In his dialect, preserved by Hurston, Kossula, 86, describes the slaves’ brutal treatment in the barracoon. “When we dere three weeks a white man come in de barracoon wid two men of de Dahomey. One man, he a chief of de Dahomey and de udder one his word-changer [translator]. Dey make everybody stand in a ring—‘bout ten folkses in each ring. De men by dey self, de women by dey self. Den de white man lookee and lookee. He lookee hard at de skin and de feet and de legs and in de mouth. Den he choose. Every time he choose a man he choose a woman. Every time he take a woman he choose a man, too. Derefore, you understand me, he take one hunnard and thirty. Sixty-five men with a woman for each man. Dass right” (53).
Cudjo also describes the anguish of separation. “Den de white man go ‘way. I think he go in de white house. But de people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee’ cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast. Den we cry, we sad ‘cause we doan want to leave the rest of our people in de barracoon. We all lonesome for our home. We doan know what goin’ become of us. We doan want to be put apart from one ‘other” (53-54).
The history of world empires, from ancient times to now, can be seen as the desire of one people, tribe, or nation, to dominate their neighbors. And their neighbor struggling to remain free. Such domination throughout history often resulted in the enslavement of the weaker party. We often admire the “winners” success stories (e.g., Genghis Kahn). That the Dahomey, richly rewarded by white slave traders, willingly massacred rival tribes is part of the tragedy of human history. Cudjo’s story, though not unique, still creates anguish for him and his people in the retelling. We cringe in reading his story.
The Bible book of Job also reflects such human history. In his depression Job (Chapter 3) calls on the image of slavery to describe his longing for relief from suffering through the peace of death: “Captives also enjoy their ease; they no longer hear the slave driver’s shout. The small and the great are there, and the slave is freed from his master” (vv. 18-19 NIV. For a contemporary practical treatment of the book of Job, see my Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, 2015). Slavery also continues in some societies today, where Christians in particular have been singled out for domination. The desire to exploit others through subjugating people conquered in warfare reflects a widespread human tendency, eradicated only with great difficulty, as we see in the “one more trip” story of the Clotilda.
For a first-hand experience of what it’s like to be captured, deported, and enslaved, the reader can do no better than Zora Neale Hurston’s Barracoon.
Review: Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” Zora Neale Hurston, (NY: Amistad/HarperCollins), 2018. Ed. Deborah G. Plant. Foreword by Alice Walker. #1 Best Seller in African American History (Amazon.com)
I cannot underestimate the importance of this slim volume (171 pages, from the Foreword by Alice Walker to the end of the Bibliography). This previously published (in scholarly journals) account of an important facet of the American experience takes its place among other significant works on American slavery. By recording the first-hand story of “Cudjo Lewis” (his American name; named Cudjo because of his birth on a Monday, Lewis a anglicizing of Oluale, his father’s name), a survivor of the Clotilda,last known “slaver” bound from West Africa to Mobile, AL, in March 1860, Hurston has made a significant contribution to our history. After the United States outlawed the “Illegitimate Trade” it continued to make its owners so much money that some few risked the run with their human cargo. The Clotildaescaped capture, but after its one-and-only run, its co-owner/captain William foster scuttled the ship to cover his piracy.
Zora Neale Hurston
Author Hurston died in 1960, but in 1973 Walker purchased and engraved a stone to mark Hurston’s grave: “A Genius Of The South.” Hurston wrote four novels, (most notably, Their Eyes Were On God), folklore, an autobiography, and over 50 short stories, essays, and plays. She attended Howard University, graduated Barnard College in 1927, and attended Columbia University. Born January 7, 1891, she grew up in Eatonville, FL, and died in Fort Pierce, FL, in 1960.
19-year-old Kossula, whose name means, “I do not lose my fruits anymore (i.e. my children do not die anymore,” part of the Isha subgroup of the Yoruba, in the midst of his initiation for marriage, awoke to the predawn slaughter of his dazed townspeople by rival Dahomey women warriors. Well-paid by slave traders, the Dahomey found a rich reward in capturing and selling slaves. The bloodthirsty horror Cudjo witnessed, the loss of his family and townspeople, and the indignity of being chained with others to be marched to the sea traumatized him. But so did being held in a Barracoon (Sp. “barracks”), a stockade for holding slaves until they could be sold. Now caught between the two worlds of West Africa and the United States, he belonged to neither.
[This is the second of a two-part review of Bowler’s Everything Happens For A Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (Random House, 2018), an account of her diagnosis with cancer against the backdrop of the prosperity Gospel, about which she had previously written. See my June 22, 2018 blog for Part I.]
