I'm reminded of all our Lord's words about children and coming to Him just like they did and it gives me a gentler, more humble perspective.

  2. I agree with everything you say, Pom. Sending a book out into the world is a rather scary thing. Ann is a lover of words, of scenes, of pictures. She's done a brave thing. I do think she is a mystic, but I don't think that's a bad thing. We desperately need Christian mystics to balance the effect of overly zealous orthodox folks, who will narrow the faith down. Mystics tend to expand us. But mystics are not cautious, parsing people. They will give you the wonderfully true along with the slightly wrong. It's our job to examine, pull out the tweezers, and separate the two. I mean no violence to Ann or her book. It is not arrogance that prompts me to write about her book. Rather it is a desire to find what's right, and to see if there is any wrong, according to my own limited sights. But just because a person sends a book out into the world, does NOT mean that everyone else must just smile and accept and say nothing. I think some may feel that's the best path. We also need others who will dissect. That's my job as a literature teacher.

  3. Yes, yes. We're on the same page, friend. I bet you are a way better literature teacher than old Pom Pom. Smile!

  4. Your last sentence on this post. Yes, and again, yes.

  5. Hey MK. I am thoroughly intrigued at your series on Ann. I have hardly read her blog - the music drives me to drink - and her style is just not one that typically appeals to me. Although once, a long time ago, I did read something from her that I wanted to respond to, and when I tried, I realized that she didn't allow comments. I was so turned off, I never went back. To me, blogging is ALL about the comments, the community, the conversation. So that was that.

    Since then, the book, the fame... I haven't paid much attention. But for some reason I saw your first post about her in your sidebar and started reading your series. I have no issues, I don't know enough about her or her story to make an informed opinion, but I'm finding your thoughts intriguing.


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