Challies, Voskamp, and All Us Girls

Tim Challies found out the hard way last week that criticizing Ann Voskamp makes you a lot of enemies – fast. So let me start by saying that I have no problem with Ann Voskamp. If you want to read her, please do. I’m an English major, and I understand the draw of a well written book. In fact, Ann Voskamp’s style reminds me of Joan Didion’s in The Year of Magical Thinking – a book also dealing with grief (far from any sort of Christianity), which I found fascinating.

What concerns me about the whole situation is that Tim Challies had to write his review. It’s Reformed evangelicals who read his blog, and he directs his writing to them. The fact that he felt burdened enough to write the review 18 months after the book came out, means that the Reformed community is still dealing with it. The fact that the review was explanatory and critical means that we are not dealing with it very well. Neither Challies nor Voskamp are really at issue here. We readers are. It’s our fault the review was written at all.

If we evangelical women could identify pantheism, mysticism, and poor ecclesiology as we enjoyed the helpful elements in the book, Challies would not have needed to write the review. If we ourselves were passionate about loving Christ and enjoying our rich, theological heritage, we would probably not have found this work so attractive or deep. We need to have love in our analyzing, but I have seen no analyzing from anyone except Challies. That is my biggest concern.

In the dozens of times Voskamp’s name came up in my news feed, not once did a single caring woman note a concern that perhaps going to a friend’s house to celebrate communion is not biblical. No one, including me, lovingly pointed out the dangers of Roman Catholic mysticism. Nobody – not a single evangelical female – wrote any kind, thoughtful, soundly biblical evaluation of a book that mixes the helpful with the unhelpful. It was unmixed admiration, appreciation, and adulation.

And that is very disturbing. Thousands of women who have grown up in Reformed churches, listened to expository preaching their whole lives, are familiar with their catechisms, and do their devotions every day, allowed a sad story, spiritual passion, and unique writing style to cloud their theological discernment. That is troubling because taking in this theology without identifying it has serious implications, not only for your personal life, but also how you teach your children, view the church, and think about God. We can learn things from Voskamp’s fervor but we need to have a filter in place to catch the unbiblical expressions of it.

Thankfully, Ann Voskamp is a believer – she believes in the substitutionary, penal atonement that Christ made for her. But the same unthinking approach to her errors which is plaguing the evangelical world is what we are warned against very bluntly in Scripture: to stay away from people who have the appearance of godliness, but deny its power. There are “Christian” authors who fall into this category, denying the most essential truths in artistic prose. “Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:5-7). Ann Voskamp does not fall into this category of hypocritical deceivers. She is genuine. But there are mixed elements in her work – she is not theologically careful, and at some points is unbiblical.

Are evangelical women able to sort the wheat from the chaff? It is so easy, being the emotional creatures that we are, to engage a book (or blog, or talk show, or magazine article, etc.), on a purely or even largely emotional level. And that is so dangerous. Emotion itself is not wrong; emotion taking over thought is. We always need to be thinking and evaluating biblically. Why did we over look serious theological problems in Voskamp’s book in order to take the helpful parts when we couldn’t see past thoughtless wording in Challies’ review in order to take the essential corrections? If we can’t identify the problems in a book (or blog, or sermon, or whatever it may be), how do we know we’re not going down the same path?

Challies, though he might have been harsh towards Ann Voskamp, was being compassionate to the thousands of women who were unaware of the theological problems in her book and blog. So I’m praying that when their families share a meal, Challies will be able to give Voskamp some biblical encouragement and theological direction – in the most loving way possible. Because while there are helpful elements in Voskamp’s writing, what we need are men like Challies: “…shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:11-14).

What are we women doing for our own serious, ongoing theological education? Is our passion for Christ flowing from biblical grounding expressed in ways that accord with our Reformed heritage? Absolutely, Voskamp’s passion for Christ is a rebuke to dead orthodoxy. But is the answer leaving orthodoxy? Dead orthodoxy is a serious problem – just as serious as Voskamp’s errors are. But the answer is neither going into mysticism/pantheism or staying dead and loveless in our correctness. The Reformed community has such a rich heritage of passionate love for Christ, pursuit of personal holiness, love for the brethren, concern for the lost – I’m not sure why we’re leaving it alone and going elsewhere for spiritual models.