Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Ann Voskamp Revisited -- The Discussion

This is a fair warning to anyone who doesn't want to read another word that might be construed as criticism of Ann Voskamp, her blog, her book, or her ideas. Click away!
That said, my goal is not ever to be critical of Ann Voskamp. My goal is to present the discussion, look at the various points, and make an assessment, and hopefully a careful one, of what's been said. Because there has been discussion. This first post is simply an attempt to let you readers know what's been going on.
First Ann has a beautiful blog, A Holy Experience.
She's also written a much-loved book, One Thousand Gifts.
(Please see the bottom of this post for links to my reviews of the chapters of her book.)

Last year, I wrote a blog post about Ann's blog. It wasn't about her book, because I'd never touched her book. It was meant to be rather light-hearted. It caused a bit of a stir in my usually uninhabited comment section. I only ever intended to address her writing style, compliment her on her content, and ask a simple question, which was answered rather quickly.
That was last summer.

Then sometime last week a facebook friend posted a book review of One Thousand Gifts, written by Tim Challies, a pastor in Canada. You may read it here. He wrote it because he was asked to. Generally, the review was not complimentary. He first addresses her unusual style, and then her content, discussing both without any seeming bias or preference. Then Challies turns to the area of his concern, Voskamp's use of sexual metaphor and imagery in her description of her relationship with God. Although Voskamp's habit of uncomfortable (to me) intimacy on her blog was something that bothered me when I read it for several years, I'd never read it so clearly described, until Challies's review. He ends by saying he would not recommend the book.

Immediately on the heels of this review, another one emerged online. Bob DeWaay, a U.S. pastor and writer on Critical Issues Commentary, wrote a lengthier and more academic assessment of Voskamp's book. You may read it here. He rather harshly mimics her style, but moves on to summarize his criticisms of her book. "Where her work warrants challenge is in her reliance on panentheism, romanticism, sensual language and those whose viewpoints she approvingly cites." Please note that panentheism is NOT the same as pantheism.  I had to look them up to make sure I understood the difference. DeWaay diligently fleshes out his points, quotes from Voskamp frequently to support his arguments, and ends by stating that she is, without doubt, a mystic. Like Challies he does not recommend the book. His review takes into account more theological and cultural issues, and his conclusions about Voskamp's work are more harsh and scathing. I wouldn't consider either pastor to be rude or mean in these reviews. They are simply doing what they're supposed to do: warn Christians about error that they see.

Both men commend Voskamp for her emphasis on thankfulness, a practice sorely lacking among Christians. Both frown upon her frequent references to theologians and writers who are mystics, Catholics, or otherwise not in conformity with whatever is their list of acceptable people to quote. Both dislike that she felt compelled to fly to Paris and achieve her highest experience with God in a Catholic cathedral. I must say, I found the Notre Dame quite lovely myself although I had no mystical experience there.

My intent is to do what I've put off doing:  read the book. I don't own a copy, and I don't intend to spend money on it. I've got a hold on it at the library. When I've finished the book, I'll get back to you on the topics that most concern me: whether Voskamp is a mystic in her writings, and what I think of her use of sexual metaphor and imagery.

Voskamp herself has responded in her own way, on her blog, to the criticism -- I think particularly of Rev. DeWaay. You can read her post here. I'm not quite sure, but I think she may be comparing the trauma of his review to a heart attack. She flatly denies being a mystic, and claims not even to know the meaning of the word. She demonstrates her own fear of having her writings negatively received. (Don't we all!?)  And on another page, which you can read here, she pulls in the "big guns" by having Marvin Olasky, editor of World Magazine, defend her use of sexual metaphor in her descriptions of her relationship with God. The page is basically a long list of quotes from various Christians and a few Scripture passages, which seem to give precedence to this type of writing.

I will not do another "light-hearted" post on this writer. I will not address her writing style, which is simply a matter of preference and has no place in a serious critique. My intent is to find as much common ground as possible, as much to commend as possible, and clearly state any concerns that I see. Anyone is free to disagree with my amateur assessment. I am no pastor, no theologian. I have a BA and an MA in literary studies, and have taught high school English for about 15 years. As well as I can, I will pick apart her book and dissect it for you. That's what I do, as a professional. Anybody who has been telling me to read the book, that's what you've been asking for. This critique will probably take at least two posts.

Here are links to my chapter reviews of 1000 Gifts:
Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7 , Chapter 8


Rebecca Newman said...

Interesting - I love flowery language and ornate descriptions and my first journals at 13 and 14 were inspired by my beloved Lucy Maud Montgomery and so mimicked the style of the Anne books. Still I found Voskamp's style quite irritating and unreadable. One of the couples at my church in Memphis who were counseling me due to my many questions about Christianity on account of current circumstances gave me a copy of the book, and upon thumbing through it I initially thought I would love it. But I didn't. I couldn't bring myself to finish it, so much did all the unnecessary descriptions grate on me.

