Review: Isaiah’s Daughter

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Manasseh was twelve years old when he became king, and he reigned fifty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Hephzibah. …

You shall no longer be termed Forsaken,
Nor shall your land any more be termed Desolate;
But you shall be called Hephzibah, and your land Beulah;
For the Lord delights in you…

– 2 Kings 21:1, Isaiah 62:4 (NKJV)

I discovered Mesu Andrews over the summer, when my mom loaned me a book that she thought I might like. That book was Pharaoh’s Daughter. I was immediately hooked. In just a few short months I have devoured all but one of the books that Andrews has written and that only because I can’t get my hands on it. Andrews spends years researching her novels, placing faithfulness to the test of Scripture over and above her desire to tell a good story. And she is, without doubt, an excellent storyteller. Her ability to delve into the richness of the Bible and explore how people lived, how God moved in their lives is one that I have encountered in only a few other authors.

Isaiah’s Daughter, releasing in January 2018, is both a stand-alone novel and a continuation of the story begun in Love in a Broken Vessel (a fictionalized version of the book of Hosea). Those who have read the former will recognize characters and themes in the latter, but understanding and enjoying the book does not hinge on knowing what came before.

Andrews opens in 732 B.C.. Soldiers from the northern kingdom of Israel have attacked Judah, destroying towns and carrying off hundreds of captives. The reader meets 5-year-old Ishma and her friend Yaira, who are among the captives. The trauma they have experienced has rendered Ishma unable to speak. Yaira attempts to care for her on the long journey, but she, a child herself, cannot ease the fear in Ishma’s heart. This fear is a central theme of the novel.

Yaira’s brother, the prophet Micah, finds the two girls. He is unable to raise them himself due to the nature of his calling, so he takes them to Jerusalem and settles them in the house of Isaiah – fellow prophet and royal counselor who has just been demoted to tutor after angering Judah’s king, Ahaz. The girls expect to be taken into service, but Isaiah and his wife, Aya, embrace them as daughters. A new world is opened to them.

Queen Abijah is part of this new world. One day, she brings her son, Hezekiah, to the prophet’s house. He, too, has suffered trauma. Abijah is desperate for his healing. Nothing she has tried, no prayer or remedy, has made any difference. Ishma is drawn to the little boy with the sad eyes.

Since all of this happened thousands of years ago, it’s not spoiler alert territory to say that Hezekiah grows up to marry Ishma, who is renamed Hepzibah. Normally I loathe a predictable romantic tale, but Andrews masterfully weaves together threads from the 2 Kings narrative, the prophecies of Isaiah and historical record to breathe a freshness into the standard “boy meets girl” formula. Hezekiah and Ishma grow up in dangerous times. Theirs is no easy, simple pairing, before or after their marriage. Andrews writes them as the flawed people they are, a man and a woman who wrestle with what it means to obey God.

My one complaint is in regard to Ishma/Hepzibah’s characterization. It’s a little uneven. As she grows, she discovers a love of learning and nature, both of which help to heal her heart. Then, upon reaching adulthood and marriage, the fear comes crashing back in. As one who battles anxiety on a daily basis, I understand completely how this kind of thing happens. Yet, as a reader, I wanted to see Ishma/Hepzibah become tougher. I wanted her to experience the fear but grit her teeth and battle through. Instead, in a few scenes, she becomes the damsel in distress, weeping in the arms of her husband. Crying is never bad and of course spouses should support each other, but there was just something “off” about that to me.

Part of the unevennness may be rooted in the viewpoint changes that occur each chapter. The story shifts between Ishma/Hepzibah, Hezekiah and sometimes Isaiah. Though we are reading the story of a woman, it’s not completely told through her eyes. I’m not sure why Andrews made this decision. It does work, for the most part, only becoming an issue in later chapters, when, as I pointed out above, I wanted Ishma/Hepzibah to grow more than she did.

Minor issues aside, I wholeheartedly recommend this book (and all of Andrews’ other novels). You will be intrigued and entertained from the first pages. You will be prompted to think and to search the Scriptures. Most of all, you will be moved to worship the Lord, who teaches us to live in this light:

“We must keep our eyes on eternity, my friend, for today is sometimes more than we can bear.”

– p. 318

Signature

I RECEIVED A FREE COPY OF THIS BOOK IN EXCHANGE FOR MY HONEST REVIEW.

Review: Voiceless

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Gentle Reader,

A few months ago I was contacted and asked if I’d like to review the movie Voiceless in advance of its October release.

