session one: small wonder
by Elizabeth de Barros
CHOOSING 8 OUT OF twenty-three essays isn’t easy. And if they happen to be written by Barbara Kingsolver, it’s like selecting from a Jacques Torres dessert menu. Très difficile. But beginning somewhere is how anything gets started, and since Small Wonder (HarperCollins 2002) is the kind of book that can be read back to front no matter, consider this a friendly push into the secular tide even as we dive deep into the gospel, cresting the waves of Biblical thought.
For those just arriving, please read the introduction here to better understand the faith-based premise for this discussion challenge.
Today and every Thursday through October 25, we’ll be discussing one of Kingsolver’s pieces while looking through a Biblical lens at her take on life, genuine concerns, and impassioned insights. Our goal is not to provide exhaustive Biblical commentary but to stir our minds to pure thinking and learn to discern with a redemptive eye, resting in the fact that Truth is perfect — we are not.
So glad you’ve decided to join us. Welcome!
SESSION ONE: small wonder
I’ve never been to the Lorestan Province in Iran, but the story as retold by Barbara Kingsolver about a missing 16-month-old boy brought me to the mouth of one of its caves, where he was found encircled in the arms of a bear, safe and fed.
Why a lactating female bear became the boy’s wet nurse explains part of the equation. But to understand why it didn’t tear the baby limb from limb takes faith. What’s more, the event took place in the obscure dark, in the mountains, halfway around the world — just days after America’s skies were exploding and raining down scraps of metal, dust, and fuselage — and people. A disparity of global extremes.
That Kingsolver was riveted by the events of 9/11 is more than understandable — shock and awe were universally suffered by nearly all. So much death in the name of ideology was a hard pill to swallow, one many still can’t get down all the way. Then comes along this highly improbable story. Research verified it as true.
What to call it? An act of grace? A miracle? Yes. What to do with it? Give tribute to Allah? No. But that she did shouldn’t cause us to shut down, lest we be guilty of the worst kind of fundamentalism. The weightier matter for the Christian is to beg for wisdom in how to respond to someone dangling from a tightwire of hope and despair. Find the lead straight into their heart. Tell them of the one true God.
Folk tales convey a broader cultural parallel; make us smile. But obscure, amazing news reports cause our jaw to drop. Should they occur in the wake of terror and disaster, even an atheist may be compelled to look up. Or set someone to wonder hard and long. A whole different kind of shock and awe, the kind that tempers the soul, summons hope.
Sometimes, timing is everything. This was one of those times, as Kingsolver wrote, “the lion could lie down with the lamb.”
A BIBLICAL LENS:
The many times the author refers to “God” in this essay can’t be missed. But we must make distinctions. When an unbeliever acknowledges a transcendent Being at work in the world in a pluralistic sense, it’s a Christian’s obligation to make the most of the opportunity, use it to Christ’s advantage. Note how Paul preaches to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17:
“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
-Acts 17:22-23 ESV
From there, he plots the course of redemptive history by first describing God as Creator of heaven and earth, the Giver of life and breath to all men. He even quotes some of their own poets. He then recounts God’s work based on the covenantal promises. Finally, he declares God’s ultimate redemptive plan as revealed in Christ Jesus. From a polytheistic platform at the Areopagus, Paul posits the gospel by means of common grace to proclaim God’s saving grace.
As for Kingsolver paying tribute to Allah for the miracle, I hazard to think she was, out of respect to the story’s origin, trying to be gracious in a politically correct way. Regardless, God isn’t threatened by man’s darkness, nor should we be. He determines both sight and blindness, who sees and who cannot. When a person ascribes to deity but not specifically Christ, it’s a matter of what Paul explains in Romans 1, what theologians call general revelation. Understanding this doctrine should serve to heighten our sense of obligation to preach the gospel to all men.
Back to the boy and the bear and the aftermath of 9/11. We know that Providence deems circumstances both bitter and sweet. We also know that all things serve Him. When a real-life parable of such magnanimity forces hope out of hiding, it helps us accept tragedy and heal, offering, as Kingsolver said, “the possibility of taking heart.”
I’m grateful Kingsolver perceived the power and mystery infused in this survival story and had the largesse to write about it. It’s inspiring, humbling — the boy and the bear, yes, but also how she unwittingly brags on the God of hope and wonder. As she said, “God is in the details.”
Yes, yes He is.
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
Next Thursday: Saying Grace