Book Review: Becoming All Things

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead to Lasting Connections Across Cultures

By Michelle Ami Reyes

Becoming All Things: How Small Changes Lead To Lasting Connections Across Cultures by [Michelle Reyes, Thabiti Anyabwile]

I am a white American Christian. I have lived in Muslim-dominant countries in the Horn of Africa since 2003. I tell you this before beginning my review of Becoming All Things because my position in the world impacted my reading of this book. I have struggled and grown, struggled and grown, in how to talk about and understand the racial dynamics of my life and I’ve been hungry for three things specifically. First, how do race and faith intersect and interact? Second, what are some practical things for me to engage in that will help me continue to learn and grow? And third, how do I help the people I shepherd grow in this area?

Becoming All Things addresses each of these three questions. Reyes writes with courageous compassion, refusing to shy away from difficult topics, refusing to let people remain stagnate. She writes with vulnerable hope. It is evident in these pages that Reyes has examined her own heart and perspectives and believes that the combination of vulnerability on her part and her push for Christians to do better will make a difference.

Reyes urges readers to explore our own cultural history. “Learning to value your cultural identity means delving into your family’s specific history” (18) and this is an excellent place to start. I confess that I grew up as a White suburban Minnesotan Baptist with the idea that my life was somehow “normal”, that I didn’t have culture. Life in the Horn of Africa quickly disabused me of this naivete. For readers not immersed in a place so different from their own, Reyes provides questions as a launching pad from which to begin learning your culture and history. She also asks us to explore how that culture impacts our faith.

Moving beyond looking inward, Reyes urges people to consider the other person’s position in the world, and their perspective. She writes, “The most honoring thing we can do for a person of another culture is to give them the dignity of defining themselves. This practice takes the power and ability to place value judgments on others out of our hands and challenges us to see someone the way they want to be seen, not according to how we want to label them.” (41) Again, to look at my own experience, bringing this attitude toward Somali and Muslim friends has made a profound difference in how we relate. We must be humble and curious as we allow others to define themselves. This will help us to ask better questions, to not operate out of harmful assumptions, and to get to know people as individuals, created in the image of God, each one unique.

Grounded in scripture and rich with practical steps, I highly recommend this book. In particular, I recommend it for groups: book clubs, Sunday Schools, neighborhood gatherings, families. I plan to use some of the material with our staff in Africa as we reckon with race in our context. Books like Becoming All Things are useful individually, but the concepts and lessons will become even more memorable and life-changing when read in concert with others on the same journey.

I encourage you to go find a copy of this excellent book and will conclude with Reyes’ words: “Justice is not a distraction from the gospel. It is a core message of the gospel. The life of Jesus declares this to be true, and if you want to prioritize the gospel in your life, then the pursuit of justice on behalf of others must be an essential component of your faith.”

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The Bookshelf July 2019

The Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. This book just destroyed me. It was on the list of 50 best memoirs that the New York Times put out and I read it in a day. It is the shattering story of when Sonali lost her entire family in a tsunami. Husband. Two children. Mother. Father. She writes of the tsunami, of the aftermath, of trying to breathe and trying to live. The writing is sharp and piercing and it is impossible to read and impossible to stop reading.

Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, by Pema Chodron. A lovely book about learning to live with struggle and pain and how to hold it all. It comes from Buddhist ideas and if that’s not your jam, there are still plenty of rich insights to glean, which is how I read it. There is a lot of of uncertainty and change in my life, in all of our lives, and it was good for me to think about how I respond to these things and how I can improve those responses.

H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. I wanted to love this book, it was also on the list of 50 best memoirs. And some parts of it, I adored. The way she writes about hawks is powerful and descriptive and moves beyond birds into the realm of life. But at the same time, I have a lot of books to read and things to do and it moved a bit slowly. But I’m also super impatient. If you like a slow, moving, beautiful read, this is a great book.

A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk about Their Craft, Lives, and Imagination, by Michael Shapiro. Loved this. Interview style, and all kinds of insights into identity, writing, travel, and humanity. Really fun for anyone who wants to write about travel especially.

What are you reading?

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The Bookshelf, June 2019

The Parade, by Dave Eggers My list this month starts with a novel. This means I really enjoyed this book. Its a quick read, but dark and twisty. I like me some dark and twisty in novels. For anyone who has lived abroad, especially in slightly dangerous or off the beaten trail places, you’ll love this book. It captures several extremes in terms of how expats respond to the challenges of being foreign.

Braving the Wilderness, by Brene Brown. Of course this is a great read, its Brene Brown. I’d already read it but was looking for some ideas about community and relationships and she explores the deep need and longing we have for belonging. As a an expatriate, this resonates so much with me.