Battling his own inner-demons, Jesse (Rusty Joiner: Last Ounce Of CourageDodgeball, “Days of Our Lives”) encounters a young, pregnant teen overcome with grief that, after an impulsive abortion, has her family blaming Jesse for more than just her final decision. Jesse’s wife Julia (Jocelyn Cruz: Strike OneThis Is Our Time) must come to terms with her own choices and decide if she can support her husband as opposition mounts against him. Comedian Paul Rodriguez also stars as Virgil with James Russo as Pastor Gil.

I have mixed feelings about this movie. On the one hand, I appreciate the fact that the overall tone is thoughtful and the filmmakers resisted tying up everything in a neat bow at the end. On the other, what should be an emotionally-charged story falls flat in many places.

Thoughtfulness is both the strength and weakness of Voiceless. Jesse Dean is not presented as a perfect action hero, but as a normal, flawed human being. In fact, all of the characters are relatable. Of special note is that the manager of the abortion clinic isn’t a crazed, bloodthirsty killer. She believes that she is helping women, just as Jesse believes he’s helping them. Though there is clear moral right and wrong on display, nobody is cast as a villain. A movie like this could have easily gone that direction.

Unfortunately, these good elements somehow come together and make for a plot that moves at a snail’s pace. I found myself thinking, “Come on,” more than once. I think that we, the audience, were supposed to have a sense of taking part in Jesse’s struggle, but instead we’re treated to lingering shots that cause already-slow movement to drag. I think this comes down to editing rather than a story flaw; a good 10-15 minutes could have been shaved off, making for a film that packed more punch.

Not that I wanted Voiceless to be loud or in my face. I actually liked that it was on the quieter side. There were some moments that needed to land hard, though, and didn’t quite get there. Example: Jesse’s interactions with a pregnant teen and her boyfriend needed to feel more urgent, like there was truly something on the line. Additionally, when he and his wife finally come to the moment when they discuss their shared past, instead of feeling shocked I thought, “Yeah, saw that coming.”Voiceless crawled where it shouldn’t have and sprinted where it needed to slow down.

I genuinely can’t decide what I think of the main character being male. Abortion is not a women-only issue, for sure, despite what some claim. Yet I wonder how I would have felt if a lone man stood outside Planned Parenthood the day I visited and tried to convince me not to go inside. Like many of the women in the movie, I probably would have ignored him and thought that he didn’t know what he was talking about. Now, years later, I know many men who ooze compassion for women in that position. Still, I think it would have been more powerful for me to see a woman reaching out to her sisters.

The story itself is one that is lived out in every town, big or small, each day. How should Christians respond to abortion? Is it enough to pray for the people involved in offering that service and for the people who take advantage of the offering? Should we protest, and if so, what form should that take? We see Jesse wrestle with these questions. We see him get it wrong more than once. We see the other Christians around him get it wrong.

But ultimately, they do something. That, I think, is the point of Voiceless. Sitting inside our comfortable churches, piously and hollowly praying for people doesn’t do much good, but neither does violent protest. Our hearts must move from both coldness and extreme zeal. We must love as God loves, act how He acts.

I recommend Voiceless, whatever your views on abortion, on the grounds that it is something different. It’s not a perfect movie, but the filmmakers deserve credit for avoiding a condemning, judgmental tone and for striving to contribute to national debate in a thoughtful, positive way.

My journey to faith. (15)

Review: Wildflower

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Gentle Reader,

A few weeks ago a representative from Faith Street Films contacted me. Would I be interested in receiving an advance copy of their new movie Wildflower in exchange for an honest review?

I’d never heard of Faith Street Films. Never head of Wildflower. Still have no idea how or why I was selected for the blog tour. But hey, why not? I’m not one to turn down free books or movies that look worthwhile. The synopsis intrigued me:

Creatively gifted, college student Chloe Moray finds solace from a difficult childhood in her extraordinary art. But when an alarming dream begins to recur nightly, Chloe starts to believe that it might be a suppressed memory and that she may have witnessed a terrible crime as a little girl. Her search for peace takes her on a journey that forces Chloe to confront her past traumas and leads her to cross paths with Josh, a young man dealing with his own painful loss. Together they find in each other someone they can trust as they seek to unlock a cold-case mystery from years before. But with the authorities blocking the way, Chloe’s new-found hope is challenged in this powerful story of faith, triumph and healing.

If you’ve ever struggled in the aftermath of a difficult situation; if you’ve ever wondered if someone (anyone) will listen to you; if you’ve ever wished there was a safe place you could go, WILDFLOWER is a powerful reminder that hope can be found even in your darkest moments.

