Suffering And God: The Refiner’s Fire

He is a refiner’s fire, and that makes all the difference. A refiner’s fire does not destroy indiscriminately like a forest fire. A refiner’s fire does not consume completely like the fire of an incinerator. A refiner’s fire refines. It purifies. It melts down the bar of silver or gold, separates out the impurities that ruin its value, burns them up, and leaves the silver and gold intact. He is like a refiner’s fire. (excerpt from Desiring God, “He Is Like a Refiner’s Fire” by John Piper)

One of the reasons I loved coaching so much was because I understand team sports as a microcosm of life. Teamwork, conflict, response to authority, hard work, patience—these are just some of the areas that confront athletes. Another is keeping the big picture in mind—winning isn’t everything; in fact, the game isn’t everything.

Then there is the key ingredient—a successful team suffers. Of course, we coaches don’t call it suffering—we call it training or conditioning. But the truth is, we put players through workouts we know will leave them weak and exhausted and hurting. Why? Because I hated my players? Hardly. The more potential I saw, the more I required of them. I pushed so they would be ready to face the opposition and overcome, but also so they would learn discipline and the necessity of preparation—in other words, things they could take with them long after they stopped playing team sports.

If I had hated my players, in fact, I would have pretty much ignored them. I saw a coach who treated his kids that way once. He would bring a lounge chair along to whatever game he was coaching, plop down, and pretty much let the kids do whatever they wanted to do. Like recess, some kids might think, How cool. But come game time, when that team was getting their clocks cleaned in a big way, none of those kids was having such a good time. I don’t know any of them, so can’t be sure, but I have to believe their experience in team sports at that level didn’t contribute in a positive way to their building traits they would need in life.

The point is clear. Just as coaches put their players through training, at times God takes His children through suffering. He wants to form us into the image of His Son. It’s one purpose of suffering, though certainly not the only one.

Someone with a different worldview that doesn’t account for eternal life may think God is cruel. Look at Joni Eareckson Tada—confined to a wheelchair since the age of 17 (she’s in her late 60’s now). How could she not become bitter and resentful toward God? I can only answer from what I’ve heard and read her saying, and one component is that she is looking forward to unending health once this life is over. Another is that her relationship with Jesus has become so sweet, she says she would never trade it for the use of her arms and legs.

My, what an impact that woman has had on thousands, maybe millions, not in spite of her disability but because of it. She is a living and breathing example of what the Apostle Paul said: “Power is perfected in weakness.”

He went on to add, “Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor. 10)

Easy for me to say, sitting comfortably in the land of the free and home of the brave, but what about that hypothetical girl in Sudan that I referenced in an earlier post? There are many people who have actually lived through the kind of abuse in the description. From Daughters of Hope by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett (InterVarsity Press)—a book composed of real life stories of women around the world:

The villagers said that government forces were capturing women and asking them whether they were Christian or Muslim. If the … response was “Christian,” the women were raped, mutilated, and left to die where others could see them as a warning.

“This woman was supposed to be an example to others who would dare to remain Christians,” Dr. Lidu said. “But I wish they could have heard her as she was recovering. She spent her time praising the name of Jesus!”

These women strengthen my faith. God doesn’t hate them. And while I might think the best is for Him to rescue those who are suffering out of the hands of evil men, God has a bigger, eternal, perspective. He knows that these women, though they may never leave that refugee camp or be free from the abuse, can impact thousands because of their faith. I, for one, can hardly wait to see the rewards stacking up for them in heaven.

This article is a revised version of one that first appeared here in November, 2008.

The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise

When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

Published in: on June 11, 2018 at 5:59 pm  Comments Off on The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise  
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Not Ashamed Of The Gospel

Love of Divena coverIt’s getting harder in western society, I think, to say we’re not ashamed of the gospel. Well, we can say we’re not ashamed of the gospel–free speech, and all. But taking a stand because of the gospel, especially on the hot bed issues of our day, is becoming risky. Hence, Christians are re-thinking whether or not they should let their Christianity be known.

