The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down


This book is just remarkable. Its title and subtitle didn’t really grab me, I’ll admit, but I was hooked almost from the beginning, almost as if I were reading a suspenseful novel instead of a work of journalistic nonfiction.

“I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet,” writes Anne Fadiman in the opening. What follows is a very specific story that somehow speaks expansively of big, important truths:

Lia’s parents–Hmong refugees from Laos living in Merced, California, in the 1980s, explained Lia’s condition as qaug dab pegthe spirit catches you and you fall down. Her doctors–easily the best pediatricians in the country–said she had severe idiopathic epilepsy. They were never able to understand each other.

The philosopher Tzvetan Tdorov wrote that

“The first, spontaneous reaction with regard to the stranger is to imagine him as inferior, since he is different from us.”

And that’s what happened all around. Lia’s parents imagined the doctors as cold and uncaring, and believed that their medicine was making Lia sicker. The doctors imagined Lia’s parents as noncompliant and possibly neglectful.

It’s still not entirely clear who was right and who was wrong. Maybe both. Maybe neither.

If you have any interest in what happens when cultures clash–or, for that matter, any interest in medical ethics or in the tragic misunderstandings that sometimes happen between people–you must read it. If you are the kind of person who tends to be suspicious of totalizing ideologies, read it. If you just enjoy good writing, read it.

Two New Books on Marriage

So yesterday I told you about the 1965 book on marriage by Father Capon that I think is just lovely, and promised that the rest of the week we’d be talking about some other marriage books. Today I want to talk about two new books–the unbearably hyped Real Marriage by Mark & Grace Driscoll and the somewhat less arrogantly titled The Meaning of Marriage.

So first, Real Marriage. The title makes me cringe, as does any title that seems to introduce itself as giving the truth about anything. Books deserving of authoritative status gain it whether their title suggests it or not–though I would suspect that the likelihood of a book’s gaining authoritative status decreases proportionate to the amount of authoritativeness (that’s actually a word?) suggested by the title. But I digress.

There are so many things I could say about this book and about Driscoll, whose famous name and reputation is the only reason this book is creating much of a buzz at all: it is pretty standard ‘complementarian’ fare, but with characteristic Driscoll flair: barely suppressed misogyny and homophobia throughout, the assumption that anyone not attended a “Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, conservative Christian church” (including Catholics and mainline Protestants) are not “real” Christians, and (of course) frank discussions of sexuality that would almost (not quite) embarrass Dan Savage. There isn’t much I want to say that wasn’t said eloquently by Susan Wise Bauer at Books & Culture and by Rachel Held Evans, so I’ll just say a few things:

1. Too many statistics!

Supposedly evangelicals have sex lives that are better than those of Catholics and mainline Protestants, supposedly women are happier when their husband earns at least 68% of the household income, but really, so what? I’m so tired of seeing statistics like these held up as evidence of something (in this case, that people would be happier and have better sex if they would just listen to Driscoll) without any nuance. It’s irresponsible and misleading to use statistics like that. Besides, 73% of statistics are generated at random simply to prove the point that the writer wants to prove. (See!?)

2. Too many assumptions!

The Driscolls seem to think that it’s possible to read the Bible and prove things from the Bible without interpreting it, or they wouldn’t simply place Bible references as “proof” of certain of their claims. I was particularly troubled by these two points, held up to prove that patriarchy is God’s Will for All Time:

  • “God called the race “man” (Gen. 1:26) and “mankind” (Gen. 5:2)” —um, no. God called them “dirt beings” because they were taken out of dirt. Adam sounds a lot like the Hebrew for “dirt.”
  • “By naming Eve, Adam was exercising authority over her as God commanded.”–While this assumption–that naming implies authority over someone/something–is popular, no lesser scholars than Phyllis Trible and Richard Bauckham have said that there’s simply no good reason to believe that.