I had the chance to sit down and watch the movie this morning. The opening scene features Chloe sitting contemplatively at her easel in a college art studio, dabbing bits of color here and there on a large canvas. Something I noticed immediately: The piece, while lovely and certainly far better than I could ever create, wasn’t exactly “extraordinary.” This continued to hit me throughout the film, especially as it was stressed over and over again that this is a very gifted woman. The pieces shown just didn’t strike quite the right note.

This, I think, comes down to a mixed characterization. Chloe is meant to be extremely bright and emotionally tormented, yet comes across as flat instead of intense in many scenes. That emotional flatness, stemming from blocked memories, is appropriate to the story, and so it would have been more in line to have the character struggling to produce anything at all, instead of the dozens of drawings and the couple of paintings we see. A blocked artist would have made more sense that one in a frenzy.

The plot moves along at a brisk pace. Chloe has long suffered what she terms “blackouts,” which are really symptoms of post-traumatic stress. The episodes have increased in frequency and severity. She lands in the hospital one night after nearly being ran over while standing in the middle of a dark street.

The driver of the vehicle is a man named Josh, who is busy fighting his own demons. After suffering a devastating loss while working with a missions group overseas, he has returned home, without purpose and short on faith. His brother Mark, a pastor of a small church, attempts to get him to open up but is met with steely resistance. Josh is determined to deal with his situation in his own time and way.

The similarities between Chloe and Josh are a strong point of the movie. It’s interesting to watch as they travel parallel paths. At the same time, I had trouble buying into their near-immediate friendship. (Kudos to the writer and director, Nicholas Dibella, for resisting the temptation to plunge them headlong into a romance). It just doesn’t add up that Chloe, who states over and over again that she has trouble trusting people (with good reason), would bring Josh into her inner torment. Nor does it add up that Josh would feel so compelled to help her. This facet of the film would have worked better with a slight tweak: If Chloe and Josh had known each other, even casually, before the night on the dark road.

Chloe slowly comes to understand that the “blackouts” are triggered by a repressed memory. She and Josh work together to uncover the truth, much to the annoyance of local police. Chloe’s mother, with whom she has a broken relationship, worries that her daughter is losing her mind, and there are moments when the audience wonders this as well. By the end of the speedy 92 minutes, everyone knows what really happened, but there are no neat bows. Chloe is not magically fine. Josh is not through with grieving. Neither of them are sliding down rainbows on the backs of fluffy ponies.

Wildflower gets points for that. I appreciate the very real take on the messiness of faith. Josh is a believer who wonders if God really is good. Chloe doesn’t know if she believes in God at all. There is no tidy resolution to their questions, though the audience is left with hope that both with find happy endings.

This movie takes a stab at dealing with issues that many faith-based projects avoid or sugarcoat: Mental illness, sexual molestation, murder, drug and alcohol abuse and single-parent homes. While the scenes of violence are far from graphic, they are real and sobering. There’s no pretending that conversion suddenly makes everything rosy. Despite issues of character and plot, all told it was a decent hour-and-a-half.

My journey to faith. (15)

Review: For the Love, Part 2

Watch your life and doctrine closely.

For the Love: Part 1

Gentle Reader,

This is the part that I didn’t want to write. Allow me to repeat myself: The toughest position I ever held during my time on a college newspaper was that of a reviewer. It is difficult for me to put into practice the instruction of my professor – observe and dissect – knowing how intensely artists labor over their work. They practically bleed onto the page or the canvas. Nevertheless, it is important to strive to be as even-handed and objective as possible. That is my goal in this piece.

Nevertheless I am well aware that what I’m about to publish is going to generate some heat.

QUESTIONS

I wish that I had saved it so that I could give you a specific date, but sometime between Tuesday, July 7, and Friday, July 10, I received an email from Hatmaker (along with other members of her “Email Friends” list). She wrote to tell us about the free goodies we could get with pre-ordering a copy of For the Love. (As part of the launch team, I expected this and wasn’t offended. The point, after all, is to generate buzz and sell books). In the first paragraph of this email (again, I wish I had saved it so I could quote directly) she mentioned being influenced in her spirituality by the fiction work of Sue Monk Kidd.

Update, 8/27/15: A friend had this email and forwarded it to me. It was sent out on July 10, and the line that I referenced above reads, “…I want to know if Sue Monk Kidd read the tweets I sent about how much her storylines affected me spiritually.”