For example, I or my beliefs have been belittled or vilified on my own Facebook page by family and friends because of certain positions I’ve taken.

Dovetail this with what some Christian writers have been saying: Christian fiction is poor art in part because it aggressively preaches.

The accusations about Christian fiction are anything but new. Often people have decried the loss of Christian influence in the arts. Once Christians dominated painting and literature. So what happened, they ask.

Well, what did not happen was a switch from not preachy to preachy. Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and a great list of other writers led the way in literature by writing about their faith or incorporating it in their works in very clear and obvious ways. They were not ashamed of the gospel.

The real difference between then and now, however, is in execution. Too many writers add on “faith elements” as an after thought or to fulfill a necessity for their publisher. Some, on the other hand, slather in gospel references in the hopes of . . . well, preaching to the lost.

Other writers would just as soon see the divide between secular and sacred erased–but the implication is that a story well told, without any “faith elements” is sacred by virtue of the fact that it is artistic.

I wonder if this isn’t the writer’s way of being ashamed of the gospel. If a story is well told and the gospel is front and center, why does that story automatically get treated as if it is second rate?

Well, some may say, those stories are too unambiguous. They don’t make people think, they give too many answers? Really?

Recently I’ve been discussing salvation in regards to “the unreached peoples” of the world, and those living in India have been mentioned. At once I think of Kay Marshall Strom’s series Blessings in India: The Faith of Ashish, The Hope of Shridula, The Love of Divena.

India 1990. In the final book of the Blessings of India series, Shridula, old and stooped at fifty-nine, makes her painful way to pay homage to the elephant god Ganesh, lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. “Why are we Hindus instead of Christians?” her seventeen-year-old granddaughter Divena asked.

“Because we are Indian,” said Shridula.

So begins a spiritual journey for Divena as she struggles against an entire culture to proclaim a faith close to her heart while rocking the world of two families. (backcover copy quoted from Amazon)

Yes, those are stories about God at work in one of those unreached parts of the world. No easy answers, but no hiding God, either. No shame of the gospel.

Honestly, I don’t know why, in light of the vast number of people who don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior, all Christian writers don’t make it a mission to bring faith to bear in a discernible way in our writing, in our stories.

No, I don’t think every story needs to be a salvation message. Some can show a believer coping with anorexia as Running Lean by Diana Sharple does. Others like Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover can address gender issues. Or how about the Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson that shows a character’s struggle with lust and addiction?

God can show up in dramatic ways or daily, gradually, through His people. He can show up through types and symbols and allegory, or He can be present, identified from start to finish as the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. The how isn’t the issue, I don’t think.

But a dying world needs to hear Truth, and I don’t think it’s time for Christian writers to shrink back, ashamed of the gospel.

All In

What’s the difference between a football fan and a player, one of our pastors recently asked. Both want the team to win.

Fans might invest in some team gear, maybe paint their faces, make signs, buy tickets, give up a Saturday to go to the game, and cheer passionately.

Meanwhile, the player has his livelihood on the line. He conditions, studies, practices, and gives every ounce of physical and mental effort to succeed, week after week. His commitment isn’t a few dollars and a day or two here or there. He’s invested in the team’s success long before preseason rolls around. Essentially, he’s all in.

That’s precisely what Christ says the Christian should be. We’re to pick up our cross, even hate our family. In other words, be all in.

Jesus followed this admonition by making a couple comparisons. First, He asked, what builder starts work without being sure he has enough to complete the task? What king goes to battle without first assessing whether or not his army is strong enough for him to succeed? So too, God made the assessment that what He needs from His followers is total commitment. (See Luke 14:26-33).

None of this is new to those who have been Christians for any length of time. But I began to think about this commitment in comparison to the kind of “all in” requirement of human bondage.

Recently I read and reviewed Kay Marshall Strom’s book The Hope of Shridula. That next week, the first book in the Blessings of India series, The Faith of Ashish, was offered as a free Kindle e-book, and I snapped it up. Just last week I finished reading it.

