Author: Tony Kriz
Illustrator: Jonathan Case
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
[Disclaimer: I was provided a reader's copy of Aloof through the Thomas Nelson BookLook Blogger program. I was not compensated for my review and I was not asked to write a positive review. My review is only to be fair and unbiased. And so it is.]
See also: The Parish Collective
I'm gonna be honest when I say that I really have no idea how I feel about this book. Kriz is about the same age as I am and, based on some of his anecdotes, has had some similar experiences in church and life as I have; although, while he seems to have grasped a theoretical atheism at some point in his life, I think I grasped a more practical atheism at some point. I don't say that lightly about myself because making such a confession might cast a negative light upon Jesus and I am not about that at all. As Kriz makes clear, this was more about himself than it was about God. Maybe what Kriz experienced was a practiced atheism and mine was simply an indifference towards God. I base that conclusion on the way I chose to conduct myself for a number of years after an incredibly difficult season of ministry that ended with my leaving local church ministry altogether and having no church home for the better part of 3 years. I'm not sure.
Whatever the case, Kriz belongs to an imaginary group of writers that I try really hard to understand and appreciate. Yet for some reason I cannot seem to fully do so. I say that in no small part because I have lived many of their experiences, I have suffered just as much if not more, I have wrestled equally with my doubts and fears, but for some reason I continue to wait upon the relief and peace they seem to have found after so many years of the same–a sort of rest and peace about where God has led me and a certain uncertainty about where the path may lead in the future. You can read that for what you want: jealousy? my own unresolved angst? my own sense of lostness–being 40something and caught between two generations and feeling the (sometimes misguided) compulsion to correct the generation that brought us up and the (equally strained) need to train up another generation correctly so they avoid all the missteps we have made? It's all so much a burden that people my age sense. Maybe the problem is that I see too much of myself in Kriz's book and I'm uncomfortable staring in that mirror too long.
All that aside, I will confess that I was immediately turned off when I opened the book and before I read anything else I was confronted with 6 pages worth of 'Praise for Aloof.' I'm all about praise and accolades for well written books, but 6 pages? Seems like overkill to me. OK. That's a small thing, but it's a thing nonetheless. If the book is good, slay with me with a couple of quotes and let it go. I'll find out for myself after I have read it.
So here's how this book went for me: By the time I arrived at page 96 I was still marking in the margins something like, "I'm still not sure what I'm reading about…" By the time I finished page 104, I was thinking, "Oh, another book by a well traveled, angst ridden, spoiled brat." I mean, seriously, by then I had read about his trips to the Philippines, to Bangkok, to Albania, and someplace in South America. It gets a bit tricky keeping track of the itinerary. He tries to help a few pages later, "Across the world, these buccaneer maps led up to places as exotic as the capital cities of the Middle East or as provincial as forgotten villages in Albania's rugged frontier. The destinations were always unexpected. The maps might even lead to the second floor of a Greek embassy" (111-112). Here I'll own my jealousy because God's buccaneer map for my life hasn't moved me beyond the tri-state area of Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan. I probably couldn't eat the food in those places anyhow. Maybe God has spoken to me after all.
But I still wonder why so many of these author who write these books feel so compelled to share all their travels to exotic places us mere mortals only dream in dreams we have in our dreams? I'd settle for a month long retreat at Lake Erie let alone the Cascades (p 144).
The first three parts of the book, and the fourth part to an extent, read like an autobiography of how a person came to something that might be called 'genuine faith.' I'm not sure what that means because the way he writes about his struggles only led me to believe he was never far off from God anyhow and I'm not sure that Kriz would use the word 'genuine' to describe where he ends the book because in his mind his faith was always genuine. So take that with a grain of salt. Or perhaps his quotation from A Grief Observed at the head of chapter 1 should have tipped me off as to the nature of the book. Kriz watched his nephew succumb to an inoperable tumor much like CS Lewis watched his wife also succumb to cancer. Maybe this is Kriz's version of A Grief Observed for another generation. Maybe it's both.
I didn't really 'get' the book until part 4 when Kriz started to think more 'theologically' about his story. The first three sections were too autobiographical for me because until I read this book I had never even heard of Tony Kriz. So his grief observed seemed too distant and I wasn't really able to attach myself to it quite the way I did when I first read Lewis' story (because I had read several other of Lewis' books by then). I wish it were different, but it's not. I'm not sure that's necessarily an indictment of the book as much as I think it might be a limitation to those Kriz may wish to read this story. Those who know him will undoubtedly be touched. Those who do not know him might not. I wasn't. I was simply unable to attach myself emotionally to this story–even though I share many of Kriz's experiences up to, and including, watching a loved member of my family succumb to a brain tumor at the age of 30, being terminated from a ministry position, near destitution, and wandering in and out of serious conversations with God for a long while.
Part 4, then, 'Reanimation', is the part I like the best because it was the only part of the book that left me with any hope. I speak for myself here and not a single other person who may read this book. I remember preaching a deep series of sermons one year–about a year or two before being asked to resign my ministry. The series was all about suffering for Jesus–something I took seriously when I was safely behind a pulpit; something I failed at miserably when I had to regroup after my security went to someone else. I went through all the hows and whys and questions about what I did or didn't do and second guessing and angry diatribes at God and shaking my fist and weeping and quoting Job and trusting and faithlessness–I went through it all. It's a lonely time when God is gone or feels gone and one just wants Jesus to hold them. It's a lonely thing to feel abandoned by the only person in the universe we thought would never, ever fail us or leave us or forsake us. It's a terrible thing to feel so forsaken. It's difficult to see clearly when blinded by so much anger, bitterness, and weeping. Tears cleanse and blind.
In the fourth part of the book, I think Kriz does a yeoman's work (I know that's a bit antiquated) bringing home all the angst and turmoil of the first three parts and showing, however quickly, that God isn't so quiet as we sometimes think him to be. And like Kriz, "…slowly I am learning to more fully submit…" (193). Which is another thing very difficult to do.
I come full circle and confess that I'm not sure what to do with this book. I relate to it in many ways; it aggravates me in a number of other ways. The main question for me is this: Does the value I find in the four part of the book outweigh the struggle I had with the first three parts of the book? Can the weight of hope vanquish the weight of despair, the angst of God's hiddenness? The short answer is…yes. I say yes because, if the truth be told, the first three sections can be the story of any person who reads the book. Change the names, change the places, change a little of this or that and what one ends up with his their own story. And all of us need the fourth part, the hope part, the part where the scales fall from our eyes and we experience the full weight of God's presence in 'ten-thousand places.' Why? Because we all go through these things in life, because all of us have our own buccaneer map we are called to follow. And if I am honest with myself and those who read this review, then I have to confess that I have squandered most of the grace God has poured out on my life and then I have turned around and shook my fist at him wondering where he was or why he didn't give me more, more, more!
That's not God's fault; that's mine. Learning to own that is a long struggle.
In the end, I think Tony Kriz tells the truth: God hides, but that doesn't mean he is not there. Those who have eyes to see and ears to hear will do those very things. In the end I agree with Kriz that God has 'created a system of mostly silence' (218). There are times when God does speaks with deafening volume, as through a megaphone and yet as a whisper in the midst of a storm. We do well to tune our ears.
This is a helpful book that many people will enjoy. They might struggle a wee bit through the first three sections of the book, but for the hope that is found in the fourth section, I think the struggle is worth the effort.
PS–I enjoyed very much the illustrations by Jonathan Case. They were a great addition to the work and complimented the writing well. They were neither an intrusion nor unnecessary but rather well placed and well done.