Over Christmas break, when I was between semesters of teaching and grad school, I decided to ignore my thesis for a little while and whittle down my personal “must read” list by a title or two. At the top of that list was Ann Voskamp’s best seller One Thousand Gifts, which came highly recommended by some of the women I most respect, including my mom and my pastor’s wife. The book’s tagline was, “A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are.” It sounded good. While we visited my family in Pennsylvania over Christmas, I settled into one of their overstuffed chairs and had a good, long read.
My first impression of the book was that the writing style was a little distracting. It was a strange marriage of prose and poetry, and I was sometimes annoyed by the lengthy, melodramatic descriptions of nature. I also couldn’t stand Voskamp’s omission of articles and her placement and use of adjectives. Phrases like “round pizza thin” made my ears bleed.
I must also say that I didn’t agree with all of the principles Voskamp put forth, and I wished that she would have expressed differently other principles with which I did agree. I’ll discuss these in more depth later in the post.
However, I was stunned by the profound insight demonstrated by this woman who has lived a simple life as a farmer’s wife and homeschooling mother of six. I felt convicted, encouraged, and pointed back to Christ. I would count this as perhaps the most influential book I’ve read outside the Bible within the last five or so years. This is a message that needs to be learned—not just heard, not just “Oh yes, that sound nice,” but truly, transformingly learned—by everyone in the church today.
So you can imagine my perplexity when I started reading scathing reviews and hearing harsh criticisms from Christians who found Voskamp’s book not just erroneous in parts, but damningly heretical. I found one popular review especially vitriolic. It accused Voskamp of “panentheism” (seeing God in everything; distinguishable from pantheism, which teaches that God IS everything) and romanticism (truth is found in feelings). I would like to propose a defense of the book that speaks generally to these and other criticisms while acknowledging the book’s shortcomings. I know that I won’t change the minds of those who firmly believe that the book is “of the devil,” but I hope that those who might be swayed by frightening labels will consider giving it a second chance.
It’s important to begin by discussing the genre of the book, because form does indeed affect content. Voskamp did not write this book as a series of propositions; she wrote it as poetry (I happen to think it’s not great poetry, but for the moment that’s irrelevant). The point is that poetry cannot and should not be read the same way as prose. Poetry has a range of possible interpretations. It is full of subtleties, nuances, and of course, figurative language. I happen to think that the severest critics of One Thousand Gifts are those who either interpreted its poetry most ungenerously or simply read it as propositions. We run into all kinds of problems when we don’t read poetry as poetry. Five books of the Bible are poetry, and if we read parts of those books literally, we would be led to think that God has eyes, ears, and wings. If we simply read Voskamp’s text as poetry and choose to give her the theological benefit of the doubt in our interpretations, that solves a vast majority of the book’s “problems.”
Voskamp not only writes from a biblical foundation, but also expresses strong, clear biblical principles throughout the book. The beliefs that form the core of Christianity are all present in this text: a Triune God who has revealed Himself in Scripture, original sin against a holy God, salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone, the need for repentance and sanctification, and placing our sole hope in God rather than in a broken world.
I think that there are a couple of places that drift into error. The “running to the moon” chapter portrays personal experience as more helpful in the process of sanctification than it actually is. However, Voskamp stays within the bounds of seeing nature as general revelation, a sign that points back to the Creator. Yes, it gets silly, and I didn’t enjoy it. But I wouldn’t call it heresy.
Then there’s the last chapter that uses a sexual metaphor to describe our relationship with God. I didn’t find this offensive, so much as…weird (then again, there are parts of the Bible, like Song of Solomon, that get a little freaky too). I remember the rapturous experience of traveling to Europe for the first time: looking up at the glorious ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, watching shafts of sunlight pour through the windows of St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s easy to feel like God is more present in those places than He is in our humdrum suburban American lives. I don’t wish to undermine Voskamp’s personal experiences, but I think she was got a little carried away looking at a stunning painting in Louvre while listening to some beautiful music. It’s the “camp experience.” We get hauled out of our sheltered comfort zone, we feel tired and confused, and we misinterpret the flicker of a lovely campfire flame as a divine message.
None of this detracts from the plethora of wonderful insights Voskamp provides into the Christian life. Nor should it. Every single human-authored book is bound to contain error. We would never throw out Augustine because he is largely responsible for the incorrect doctrine of purgatory. He is one of the early church fathers, and his contributions to the faith are invaluable. We ought to read EVERY book with discerning eyes, judging the author’s words against the truth of Scripture, and being careful to separate truth from falsehood.
The frightening labels applied to Voskamp’s book produce quite a “shock and awe” factor, but they are misleading. We are often quick to slap a scary label onto a book when we see something with which we disagree, but those labels are usually unhelpful. Just because Voskamp takes pleasure in God’s creation and learns about Him from what He has made doesn’t make her a Panentheist. Just because she describes things in a romantic way doesn’t make her a Romanticist.
Unfortunately, we love shredding popular things because it makes us feel elite. It’s been proven (don’t ask me why scientists studied this) that hipsters stop liking Indie bands when the bands become too popular. That desire to be above what the masses enjoy can make us overly critical and condescending. Sometimes, criticism of pop culture is legitimate and warranted. But sometimes we search for scandalous labels the way we searched for dirt on the popular girl in junior high school: “Can you believe she said that?!!” It makes us feel better about ourselves.
Self-righteousness can close us off to means of grace. Think of your life as a container and think of God’s grace as water pouring into that container. The smaller you make the container’s opening, the less grace you’re able to receive. Why wouldn’t we want to live our lives wide open to what God has to teach us? When we slap a negative label onto something, we shut ourselves off to everything good it might have to say. And out it goes: baby, bathwater, and all. This doesn’t mean being open to deception; it means being thoughtful, careful Christians who recognize the fact that God uses broken vessels to carry His truth. The wisest people I know are also the most teachable people I know.
Most of the harsh critiques I’ve read end with a huffy little caveat—something to the effect of, “Well, the book does tell people to be thankful, which is good…I SUPPOSE.” This drastically underrates the book’s beautifully stated and strongly biblical teachings. Voskamp shows us that worry and stress are just other voices of mistrust. She demonstrates that “Our fall was, has always been, and always will be, that we aren’t satisfied in God and what He gives.” She encourages us to see all things as coming from God’s hand, and our acceptance of them as the ultimate gesture of trust. For these and many more reasons, the book is worth reading and re-reading. Let’s not constrict our hearts, but be open to receive knowledge and wisdom from many different places. All truth, as they say, is God’s truth.
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