And the burqa, she learned to her surprise, was also comforting. It was like a one-way window. Inside it, she was an observer buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers. She no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past. – A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
I’ve never been to Afghanistan and will probably never go. I have never worn a burqa. I’ve never been married. I’ve never lived in a family where my father has more than one wife. I’ve never made love with a forbidden lover. I’ve never had to say goodbye to someone because of war. I’ve never secretly plotted with my husband’s first wife about escaping his abuse. I’ve never been told I can’t leave my home without a male relative. I’ve never been worried that people might know, just by looking at me, all the shameful secrets of my past. (Well, maybe just a little).
I’ve never done or experienced these things and yet in a way I have. Not in a way that makes my experiences equal to the real women represented by Mariam and Laila, but through the book A Thousand Splendid Suns I have walked the streets of Herat. I have wept with Mariam and Laila and I have glimpsed (just glimpsed, mind you) the lives of another.
Everything feels magnified in the prison yard – the crisp autumn air, the grass, the trees, the leaves red yellow orange, the sky blue clouds white sun yellow so much color so much air so much light. So much everything it hurts. – The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti
I’ve never been to Germany. I’ve never lived during Hitler’s reign of terror. I’ve never been arrested. Speaking the truth has never cost me my life. I’ve never been a teenage boy. I’ve never been to prison. Nobody I’ve ever known has been killed in front of my eyes. I’ve never had to listen to enemy radio broadcasts to find out what’s really happening. I’ve never distributed anti-Nazi propaganda, or propaganda of any kind (at least no on purpose).
I’ve never given my life to stand up for what’s right. And in a way I have. In a way I experienced all of these things as Helmuth recalled them in his prison cell. I saw the prison yard – the crisp autumn air, the grass, the trees… I saw the colors and I felt the hurt. Reading a second hand account isn’t the same as living and breathing the suffering, I know and acknowledge this, but because of Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s tribute to Helmuth, I have experienced the death of innocence.
It was in the places and times of the direst need that I witnessed God move most vividly. In other words, God showed up remarkably when there was no other way. In contrast, rarely does anyone in America ever get to the same level of need as those living in a refugee camp. Therefore, we rarely see God move like He does in other parts of the world. I find it no coincidence that in Mozambique, a land seemingly entrenched in eternal destitution, God was moving most dramatically. Maybe all I needed—something I would never recommend praying for, by the way—was a little desperation. – The Wild of God by Eric Hanson
I’ve never been to Mozambique. In fact, I’ve never left the Western Hemisphere. I’ve never been in physical dire need of anything. I’ve always had enough food, water, and cash. I’ve never been to a refugee camp. I can only think of one time when I felt desperation of any kind of authenticity.
But in the same way I learn about Afghanistan and Germany, the same way I learn about Mariam and Laila, the same way I learn about Helmuth, the same way I learn about bravery and fear and goodness and evil, I learn about God and this World He created through a wonderful thing – the written word.
These three books are just three small examples of how I’ve traveled the world, entered minds and hearts, sat down in living rooms, fought and lost and won battles, and felt things because of the written word. It is through these accounts of life that I’ve learned more about my own life. While it could be argued that so many books contain fictional characters and made up places, writers always have to draw from something. Especially in the cases of these three books – A Thousand Splendid Suns, The Boy Who Dared, and The Wild of God – two of which were inspired by real stories lived by real people and one of which (ATSS) was inspired by a real city and real human interaction, the written word expounds on and explains the human condition in unparalleled ways.
I’ve always liked works of fantastical fiction set in made-up lands because I like being a know-it-all. I like, I love, that I can know everything there is to know about a place and a group of people. The most poignant example in my life is the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. Since the release of the last book, JK Rowling has released additional (and sometimes shocking) information about many of her characters. In the time directly after the release of Deathly Hallows, I soaked this stuff up, desperate for more of my beloved friends. Now, however, I skip it all. I don’t want to hear about it. I want to read the series again and again getting to know these people and these places.
Everything that is knowable about the world of Harry Potter exists in those books.
And I love that. That I could know all there is to know about something.
Yesterday while I wrote and edited a bit (and played some Tetris and perused Pinterest) I watched Les Miserables (and sang along, of course). Later I thought about how I’ll never make it through that horribly long book – a fact that I am totally at peace with – because Victor Hugo wrote a book that is longer than the Bible. I make plans and checklists and commitments to read the Bible in a year. How am I ever supposed to finish a novel longer than a book it takes me a year to read?
With this thought God poked me in the head – well, maybe it shouldn’t take you a year to read the Bible once. Maybe you should read it more like a novel for once.
And I was all, I did that last year, remember, God?
And He was all, Oh, do you know as much about Me as you do about Harry Potter?
Because the thing about God is that His book exists and everything there is to know about God exists within it.
I’ve never physically walked alongside Jesus. I’ve never seen a person raise from the dead. I’ve never been stoned because I proclaim Jesus. I’ve never had to lay down my career to follow a homeless guy who may or may not be crazy (I’m referring to Jesus). I’ve never lived in a city where actual statue idols are being worshiped. I’ve never walked in the desert dependent on manna from heaven. I’ve never been to Jerusalem or Bethany or Egypt. I’ve never met a Pharaoh. I’ve never ridden a donkey. I’ve never had to sacrifice a lamb for my sins (although I have seen a lamb sacrificed). I’ve never watched my Savior die a miserable and painful and triumphant death on the cross.
But I have.
Writer Stephen Graham Jones said, “I don’t see any other reason to write, other than that you’re trying to make the world make sense… The world is fundamentally a mystery. Inexplicable. Even as you try to explain it.” And in many ways I would agree. There is a lot we don’t know and never will (until heaven) and writing it all out helps us gain our footing. But reading what someone else has written works that way too. The Word gives me answers, but it also inspires questions. Through books I can make sense of my world and explain a few things. Or my view can be widened to include more of the grand scope of the unknowable mystery.