Sunday, March 3, 2013

Faith and (Non)Fiction

For the past several years, I have held a monthly book study at my congregation, called "Faith and Fiction."  I'm an English major, and the book club title came from my conviction that inside every really good story is a faith story of some kind, either overt or subliminal.  Great literature covers all of the theological questions:  redemption, epiphanies, sin, suffering and brokenness, forgiveness -- you name it.

Rarely have we ventured outside of the fiction genres (although we have read a handful of memoirs).  We've read some classics, children's books and a couple of mysteries as well.  But this month we read a piece of science writing:  The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

To be fair, "Henrietta" is not just science writing -- it's also the story of Henrietta Lacks, her history and her family.  But, also to be fair, it's not fiction, either.  And though the book came highly recommended, it met with mixed reviews.  Some people thought that the science writing was dry; they were interested in the story of Henrietta's family, didn't find some other parts of the story awfully compelling.  Others were fascinated by the science, the history and the family's story.  Some considered the book a window to racism and poverty as well as the development of scientific breakthroughs.

Near the close of the conversation, one woman held up her book and said, "What does this have to do with 'Faith and Fiction'?  It was a fair question, given that we had gone off-genre, so to speak; we weren't anywhere near fiction.  But what about faith?

The author is pretty open about her lack of religious faith; we all thought that by the end of the book, she at least grew to appreciate the faith that sustained the Lacks family.  And we admitted that faith played a large role in the book, especially in how the family made peace with what had happened to their mother, and that somehow, God had used her cells for a greater purpose, to heal people and to save lives.  They were able to let go of their anger and see a wider purpose in Henrietta's life, and in their lives.  Especially, Henrietta's daughter Deborah, when she died, seemed to have found a peace which came both from finding out more about her mother, and also from finding out about the good that her mother's cells had done.

As for me, there is one more part of this book, not overtly connected to faith, that gave me pause, and made me think about faith.  And that is the story of the author of the book, Rebecca Skloot.  She chronicles not only the story of Henrietta's cells, and the story of Henrietta's life, but she also her own journey to get to know the Lacks family.  I caught myself several times thinking about the patience she had to have in order to get this story, to get to know and interview the family, to gain their trust.  The Lacks family did not trust people;  but Rebecca Skloot did not give up.  She was tenacious.  And she did gain the trust of the Lacks family.  Maybe they could see that she really did care about them, and was not just interested in using them.

I caught myself thinking about the patience and tenacity of God in search of us; about our ongoing lack of trust in God's purposes (sometimes justifiable, I'll admit).  I caught myself thinking as well about the mission of the church.  What is missing from most evangelism efforts, I think, is not a better method or strategy.  What is missing is tenacity, the patience necessary to gain people's trust, the conviction that what we have to share is really that life-giving that we need to share it.

What is missing, at least most of the time, is that kind of love.

So, I'll remember not only Henrietta Lacks, but also Rebecca Skloot, who wanted the world to hear this story, and who loved Henrietta's family.
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