Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Religious’ Category

Everyone wants and needs role models. One handy reference guide is 50 Women Every Christian Should Know by Michelle DeRusha. Published in 2014, the selections begin with the early 1100’s and end with the mid-1900s, and they include figures lesser known to me such as Dorothy Day along with those more familiar to me such as Madeleine L’Engle. What I most appreciated is that DeRusha dedicates an average of six to eight pages to each heroine. This allows her to weave a story, while at the same time provide enough detail to encourage further reading, which one can do by looking up her sources that our listed in the back pages.

One featured Christian woman who I intend to read more about is Dorothy Day. She grew up in a home where neither parent was religious but, after attending a church service, Dorothy fell in love with the Psalms and with hymns. This conflict in values would be one that remained with her throughout her life. During high school, Dorothy became engrossed in the American labor movement, and found her purpose. The problem is that at the time she saw the church as lined up with capitalism, while she felt driven instead by social justice. After five years of searching for a way to reconcile the two, a knock came at her door. A French immigrant and soapbox philosopher by the name of Peter Maurin wanted to establish a newspaper dedicated to helping the poor and unemployed, and he believed Dorothy was the right person for the cause. May of 1933, one part of his plan came to fruition when 2,500 copies of the first issue of The Catholic Worker were printed and distributed. Yet the conflict in values continued for Dorothy, for on one hand readers rallied before the publication and on the other hand she received criticism for helping drunks and freeloaders. Three things in her biography resonated with me. The most obvious is that she followed the path of journalism. Another is that she struggled with reconciling her faith with her calling in life. An ongoing passion of mine is animal welfare, one that isn’t necessarily top priority in religious circles. The third reason I appreciated her story is that her life wasn’t squeaky clean, and I relate most to those who rather than being saints are ordinary people.

It’d be remiss of me to not highlight a female Christian heroine and ignore Madeleine L’Engle. She’s one of my favorite authors and her books helped me stay strong in my faith during high school. At age forty, Madeleine quit writing after yet another rejection from a book publisher. Deciding that the rejection was a sign from heaven, she covered her typewriter and decided to make cherry pie. The irony is that at that very moment, she found herself also busily working out a novel in her head about failure. Fast forward four years to 1963, after A Wrinkle in Time was rejected more than two dozen times, the novel found a home. It also won the Newbery Medal. As with Dorothy Day, Madeleine wasn’t always a person of faith. For the first years of her marriage, neither she or her husband attended church. With the birth of two children and an adoption of a third, she discovered that she wanted her children to know God. But she also realized that she couldn’t very well send her children to Sunday School without attending herself, and so began her road back to God. Writing and faith quickly became intertwined. I appreciate L’Engle, because used her creativity to explore her religious questions.

There are plenty of examples from Christian women who pursued other vocations too such as singers, teachers, nurses, missionaries, and preachers. I admire all of them, to the extent that I’ve been checking out the sources DeRusha listed in the back pages. A year ago, I pulled back from regular reviews so that I could pursue more personal reading passions. I’m now keen on reviewing the biographies I can find of those featured in 50 Women Every Christian Should Know.

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For a long time, I have been looking for a book that talks about how God views animals in light of the Bible. God’s Creatures by Susan Bulanda is it. In her quick-to-read book of just over 100 pages, Bulanda covers a broad range of issues such as why did God create animals, can they think, do they communicate, should we eat them, and will there be animals in heaven. For each of these topics, Bulanda doesn’t provide mere wishful thinking, but instead provides scriptures to back up her views.

Sometimes I wonder if I should focus more on helping people and whether God directs people into the animal field. Bulanda addresses this concern in her chapter on “God Cares for Animals”. She points out many ways that God shows his love such as the fact he created them, purposefully saved ones from the flood, gave them skills to survive, and teaches people how they should animals. She also directly answers the question: “Has God put the desire to care for animals into the hearts of many people?”

Another reason I’ve been looking for such a book is because of the debate over whether animals are sentient beings or able to perceive and think. While I have my opinions as a pet owner, I want as a Christian to know what the Bible specifically says. Bulanda dedicates many chapters to this issue. I appreciate her balanced view; she includes both accounts of scientific research and references to scripture. She also addresses the controversial topics of whether there are animal communicators or psychics who can talk to animals and whether we should be vegetarian. With regards to the latter, I thank Bulanda for limiting her coverage to one chapter. There are many issues related to Christians and animal welfare, but most books that I encounter focus exclusively on vegetarianism.