What Life Lessons Did Bowler Receive?
Minimizers told her she shouldn’t feel so upset (e.g., dying before her son grows up), because, as one woman in the prime of her youth writes, “It doesn’t matter, in the End, whether we are ‘here’ or ‘there.’ It’s all the same.” Heaven, of course, Bowler comments, is the Christian’s true home.
Teachers (not the professionals) focused on how Bowler’s cancer should be “an education in mind, body, and spirit.” “I suppose that this is the ultimate test of faith for you,” writes one man, hoping “ I will have the good sense to accept God’s will.” He will pray for her remission, he reassures her, “and if you die that your suffering will be minimal.” Thanks, Joe from Indiana, she writes. Another Teacher hopes, “you have a Job experience.” Bowler can think of nothing worse, losing everything, including one’s children. “Do I need to lose something more to learn God’s character?”
Solutions People taught the hardest lessons. “Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!” says Jane from Idaho. These are people who, by the weight of a solution-focused theology (e.g., prosperity gospel), have been unable to grieve…A bitter seed has been planted in a young father who must take his brain-dead child off life support while his extended family, steeped in prosperity theology, rails against him for his inability to prevent his child’s death” (116-119).
Such people accept no disappointment, defeat, or death. Their answers for every setback: “You didn’t have enough faith” or “God has a better plan.” They provide easy answers to imponderable life dilemmas. They fail to read the whole book of Job, who did nothing wrong, and whom God led through a long process of facing his negative emotions and transformed with a new perspective. This I detail in Tragedy Transformed How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours(2015). They also seem to skip the cross of Jesus, whom they profess as Lord. Where do today’s persecuted believers around the world fit?
A Grain Of Truth?
The prosperity gospel does, however, contain a grain of truth: If you expect miracles, you will experience them; but, of course, not all the time. Christians who exercise believing prayer for God to heal often receive healings; but, of course, not all the time. Expectation for the God of Hope to act in His sovereign will sometimes lead to unusual blessing, but, of course, not all the time. How to negotiate great faith without confusing our will for God’s challenges us all. The book of Job was written to deal with this very issue–the exceptions, when, in spite of doing everything right, life goes against us.
What (Not) To Say
In two appendices, Bowler explains things we should not say (to those in tragedy) and things we may want to. As one example of “Absolutely never say this to people experiencing terrible times, a short list: Well, at least…” to which she replies, “Whoa. Hold up there. Were you about to make a comparison? At least it’s not…what? Stage V cancer? Don’t minimize.” As an example of “Give this a go, see how it works, a short list: I’d love to bring you a meal this week. Can I email you about it?” To which she replies, “Oh, thank goodness. I am starving, but mostly I can never figure out something to tell people I need, even if I need it. But really, bring me anything. Chocolate. A potted plant. A set of weird erasers…”
I cannot recommend Everything Happens highly enough. Bowler’s book is worth more than one read; I’ve just begun my second.
Questions to Ponder
What has been your experience with people Bowler describes as believers in the “Prosperity Gospel”?
How do you deal with life’s exceptions, when in spite of your best, godly efforts, circumstances go against you or your loved ones?
How would you respond to a friend or relative who, in tragedy, questioned God?
Book Review: Kate Bowler, Everything Happens For A Reason And Other Lies I’ve Loved, Random House, 2018.
Against the backdrop of the American prosperity gospel, about which she wrote a history (Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, Oxford, 2013), in Everything Happen For A Reason Bowler details how, at 35, thriving in her seminary teaching, married to her high school sweetheart, and with the birth of her son, she struggles with a stage IV colon cancer diagnosis.
Televangelists, with whom she had talked, “claimed spiritual guarantees for how to receive divine money. I held hands with people in wheelchairs praying at the altar to be cured.” She tried “to understand, how millions of North Americans had started asking God for more” (xii). But she also saw something else. “Believers wanted escape from poverty, failing health, and the feeling that their lives were leaky buckets” (xiii). People with “bleak medical diagnoses…broken teen agers or misfiring marriages” sought salvation, rescue, and “a modicum of power over things that ripped their lives apart at the seams” (xiii).
What is a Theodicy?
That movement, she says, is “a theodicy, an explanation for the problem of evil. It is an answer to the questions that take our lives apart: Why do some people get healed and some people don’t? Why do some people leap and land on their feet, while others tumble all the way down? Why do some babies die in their cribs and some bitter souls live to see their great-grandchildren. The prosperity gospel looks at the world as it is and promises a solution. It guarantees that faith will always make a way” (xiii).
