Oh how I love to read all the things. When a friend asks me what my favorite book is I feel a tightening in my chest, sweaty palms, and the unmistakable tremor of panic. Did she just ask me which child I prefer?? I typically freeze. Sometimes it’s awkward. Sometimes, if I’m feeling kicky, I toss out a line to see if the asker will bite. “Solely memoirs of SNL cast members.” “Dark political satire.” “Cookbooks before bed.”
Sometimes I’m a jerk and I utter the (let’s face it, totally arrogant) response, “I read pretty widely,” before shifting the question back to them, “What kind of book do you like?”
(Obviously it’s far preferable to riff off something a friend is interested in and ask if they’ve read a similar title rather than be put before that specific firing squad.)
So since you (did not, and thank you for not) ask, for this specific enCourage audience, I’ll say I love books that trace the perseverance of God’s faithful. I’ll weep alongside the real life Sheldon Vanauken, or feel my heart beating out of my chest every time Francine Rivers’ fictional Hadassah narrowly escapes. I’ll eye roll at just how much contemporary Christian thought is borrowing from Augustine’s Confessions, and yell at the prison guards in Darlene Diebler Rose’s Evidence Not Seen. Give me the thread of redemption any old day, and please oh please allow me to see God’s faithful holding the line, from one to the next, shoulder to shoulder, generation after generation.
As I glance at my bookshelves, one sad reality comes to light: while God’s faithful are all throughout history, real or fictionalized, my “wide” reading of their stories lacks the full spectrum of his faithfulness at best, and is stunted and narrow at worst. There are gaping holes on my bookshelves that are not so in God’s authorship of redemptive history.
One of those holes hovers right over a wicked period in our country’s past, in the history of African American slavery. As I looked into titles that fit the bookshelf gap, the work of author, biographer, and former slave herself, Octavia Albert, practically jumped off the page. Mrs. Albert was a believer, a teacher who viewed her profession as worship, and a curator of the voices and God-stories of others—that’s three checkmarks in the “someone I’d like to know” column.
The stories Octavia Albert collected from former slaves were published posthumously in 1890. Her curated work, The House of Bondage, puts faces and flesh onto my imaginings of what it was like to have been both a slave and a follower of Jesus during these tragic years in our nation’s past. I will never be the same for these histories of my brothers and sisters in Christ. As soon as it was published, The House of Bondage was acclaimed, and Mrs. Albert far exceeded her goal of tracing the faithfulness, perseverance, and steadfast hope in eternity of the slaves to whom she spoke.
You can’t read these accounts and not be struck by the perseverance of the saints through this particular time in history. They knew exactly what it meant to have nothing in this life. Hunger, horrendous conditions, lack of freedom, constraints on worship, and bodily separation from family and friends were regular realities for those in slave-holding states. Sometimes brutally and often in death, mothers, fathers, children, and friends were often taken away, victims of unspeakable injustices. I don’t know about you but this ugly part of our collective past is a time period I struggle to see clearly. Even reading The House of Bondage was continuing to look through blurry vision, partly the result of tears, partly the result of disbelief, horror, unshakable hope, shame, or some combination of all of the above.
The chill bumps rose on my arms when Mrs. Albert quoted hymns I’ve often sung alongside modern church brothers and sisters, safe from the tyranny of servitude to the whims and cruelties of another. My mouth gaped open, awestruck, at the occasional chilling tale of miraculous protection under incredible circumstances for some slaves. And perhaps most importantly, my desire for the modern church to remember rose up with fervor. We have to know these stories. These stories can make a difference for God’s people. They can change how we value those outside our family, our church, our political party, our circle of friends, our zip code . . . you name it. They can move our hearts toward compassion and honor for one another.
I thought I was setting out to write an encouraging piece for the enCourage blog, but what I really want to write is a request, a plea, really. If you look back and see similar gaping holes in your reading life, would you find the work of our brothers and sisters in the Lord and allow God to apply flesh and face and story to the dry pages of history textbooks, no matter what the era? And if your gaping bookshelf shares a similar vacancy to mine, would you consider reading The House of Bondage? Would you allow these stories to crawl up inside your head and your heart as you brush elbows with fellow believers who had literally no hope save their hope in Christ? And could we ask God together to move us toward compassion and tenderness for each of his members of the elect, all throughout history?
Sometimes my favorite books aren’t the kind I’d find in book club or on a deck chair poolside, but the kind that change me forever—the kind that help me see others, each and every one of God’s creation, as fellow image-bearers.
About the Author:
Holly Mackle is the curator of the mom humor collaboration Same Here, Sisterfriend, Mostly True Tales of Misadventures in Motherhood, author of the family Advent devotional Little Hearts, Prepare Him Room, and editor at engagingmotherhood.com. She is the wife of a handsome, mama of two flower-sneaking bitties, and a fairly decent gardener and hopefully better humorist for joegardener.com. She spends most of her free time explaining to her two young girls why their hair will not do exactly what Queen Elsa’s does.