The most critical pushback I have experienced for the story of Stronger than Death has been from American Christians. We are a hard group to please!
I told a story and tried to be as faithful as possible to the research, interviews, letters, and photographs used to uncover that story. But I’m telling the story of a woman I never met, who is now dead. There is, by necessity, interpretation.
I also told a story which intersects with my own life, which was why I made the ultimate decision to place myself in the book, something I tried hard to avoid at first. This means at times I interact with the story I’m telling. Some readers told me they wished I had presented my own opinions about Annalena’s choices more firmly, or that I had pointed out where I (or they, or they assumed that I) disagreed with her thoughts or behavior. Maybe they’re right, I’m not sure. This isn’t my story and it isn’t a story of a worldview or a religious view in the way some readers hold it. It is Annalena’s, filtered through mine. I stand by what I wrote, which does make some people with some worldview uncomfortable.
This is not a missionary biography, which some readers read it as, because she was a Christian Italian living internationally and because I am a Christian American living internationally. But Annalena said herself that she was not a missionary. It isn’t a “how-to” book of how to live among people of a different religion and culture or of how to treat sick people or of how to develop systems of care or of how to change people’s minds about religion. Readers don’t have to agree with her choices, I don’t agree with all her choices. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read her story. If I could only read things I agreed with, well, that doesn’t leave me with much of anything and would be pretty boring. When I read things I disagree with, I am forced to respond to it, forced to figure out why I don’t agree, what I might do differently. This is what living abroad does for me, I live among people who see the world very differently to how I see it. This is fantastic for personal growth.
This is not a book that presents “The Gospel,” meaning it does not present a step by step guide of becoming a Christian as Evangelicals understand it. There is no Bridge Illustration, no Romans Road, no Sinner’s Prayer. Which I am comfortable with for all kinds of reasons I won’t go into here (teaser for Book Two!).
There is just a story of a woman who chose radical love both for people and for Jesus. She took the words of Jesus seriously, more seriously than almost anyone else I’ve read about or known. Give to those who ask. You can’t serve both God and money. Blessed are the poor. And I do find that inspiring.
Imagine if we all did that: chose radical love. What a world! We might not be so angry, broken, and divided.
I do know that some people wish I had written a more religious book while others wish I had written a more scientific book and others wish I had written a “how-to” book and others wish I wasn’t a white woman writing about a white woman in Africa (there is a whole chapter to address that).
I wrote the book I wrote. I will end by letting one reader’s words stand. This was written down after I gave a talk at a school in Djibouti. The person who wrote it read it out loud during a small group discussion afterwards. I asked for permission to photograph it because I found the words so moving.