Anyone who has been a pet owner has no doubt experienced the heartache of loss. When my Lucy cat died in 2013, I found myself needing to know whether animals would go to heaven. Given that there are several books on the topic, I’m guessing that others have a similar need. But I don’t want an author to simply say, “Of course pets will be in heaven,” just to make me and everyone else feel good. Bulanda’s concluding chapter deals with this sensitive question in a forthright manner. She presents a wealth of scriptures that hint at answers, while admitting that the Bible doesn’t directly talk about tell us.

In God’s Creatures, Bulanda draws on her lifelong passion in Biblical scholarship with her certification as an animal behavior consultant to write an informative guide to a Biblical view of animals. For anyone who wants to do their own research beyond her short book, she also provides a notes page and a list of resources.

According to The Pew Research Center, over 75% of the world’s population lives in areas with severe religious restrictions (and many of these people are Christians). Also, according to the United States Department of State, Christians in more than 60 countries face persecution from their governments or surrounding neighbors simply because of their belief in Jesus Christ.—Open Doors

Persecution of Christians is a topic I don’t often hear about, but the above quote shows that it happens more than most of us probably realize. For that reason, I decided to read Hearts of Fire, which tells the story of “eight women in the underground church and their stories of costly faith”. The book is a publication of Voice of Martyrs, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting the persecuted church worldwide.

There are many aspects I appreciate about this riveting collection. The eight women featured come from different countries: Indonesia, Bhutan, Russia, Romania., Pakistan, China, India, and Vietnam. Each of them also comes from various religious backgrounds, with some starting out as atheists, others Christian, and a few converting from such faiths as Islam or Buddhism. The form of persecution takes many forms too: abuse, kidnapping, and/or imprisonment. Because Voice of Martyrs included a diversity of stories, its collection never felt as if any one country or group of people were being targeted. Instead the collection made clear that persecution of Christians is a worldwide issue that needs attention.

In contrast to some biographical collections, instead of providing snippets from several role models, each chapter in Hearts of Fire instead consists of a full-fledged story of about 40 pages. Some stories start by recounting the events in the childhood of a featured heroine that led to her decision to take a stand for Christ and how that decision put her life in constant jeopardy. Other stories began with a featured heroine already in her adulthood and daily having to choose whether to risk being arrested for sharing her faith. By the end of each chapter, I felt as if I knew the entire testimony of every featured heroine.

There are some aspects of this gritty collection that I disliked. The first is the book feels outdated. Although it’s been reprinted about ten years after an original publication date of 2003, there were no updates made to the original stories–some of which happened decades before. Consequently, the stories aren’t all that current. The second is how violent some stories were. I almost didn’t make it through the first story. It told of Christina being lifted in the air by her hair, tobacco leaves being set on fire and put in her mouth, her son being beaten with a machete, and other tortures. I understand that if change is to happen, there’s a need to depict the depth of atrocities that can happen. At the same time, the human mind will only accept hearing about so much horror before it becomes numb. In addition, the other natural response is to feel hatred for the persecutors, which lessens the impact of the heroism of the Christian women.

I found of special interest the story of the wife who became the founder of Voice of Martyrs. Sabina’s story began in Romania, 1945. The Russians had driven the Nazis out of Romania, but they were now themselves attempting to control how the state ran. The couple however refused to silent about their faith. February 1948, Sabina’s husband went missing, and was believed at times to have been arrested and other times to have been killed. Eventually, Sabina herself was also taken by authorities to jail. There, she was forced into slave labor, and risked being shot. Even when injured and sick, she was forced to work outside and in extreme weather. In 1965, the couple were reunited and eventually escaped to the United States. In this country, they began The Voice of Martyrs newsletter, a monthly publication that to this day is distributed across the world in many languages.

Years ago, I watched a true story of a missionary who died for her faith. In college, the missionary had searched for a reason to live, and found it in God. Hearts of Fire is filled with stories of women who similarly found their purpose. I’ll be looking for more books in the future that both challenge how I live and inspire my faith. If you have recommendations, please post in the comments.