Her research led her to look beyond the false promises of the movements’ leaders into her own heart. Bowler found alluring “the promise that I could curate my life, minimize my losses, and stand on my successes…I had my own prosperity gospel, a flowering weed grown in with all the rest” (xiii-xiv).
Reporting her cancer diagnosis, Bowler describes her plea to God for life with three simple questions: “Why? God, are you here? What does this suffering mean?” At first, she reports, “I could hear Him. I could almost make out an answer. But then it was drowned out by what I’ve now heard a thousand times. “Everything happens for a reason” or “God is writing a better story.”
Bowler’s well-written Preface leads the reader through her equally well-written journey, from the anxiety of her cancer diagnosis through the news that she might have a rare form of cancer with excellent prognosis. But what most galls Bowler is how people treat her. Instead of living with her in the moment of her anguish, she finds “three life lessons people try to teach me that, frankly, sometimes feels worse than the cancer itself.”
What three lessons do you believe people want to share with Bowler? What lesson(s) would you want to share with her? In my next blog I will reveal Bowler’s three Life Lessons well-wishers seek to teach her.
We find it hard to overestimate the impact Martin Luther made on our modern world. If the Enlightenment opened the literary resources of the distant past to inform the present, including Erasmus’s publication of the New Testament in the original Greek, Martin Luther made at least as important a contribution toward our world today. Without him we would still lack our modern values of equality, liberty, and individual responsibility. Eric Metaxas’s Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, (New York: Viking, 2017) celebrates Luther’s life and legacy after 500 years.
Before Luther, the Roman Catholic Church contained the repository of all truth—scientific as well as religious. Luther’s challenge, hardly the major assault on institutional authority perceived by the Church, simply asked the Pope to show Scriptural support for the prevalent doctrine of indulgences. Indulgences, the sale of certificates of forgiveness for oneself, one’s relatives and for even before the sin was committed, so offended Luther that he felt compelled, in 1517, to post his “95 Theses” on the Wittenburg church door. That act showed no disrespect, but, as was common in that day, simply called for a theological discussion. But the Roman Church had to suppress any challenge to the Pope’s authority, especially from a German Augustinian monk. Indulgences also represented an important source of church revenue.
Eric Metaxas, bestselling author of Bonhoeffer, Amazing Grace (on William Wilberforce), If You Can Keep It (on American Liberty), and other works, details how a simple, godly monk confronted the highest human authority. That triggered an explosion felt around the world, not only of his time but which also extends down to ours, 500 years later.
Metaxas’s book sets the record straight regarding many of the myths surrounding Luther: Was he not born into a peasant family? Was he not so warped by his severe upbringing that he saw God as an overbearing Father, who needed placating by extreme submissiveness? Did he not, on a trip to Rome, observe the evil of such a decadent church that he felt compelled to reshape it into his rigid German image? These and other such popular myths Metaxas lays to rest (p. 3).
The year prior to his death (1545) Luther describes his insight into the Scripture, which so long ago (early 1517) liberated him from his inability to do enough to satisfy a righteous God. “…the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the passive righteousness with which the merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. Thus a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me” (p. 96).
Scripture study and theological reflection informed Luther’s lectures and sermons during his years of theological teaching at Wittenburg University: the Psalms, the books of Romans, and Galatians.
After the Reformation began, Luther opposed Thomas Munzer and his radical Anabaptists who practiced another baptism after adult conversion. But why Luther promoted suppression of The Peasant’s Revolt of 1525 mystifies some. Although he had led a movement for freedom from ecclesiastical authority, the consequences of such freedom burst all bounds of reason, but especially of Christian submission to God. The peasants, many still untouched by the message of Christ’s love, became bloodthirsty in their quest for liberation from feudal dependency. After they steamrolled his call for moderation and Christian restraint, Luther called on the German princes, as authorities ordained by God (Romans 13:1) to suppress the rebellion and to restore order.
The Gutenberg printing press, of course, disseminated Luther’s ideas far and wide. That such an important technological innovation should lead to spreading the message of grace and freedom, well used by Luther and by his supporters, we in our day of rapid technological advances can readily understand. Publication of his tracts and papers at times not only outdistanced the Church’s ability to suppress his heresy, but also his own ability to control what resulted.
Luther marred his later years by publishing On the Jews and Their Lies, which Metaxas calls “vile and intemperate.” His reversal from an earlier, empathic understanding of Jewish resistance to Christianity mystifies us. It wasn’t Luther’s obscure tract as such which scandalizes us, however, but rather its’ use in Nazi Germany four centuries later. “That the Nazi’s cynical master of propaganda,” says Metaxas, “would find the few vile words Luther had written against Jews and broadcast them to the world, ignoring the 110 volumes of Luther’s other writings, is of course, fathomlessly cynical“ (p. 417). That’s what propagandists do.
