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Is This “a Holy Experience” or a Common One? Review Article

Andy Wilson

One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, by Ann Voskamp. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, 240 pages, $16.99.

Recently, during a period in which my wife underwent surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation for cancer, several friends recommended that we take a look at the writings of Ann Voskamp, author of the popular blog “A Holy Experience” and the New York Times bestselling book One Thousand Gifts. I only had to read the first two pages of her book to understand why her writings connect with people who are suffering. The book begins with Voskamp recounting the tragic death of her little sister when Voskamp herself was only a little girl. In the pages that follow, she writes about the effect that this and other tragedies had upon her faith, and she explains how she eventually opened herself up to God’s grace. The “dare” in the book’s subtitle refers to a challenge she issued to herself, prompted by a friend’s suggestion, to deal with her discontentment by making a list of a thousand things for which she is thankful. As she begins to write this “gratitude journal,” she discovers that eucharisteo (Greek for “I give thanks”) is the “holy grail” (34) to finding fullness and joy in life. In her own words, she came to see that “I would never experience the fullness of my salvation until I expressed the fullness of my thanks every day, and eucharisteo is elemental to living the saved life” (40).

Voskamp’s emphasis upon being thankful is something of which we all need to be reminded. Gratitude is indeed at the heart of the Christian life. That being said, I have concerns about how she makes gratitude into a means by which she can enrich her experience of salvation. She sees eucharisteo (does she use the Greek because it sounds more mysterious?) as a mystical ladder by which she can ascend to a more profound experience of God’s grace. Gratitude is treated as the magic key that unlocks each moment so she can see God’s presence in it and live more fully. For example, she ponders a soap bubble in her kitchen sink and writes:

This is where God is.... It’s not the gifts that fulfill, but the holiness of the space. The God in it. Far curvature of the bubble eddies, violet sliding down. This is supreme gift, time, God Himself framed in moment ... Thanks makes now a sanctuary. (69, 70)

Another concern has to do with the way Voskamp discusses God’s agency in relation to our suffering. She refers to the trials and tragedies that befall her and her loved ones as “this moment’s bread” (80), gifts that are to be received with thanksgiving. Of course, Scripture does tell us that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). But Voskamp tends to blur the distinction between God’s direct and indirect government of what takes place in this world. She talks about the evils that befall us as good gifts from God that only feel bad to us (95). At some points, it even sounds as though she is denying the reality of evil. She writes:

The God of the Mount of Transfiguration cannot cease His work of transfiguring moments—making all that is dark, evil, empty into that which is all light, grace,

full.... Is there anything in this world that is truly ugly? That is curse? (99)

Well, yes, there is. Affirming God’s providential control over all that takes place in the world does not require that we say that nothing truly bad ever happens. Christians believe that evil has a real existence because we affirm both divine sovereignty and creaturely responsibility. In the words of Louis Berkhof:

Second causes are real, and not to be regarded simply as the operative power of God. It is only on condition that second causes are real, that we can properly speak of a concurrence or co-operation of the First Cause with secondary causes. This should be stressed over against the pantheistic idea that God is the only agent working in the world.[1]

While God causes all things to work together for the ultimate good for those who belong to Christ, it is not accurate to say that “All is grace” (100). As we see so clearly in the story of Joseph and his brothers, God is not the author of evil, but he is able to use it to bring about his good purposes for his children (see Gen. 45:48; 50:20).

Voskamp’s confusion in this area sometimes causes her to interpret her experiences and the Scriptures in some rather odd ways. In one section, she describes a fight between two of her children at the breakfast table (it involved toast being thrown into someone’s face) and concludes that the real problem is her inability to see the situation as a gift from God (125). In another section, she writes that

eucharisteo is how Jesus, at the Last Supper, showed us to transfigure all things—take the pain that is given, give thanks for it, and transform it into a joy that fulfills all emptiness. I have glimpsed it: This, the hard eucharisteo. The hard discipline to lean into the ugly and whisper thanks to transfigure it into beauty. (100)

Really? The Lord’s Supper teaches us to transfigure ugliness into beauty? Where is that imperative in the New Testament accounts of the institution of this sacrament? The only imperative that I see is the one that instructs us to do this in remembrance of the unique redemptive work that Christ accomplished on the cross. The Lord’s Supper is about proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. It is not a picture of how we can use thanksgiving to transform our trials into things of beauty.

