Butterfly in Brazil

Butterfly in Brazil: How Your Life Can Make a World of Difference
By Glenn Packiam
Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2007
Review by Carl McColman

I don’t know about you, but I suffer from what I can only call “supersize-fatigue.” By this I mean that I’m tired of our cultural idolatry by which we are forever worshiping the bigger, the better, the newer, the faster, the richer, the thinner, the sexier, the more outrageous… you get the drift. Our society bows down at the cult of the greater-than. We worship at that altar because we all want to be the bigger/better/greater in our own way. And I, for one, am weary of it all. Which is why I love the Trappists and their single-minded insistence that asceticism still matters in our world; and why I love Julian of Norwich, who wrote a world-shattering book while living in a tiny church in a provincial city in a backwater country in the middle of the middle ages; and why I adore Thérèse of Lisieux despite her florid prose and Victorian piety, because she stood for the sanctity of littleness. Now I can add to this countercultural list Butterfly in Brazil, a gentle and unassuming book which explores the spirituality of making a big difference in very small ways.

Author Glenn Packiam is an associate pastor at Colorado Springs’ New Life Church. Yes, that’s the church where Ted Haggard used to be the pastor, but don’t let that color your judgment of this book. Butterfly in Brazil is hardly your garden-variety evangelical bestseller — it’s got nary a whiff of Joel Osteen’s or Rick Warren’s cheerleading; it’s not preachy, nor explicitly right-wing, nor drenched in circular Biblespeak, although over the course of the book Packiam does a pretty nice job at bringing the story of Nehemiah to life. Like its overall message, this book is humble, honest, and down to earth. And for that reason, I like it a lot.

I don’t know if the “butterfly effect” is good science or not, but it sure makes for a great metaphor, especially for Christians who prefer being faithful to the compulsion to be great. Basically, it’s the idea that the entire ecosystem of the earth is so intricately connected that a butterfly in one part of the globe (say, Brazil) can, by making simple choices and just doing what butterflies do, set into motion patterns of energy that can have literally world-transforming effects on the other side of the planet. Butterfly beats her wings in Brazil; major storm formation in Tibet.

So the metaphor, of course, is that we do not need to do great things in order to do great things. The small choices and minute changes and baby-step commitments that define our lives can be used by God to create massively wonderful consequences, patterns of emergence that we may never be aware of. Which is why we need to focus on being faithful rather than great. After all, Hitler and Stalin and Mussolini could be called “great.” So our cultural obsession with bigness may not always be so — well, pardon the pun — great.

Packiam weaves his own life story with his insightful and at times amusing commentary on modern life, and with the story of Nehemiah, an ordinary and rather obscure Biblical figure who did awesome things through his humble faithfulness, to celebrate the power of the butterfly. His message is simple: perhaps the greatest thing any of us can do is to stop trying to be great, and thereby allow God into our lives so that we can be the agent of God’s miracles instead of the architects of our own overweening power. As a youth minister, he’s writing for a readership which is considerably younger than me; but even at my age (as I close in on the half-century mark), his is a message I find useful — and one I wish I had heard more explicitly a quarter century ago; it might not have changed the trajectory of my life, but it may have made me more at peace with my own littleness.

Packiam uses a number of creative images to get his points across, such as comparing the behavior of Christians in China during the SARS epidemic a few years back to the behavior of the early church during the smallpox outbreaks in the Roman Empire; or (my personal favorite) describing human beings as “walking cafetoriums” to point out our tendency to be jacks of all trades and masters of none.

One disappointment is the number of typographical errors that mar this book; when typos like “disesae” (for “disease”) or “friend names James” (should be “named”) appear in a book from a major publisher, I can’t help but wonder if the copyeditor was having a really bad day.

As befits its subject matter, this is hardly a “great” book, not an instant classic nor an obvious new addition to the list of Christian must-reads. But it’s ordinariness adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of its message. I think anyone wrestling with vocational discernment would find it useful; those of us who have a calling to creative work (art, music, writing, etc.) will find its gently subversive message particularly challenging and liberating.

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