The story is about slavery — not the kidnapping and selling of one human by another kind, but that which results from the exploitation of the needy.

It reminded me of the history I’d read about railroad towns in nineteenth century America which enslaved workers. The corporate employer created worker towns and charged inflated prices at the corporate stores, so that when it came time to pay a worker his wages, he often owed more for his rent and food than what he had earned.

This is the story played out in The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula, though the setting is India in the middle of the twentieth century. Different players, same exploitation.

In the case of the poor Indian family, they borrowed a small amount of money from a rich landlord to save their son who needed medical attention. The condition of the loan was that they move to the workers’ quarters and tend the landlord’s fields. But as time passed, their debt increased rather than dwindling because they were charged for their living quarters and food and for anything else the landlord wished to add to their account.

Essentially they became his slaves. They were unwillingly “all in.”

Their debt required it of them.

So here’s the comparison and the contrast I’m seeing. Each of us owes an insurmountable debt to God, one we cannot pay, but we are not His slaves. We are slaves to sin and guilt and the law, not to God.

However, Christ paid our debt, and asked us to go all in. Nothing else will do if He’s to write “paid” in His ledger beside our name. Essentially, he then transfers us from the dominion of darkness to Christ’s kingdom, and we then do become His slaves. We belong to our Master.

Oddly enough, we’re not all in as payment for what he gave us. He wipes our debt free of charge instead of coercing our servitude in return.

But we still belong to Him.

Yet, what a difference between the rich, greedy, exploitive landlord and our loving God. The former takes to benefit himself. God gives to us what we need. The landlord demeans and keeps his slaves in their place. God calls us friends, even His children. The landlord uses and mistreats his workers. God loves and cares for His bondslaves.

Here’s how Jesus described it in Matthew:

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)

A couple things seem clear to me. First, if we are all in for Jesus, we are free from the bondage of sin, but if we reject His payment for what we owe, we are, whether we realize it or not, ensnared — hook, line, and sinker — by sin.

Which brings up the second point — there is no part way in. There are no fans of Jesus, only followers. The people who are on the sidelines, though they might dress up and cheer, are not part of the team. To be a Christian means to be all in.

CFBA Blog Tour – The Hope Of Shridula

From time to time I participate in the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance blog tour, and this second half of the week the group is focusing on The Hope Of Shridula (Abingdon Press) by Kay Marshall Strom. This is actually book 2 of the Blessings in India Series, but it easily reads like a stand-alone.

The Story. Shridula and her parents are members of the Dalites, or India’s chaste of Untouchables, enslaved to a rich landowner because of a small debt her father’s father owed. Trapped in what appears to be a hopeless situation, the world as they know it begins to unravel because this is 1946 — the British colony is fighting for independence and then to accommodate the strong and varied religions influencing different people groups. Trapped by their economic circumstances, helpless against the powerful, and now squeezed by political forces that are ripping apart the fabric of society, Shridula and her family have few options until a surprising way of escape opens.

Strengths. Some Christian publishing professionals claim that American readers don’t want stories about other peoples and other places. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know I used to shy away from what I considered the “typical missionary story.” Not that I’d read many. But in my mind they were predictable and unrealistic. They put missions in the very best possible light and told only success stories.

Forget all that with Kay Marshall Strom’s work. Her novels are about real people facing real struggles. And she happens to be perfectly suited to write books about people living in underdeveloped countries, suffering hardship and abuse because of injustices they face. For years she’s written non-fiction based on personal interviews with people throughout the world. She’s been to India alone seven times. In other words, she’s done her research in the best way possible, and it shows.

In some ways, though, you have to be ready to have your heart broken because of what people suffering at the bottom of the caste system go through. Humble people, subservient people, hard-working, fearful, superstitious, loving people tied to a religion that debases them and offers little hope. Then to realize that the cultural Christianity of the minority clouds the truth, as well, the story seems destined to a hopeless end.

But in a deft way, Kay’s skill as a novelist shows God’s sovereignty, so that light and truth merge in a wonderfully surprising ending.