Running Home, by Katie Arnold. I loved parts of this book and honestly, skimmed a few parts. Katie’s relationship with her dad is complicated and she deftly captures the love/grief connection. Reading parts of this made me really, really want to destroy my journals. I only journal the bad stuff, so if one of my kids later tries to figure me out, and expose me by writing about me, after I die by reading my journals, they will totally miss my reality and only see my anger or sorrow. The parts I loved were when she talked about running, ultras and marathons and loved it.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence, by Karen Armstrong It is hard to read about religious violence over the course of history, but also important. This book puts things like the Crusades and jihad into perspective and context.

Inner Dimensions of Islamic Worship, by Al Ghazali. Super interesting, to read about more contemplative ways of looking at spiritual practice within Islam.

If the Oceans Were Ink: an Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran, by Carla Powers. An interesting take on moderate Islam through the exploration and friendship of a non-Muslim. I wanted to love this book but found myself liking it, parts felt a bit slow and limited in perspective but I also really appreciated Carla’s willingness to evaluate her own religious convictions and to question her friend, a sheikh, on hard topics.


What are you reading lately?

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June Bookshelf

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Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, in the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, by Eboo Patel I loved this book. I appreciate Eboo’s perspective on interfaith relationships. He doesn’t pretend all faiths are the same, he doesn’t try to smooth over differences or force a stilted and dulling pretense of agreement. He challenges us to live with the spacious of faith that loves and believes what we love and believe, while fully respecting another to love and believe what they do. Even, he exhorts us, we can learn from one another. Much like I have learned about the power of posture in prayer from my Muslim friends, while not insisting we pray alike. This is lovely memoir by a man who practices what he preaches.

Homing Instincts, by Sarah Menkedick I loved this book, too! So beautiful. I heard a podcast interview with Sarah in which she talked about the lack of serious writing about motherhood and I totally agreed. This is a deep exploration of the body, identity, and home, through the nine months of her pregnancy. She had previously spent a lot of time abroad so I particularly resonated with that aspect of her transition to motherhood.

Paris, I Love You, but You’re Getting Me Down, by Rosecrans Baldwin. Liked it, didn’t love it. It’s a bit crass, so you’ve been warned. Super funny, especially as a person who has studied French and spent some time in Paris. I will always love reading how other people navigate cross cultural work and relationships.

A Sinner in Mecca: a Gay Muslim’s Hajj of Defiance, by Parvez Sharma. Gay. Muslim. Pilgrimage. This is a loaded book and it includes an extensive exploration of the violent aspects of jihad as the author goes deep into Saudi Wahhabi teachings. Like Paris, I Love You, this book is a bit crass. I didn’t need to read about all the author’s sexual exploits in the underground gay bars of Beirut or Cairo. But I was fascinated by his writing about the hajj. Okay, I’m fascinated by almost all writing about the hajj, as it is the most mysterious of the Islamic Pillars, to an outsider. I watch people pray, hear them say the Shahadah, join in fasting, and we all give to the poor. But the hajj is behind a shroud, so reading this was like peeking behind the curtain. I’m sure more conservative Muslims take deep offense at some of what he writes, but I’m trying to read widely as I learn. I have to admit that I love his sort of ‘inside jokes’ as a Muslim. I’ve been a Christian all my life and there are things other Christians just get that are funny, jokes about Chubby Bunny or when on road trips and someone says, “Matthew 4:19a” and everyone gets in their cars because they know the reference (“Come, follow me.”). For example, Parvez’s friend texts him, “Come on over, the beer is flowing like the water of Zamzam.” I enjoy when people can make light of their faith, even while they love it and hold to it fiercely. Its human.

In the Land of Invisible Women: a Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom, by Qanta Ahmed. I have loved lately reading spiritual memoirs by Muslims. They’ve been harder to dig up, but its been a pleasure to find some in my Kindle library or on sale. This is by an Indian Muslim doctor, trained in the US, who takes a job at a hospital in Saudi Arabia. While there, she goes on the pilgrimage, hajj, to Mecca. What I appreciated most about this book is that she is not a religious outsider, looking in, aghast, at Saudis. As a Muslim, she has a unique perspective.

Newsletter Ninja: How to Become an Author Mailing List Expert, by Tammi Labrecque. Hopefully this book will help me serve you guys all better. And if you’re a writer or creative who also has a newsletter, get this book! Super practical and helpful. And inexpensive.

New Seeds of Contemplation, by Thomas Merton. I’ll share a quote, to let you know what this book is about. “It should be accepted as a most elementary and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say “no” on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.” Not an easy lesson for so many of us in this age. He also suggests we avoid radios and advertisements. If Merton only knew…

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