This is a post in the ongoing series “What’s Pastor Kevin Reading” where I briefly summarize recent books I have read and explain why they are important for Christians (particularly pastors) to read.
I make it a practice to read one book a week. And while I often fall into the trap of reading 150-200 page tomes on pastoral self help I have tried recently to branch out into popular novels and heftier theological and academic materials.
Over the last two weeks I have read two stories about cancer. The two have much in common but they come from entirely different perspectives. The first was John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars.” It is fiction (though I use that word hesitantly) and written from a secular, atheistic perspective. The second was a memoir called “Same Kind of Different As Me” written by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. It was non fiction and deeply spiritual, bordering on bizarre.
It was not my intention to read 2 books about cancer back to back. I ran across “The Fault in Our Stars” in a bookstore and flew through it in a day. A friend of mine recommended I read “Same Kind of Different As Me” the following week. He was the kind of friend that you feel obligated to read books he recommends so I downloaded it and read it in a week.
John Green’s book is every bit deserving of the hype it has received. I personally think it is the best thing to happen to Young Adult fiction in years. Instead of specializing in the stuff of vampires and wizards and dystopian heroins, Joel grounds his narrative in the very real world where death comes without prejudice and there is no victory against it, just the frustrating endurance in suffering by all involved.
As I read the novel a line from another popular TV show echoed in my mind. In that TV show a decidedly anti-religious person argues to a Fundamentalist Christian, “I will never believe that God gives us cancer to teach us self help lessons.” That may as well have been the thesis for Green’s novel. And I could not agree more.
The push in Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity, has been to treat death as something painless and shallow. A glance at my Facebook wall testifies to a sub culture that believes death can be easy dismissed by pithy cliches and shallow puns. If you slap a picture of a cat or a flower on them it makes it all the more disgusting. Green dismisses all of these cliches with his haunting descriptions of two teenagers aging rapidly and dying before their time.
In doing so Green calls Christianity back to our biblical roots where death is not a tool of God, teaching us self help lessons. Neither is it a nuisance that can be easily ignored. Death is the enemy. It is an enemy so severe, destructive and all encompassing that it would only take the death of God on a cross to overcome it. When we belittle death, we belittle the cross.
Green does not end at the cross but where he left off Ron Hall and Denver Moore picked me up. I did not realize that “Same Kind of Different As Me” was about cancer until I had read half the book. I thought it was about a white, upper class, art collector befriending a black, homeless, plantation worker. But right at the halfway point the art collector’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. So I was once again subjected to the raw details of cancer, slow killing the body and the soul. And I had just stopped crying over “Fault in Our Stars!”
Ron Hall is an evangelical Christian so I was worried that he would fall into the trap of narrating his wife’s death using those pithy cliches we slap over pictures of flowers. However, he avoided them, choosing to be as honest as could be about how the cancer process exhausted him to the point of depression.
Interestingly the answer to his depression came not in the form of those lousy sentimentalism’s but in the friendship of Denver Moore, the homeless, drug addict. Their friendship was a true representation of Christlike love. As they worked together to both build a new homeless mission and create a garden space around Ron’s wife’s tomb, the two men gradually realized the conquering power of the cross. They chose not to give each other easy advice but endured the suffering together, often times in silence. It was only through that bond that they were able to continue with some semblance of faith and hope.
It would seem that the answer to death’s destructive ways are found in the cross and the community of true friendship that the cross creates.
Next I am reading a book titled, “Reading for Preaching” which exhorts all of us preachers to read and read often. I barely need to finish that book because these last two books have convinced me that I must dig deep in the narratives surrounding us, both secular and religious to find the voice of God at work.