What I find fascinating, though, is how much the book means to a cousin of mine, my favorite cousin who was also homeschooled and just as much a bookworm as I was growing up. She and I think so similarly and while I was being plagued by doubts about the authenticity of my faith, so was she. And she credits the book that brought her back to her faith as - One Thousand Gifts! I started laughing aloud when she told me this. Remarkable our polar opposite reactions to that book...

M.K. said...

Rebecca, you've described exactly what I've been seeing too. There seem to be two opposite reactions to Voskamp's writing. Those who find it life-changing and fabulous just don't seem to understand those of us who don't find it so. Thanks for posting this!

Jeannette said...

I think I had read Challies's review a few months ago.

Something that never gets brought up--those "trusted blog reveiwers" were men. Voskamp is a woman.

And I wonder how much gender plays into voice. I don't mean categorizing things into gender boxes. But i really think male and female makes a difference...

M.K. said...

I agree, Jeannette. And I think the men, at some level, realized that themselves. At least one of them expressed his discomfort with addressing sexual/sensual themes in reviewing a book written by a woman. As a woman, I don't have any such qualms - ha! But I think you're right. And it's not just b/c they're men. It's the type of men -- theological, pastor/preacher types. They are as essential to the Body of Christ as mystics are, but they're on the other end of the spectrum, and just as they don't understand her b/c of gender difference, they also are far away from her emotional spot on the spectrum.

Anonymous said...

I'm a woman and I can't handle her writing/blog. It is repetitive and seems full of pride but maybe that's just my own perception. If this is what is considered a female contribution to the world of theology and literature, I guess I will have to stick with reading books written by men.

amy in peru said...

dear M.K.,
first of all, let me apologize if my english - grammar, punctuation or style - fails me. i have not had the benefit of studying much... you being an english teacher and all, makes me nervous. ;)

i've read both your posts now. very intriguing. i've heard similar opinions expressed as yours, but usually not as well articulated. i appreciate your honesty and your opinion. i appreciate that you're doing your best to take an objective view. i can understand that style had a lot to do with your initial response, and that you were willing to look past it to content.

i've read her blog intermittently since she only had a couple hundred readers (2004ish?). i have also read her book. and for that reason i can understand the critiques that both you and others have made. i disagree with you on several points, but that's not my point in commenting. over time, i have come to know some of ann's more personal details and have corresponded with her a few times. we share similar church backgrounds.

i also hate trends, and for that reason, i stopped reading her blog as regularly as before, in the same way that i refused to do a beth moore study for several years. both cases proved my silliness. i have learned a lot from both, when i have simultaneously kept myself in the scriptures and keep a lookout for truth. i have noticed in ann's prose there are references to deep truths, much of them clearly scriptural, and i have been very thankful for her reflections.

i don't really know what my point is. i think it's that i too have wondered at the huge growth in popularity of her blog. the seemingly nationwide acceptance of her book and her sudden step into the spotlight. i do think she is genuine. knowing God's sovereignty, i think that He has had something to do with it. there will be people who are following her because of the 'groupie' thing and all that. but if Christ is preached... i just read paul on the subject yesterday: "whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that i rejoice".

she is to be commended for:
being herself (even in the midst of criticism, her style & message hasn't actually changed much).
consistently pointing to the gospel and eternal things.
attempting to constantly turn her thoughts (and her readers) to Christ.
...among other things (though i am absolutely confident of her human failings as well).

anyway, i just felt that as a responsible reader, i owed you a thoughtful response. i do not at all wish to argue, and i hope i haven't been critical of you, on the contrary, i respect your opinion even though i disagree on many points.

i just thought i'd share my mind with you a little. :)
much love,
amy in peru

p.s. i just got to wandering around your blog a bit. i came over from the hidden art post :)

amy in peru said...

oh. and i thought i should sign up for comments, in case you respond here... :) so, that's the 'why' of this second comment. oh, and as i re-read my comment, i noticed lots of mistakes. sorry for that. :)

M.K. said...

Amy -- NO worries about any grammatical mistakes. Being a Grammar Policewoman is not everyone's calling - haha :) Thanks also for your thoughts. I always appreciate anyone who wants to express her opinion logically, calmly, and cordially. I still certainly have mixed feelings about Voskamp, but after writing this post (which was about a year ago), I've read most of her book, and although I still have reservations, I do appreciate and admire the assistance and comfort she has been to so many women, and to you! :) I just checked out her book again, and plan to finish my chapter reviews, of ch. 8, 9, and 10.

debbie bailey said...

MK, either I misunderstand the definition of a mystic, or other people do such as those theologians reviewing her book. A Christian's union with Christ IS mystical. It can't really be understood in human terms. People call Ann a mystic as if that's a bad thing. I don't get it. Enlightenment, please?

P.S. I haven't read her book but plan to soon. I want to see what all the hoopla is about!

M.K. said...