3. Too much detail!

In their “Can We_____?” chapter, the Driscolls apply 3 questions to every question: Is the given sexual act: lawful? helpful? enslaving? But instead of giving us that (reasonably adequate) rubric and leaving the rest to the imagination, they go into occasionally-excruciating detail. I imagine Father Capon would say that it’s really too bad not to let married people figure things out for themselves on a dreary winter evening, but I won’t go that far. I’ll just say that I’m glad  Timothy and Kathy Keller mercifully didn’t over-explain sex in their book, The Meaning of Marriage…

In one sense, these books are similar: the Driscolls and the Kellers are both Reformed, complementarian, and conservative; in many ways, they could not be more different: absent from here is the barely disguised rage toward women; absent, too, is the undercurrent of sex-obsession one finds in Driscoll. I appreciated that the Kellers chose to write about sex much more discreetly–pointing out that sex can be awkward, confusing, problematic–but that working through problems in loving ways with much love is the best (only?) way. This book was based on Keller’s popular sermon series, an exposition of Ephesians 5, and while he’s much more clinical and less flamboyant a writer than, say, Father Capon, he writes with admirable clarity. In fact, he has something of his hero C.S. Lewis’ knack for clear-eyed, logical discussion in plain language. Two criticisms:

  • any discussion of woman-as-helper (Hebrew, ‘ezer) really ought to mention (as Driscoll does, in fact!) that GOD is called an ‘ezer, too–the Kellers seem to assume (or leave us to assume) that “helper” means “subordinate,” which it needn’t.
  • the Kellers nod to cultural contexts when it suits them and assume universality when it suits them: in one breath they point out how the Ancient Near Eastern culture in which the Bible came together would’ve read the Bible as revolutionary on marriage and in the next they say that what the Bible teaches on marriage (in terms of literal, on-the-page meaning) is universal, not bound to time or place. It’s hard to say both those things at once without casting doubt on one or the other. (I’m a big fan of William Webb’s writing on the subject.)

Tomorrow (Friday) I’ll tell you about a third new book on marriage that I really, really like. Despite all the hype about the Driscolls’ book, it’s this book–Are you Waiting for the One?not that one, that contributes something new to the discussion of Christian marriage.

{I hesitantly acknowledge that I received free review copies of each of the two books mentioned today…hesitantly because I hope the publishers won’t be scared of sending me more books to review. As my mom is sure to say, I can be a bit rough…}

Weekend Eating Reading AND Giveaway–Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste

…the Saturday post!

{Last week’s winner is Britt T. “Great review. I would love to win a free copy of Year of Plenty. Count me in!” Congrats, Britt!}

Weekend Eating Reading briefly discusses at least one good book that’s somehow related to ‘joyful eating.’

This week I’m delighted to offer a GIVEAWAY–one free copy of Molly Birnbaum’s Season to Taste! Leave a comment on this post to to enter; comments will be closed on Monday at 8 am EST and I’ll select a winner at random.

Don’t let the chick-lit-style cover fool you! This book is full of science, philosophy, sociology, and some great stories. Molly Birnbaum was an aspiring chef out for a run when a car accident erased her sense of smell. You might assume that she was lucky to lose only that–but you’d be wrong. Turns out, our sense of smell is so much more important than any of us might guess: it plays a big part in how we relate to others, especially romantically (wink, wink) and shapes our experience of the world as much as–or even more than–the other, seemingly more ‘important’ senses, like sight and hearing. This is a fascinating book, one that will give you new appreciation for a sense that you might have forgotten you have; one that will raise your appreciation for the extraordinary wonder of your ordinary senses and, yes, perhaps help you to eat with greater joy.

(Read more about my take on Molly Birnbaum’s book at the Christianity Today women’s blog; Birnbaum tells her own story in the New York Times and on her blog; the New York Times profile of Birnbaum and her book is here.)

Weekend Eating Reading & Giveaway–Year of Plenty

It’s my first blog giveaway!

For this weekend’s ‘eating reading,’ I’d like to direct you over to the Fall 2011 issue of Flourish magazine, where you’ll find my review of Craig Goodwin’s Year of Plenty.

And after you’ve read that, c’mon back here and comment on this post to win your own free copy of the book!

(Comments will close at 9 am, EST, on Wednesday the 7th, after which I’ll select one lucky winner at random.)