This is a quiet book in the sense that there are no car chases or clashing armies. But there is plenty of tension and suspense based on personal conflict and pressures, so it kept me turning the pages.

In addition, I immediately cared for the title character, a twelve year old put in a dangerous situation. Here’s the opening, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Chapter 1

South India
May 1946

The last of the straggling laborers hefted massive bundles of grain onto their weary heads and started down the path toward the storage shed. Only twelve-year-old Shridula remained in the field. Frantically she raced up and down the rows, searching through the maze of harvested wheat stalks.

Each time a group of women left, the girl tried to go with them, her nervous fear rising. Each time Dinkar stopped her. The first time she had tried to slip in with the old women at the end of the line the overseer ordered, “Shridula! Search for any water jars left in the fields.” Of course she found none. She knew she wouldn’t. What water boy would be fool enough to leave a jar behind?

By the time the girl finished her search, twilight shrouded the empty field in dark shadows. Shridula hurried to grab up the last bundle of grain. Its stalk tie had been knocked undone, and wheat spilled out across the ground. Quickly tucking the tie back together, Shridula struggled to balance the bundle up on her head. It shifted . . . and sagged . . . and sank down to her shoulders.

If you’d like, you can read the entire first chapter, but I think these opening paragraphs give you a sense of Shridula’s vulnerability, the quality that I believe won me to her right away.

Miraculously and without any preachiness, Kay navigates common pitfalls and delivers an ending that is not contrived, predictable, cliched, or overly simplified. This is a memorable story, exposing the light of God’s love in the midst of a dark world steeped in false religion.

Weaknesses. If you’re looking for literary prose, you won’t find it in this book. The writing is straightforward and crisp. Some might think of that as a strength rather than a weakness.

If you’re looking for sweet romance, you won’t find that in this book either. The story is far too realistic, exposing harsh realities, though in a matter-of-fact manner that reduces the horrific to the mundane. Perhaps that’s a strength, too, though I might wish the horrific dug a little deeper into my heart. It’s a hard thing to accomplish for a novelist, though, when the characters themselves, consistent with real life, accept their lot and suffer much of their abuse willingly or at least silently.

Recommendation. This is a must read for anyone willing to step out of the comfort of his or her own culture and to look at how limitless our sovereign God is. It’s a story that will hold your interest to the last page.

According to the FAA I must add, I received a courtesy copy of this book from the publisher as part of the CFBA blog tour.

Writing Dialogue – Develop Character Voice

I haven’t mentioned this I don’t think, but I’m putting fewer “writer posts” on A Christian Worldview of Fiction since I started my editing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework. But because I’m a writer and because I read a lot of writing related blogs, I can’t leave off the writing discussion for long.

So today, in thinking about a blog topic, I perused a few of other sites and came upon Kay Marshall Strom’s excellent post, “Write good dialogue,” she said.

Kay finished with this:

Okay, that’s my ”get started” list. Any dialogue hints you want to add?

I thought a minute and came up with one—characters need unique voices. I added that not-original bit of advice in the comments and started to illustrate. Then it hit me! No, this should be MY blog post.

Characters need to be different from one another and recognizable by what they say. Not cliched, however, or stereotypical.

So I decided I wanted a challenge. I want to write a number of lines of dialogue and see whether or not you can match each to the correct character. I’ll put the answers in the first comment. I’d love to know how many of them you got right and whether or not you think I made them too cliched.

Of course the real secret to good dialogue is sustaining a unique voice throughout a novel. It’s one thing to write a single line that may hold context clues to what character said those words, but another to write line after line that maintains a particular character’s diction, worldview, vocabulary, accent, occupation, history, and so on.

Still, I hope this exercise might serve to illustrate how dialogue should reveal character.

So here we go.

