Called to Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, by Michael Jinkins. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8028-6300-3. (Reviewed by John P. Leggett.)
When his children were baptized, Michael Jinkins promised that he would live the Christian faith in his own life. He also promised to share that faith with his children. In a sense, this book is a powerful witness to the embodiment of those promises.
In the first in the series of letters to his children, Jinkins suggests that everyone—especially parents—“ought to be able to render an account of what we believe,” of what we would be willing to live and die for. He then explains that he intends to provide just such an account of his own faith in the letters which follow. Before doing so, however, he reminds them that “others, like neighbors gathered around the mailbox,” will be reading their letters over their shoulders. I am convinced that those who gather will not be disappointed.
As he describes it, Jinkins wrote this book because his children—and other young adults—are asking Big Questions. They are, he writes, wondering about things like the purpose of life, and what to believe in, and how to understand their lives vocationally. As Jinkins suggests, the biggest questions are getting even bigger these days, which makes the search for answers all the more commendable.
If, however, you go to this book hoping to find simple, easily defined answers for those Big Questions, you will be sorely disappointed. While some may have chosen those Big Questions as an opportunity to proffer Big Answers, Jinkins resists that temptation. In fact, the humility which marks this book throughout can be seen even before it really begins. It may seem a small thing, but the author writes that the book addresses the Big Questions that young adults are asking, which is a far cry from writing that it answers them.
While it may not give the answers some would seek, the book does something far more compelling. It allows us to see what the Christian faith looks like in the flesh of an ordinary father as he shares that faith with his children. Along the way, it also holds up the beauty and vulnerability of a father’s love—a love which is clearly seen in every letter he writes.
In his opening letter “to everybody else,” Jinkins begins to lay the foundation of the letters to his children which follow. He does so by simply telling us that he is “a person of faith,” but it doesn’t take long to discover that his is not the “no-questions, everything’s-nailed-down” sort of faith that masquerades as the real thing far too often. Statements like “I trust more than I know” reveal a modesty that should not be mistaken for a lack of conviction. As Jinkins would put it, while his beliefs may have become more modest in their claims over the years, those same beliefs have become more extravagant in their hopes.
Two sentences from the book provide the perfect lens for the book as a whole: “We’re not meant to understand Christian faith as an inquisition into the faults and failings of our neighbors, nor interpret the gospel of Jesus Christ as a conditional contract intended to exclude others, nor to see the way of God as an imperial victory march over the backs of those who differ from us. Rather, I think we’re to see it is a lifelong expression of gratitude toward God that takes the form of generosity toward others” (109).
While the book was written to address the Big Questions young adults are asking, there is still much here of benefit to those outside of that demographic. It would be extremely helpful for any parent seeking to commend the Christian faith for their child, as well as for all members in the congregation. After all, the promises that parents make at the font are linked to the congregation’s promise to teach them to know and follow Christ.
Every parent knows that we can’t force or command our children to be people of faith. We can, however, commend it to our children by offering them a compelling vision of what faith looks in our own lives. As Jinkins puts it, witness-bearing is a part of the vocation of parenthood.
In an aside near the end of the book, Jinkins refers to a publisher’s study that revealed that the average pastor reads only three books a year today. If that’s true (and I sure hope it isn’t!), this book should be one of them.