Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Book Review: Safely Home

Safely Home is the story of two men who were best friends and roommates during their years of undergraduate and graduate school at Harvard. Twenty years later, one man is a very successful businessman who has rejected everything else in his life (marriage, family, religion) in his pursuit of the successful image. The other man returned to his native China with high prospects for a career as a history professor in a university there, but twenty years later he has given up his dreams for a career in his pursuit of Christ, Christianity, and loyalty to his family.

The story takes place at a point when the first man (Ben) is heading up his business's China partnerships and is therefore commissioned by his company's president to spend six weeks living in a Chinese home getting to know Chinese culture from the inside. So he calls up his old roommate (Quan) and invites himself to spend six weeks in Quan's home. Ben arrives expecting to find a successful professor and is shocked by Quan's simple life. Quan expects to receive a Christian family man and is disappointed by the fact that Ben's marriage has failed and that he has rejected religion.

Throughout the book, Quan is presented as clearly the one with the answers and Ben as the one who has lost his way. Whenever Quan questions Ben's values, he receives a stubborn and embittered response. Whenever Ben questions Quan's choices, he is told that earthly values pale in the face of heavenly reward.

One of the purposes of this book was to present to the West a portrait of the suffering of Chinese Christian churches, especially the housechurch movement. Quan is a member and leader of this movement, and we learn he's been imprisoned several times, had his house raided repeatedly, lost his career dreams, etc. We meet Quan at a raid on his housechurch, and find out that Quan asks himself every morning when he wakes up, "Is this the day I die?" Ben the businessman is at first incredulous, and later convicted, when he learns of this suffering (he had been told by business-minded Chinese that persecution of Christians had ended and that China's human rights record was improving). The Chinese government went to great pains to expose him to the good, and his entire outlook is changed when he sees the bad.

As I read the description of the persecution of Chinese Christians, I felt the account was exaggerated. I have heard horrible tales of torture and death and mistreatment of Christians in China, but hadn't understood it to be as commonplace as presented in the book. The book gave the impression that all Christians in China suffer mercilessly at the hands of the government. My understanding is that there are too many Christians in China for the government to abuse them all, if in fact that is what the government wants. (Not to mention, that if a prominent American businessman were visiting, they'd probably tone down the abuse until he was gone!)

I know very little about China, but in other parts of the world where I know a bit about the persecuted church, I've learned it's mostly visible leaders and very outspoken believers who bear the brunt of government oppression. So my first reaction to the book was that it is a bit sensationalist, exaggerating real problems a bit out of proportion - fiction can make a great argument but can also subtly exaggerate things (I had a similar feeling of "wow... huh?" as I did when reading the Davinci Code.)

But as I neared the end of the book, I decided it was talking about something a bit different than that. It was talking about the contrast between this life and that life. The author seemed to be making the situation of the Chinese church look particularly horrific not because he wanted to raise awareness and garner human rights activism; instead he seemed to be arguing that all the poverty and physical abuse in the world is meaningless in eternal perspective.

So toward the end of the book, businessman Ben, newly sympathised to the plight of the Chinese church, starts madly advocating and using his networks to try to help relieve human suffering. Meanwhile Christian leader Quan keeps telling him that God is using these circumstances, God's perspective isn't man's and God is allowing all of this to happen, so maybe Ben should pray more and advocate less.

At one point they agree that both are right to some extent. And so here is my takeaway question:

The Bible is clear that God dwells in eternity and his timing and vision are miles above our own. I love the verse where God points out, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

But God also talks a lot of weeping when he sees injustice and suffering on the earth. And he tells us, his people, to feed the poor and to speak up for the destitute and to help others as if we were helping God himself.

So should I, or, say, a Christian who is suffering imprisonment and torture, or unemployment, or scorn from family... Should we do as Quan did and say, let's not worry, let's just pray and seek to do the best we can in the present situation? or to what extent should we seek to change the world around us?

There's a story Jesus told about a wealthy man who went on a long trip and left his possessions divided up in the hands of his employees. They apparently had no idea when he was coming back, what he expected out of the money, or even if he would deal with them honestly upon his return. The ones who invested well what they were given were honoured, and the boss said, "Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" In the same way, I firmly believe that we need to do invest in the world where we live, to make it look the most like Jesus's vision of perfection: joy, justice and mercy abounding. But at the same time, the story really is about what happens next, isn't it?

1 comment:

tony said...

I think we are called to try and affect change as best we can. I think God requires that much of us if not more. But I think that should not be the only thing God has for us. I have found in my own life that taking on injustice is character forming for myself. And though while larger injustices go on I think the Lord does work on them little by little. I think we stand against injustice, but worry not about how successful our efforts may or may not be.

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