The characters:

    a. teacher
    b. sales clerk
    c. freelance writer
    d. detective
    e. hospital volunteer
    f. butler
    g. athlete
    h. car salesman
    i. high school student
    j. stand-up comic

The lines of dialogue:

    1. “Y’all having a good time tonight?”
    2. “Will there be anything else, madam?”
    3. “No way. She said it was due tomorrow?” That’s so unfair!
    4. “I have a favor to ask. Can we make the deadline somewhat flexible?”
    5. “I can tell you have a good eye for quality.”
    6. “Weren’t we supposed to go on break a half hour ago? My feet aren’t going to hold me up much longer.”
    7. “Attention please. I have an important announcement to make.”
    8. “Here you go, Mr. Jones. I’ve put your water on the table next to your bed.”
    9. “He’s doing another photo shoot? What’s up with that?”
    10. “Excuse me, sir, are you the gentlemen I spoke to on the phone?”
Published in: on June 16, 2010 at 2:22 pm  Comments (6)  
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Knowing God

I’m going to digress from my usual format in order to address some of the comments in the last two posts.

Fouzia, a Christian Pakistani woman, regularly walks her children to worship despite a terrorist attack on a Christian hospital that killed 70 people, despite the kidnapping and rape of a fourteen-year-old Christian who dared to share her faith with her classmates and would not convert to Islam as her captors demanded.

“We all feel sad,” [she said.]

And more afraid?

“And more afraid.”

But even as she spoke, Fouzia was gathering her children to go to church.

“Maybe it will not be my enemies who will be watching,” she said. “Maybe it will be other Christians. Maybe when they see us going to worship God and to pray, in spite of what all is happening, in spite of our fears, they will be encouraged to come along and worship with us.”

And what about the danger to herself and her family?

Fouzia simply said, “We will trust God.”

(true story and excerpt from Daughters of Hope by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett)

Then there was Yuan, a Christian in China who ministered throughout the week to the women in her area. She and her husband held an underground church in their home until he was arrested and imprisoned. Days later soldiers came to Yuan’s home and trashed it. They hauled her in and confiscated everything she owned before releasing her.

A neighbor took Yuan in, and she continued to visit the women because she wanted to be bold for her Savior just as her husband was.

Again she was arrested and fined. She said she had nothing to her name—they had already taken all she owned. No, they said, she still owned the shoes she wore. They removed them and crushed her feet with their heavy boots so that she could no longer go from house to house.

She was left to crawl back to her neighbors, but her ministry did not end.

Today she sill “stands” as a faithful witness. Women and children come to her bedside to hear her tell the story of a God who loves them and who sent his own Son to suffer and die for them.

(true story and excerpt from Daughters of Hope by Kay Marshall Strom and Michele Rickett)

What’s my point? As a number of commenters described their spiritual journey, God brought to my mind the parable recorded in Luke 8. As Jesus explained it to His disciples, He said some people are like seed that falls where rocks are and the rocks keep the roots from going down deep.

The rocks are temptations—the hard stuff that makes us want to look at our circumstances just as the people of Israel did on their way out of Egypt. They didn’t have food, water, or any way to defend themselves from their pursuers. Consequently, they wanted to quit, to go back to the way things were. Their roots weren’t deep.

But here’s Yuan and Fouzia and a host of other women who live where rocks abound yet they turn to God—the God of the Bible, without all the redaction or re-imaging—to be their comfort and their support. (For a beautiful post, reasonably short, on Christ and our suffering, read Rachel Starr Thomson’s post “Painful Perfection.”)

Could it be that simple faith is what we need, as Jesus said, and not mystical “centering prayer” or Scriptural gymnastics to make the text say something beyond the plain meaning of the words?

Here’s what I think. God wants to be found. He’s “bent over backwards” to reveal Himself—through prophets, living object lessons (that’s what Isaac was and what the Old Testament sacrifices were, what Joseph was, and David), through His Son, through His written word, through His Holy Spirit living in believers, and through the Church—His hands and feet in the world today.

Satan (yes, a real adversarial being who appears as an angel of light) is determined to muddy the waters. He is a liar and the Father of lies. He started by lying to Eve, first making her question what exactly God had said and ultimately contradicting God’s clear command.

