Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Book Review: Craving Grace

In the spirit of Lisa Velthouse's searing honesty in her new memoir, Craving Grace:

There was a tiny, weird part of me that didn't want to like this book.

I went to college with Lisa. We weren't really friends, just acquaintances, though I remember her as one of the first people I spent time with during my first week on campus as a very lonely freshman. She seemed to have already amassed a gaggle of friends, and I was wistful. I learned that night that she was the Brio Girl, and though I previously had no idea what Brio was, I was duly impressed. And jealous.

When her first book was published a couple of years later, I was jealouser still. The part of me that was dying of curiosity to read Saving My First Kiss lost out to the part of me that resented the fact that a girl I knew—a girl my age—was a published author. I'd dreamed of being a Real! Life! Author! ever since middle school, when I wrote a letter to Ann M. Martin and she responded. Here was Lisa, published at 21, established as a role model for young girls and doing public speaking all over the country—the same set of giftings and interests I had, with the opportunities I lacked but longed for. It was enough to make a prideful college senior not buy the book out of spite.

Did I really just admit that?

And that's the question I found myself asking over and over as I read Craving Grace: Did she really just admit that? It wasn't so much that the thoughts and actions Lisa described were so appalling, because every time I began to raise my eyebrows in judgment, it didn't take long to spot myself in her confession. It was that I couldn't believe she'd own up to such...carnality.

That's not to give a false impression of this book as titillating in its description of sin; it isn't. It's simply that for Lisa to recount her deepest thoughts the way she did took a lot of courage, a lot of humility. I tend to pride myself on being vulnerable and honest—but I typically do it in broad generalizations. The specificity with which Lisa shares the ugliness of her heart is often uncomfortable. Because it is familiar.

Shortly before I read Craving Grace, I read a profound blog post by Lisa that encapsulates exactly what her memoir succeeds in doing:
To write one’s self honestly — to take a day, a month, a year, whatever, and record what actually happened — is not a pretty experience. It’s especially harrowing for those of us who assume we are mostly good. When the veil comes off, when the real thoughts and events and conversations are put to paper, we find that we are not the delightful and winsome people we’d like to think we are. Sometimes we don’t even come close. This is why one of the biggest challenges in writing memoir is presenting the self-character fairly: not skimping on ugly portions, and not giving extra emphasis to attractive ones. There are times when the allure of over- and under-stating can feel constant.

At a most basic level, each of us would like to believe that we are not so flawed as our actions would prove. We’d like to believe we are better, and we’d like to be seen as better. But the gospel of Christ can free us from the desire to masquerade. In him, there’s no need for anything more — no exaggerated trimmings, no theatrical frills — because he is it, and with him we have enough and then some. His light falls on and around and through our sinful realities, and that illuminated darkness is a story worth telling every time. His presence puts meaning in our unseemly and bare details, and makes them spellbinding.
That's the beauty of Craving Grace. As the spotlight falls on Lisa, most of the time, it doesn't flatter her. (She actually is beautiful, at least from what I know, and really no more self-centered than the rest of us; it's just that the way she exposes her sinful heart in this book is more raw than the rest of us dare to let the world see.) Instead, the stories she tells magnify Christ and the sweetness of His grace.

All that to say...I loved the book. “Courageous” is one of the words that came to mind most frequently, in light of Lisa's transparency. But Lisa isn't just honest for authenticity's sake; she uses her honesty to relate the beautiful truths she learned about God along the way.

I did have a few minor complaints/concerns. First, it felt like Lisa was awfully derogatory toward her first book. On one hand, in the context of Craving Grace, I understand where that comes from as far as her journey out of legalism. On the other hand, I wonder how that will affect girls who responded to the first book's message. In her desire to emphasize grace and tear down the “good Christian girl who has to earn God's favor” religion she'd built, Lisa almost seemed to tear down what I think is still valid, not-necessarily-legalistic advice about purity and premarital relationships. Not having read her first book, I'm sort of speculating here, but not too wildly, I don't think.

I will also admit that it kind of seemed a little too convenient that God was sweet when Lisa got what she wanted and the pieces of her life started falling into place. On the other hand—does my skepticism here merely reflect my own warped understanding of God's character? Am I simply too cynical to accept at face value the reality that God lavishly blesses His children with good gifts that they have earnestly desired, even when their desires were often idolatrous?

Which brings me to another concern: While the gospel *was* very clear (yay!), I did notice that Lisa seemed to define sin solely on a horizontal level. Any talk of sin was focused on screwing up in relationships with other people; there wasn't (to my recollection) mention of the underlying idolatry, of sin as an offense against God. While I think that's a serious point of theology, I do recognize that this book is a memoir, not a theological treatise.

Finally, I am familiar with—and appreciate—the creative nonfiction convention of jumping back and forth in a seemingly disjointed yet artistic way. And I think for the most part Lisa used it well (the book alternates between events of three-years-ago and present-at-the-time-of-writing). But I kept flipping back, trying to orient myself. Mostly I was confused about the actual sweets fast(s). Were there multiple (failed) attempts? It's not exactly clear.

Regardless of these minor quibbles, it's really a lovely book. I was hooked from the beginning; the chapter titles alone were brilliant. And the writing delivered on what the table of contents promised. Many times I marked poignant turns of phrase and vivid metaphors. Lisa provides lots of sweet morsels to chew on in her narratives about encountering the God of extravagant grace.

So, to conclude the world's most long-winded book review: I thoroughly enjoyed and would recommend Craving Grace. And...stick around, because Lisa has agreed to do an author interview here on my blog. Lord willing, I'll be posting a Q&A with her sometime in the next couple of weeks. [Update: Read part 1 and part 2 of my interview with Lisa.]

[full disclosure: Tyndale House provided me with a complimentary copy of this book to review]

1 comment:

Lisa Velthouse said...

Amy, I've just now had the chance to get online and read your lovely review. Thank you! Your honesty is inspiring here, and I'm glad you enjoyed the book despite partially-not wanting to. :)

Fair reviews are hard to come by, and even harder when coming from people who know the author even slightly. I appreciate your taking the time and effort to review my book so thoroughly. The critiques are helpful for the next project, should there be another. And if you're still looking for publishing contacts and connections, you've got one here.
Lisa Velthouse