Much of Luther’s life cannot be covered in this short review: his marriage to nun Kathie (Katherine von Bora), his grief at the death of eight-month old Elizabeth, his Anfechtung (anxiety), or his relationship with Johannes von Staupitz, his academic and spiritual mentor. I hope I’ve written enough, however, to stir you to also read Metaxas’s Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.
Hindrances to Fellowship with God: Suffering and Sin
Two great obstacles hinder our fellowship with God. In our suffering, we erect a barrier: How could God allow such unfair treatment as I’ve experienced? I responded to this issue through looking at Job in Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours (2015). But Martin Luther addresses the second great obstacle to fellowship with God: our sin. Here Luther brings to bear the message of grace from St. Paul: The just shall live by faith.
[Source: Lucas Cranach portrait. www.commons.wickimedia.org]
“We set the date (for my husband’s operation) for late April to give our parents enough notice to be in town for the week. Then we left the surgeon’s office with a handful of paperwork and a pamphlet that promised to answer all our questions. The pamphlet was reassuring and confirmed what the doctor said. Day one they would do the surgery. Martin would spend days two and three in the ICU, day four in a regular bed, and be released on day five. After that he’d spend a few weeks recovering. It was reassuring to think that five days after surgery, our life would begin returning to normal.
I felt relieved, almost happy. God is going to fix this” (When God Doesn’t Fix it, 29).
Few books, however gut-wrenching, make me cry—but this one does. Laura Story, GRAMMY award winner, singer/songwriter, certified GOLD for her 2011 song Blessings records her journey with husband Martin. As a young wife, mother, and worship leader, Story tells us what she learns from Martin’s incapacity from his brain surgery complications (i.e., meningitis), and its treatment: a hole drilled into his skull to relieve pressure on his brain.
The operation was successful, but left Martin unable to care for himself. Fix chronicles the lessons Story learns through this uncharted territory of God’s will for her and family’s life. But she precedes each Lesson (“Truth”) with a Myth that sets our expectations to be shattered. Example: “Myth: God’s primary purpose is to fix broken things; Truth: God’s primary desire is to fix my broken relationship with Him” (41).
Myths We Tell Ourselves
Story’s style, as the introductory example shows, is informal, warm, and engaging. The content is excruciatingly painful, as husband Martin requires a second hole drilled into his skull, loses his short-term memory and requires full-time care. But Story is up to the task of honest reporting on Martin’s progress, however meager, God’s provision for their family’s needs, relating their crises to Scripture, and, finally, drawing crucial lessons (“Truths”) to counter the “Myths” we tell ourselves.
I have a personal affinity with Story as she describes Martin’s plight, in that in my Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours, I describe our son and daughter-in-law’s struggle with chronic fatigue, now recognized as a bona fide medical illness (myalgic encephalomyalitis/chronic fatigue syndrome, or ME/CFS). The word “intractable” came to me studying Job. What do we do when, like with Job, life brings us situations not amenable to our best skills and knowledge, when chaos rules, and our only options require time, patience, and waiting on God.
“Myth: Contentment begins with understanding why. Truth: Contentment begins with asking how God might use this for his glory” (146). I’m pleased to award Story’s Fix a five-star rating.
Laura Story, When God Doesn’t Fix It: Lessons You Never Wanted To Learn, Truths You Can’t Live Without, W Publishing, 2015.
Many of us misunderstand God. Especially if we are strong believers, we appear to assume that our life should run smoothly, without serious setbacks. When we live for God, when we’re obedient to Scripture, when we follow Jesus, no accident, disaster, or tragedy will mar our upward ascent toward progress, success, and achievement. Psalm 91, for example, seems to provide strong support for this assumption. “If you make the Most High your dwelling,” says v. 9, “then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent.” Because we trust in God, we are safe. This is an important theme in Scripture, reflected in Deuteronomy, the historical books and the prophets.
But exceptions crop up; life is not inevitable progress. Job is a case in point. Here is a man who, according to the narrator (1:1) and to the Lord (1:8; 2:3) is righteous. If anything, Job demonstrated scrupulosity beyond the ordinary, in regularly calling for his children to purify themselves and in offering sacrifices for them, in case they sin by cursing God secretly. Job, nevertheless, encountered a quick succession of disasters similar to what some right now experience in California. “It is with heavy hearts we share that our dear friend and partner, Rebecca Riskin, has passed away as a result of the tragic flooding and mudslides in Montecito,” says her luxury real estate company, Riskin Partners, on Facebook. Flooding also claimed the life a founder of a Catholic school and damaged or destroyed homes owned by Oprah Winfrey and Ellen DeGeneris.