On her behalf, she wasn’t there when God told Adam not to eat of the tree in the midst of the garden. Maybe she thought she misunderstood Adam when he related God’s words. Maybe she redefined them in her mind. What was “death,” after all? Not something she knew first hand. Was there even such a thing?

Sadly, even though Eve was deceived and Adam knowingly disobeyed, she suffered the same consequences he did. They were separated from the love of their lives. From the One who made sense of the world.

Their real problem wasn’t the rocky soil they now had to till or even their he said/she said attacks they started when God confronted them. Their real problem was their loss of relationship with their Creator.

This outcome is what Satan is after. He is loath to see God glorified. In his pride, he wants God’s place. He wants the esteem and honor that belong to Jesus. What better way than to belittle God and bring Jesus down.

So he lies about God today, just as he did with Eve. God doesn’t really mean what He says. He isn’t really a righteous Judge, he’s a wrathful monster at odds with his loving son. But no worry, he’s finally come around in the twenty-first century and repents of his previous brutality. He promises he’ll never do it again, certainly not for eternity.

Satan wishes.

The Call of Zulina – A Review

The CFBA September 2-4 feature, The Call of Zulina by Kay Marshall Strom (Abingdon Press), goes into the top five or so books I’ve read this year.

The Story. Grace Winslow is the daughter of a late 1700s West African slave trader and an African princess fearfully known among the locals as the lioness.

Because Grace’s father hungers for respect, he pays to have Grace raised in the “London house,” built and furnished in the English style, and educated by tutors in the ways of an English lady. However, the few English people Grace knows disdain her because of her African heritage.

Her princess mother who rules the home and ultimately the slave trade also disdains her for her uselessness. Her only value, her mother believes, is in marrying another slaver who will bring money and influence into the business.

When Grace’s childhood slave friend Yao decides to run away, Grace makes plans to follow him. Instead, she ends up on the road to Zulina, the fortress where captured Africans are held until they are sold and shipped around the world.

And so begins a set of circumstances that changes Grace’s world forever.

Strengths. Kay is an experienced writer, and even though this is her first novel, she is a talented word smith. She created a protagonist who has my sympathy early on. She painted a world that felt real, gritty, unique. She gave each character understandable motives and objectives which made them believable. The story has tension throughout—conflict amongst the slaves and with the slavers, traitors on both sides, and the smallest suggestion of romance to come.

Though this is a story about a hard subject, it is also a story of hope and triumph and brokenness and change. The themes are big and powerful.

Weaknesses. I don’t really see weaknesses, but I’ll mention a couple things that others might not love.

First, the story is told in the omniscient point of view. Contemporary writing instructors frown on this, often saying that modern day readers expect the intimacy of a limited point of view. For some readers, this all-knowing narrative style may seem foreign. (Example: “Obei also knew the language of the royal drums perfectly. But even he, the firstborn of the Great and Powerful King, did not know everything.”) However, because Kay Marshall Strom is a skilled writer, I think most readers will find the point of view an invisible device.

There are also some momentous events that occur “off stage.” To include them would have made the story more graphically violent, and it already is gritty. Some readers may feel the omission, others may feel relieved because of it.

The third issue is the beginning. The story unfolds in a leisurely fashion with the stage being set and the main players being introduced, some through backstory and flashbacks. Actually these elements are consistent with the omniscient voice, and I think they work, but someone unaccustomed to this style of writing may find the opening slow.

I hope not. But even if a reader thinks so, I would hope he or she persists because this is a gripping story. An important story.

Recommendation. I think The Call of Zulina is a must read. Its theme is important, its story, captivating.

Published in: on September 4, 2009 at 10:44 am  Comments (6)  
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Slavery in the Twenty-first Century?

Two weeks ago, a missionary my church is supporting spoke briefly about her work with International Justice Mission. She spoke of a thirteen year old girl who had been kidnapped with the intention of using her as a sex slave. This girl’s story had a happy ending because the kidnappers were caught and the girls under their control rescued. The girl is now back with her family.

