Though I haven't done it myself, I imagine it takes guts to write a book about money. We Christians are fond of judging one another's holiness based on material possessions or lack thereof. One problem, then, is that the minute you open your mouth about your dire financial straits, you bump into someone even worse off—someone who has to buy scratchier toilet paper, whose debt is higher, who genuinely has nowhere to live.
Another similar problem is that writing and publishing a book—at least in theory—requires the luxury of time and connections that many poor people simply don't have. Poverty can be as much a systemic and cultural problem as a matter of individual choices and unfortunate circumstances. One man's broke might be another man's affluent.
Finally, it stands to reason that a book about money, no matter its subtitle, will mostly attract people who need money. Most people who need money, even those who are trying to practice contentment, are looking for ways to get more money. Readers might expect a how-to guide. Some will come away dissatisfied.
All this is to say, my hat's off to Caryn Rivadeneira for gamely giving this genre a shot. In Broke: What Financial Desperation Revealed about God's Abundance (InterVarsity Press), Rivadeneira tells stories from her family's bout with financial insecurity and describes how the ordeal drew her into a deeper relationship with God. The family never landed on the street, and their struggles, she tells us, owed more to unfortunate circumstances and a few bad choices than to the larger social issues around poverty.
But that doesn't make the spiritual panic any less real. Anyone who has eyed a mounting pile of bills or grown up in a family where money is tight knows the feeling. Seeing guys asking for a buck on the subway six times a day didn't keep me from lying awake many nights last summer, staring at the ceiling, calculating again and again whether we'd have enough to cover rent, bills, student loans, and food that month. (We did.)
Broke isn't about reevaluating your financial priorities or calculating how much to put in savings each month. It isn't even really about how to avoid winding up in a jam. Instead, Rivadeneira does a tricky thing well: She alternates between the minute details of her own stories and 30,000-foot observations about their implications for our relationship with the Great Provider.
This strategy mostly works, and Rivadeneira is not afraid to be the bad guy—the one who needs a big attitude adjustment. If the book has a weakness, it's that the narrative jumps around a bit too much for the reader to simply read from start to finish. It's never totally clear what happened, and why, and whether it really got fixed. These are things readers might find interesting.
Then again, readers might look at Rivadeneira's story and come away unimpressed. They might wonder whether her situation was desperate enough to generate legitimate lessons about financial desperation. That would be a shame. Because the spiritual lessons found in Broke, while often simple, are still profound—particularly when they challenge us to shift our perception of what counts as "abundance." As a devotional or small-group reading, to be chewed over in bits and pieces, Broke can challenge us to re-center our perspective. It's a reminder that no matter how small our struggles, God's abundance is great.
Alissa Wilkinson is CT's chief film critic, assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College, and editor of QIdeas.org.
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