Reyna Grande is the author of The Distance Between Us, a novel about family. Born in Mexico, Reyna was two years old when her father left for the United States to find work.  Her mother followed her father two years later, leaving Reyna and her siblings behind in Mexico. When Reyna was ten, she and her siblings entered the U.S. with their father as undocumented immigrants. Reyna become the first person in her family to graduate from college and today she is well-known speaker and author. To find out more, check out my interview.

ALLISON: Tell readers something about yourself that they won’t learn from reading The Distance Between Us.

REYNA: I love gardening. I especially like creating butterfly gardens. My daughter and I raised monarch butterflies for a while and it was the most amazing experience. I think every child should have a chance to witness the transformation of a butterfly with their own eyes. It’s powerful. One of my favorite quotes, that I actually have framed and hanging on my wall, is: “Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” It inspires me.

ALLISON: You were born in Mexico. What is a favorite memory from Mexico?

REYNA: One of my favorite memories that I didn’t write about in the book is the time when I went on a pilgrimage with my grandmother, Abuelita Chinta. We went with the group from our local church. The procession walked to the churches in nine different towns. It was long and tiring to walk there, especially since I was only eight years old, but the people at every town would welcome us with a delicious meal cooked over an open fire. I can still taste those meals–pork in green chile sauce, rice, beans, and hot oatmeal drinks we call atole served with a piece of sweet bread. The pilgrimage was one of those times when we ate very well! I went there to pray for my mother’s return. I don’t think my prayers were answered, but at least I still have the memory of the food I ate.

ALLISON: When you returned to Mexico, you found yourself almost a stranger. Have you taken your children to Mexico? What has been their experience?

REYNA: I take my children almost every year because I want them to know the place where I came from, so that they can have at least a small connection to the place and the family I have there. I hope that by seeing the poverty I came from will help them appreciate what I’ve been able to give them in the U.S. They enjoy going to my hometown but they also complain about the lack of luxuries that they are used to here–like running water!  Over there, they have to boil their bath water on the stove, then put it in a bucket and throw the water on themselves with a small container. On the other hand, they very much love the food that my aunt cooks for them and they like the freedom that children have over there–such as being able to walk around the neighborhood, to go to the store by themselves, to play in the street with other children, things that here in the U.S. children don’t get to do because parents tend to be over-protective and their isn’t as much a sense of community as there is in Mexico.

ALLISON: You concluded in your memoir that despite the strain immigration put on your family, the hardship was worth it. What would you tell young people about overcoming challenges?

REYNA: I would tell them to do everything they can to overcome those challenges because otherwise, their lives would get worse instead of better. If you find yourself in a hole, try to climb out of it–you do that by making the right choices. Focus on school, on your dreams, on your future. If you make bad choices out of desperation, you only dig yourself deeper.  Remember, things don’t always have to be that way–they can get better, they can change. You just have to keep focused, stay strong, and above all, don’t lose hope.

ALLISON: You gave a special tribute to a teacher who changed your life. Have there been other mentors in your life? If so, what has been their influence?

REYNA: I had another teacher at UC, Santa Cruz who was very important to me. Her name is Marta Navarro, a Spanish and Chicano Literature teacher, and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. She–like my former teacher that I write about in the book–also encouraged me to keep writing. She introduced me to more Latino authors, and she was always available to talk whenever I needed someone to listen. I’m still in touch with her too, and she even came to my wedding!

ALLISON: The Distance Between Us is based on your adult memoir. What process was involved in rewriting it for young people?

REYNA: I didn’t want to water down the story for young readers so I did my best to stay true to the original. Mostly what I did was to put the book on a diet–meaning–I trimmed off all the extra stuff, details, backstory, inner thoughts, and only left what was essential. I cut out about 100 pages. I took out my  crazy uncle, and also some details about my love life that was inappropriate for young readers.

But by cutting 100 pages, it gave me some room to expand on things that young readers would find interesting, such as the border crossing. In the original, my border crossing is only one chapter long. In the young reader’s version, it is three chapters. I added more details so that young readers could really have a chance to experience that moment in my life that was very traumatic but also life-changing.