I’ve heard from more than one source that there are more slaves worldwide today than at the height of the African slave trading days. Here are the facts IJM states:

• According to the United Nations Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, an estimated 20 million people were held in bonded slavery as of 1999.
• In 2004 there are more slaves than were seized from Africa during four centuries of trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Kevin Bales, Disposable People)
• In 1850 a slave in the Southern United States cost the equivalent of $40,000 today. According to Free the Slaves, a slave today costs an average of $90.
• Approximately two-thirds of today’s slaves are in South Asia. Human Rights Watch estimates that in India alone there are as many as 15 million children in bonded slavery.

One person I heard speak on the subject became involved in the fight against contemporary slavery because of stories about the Underground Railroad during the pre-Civil War era. He said he believed he would have been involved in freeing slaves if he had lived in America then. But if that was true, then he should be involved in freeing slaves today.

Sometimes we need to put ourselves in a horrific scene and imagine what we would do in order to help us know what to do about the horrific of our day. Kay Marshall Strom‘s novel The Call of Zulina, the CFBA feature the last half of this week, is a story that allows the reader to think more deeply about slavery than most of us would choose to. And that’s a good thing.

Books should challenge and inform as well as entertain. This one does. Kay mentions on her Web site that writing the biography of John Newton changed her life. She gives a link to the World Changer Movement—a crusade that actually sprang out of the movie about William Wilberforce.

IJM also encourages people to take action. On their Web site there’s a tab called “Get Involved.” The great thing is, one of their choices listed on that menu is “Prayer Partner.”

Not all of us are called to mission involvement. Not all of us have resources that allow us to give to all the causes we learn about that are worthy. Not all of us have time to spend beyond our current responsibilities. But we are all able to pray. And what better use of intercession is there than to stand for the most needy, the hurting and helpless, and ask our merciful Father to intervene on their behalf.

The Call of Zulina may not change my life, but it’s helping to expand my prayer concerns.

Meet Kay Marshall Strom

Kay Marshall StromI first met Kay Marshall Strom way back when I was in college. We both attended Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Since she was in my sister’s class, several years ahead of me, I didn’t know her well. However, I knew her well enough to remember her several decades later when I saw her at my first Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference.

With considerable nervousness (I was under the new-writer’s spell of admiration for published authors and seminar speakers!), I approached her at one of the meals and identified myself. She was so gracious and asked for an update on my family.

Soon after, though I’m shaky on the time line, I read an article Kay wrote for our alumni magazine. I was so impressed with her skillful writing and her depth of compassion and spiritual understanding.

I made a point from then on to sit at Kay’s table for at least one meal whenever I went to Mount Hermon, though my interests lay with all things fiction and Kay was a non-fiction instructor.

Then one year, Kay had a new book, written with Michele Rickett, that had just released – Daughters of Hope: Stories of Witness and Courage in the Face of Persecution (InterVarsity Press). I bought the book and found it to be a stunning, inspirational, challenging, revealing book about suffering Christians around the world. I can’t think of another book that has moved me to prayer more than this book.

Lo and behold, my path has once again crossed Kay’s, this time in the fiction world. The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is featuring her first novel, the beginning of a trilogy entitled Grace in Africa. Mind you, this had to be a stretching venture for an author of thirty-four non-fiction books, but the subject matter is in line with what I’ve come to expect from Kay.

I’ll save my review for later, but one thing you might be interested in: the story grew out of the biography Kay wrote of John Newton, author of the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Kay herself says John Newton opened her eyes. She goes on to say

My friends, we have never needed John Newton’s legacy more than today. For 200 years later, more people are enslaved than ever.

Any surprise, then, that The Call of Zulina is a story about slavery? I’ll be doing a review of the book later this week, but if you don’t want to wait, check out what the other CFBA participants are saying. (You can find a complete list at the CFBA blog). I suspect Kay Marshall Strom is an author you’ll want to remember.

Published in: on September 2, 2009 at 11:43 am  Comments Off on Meet Kay Marshall Strom  
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