Face to Face with Jesus, by Samaa Habib and Bodie Thoene
Let me start by saying that I support evangelistic efforts within the Muslim world, assuming they are carried out with the kind of discretion and care necessary for a full witness to God’s love. People of any religion who believe that faith makes a difference have a right and obligation to share theirs. Moreover every story of every convert to Christianity, indeed every story of every human who has struggled to know God, is a precious story. Never to be dismissed or criticized lightly.
So I emphasize that problem with this book is the book itself, not Samaa Habib’s person and witness.
Put succinctly, this is a book that has no plot and no characters. Ms Habib’s life is reduced to a series of incidents, each recounted according to a strict evangelical Christian trope and yielding a pat, scriptural teaching. (Which, in case the reader doesn’t get it, is summarized in a call-out.) It rapidly becomes clear that Ms Habib’s life will be touched by violence and pain, and that she will weep often for herself and others. She experiences the horrors of war, the beatings meted out by her brother, and worst the horrors of a bomb blast in her church and a long painful recovery in the hospital. Even so her life never seems marked by tragedy or serious self-questioning. In her Lord she is always triumphant.
Thus it is disconcerting that the book so deftly leaves behind the grisly body count of those whom the Lord doesn’t rescue; martyrs and innocent victims by the hundreds and even thousands. When (rarely) the book considers this gruesome reality a scripture passage is always at hand to rescue Habib from despair or fear or doubt.
Which makes it hard, in the end, to really care about her as a human being. She is, to use her own words, superhuman in the Lord. Rapists bounce off her flying feet (she learned taekwando from missionaries) and assaults are repelled by the sword of the spirit. No beating by her brother, no bomb blast can ultimately harm her. And she never doubts, never falters, in her witness. According to the book there must be a dozen or more thugs who wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley. Her brother is lucky that at home she and her sisters are so meek. And those young men who bombed her church. Forgiven, of course and their death sentences commuted after a letter from the Christians to the authorities. If there was any anguish over this, any question about what constitutes justice, we don’t hear about it in the book.
Apart from the superhero depiction of the narrator of the book, the air of unreality is heightened by the fact that we never know where or when she was born, which civil war shattered her childhood, or where she finally managed to get an education. Real people live in real places and have real names and real friends. They go to real churches in real cities and listen to evangelists with names and faces. All of that, even any clear chronology, is absent. The book zigs and zags across the 90’s in some alternative world dictated by didactic rather chronological considerations.
And why? Ms Habib says again and again that she was boldly and publicly Christian, witnessing to her friends and families, attending church, and praying aloud in a Muslim country in the Middle East. Her sister’s faith and her own was well known in public. Why is the author now veiling the facts with generalizations, to the point that she can’t even name her birthplace? For whom is she frightened, since by her own account her family, friends, and church are all sufficiently well known to be targets of Islamist violence already?
At least for this reviewer all of this secrecy and generalization made the book hard to believe. I can believe she was miraculously healed and had visions of Jesus. I believe that she was beaten and nearly died in a bomb blast. Even that she forgave her tormentors. (I find it harder to believe she never struggled over it.) But without knowing her family’s background how can I assess what it means to say her father went bankrupt? How can I picture the threat of freezing to death without a little geography? Not knowing whether she is in a large city or a small town how can I guess what it means to go to school, long for university, or be robbed by gangsters.
I expect that this secrecy is yet another trope from among the many found in the evangelical hagiography of mission to Muslims. The author uses undisclosed names and places to create a sense of current danger for Ms Habib and her family. And this feeds the need of American evangelicals to feel that they are part of something that would justify the use of the word “warfare” in conjunction with the word “spiritual.” Now they are caught up in the romance of undisclosed locations and first names only; God’s own special-ops.
Yet the book can’t really have it both ways and succeed. Ms Habib and the other triumphant Christians cannot be the only real people among all those anonymous corpses of an unnamed civil war, vicious attacks on Christian churches, and thuggish robberies of small businesses. Even if the living need to be protected, surely the dead should be given names, real names, and real places to be buried. For all the carnage of the war we are never told that Ms Habib attends a funeral or visits a cemetery. Her visions of heaven would be more compelling if we could see her standing at a graveside of a friend.
Other reviewers will no doubt examine more fully the insights we can glean about Ms Habib’s theological views and spiritual life. I would offer that she simply deserves to have her story better, and more humanly, told. Christ died for something deeper than our pain and sorrow. He died for our sins, and they are manifest in tragedy and suffering not so easily overcome by a scripture quote and a ready prayer. He didn’t just die for those who cry out for healing and receive it. He died for those who cry out for healing and still die too young. He died for those who have faith – and those who doubt.
Ms Habib’s witness to Christ would be richer if this book elicited a deeper understanding of the Cross.