At first, I wasn’t even going to pursue this. I didn’t want to pursue this. I wanted to write a short-and-sweet, stellar review. So I deleted the email.

But I only know of one Sue Monk Kidd:

To embrace Goddess is simply to discover the Divine in yourself as powerfully and vividly feminine. (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 141)

… something inside me was calling on the Goddess of the Dark, even though I didn’t know her name. (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 93)

I remember a feeling rising up from a place about two inches below my navel. … It was the purest inner knowing I had experienced, and it was shouting in me no, no, no! The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not something written by men and frozen in time. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the divine voice in my own soul. Period. … That day sitting in church, I believed the voice in my belly. … The voice in my belly was the voice of the wise old woman. It was my female soul talking. And it had challenged the assumption that the Baptist Church would get me where I needed to go. (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 76-78)

I knew right then and there that the patriarchal church was no longer working for me. The exclusive image of God as heavenly Father wasn’t working, either. I needed a Power of Being that was also feminine. (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 80)

There’s a bulb of truth buried in the human soul that’s “only God” … the soul is more than something to win or save. It’s the seat and repository of the inner Divine, the God-image, the truest part of us. (When the Heart Waits, p. 47, 48)

When we encounter another person … we should walk as if we were upon holy ground. We should respond as if God dwells there. (God’s Joyful Surprise, p. 233)

I ran my finger around the rim of the circle on the page and prayed my first prayer to a Divine Feminine presence. I said, “Mothergod, I have nothing to hold me. No place to be, inside or out. I need to find a container of support, a space where my journey can unfold. (Dance of the Dissent Daughter, p. 94)

Divine Feminine love came, wiping out all my puny ideas about love in one driving sweep. Today I remember that event for the radiant mystery it was, how I felt myself embraced by Goddess, how I felt myself in touch with the deepest thing I am. It was the moment when, as playwright and poet Ntozake Shange put it, “I found god in myself/ and I loved her/ I loved her fiercely.” (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 136)

I came to know myself as an embodiment of Goddess. (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 163)

When I woke, my thought was that I was finally being reunited with the snake in myself – that lost and defiled symbol of feminine instinct. (Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 107)

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am an egalitarian. I believe in the full equality of men and women. Yet I also believe in the accuracy and inerrancy of Scripture. God chose to reveal Himself in masculine terms. This doesn’t mean that He is masculine; God is transcendent. He is in a category all by Himself and cannot be classified as man or woman. Nevertheless, He chose to relate to us as Father, Son and Spirit. Christian faith simply does not support worshiping the “feminine divine” or the “goddess.” This does not demean women or relegate them to a “second class” space. Men have done that, not God.

I have no idea what Hatmaker means by saying that she’s been influenced by Kidd. I attempted to reach out to her via Facebook and through her website’s contact page, asking for clarification. I have yet to receive an answer. At this point I am not making any hard-and-fast judgments. She could simply mean that something in one of Kidd’s novels touched her. I am unwilling to come to a solid conclusion until I have more information.

Still, this leaves me in an awkward position, especially since my endorsement appears in the book.

Reading through For the Love a second time, with this in mind, I noticed something: Quotes from authors Annie Dillard, Anna Quindlen and Brene Brown are sprinkled throughout. The framework, the worldview, from within which these authors write shows strong threads of panentheism, pop-psychology self-help and a mish-mash of New Age-y, maybe Christian terms that I can make heads nor tails of. I have no problem recognizing the fact that they may well have good and positive things to say, but, as with Kidd, the spiritual content of their works is concerning.

Do not interpret this as an attack on Jen Hatmaker. I don’t know her personally and I don’t wish her any ill. I’m not making a call on whether or not she’s saved, so please don’t go there. I will happily update this post if I receive clarification regarding the statement about Kidd. I can easily accept that she used the quotes from the other authors for very good reasons. As of now, I am left holding a mixed bag. If this were strictly a work of humor, I would have no problem giving it five stars. Due to the muddied nature of the spiritual currents, I cannot give this book the wholehearted recommendation that I initially hoped.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So, where does that leave us? I won’t slap For the Love out of your hands if I see you reading it, but I won’t tell you to rush out and snag a copy, either. I think you can read this book and enjoy it for its message of freedom for women and its humor, but I do encourage you to keep this background information in the forefront of your mind. Be aware of what you are taking in and examine it closely. Ask the Holy Spirit to grant you guidance and sensitivity in this and all reading selections.

Do so for your sanity. Do it for your integrity.

Do it for His love.

This, above all, is the lesson I have learned in being on the launch team.

My journey to faith. (15)