Unless book reports count, or the random assignment in college, I don’t think I have ever written a “book review.” Frankly, the idea intimidates me, as I tend to have a passionate relationship with books. I view them more as conversations, and I am constantly mentally interacting with the author. The result is that when I’m done reading the book, I often have a hard time figuring out where the author’s thoughts end and mine begin, and I spend a lot of time wondering, “Did he/she say that, or did I just think that?” One result of this confusion is that I can sum up a book in three sentences, or talk about it for two hours over coffee, but I have trouble finding the in-between.
My weird book issues, however, actually helped me when I was reading Jen Hatmaker’s new book, 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess. I have enjoyed reading Hatmaker’s blog for a few months, so I had a good idea of where she was coming from even before I picked up her book. I knew, for example, that Hatmaker had recently adopted two children from Ethiopia to join her three other children and her husband; I knew that she was passionate about fair trade issues and ethical consumerism; I knew that she had already written several Bible studies; and I knew that she was very funny. Thus, I thought I was fairly prepared to read her book on the need to cut out materialistic excess from our Christian lives.
The first two things that struck me about the book were initially liabilities in my mind. First, she structures the book around a series of fairly radical fasts. In an order to reorient her family’s spending habits, Hatmaker fasts from seven “excesses,” one per month. Furthermore, she generally fasts by limiting herself to seven elements from that area of excess. For example, the first month is food, and so the author eats only seven foods for that month. The second month is clothes, and so she only wears seven articles of clothing for the whole month. Honestly, this initially struck me as too much of a stunt. I came to this book wanting practical applications and logical conclusions, and these fasts did not seem either practical or logical to implement in my own life. Thankfully, my initial misgivings proved unfounded, however, as Hatmaker gave me lots of inspiration and practical tips throughout this book. More on that in a minute.
The second thing I noticed was how casual the writing style was. I even coined a word for it: “blogular.” I had expected Hatmaker’s book to be a cleaned up version of her blogs, but instead, it reads like a series of blogs put in book form. It is even structured as a running journal, written in “real time,” as she goes through her fasts. Each entry is about blog-sized. Plus, when you thumb through the book, there is an alarming variety of fonts, not to mention italics, all caps, parentheses, and bullet lists. Again, this initially disappointed me. Like I said, I am a big fan of Hatmaker’s blog, but I was expecting this book to be a bit more…polished. I guess I was wanting a manifesto of sorts, something I could hand to my skeptical friends and say, “Here. This is what I believe about materialism and excess.” Needless to say, a book formed around bloggy journals detailing crazy fasts does not really lend itself to tight coherency. It wasn’t something I could pass along to my not-quite-on-the-bandwagon friends without some explanation and caveats.
In retrospect, though, I think I was putting unnecessary and even unattainable expectations on the book. When I put aside my preconceptions and just read the book for what it was, I really, really enjoyed it. For one thing, Jen Hatmaker is hilarious, and her stories will have you laughing out loud. For another thing, despite all the craziness of the book’s structure, when the author gets going, she can really be profound. As I read, I posted some of her zingers on Facebook. My favorite quote was this one:
“The average human gets around twenty-five thousand days on this earth, and most of us in the United States of America will get a few more. That’s it. This life is a breath. Heaven is coming fast, and we live in that thin space where faith and obedience have relevance. We have this one life to offer; there is no second chance, no plan B for the good news. We get one shot at living to expand the kingdom, fighting for justice. We’ll stand before Jesus once, and none of our luxuries will accompany us. We’ll have one moment to say, ‘This is how I lived.'”
It’s funny–when you read that quote out of context, it sounds so serious and profound. You wouldn’t think that it came from a book with so many silly stories, a book that includes random emails from the author’s friends and status updates on Facebook. I think that’s one thing I really liked about the book: it can swivel from hilarious to convicting within a paragraph or two. The humor definitely helps the “medicine” to go down.
Another element that makes the book powerful is Hatmaker’s tendency toward self-deprecation. It is obvious that she is passionate about her beliefs, and with beliefs that are as “radical” as hers (though, should they be radical in the church??), it is easy to put other Christians on the defensive. Nobody likes to feel preached at, and Hatmaker does a great job of staying off her high horse. In fact, she is quick to poke fun at herself. For example, she writes this about a speaking engagement she had during her “food” fast, where the pastor mentioned her “weird food requests”:
I knew it.
I won’t be remembered as the funny author or the fascinating Bible teacher but as the high maintenance girl who sent a list of culinary demands like I was Beyonce. So I babbled uncontrollably trying to explain 7 (which I haven’t done yet in under eight minutes), hoping to resurrect my reputation as low maintenance. I came across as a bizarre hippie who was a below average communicator.
There are many such self-deprecating moments in the book, and they serve to remind the reader that no one is trying to put them on a guilt trip. In fact, even though Hatmaker calls into question many of our most basic practices as “wealthy people,” she affirms at the end, “I don’t think God wants you at war with yourself.” The purpose of this book is not to make people feel guilty, but to motivate them, to excite them, to open their hearts and minds to the incredible reality of God’s kingdom.
At least, that’s what it did for me. I said earlier that I got lots of practical motivation from 7. For one thing, I retooled my grocery and eating out budgets to include more “real food” cooked at home and less eating out. I finally tried several new “natural” recipes that I had been putting off. Greg and I also rethought some financial decisions that we had been planning on making. I am more generally mindful of all my purchases, thinking about my God-given responsibility as a steward of the resources He has given me. I have even been setting the alarm on my phone to remind me to stop and pray throughout the day, like Hatmaker does in chapter seven. The added prayer time, especially, has given my days more focus and kept me more “on mission,” as Hatmaker puts it.
Lastly, the book reminded me of the importance of community. Throughout her fasts, Hatmaker relied heavily on a group of friends whom she dubbed, “The Council.” The Council helped to guide her, to encourage her, to help her make decisions on her journey. To me, they served as a stark reminder that we need each other to live this Kingdom life the right way. Hatmaker (really, it’s been hard not to call her Jen this whole time) needed her Council just like I need my completely amazing friends to motivate, inspire, and guide me. And to be honest, I need Jen Hatmaker. And Francis Chan. And David Platt. And Shane Claiborne. I need them to add their thoughts to the greater church conversation, and I need people with whom to discuss their thoughts. Reading books about God and the church always reminds me that the body of Christ is called such for a reason. We need each other to function, to even figure out where we are supposed to be going and what we are supposed to be doing. I have enjoyed figuring that out with my friends, both here in Nashville and back in Summerville, and I look forward to many more conversations and “Council” meetings.
In that sense, Jen Hatmaker’s book was just another (great) addition to a conversation that has been going on in the church for a few years now. Many Christians have begun to reexamine the most important tenets of Christianity in light of Jesus’ words on the kingdom of God. They have begun to question their Christian identity and ask themselves what it really means to call oneself a follower of Christ. If you have been asking such questions (and even if you haven’t), I think that you will find 7 to be a wonderful encouragement and motivation. It’s just another example of the church trying to figure out these answers together.