Category Archives: Memoir

Lamin Sanneh: Culture, Translation and the Life of Faith

Summoned from the Margins: Homecoming of an African, Lamin Sanneh  (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2012) $24

Summoned from the MarginsMy claim is that no one language can substitute for the truth of God, that as children of God we learn and speak the language of faith always imperfectly and provisionally, and that the divine perfection is beyond cultural advantage or disadvantage.

This is the heart of the book, Summoned from the Margins, by Lamin Sanneh, Professor of World Christianity at Yale University.

Born in Gambia, trained at Edinburgh and Harvard universities, Dr. Sanneh has made the transition from Islam to Christianity, from Methodist to Catholic, over the space of half a century. His book is the exploration of a conversion from unlikely places to unimagined ones: summoned by a Savior to a religion about which he had little knowledge, and a marginal one in a society where the everyday came into tangible contact with, and was largely dictated by, Islamic thought.  Along the way, Dr. Sanneh explores how Christianity dialogues with Islam, and why the two religions often clash in dialogue, coming as they do from two paradigms that often speak past each other.

Following a post-secondary education in The Gambia, Sanneh decided to apply for the full scholarship offered to students at that time by the United States government for enrollment at an American university. He arrived in Virginia in 1963 into the turmoil and conflict of the civil rights movement. “…Nothing in our background prepared us for America: we had no value system to deal with race, and no fund of personal experience to draw on for understanding or self-preservation.” Nevertheless, he continued on in pursuit of his studies, realizing along the way that his interest in history matched up with his religious interest. Continue reading

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Sex, Shame and Healing: A Memoir of a Sex Surrogate

An Intimate Life: Sex, Love, and My Journey as a Surrogate Partner, Cheryl T. Cohen Green with Lorna Garano (Soft Skull Press, 2012)  $15.95

an-intimate-life-sex-love-and-my-journey-as-a-surrogate-partnerFollowing Helen Hunt’s portrayal of her in last year’s The Sessions, Cheryl Cohen Green decided to write a book to better explain her profession as a sex surrogate. Based in San Francisco and a student of the Masters and Johnsons model of sex therapy, Cohen Greene offers a series of vignettes interspersed with her memoirs of a good Catholic girl who grew up to disappoint and frustrate her parents. A familiar and cliché trope perhaps, but given the nature of her work a curiously unique one. What does one do as a sex surrogate? And how is that different from prostitution?

Unfortunately, Cohen Greene’s memoir doesn’t answer either of those questions. I’ve read several articles, books, and essays on sex surrogacy and while this is certainly one of the more human treatments of the profession, the book suffers from the author’s inability to expressly name how her work differs from prostitution – a fact that she readily admits neither The Sessions nor, in her final paragraph, she herself has been able to resolve. Continue reading

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Does Jesus Really Love Me? [Video]

Does Jesus Really Love Me? A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, Jeff Chu (Harper, 2013) $26.99

does jesus really love meJeff Chu’s book, Does Jesus Really Love Me? charts a new course in the emerging conversation at the intersection of sexuality, politics and Christianity in America. It is a not exactly a memoir (“My life is not interesting enough to warrant a memoir,” he told me). Nor is it a historial or theological exploration of the topic of homosexuality. It is journalism of the best sort—where the journalist does not pretend to be writing in a vacuum, unrelated to the topic. In this book you know the author is present. You feel his pain, you sense his amusement. You are aware, from page to page, that he is personally invested in these stories. The title calls this a “pilgrimage” after all, and pilgrimages are personal. But he is also remarkably fair and generous—something I ask him about in the video below.

With remarkable clarity Chu navigates the widely divergent terrain of Christianity in American to try to understand how faithful Christians are approaching this controversial subject. To his New York Times reviewer, Dan Savage, Chu is far too generous with the Westboro Baptist Church and critical of the Metropolitan Community Church, and to Christianity Today reviewer, Jenell Paris, Chu is, in the end, too critical of the church; too testimonial when he describes the church as “our Lord’s dismembered and terribly dishonored remains.” All this, perhaps, proving the old adage that you must be doing something right when you offend everyone.

I sat down with Jeff Chu following a reading and Q & A at Fuller Theological Seminary, hosted by the student led OneTable organization. You can listen in on our conversation in the video below.


Torn and Not Mended

Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Gays-vs.-Christians Debate, Justin Lee. (Jericho Books, 2012) $21.99

It all started with the kid in high school who called me “God Boy.”

Torn_Justin LeeJustin Lee, co-founder, director, and public face of the Gay Christian Network, has been building bridges between evangelical Christians and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people since the late-1990s. Torn, his memoir, describes his work as a gay Christian to increase understanding between two communities that have clashed in churches, the media, and the courts.

As Justin explains, his goals for writing and advocacy are to elevate love, transcend too-common battles, and work with individual people. In part because of his focus on the individual—a natural focus for an evangelical whose religious tradition emphasizes personal piety—Justin doesn’t offer much comment on the systems of custom, culture, or law that nurture individuals, shape their beliefs, limit how they read their scriptures, and govern whether they feel free to accept people different from them.

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Two New Memoirs

Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Lauren F. Winner (HarperOne) $24.99
The Man in the Empty Boat, Mark Salzman (Open Road) $24.99

So much human energy is expended ameliorating the pain of simply existing in the world. This pain is also the source of a great deal of creativity, as almost every artist will attest. Memoirs give us a beautiful, poignant and sometimes humorous window into the struggle we all face even if we’re not all so adept at expressing it: what to make of the world and our place in it? This is certainly true of two new memoirs – for somewhat different reasons.

Still is a poetic and brutally honest exploration of love and loss from popular author, Lauren Winner. She gives  us a rare window into faith in its mid-life. Not Winner’s mid-life—she’s still a ways from that yet—but faith’s middle stage, where “first love” wears thin, much the way the initial butterflies stop fluttering so frequently in a romantic relationship. Most experienced couples will tell you that love really begins at this point. The same is true of faith. In fact, by definition, faith begins at the point when the evidence and emotion of religious life are against you. Winner speaks frankly about her divorce, loneliness and the crisis of belief in her characteristically lyrical way. For example she tells a story of her friend’s confirmation, at the age of 12.

A few days before the confirmation service, she told her father—the pastor of the church—that she wasn’t sure she could go through with it. She didn’t know that she really believed everything she was supposed to believe, and she didn’t know that she should proclaim in front of the church that she was ready to believe it forever. “What you promise when you are confirmed,” said Julian’s father, “is not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you are confirmed is that that is the story you will wrestle with forever” (172).

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