ALLISON: You’re open in your memoir about both the highs and lows of your family’s life. What has been the reaction of your family to your memoir?

REYNA: My siblings have been very supportive of my writing and they really loved the book. My mother didn’t read much of it because she said it was too painful. My father passed away before the book was published. My aunts from the Grande side got mad at me for writing about how mean my evil grandmother had been. But, that is how she was, and I wrote the truth of my experience living under her roof. I don’t feel guilty about what I wrote, and I understand that since she’s dead, my aunts would rather I had honored her memory by writing more positive things–but unfortunately, I had nothing positive to write about because all my memories of her are unpleasant and painful. Writing memoir is very tricky because you are writing about your family and they might never speak to you again if they don’t like what you wrote! Ultimately, if you write memoir, you have write your truth and no one else’s. You aren’t writing to please anyone. You are writing so that you can heal from the wounds of your experience.

ALLISON: You wrote The Distance Between Us to provide an awareness. What would like people who are not immigrants to understand? What books would you recommend a person starting out in their awareness of diversity to read?

REYNA: I would like for non-immigrants to remember where they came from. Everyone here–except for native Americans–came from somewhere. Perhaps it was a great-grandparent or grandparent who immigrated, who went through the trauma and heartbreak that new immigrants go through. If people honor the memories of those who came before them–their ancestors–I think it will make them more compassionate and understanding towards new immigrants. The U.S. has a history of discrimination against specific immigrant groups. Even those who managed to assimilate very well into American culture (like the Irish) at one point or another were heavily discriminated. I think it’s time that we accept that we are a multi-cultural society. We have people from all over the world who live here, and that is a beautiful thing!

Recommended Reading:

1) Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami

2) The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

3) Broken Paradise by Cecilia Samartin

4) Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

5) A Cup of Water Under My Bed by Daisy Hernandez

6) Tell Me How it Ends by Valeria Luiselli

Some books introduce a new approach to old ideas and as such challenge one to grow. Other books reinforce ideas that one already adheres to and in doing so reassure one in their beliefs. The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright successfully did both for me.

What did Jesus mean when he said the kingdom of God is at hand? Or to put it another way, what did the average Galilean villager hear when a young prophet strode into town and announced that Israel’s God was now at last becoming king?–N.T. Wright

A scholar investigating the life of Jesus, N.T. Wright contends that Christians have much to learn from a historical study of Jesus. He encourages readers to imagine themselves back into the world of the Old Testament as perceived by Jews or into the world that Jesus lived in and spoke to. The Jews had been living under foreign rule and were waiting for salvation from God. They had three options: One, they could separate themselves from the world and bide their time until they received direction from God; Two, they could align themselves with political leaders, build fancy buildings, and hope that God would approve; Three, they could pray, sharpen swords, and then fight a holy war. Into this world came Jesus, who suggested a fourth model: the kingdom of God at hand. Wright argues that the parables of Jesus weren’t just a commentary on heaven as Christians take them today, but also intended for his Jewish audience. For example, the parable of the sower isn’t simply about how many people hear the gospel but then don’t listen. It’s instead about what God simultaneously judging Israel for idolatry while also calling Israel to renew itself in God.

So what? How do we move from a detailed, historical reconstruction of this Jesus, living in the world of the first century, to our own world with its very different contours and agendas?–N.T. Wright

The more I read of Challenge of Jesus, the more I wondered how Wright would apply the historical Jesus to the modern-day Christian. Wright explains that although the Crucifixion would have devastated the hopes of the Old Testament Jew for a king, the real story of God was never about Israel beating up everyone and taking control. Instead it was always the story of God redeeming Israel and the world. In Genesis, Adam and Eve are beginning the task of being God-image bearers in a new creation. When they ate of the forbidden fruit, everything changed. But Jesus reversed the story. Jesus brought a new order, one in which those who accept Him are ambassadors and witnesses.

The Challenge of Jesus was heavy-going and dense. I had to reread sections and I know that there are still parts I’m trying to grasp. Yet I’m reviewing Wright’s book, because it inspired me to want to learn more about the historical context of the Bible and the gospel.


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Fall 2017

This fall I will be on hiatus except to post family news. Stay tuned!

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