Hi, Debbie dear :) I agree that being a mystic is not necessarily a bad thing. People DO state it as if it were a bad thing. Ann herself says she's not a mystic, I think perhaps b/c she's detected that negative idea. I would think there's a difference between the broader term "mystical" (you're correct that our union with Christ is one of many mystical, mysterious, hard-to-pin-down aspects of Christianity) and a person who is a mystic.

I said in another post somewhere that I think mystics are very useful to the church b/c they serve the opposite function of dry theologians. Instead of narrowing our system down, mystics tend to broaden our view and remind us to include things in our faith that we might have overlooked. I personally think that if a Christian does not have in his heart at least a small place for the mystical, he has perhaps neglected something important, and misunderstood the nature of his faith. But mystics often take their pet spiritual love to an extreme; they focus on it too much, even exclusively. Ann does that with thanksgiving, IMO. For her, thanksgiving has almost a magically transformative power, which is where she strays into mysticism. It's good that she reminds us of thanksgiving's importance. It's bad that she seems to dwell on it too much, giving it a place beyond where Scripture does. That's the focus on several of the chapter reviews I've done on her book.

debbie bailey said...

Thanks for clarifying that, MK. I read all the reviews you cited and have even started a Pinterest board on Ann. This sure is an interesting debate! I'm off now to read your chapter by chapter review. Whew! What a lot of work for you!

GretchenJoanna said...

I am also curious about the warnings about mystics in the various reviews. Just now I looked up the word in the dictionary:
a person who claims to attain, or believes in the possibility of attaining, insight into mysteries transcending ordinary human knowledge, as by direct communication with the divine or immediate intuition in a state of spiritual ecstasy.

If someone does not believe that having the Holy Spirit indwelling is "direct communication with the divine" then they would have a problem with mystics.

I haven't heard the word *mystic* used in my 15 yrs or so of being Eastern Orthodox, but we are firm believers in Mysteries. :-) The understanding is that the more one acquires the Holy Spirit and becomes spiritual, the more humble he will be, and the less likely to claim to be spiritual.

Tanya said...

I'm enjoying reading your posts, M.K. I found your blog by Googling "Ann Voskamp criticism" after I was given her book, "The Broken Way", by a mentor of mine. Her writing style exasperates me totally and my feeling as I read the book thus far is "what IS this crap??"

She spends four pages explaining how one of her kids showed her a paper heart and her husband comes in from the barn, and how that makes her feel so painful that she has "got to remember to just keep breathing." I truly felt like I was experiencing the emperor's new clothes, when people are so enthusiastic about her books and all I got from it was a sense of frustration with what seems to me an overblown, overwritten account of her internal drama with no practical application.

All that being said – I started writing this comment to ask you if you would consider reviewing her book The Broken Way, as I'd be interested to read what you think... and to be able to refer people to your review, as I am sure you will be able to put into words some of the concerns with more tact and clarity than I would ever be able to do!
Kind regards,

M.K. said...

Thank you, Tanya. I'm glad the post was helpful. I'll give it consideration, but it took a lot of time, and TWO forays into Voskamp's book, before I could get done with the posts I wrote on those chapters. It wears me out to think about doing another one, haha! Plus, in the end, I felt she didn't have a lot new to say. Maybe that would be different in a new book. If I feel inspired to do it, it'll be on the blog!

Sandi said...

Isn't it funny how something appears suddenly, all the blogmoms are talking about it, and it as if it is the greatest thing ever-- then it turns out it was something bad all along? I like Ann Voskamp, though, what I have read. I think if her writing were a painting I would hang it in my house and it would be beautiful. But as writing, it sometimes feels overwhelming to me, like a tangle of vines I have to undo to understand. I have no idea if she is good or bad, but I think we should read what we want and if we like it, great, if we don't, ok. A trip to a cathedral will hardly lead anyone astray.

Sandi said...

"The understanding is that the more one acquires the Holy Spirit and becomes spiritual, the more humble he will be, and the less likely to claim to be spiritual."

I hadn't thought of it that way before... Interesting!

M.K. said...

Sandi, it's been a lot of years since I wrote all this, so my memory is fuzzy. But I would not classify Voskamp as "good or bad." She's a Christian sister, so in that sense of course she is very good! As a writer or a theologian, in my opinion she has significant weaknesses, at least as demonstrated in THIS book. I cannot speak for later books as I haven't read them. We all change, grow, and learn, and I imagine she has as well.

metargemet said...

I belong to the people who have mixed feelings about Ann Voskamp's writing. I couldn't finish her book "The Way of Abundance" either. I felt like I was trying to make a meal of cotton candy. It didn't work. :-) Then I read up on her background a little and I have to say I admire her spunk. I also listened to some of her audios on her website. Her content comes across much better when it's spoken -- maybe she records it and has it transcribed. As a translator and editor I've noticed that some writers do this and with a little practice you can usually tell if a text was written directly or is an oral transcription.
The books' popularity tells me something about the modern (Christian) reading public and how normal "emotional striptease" has become.

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