Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 01/27/2010 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Brings the poverty and scarcity of the Western hemisphere's poorest nation front and center. Warning: some shocking material.
A review copy of this book on life and ministry in Haiti, penned by storyteller and activist Kent Annan, arrived unsolicited in my mailbox the selfsame week that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake leveled the impoverished nation. I may or may not have read it had the earthquake not happened, but the confluence of events conspired to convince me that I ought to. I’m glad I did. Any western Christian unaware of his or her blessed state in life – that is to say, 99.9% of us – ought to read it, ingest it, and act on it, for the alleviation of suffering in the world and for the glory of God.
That said, this book suffers from a crucial oversight: a clear articulation of why and how the gospel of Jesus Christ impels us to humanitarian activity. It’s all well and good to recount the parable of Lazarus and Jesus’ encounter with the rich young ruler, but Annan does not relate the "eye of the needle" metaphor, used just once by Jesus to our knowledge, to the infinitely more important and pervasive gospel image/teaching of taking up one’s daily cross. The latter image, of course, is directly derived from Christ’s ultimate sacrifice on behalf of those He came to save, and thus impels us to take up our own crosses, whatever those may be.
Following Jesus is by far more explicit than your average Christian living book. Annan is explicit about sexuality, but this is reflective of Haiti itself. Annan doesn’t sanitize this, and neither should he. However, there were in a couple of instances, for a few pages at a times, scenes in which Annan employs a type of narrative style reminiscent of a post-traumatic syndrome-induced battle flashback from a war movie. The violence of these scenes is too graphic and disturbing to recount here. I fully understand the authorial/editorial decision to employ shock value in a book and an imprint (IVP's Likewise) whose aim is to mobilize the Christian masses to love God and neighbor, but still - those incidents of violence were too much for this reader.
Back to the reasons you should read this book.
For the story. Kent Annan and his wife Shelley move to Haiti to integrate into normal Haitian life; that is to say, to live alongside the Haitians, and by experiencing their poverty and neediness, to be able to better serve them. The tension between Kent's desire to save the world and his desire to care for his wife constantly hums in the background, even while their mountainside house is slowly built, even while mob violence flares up during political unrest, and even while they deal with the common dangers of daily Haitian life: insects, animals, storms, criminals, and scarcity.
For the cause. Annan traces the skeins of suffering and scarcity entrenched into Haitian life, but do not expect great gobs of historical narrative. Annan is solely and understandably concerned mainly with Haiti's current state rather than what got her there. He isn’t frustrated and he isn’t judgmental. Annan is genuinely winsome and transparent as an author.
For the theology. Yes, I remember what I said above about the absence of the Cross in the book. But Annan isn't void of solid theology – not at all. With humility, he recognizes that he does not deserve anything he has (146), that in his philanthropic endeavor there is the danger of it being "about him" (166), and that he is his own idol (178). So, while I could wish that Annan’s presentation of the gospel was more obvious, and that he could have told his story without the gruesome and gratuitous elements, I do recommend this book.
One more minor quibble: Annan doesn’t go quite far enough in pursuing the dangerous duty of delight to its logical and theological ends (John Piper does!). But he does provide a quote that – to replicate a cliché – says it all, from Jack Gilbert’s poem "A Brief for the Defense":
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.