I suspect that one of the things that appeals to many of Voskamp’s readers is her unconventional writing style. While One Thousand Gifts is prose, it often reads like poetry. Her husband is the Farmer; her children are the Tall-Girl, Little-One, Tall-Son, Boy-Man, Small-Son, and Hope-Girl. Her writing is impressionistic, employing a descriptive style that evokes subjective and sensory impressions in the minds of her readers. She comes across as authentic and open, qualities that twenty-first-century Americans hold in high regard. That being said, some readers might find it a little pretentious when the act of making a pizza is described with a sentence like this:

I roll out the dough, sprinkle the ring cheese on round pizza thin. I feel how the sun lies down warm across hands and how thanks soaks through the pores. I think how God-glory in a cheese ring might seem trifling. (58)

That’s just it. It does seem trifling. And this is not just a matter of Voskamp having a deep appreciation for good pizza (who doesn’t?). This is how she writes about everything, because she is looking for God in everything. The problem, however, is that while God is indeed omnipresent, there is nothing in the Bible to suggest that he uses the material world as the vehicle through which he delivers saving knowledge of himself. As Michael Horton points out, “The question is not where God is present (by itself relatively uninteresting when we are talking about an omnipresent deity), but where God is present for us, in peace and safety rather than condemnation and destruction.”[2] It is the gospel, not nature, that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

Voskamp sees writing, along with photography (one of her other pursuits), as among “the most sacred acts conceivable” (61). But is this true? Are writing and photography really sacred pursuits? The Bible certainly calls us to glorify God in our vocations and avocations, but this does not mean that all of life is sacred. The fall of man resulted in a separation of the cultic and cultural aspects of life into the distinct categories of the sacred and the common (or profane). Meredith Kline explains:

Though man’s total life and labor, his cultural and his cultic functioning, are religious, the distinction between the cultural and cultic dimensions, present from the beginning, did provide a formal groundwork for the sacred-profane distinction that afterwards emerged in the fractured postlapsarian world. With the exception of one or two notable situations, God’s servants find themselves after the Fall in a common grace situation where their cultural functions are not holy but profane. Nevertheless, they recognize that even these profane functions are to be carried out under God’s mandate as service to him for his glory and thus are thoroughly religious.[3]

I realize that Voskamp would disagree with this, holding instead to the view expressed in the quote from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin that stands at the head of one of her chapters: “Nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see” (122). But does this really square with the teaching of Scripture? The apostle Paul said that “we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:18). He also wrote, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). Jesus said that his “kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). And the book of Revelation tells us that it will not be until Christ’s second coming that this declaration will be made: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord” (Rev. 11:15). There is a distinction between Christ’s kingdom and this present world, between the holy and the common. Of course, as Christians we are called to perform both our religious duties and our common functions for the sake of God’s glory. But the category of the sacred should be reserved for the church’s worship and ministry, because these are the things through which God delivers saving grace and sets his people apart as holy.

Undoubtedly, the most shocking part of One Thousand Gifts is the chapter in which Voskamp describes her relationship with God by employing sexual language, telling her readers of her discovery (on a trip to Paris, of course) of “how to make love to God” (201). Now, it is true that Ephesians 5 teaches that marriage is a typological picture of Christ’s relationship with his church. It is also true that some interpreters have taken the sensuous poetry of the Song of Solomon as an allegory of Christ’s love for the church. But Voskamp’s search for intimacy with God owes more to medieval mysticism than it does the Bible. Hers is a quest for a vision of what Martin Luther described as Deus nudus (God naked), God as he is in his own nature and majesty. This stands in sharp contrast to the Scriptural teaching that God “dwells in unapproachable light” (1 Tim. 6:16) and that we are to be content with the fact that “the secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). The mystical quest for God is doomed because, as Herman Bavinck explains:

The distance between the Creator and the creature is much too great for human beings to perceive God directly. The finite is not capable of containing the infinite ... all revelation is mediate. No creature can see or understand God as he is and as he speaks in himself.[4]

Voskamp’s mysticism is very evident in her approach to the material world, which she sees “as the means to communion with God” (16). One example of this is seen in her description of gazing up at a harvest moon one night: “Has His love lured me out here to really save me? I sit up in the wheat stubble, drawn. That He would care to save. Moon face glows. We are head to head. I am bare; He is bare. All Eye sees me” (115). This goes well beyond the biblical declaration that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). For Voskamp, the common experiences of daily life are the key to enjoying communion with God. As a result, her version of eucharistic piety looks more like an attempt to ascend to God through her experiences than a grateful embrace of the good news that “ ‘the word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)” (Rom. 10:8). To her credit, she never goes to the extreme of pursuing an entirely churchless approach to the Christian life, but by making her subjective experience of God the main thing, she follows the path of pietism and its dissatisfaction with the outward, ordinary, and objective means of grace.

The basic problem with Voskamp’s book is the fact that her “holy experience” is not really holy but common. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with the things that belong to the common sphere. I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t be thankful for them. I’m a big fan of the common, whether we are talking about pizza or a full moon or a beautiful city. The common sphere provides mankind with innumerable subjects for creative exploration and countless reasons to give thanks. But Voskamp approaches the material world, and all that she experiences in it, as the means to communion with God rather than the context in which that communion is enjoyed. This is a point of significant confusion. The common sphere does a great job at being common, but it is seriously miscast when it is forced into the role of the holy.

Endnotes

[1] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1939), 172.

[2] Michael S. Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Know, 2008), 109.

[3] Meredith G. Kline, Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (Overland Park, KS: Two Age Press, 2000), 67.[4]

[5] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 309–10.

Andy Wilson is the pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Laconia, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, November, 2012.

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