If we believe in our own inviolability, we likely will find our faith severely challenged when life reverses. Without morbid preoccupation, we nevertheless do well to live with a sense of the fragility of life. We have no guarantees of success, progress, or or life itself. No guarantees against loss, tragedy, and death. Job reminds us of this.
[Sources: http://www.foxnews.com/us/2018/01/11/california-mudslide-victims-include-founder-catholic-school-first-lady-luxury-real-estate.html Who They Were: The Victims of Montecito Mudslides, Los Angeles Times Staff 1/12/18 Picture: Family photo, LA Times]
On November 24 and December 8, our son Paul and I shared information about a strange illness newly “discovered” by the medical community. Myalgic Encephalomyalitis/ Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS) been around for a few decades, but even with a couple of local mass epidemics, medical interest has been minimal at best. Two reasons account for this. 1. Medical tests on patients turn up no abnormalities, so doctors tell their patients, “There’s nothing wrong with you physically.” The clear implication is that referral for psychiatry is their next option. 2. Patients with ME/CFS are in no position to complain, agitate, or recruit other activists–they’re at home, too weak to move, some of them, with little or no energy to care for themselves.
Then, Jennifer Brea began a world-wide movement of patients through Skype, documented in her DVD Unrest, whichlandedon the short list (of 15) for an Oscar in the Documentary category. New interest in clinical research creates hope among sufferers. Here are some more lines of research turned up by Paul that provide hope.
1. Study of T-cell activation
Dr. Mark Davis, Director of the Stanford Institute for Immunology, Transplantation and Infection (ITI), has discovered that CFS patients have a number of antigens which correlate with the disease. An antigen is a chemical produced by our body to combat viruses, bacteria, fungus, and parasites. Because he wants to be 100% certain, he is at present unable to publish his results on the type of antigens. Dr. Davis is using new technologies described in the prestigious journal Nature.
2. Big Data
The Open Medicine Foundation (www.omf.org. https://www.facebook.com/OpenMedicineFoundation/) uses Big Data to provide family members of CFS patients as healthy controls. That way, researchers can control for heredity, environment, and diet, all of which will be similar to ill patients. Michael Snyder, PhD, Professor and Chair of Genetics and the Director of the Center of Genomics and Personalized Medicine, Stanford, investigates this issue in his lab.
3. The Salt Stressor
Using a nano-needle, researchers tested 21 blood samples. Only CFS patients and no healthy patients appear unable to handle the stress of adding salt to their blood. The nano-needle, a new technology, is identifying something unique to ME/CFS.
4. Shared Data
Dr. Ron Davis (not to be confused with Dr. Mark Davis, see picture), Director of the Stanford Genome Institute, sought to make research results available to the outside world, but ran into a serious roadblock. His data at the Stanford Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Research Center website (http://med.stanford.edu/sgtc) resided within the Stanford Genome Technology Center’s website. Excellent place to assure credibility, but, protective of its data, Stanford insisted on maintaining its firewall. That prevented non-Stanford people from accessing it. Also, Stanford wanted only researchers to have access. But Dr. Davis has worked out an agreement to house their data on an outside server where it should be accessible to researchers soon.
5. Giving Tuesday
Sponsored by the Open Medicine Foundation, patients raised $452,000 on “Giving Tuesday.” The Foundation provided an additional $1.2 million grant for Dr. Ron Davis and his research associates for their Stanford Collaborative Research Center.
These and other developments provide patients suffering with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome hope. For the past 30+ years our son Paul and his wife Juli have clung to the slim possibility of finding ways to improve their health. Now, in 2018, they have reason to hope. Please pray for these developments, that at least some of ME/CFS patient’s hopes will come to fruition in the year ahead.
[Source: Cori Johnson, www.healthrising.org/blog2017/12/21/urgency-ron-davis-chronic-fatigue-research-center/ Picture: The Atlantic. Davis, one of series of greatest innovators https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/11/the-inventors/309534/]
Tragedy Transformed: How Job’s Recovery Can Provide Hope For Yours
Gordon S. Grose
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Through writing, teaching, preaching, and the Internet, this ministry fosters transformation of lives wounded by tragedy. Dr. Grose uses his over 40 years of pastoral and counseling experience to present a biblical model of transformation in the story of Job.