Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, by Miroslav Volf. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006. ISBN: 0-310-26574-6. Pb., 247 pages, $12.99.
Read this book; it will strengthen your Lenten preaching. Free of Charge is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s “Official 2006 Lent Book.” In the Forward, Archbishop Rowan Williams says, “This is a book about worshipping the true God and letting the true God act in us.” Volf captures the essence of his book in a more engaging way in the Postlude, a conversation with a skeptic who questions all Volf’s assumptions, even his view of God. Volf responds, “I don’t mean to insult you, but I wrote this book mainly for myself and maybe for folks like me, not for you. Most books I write, I write for myself as a spiritual exercise almost. And to tell the truth, my biggest problem is not with the arguments that may pull the rug from beneath the whole Christian way of life. In a sense my biggest problem is not an argument at all.” (p.229)
Volf and the skeptic continue the dialogue. Volf says, “I am what we Christians used to call a ‘sinner,’ though we are now a bit embarrassed by the term.” (p.230) “In the book, I argue, among other things, that we should embrace our enemies as Christ has embraced us. Well, an ‘enemy’- a small one — arose in my life after I wrote the book, and I sensed in myself the propensity to return in kind and exclude rather than forgive and embrace. And then I heard myself saying, ‘But you argued in your book …’ It was like an academic version of the still small voice my wonderful and godly mother so often speaks about.”
“Did that help?” the skeptic asked.
“It did! It reminded me that I was failing, that I wasn’t true to God and to myself. It helped me resolve to act differently, to love my ‘enemy.'” (p. 232)
The book opens with a reunion in which Volf takes his adopted son to visit the son’s birth mother and her ten-year old daughter, three months after the son’s birth. Volf uses the story to illustrate the highest form of giving, the willingness to give up a child, that the child might have a better life. Moreover, he uses the story to share how the experience transformed his frustration and grief over infertility into gratitude; had Volf and his wife had a child the conventional way, this unique child would not have come into their life.
Volf, a member of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and the Evangelical Church in Croatia, is Croatian. His father endured the horrors of World War II, yet repeatedly forgave those who tortured him. Volf’s older brother was killed as a child, in a freak accident. The accident occurred when an aunt failed to keep watch on the boy and a young soldier allowed the boy to ride on a wagon, a ride that led to his death. Volf’s parents forgave the aunt and the soldier.
The book is filled with stories that will preach. The stories are more than good illustrations; the stories embody the gospel: good news in human form. Volf also skillfully uses references to classics. Allusions to works by authors such as Aristotle, de St. Exupery, Conrad, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and Hemingway flow throughout the book. Volf also makes excellent use of contemporary literature such as Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons, Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Michael Malone’s Handling Sin, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana, and Anne Lamott’s Plan B.
Free of Charge has six chapters, plus a Prelude, Interlude, and Postlude. Volf says that on one level the book is about giving and forgiving. On another level, the book surveys the whole of Christian faith. The book also is an interpretation of the apostle Paul, and a reading of Martin Luther. Volf does not approach these topics as a theologian or scholar, though he is gifted as both; rather he approaches these topics as a means of spiritual reflection.
For Volf, faith is a way of life. At the heart of faith is the gift of forgiveness that comes from God, creating the response of repentance. When, out of gratitude and repentance, human beings live in forgiving relationships with others, all others.
I recommend the book. However, I found myself wishing that along with all the books he mentioned, Volf had added Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower. Wiesenthal explores possibilities and limits of forgiveness from his perspective as a Jewish survivor of the holocaust. When asked for forgiveness by a dying Nazi SS soldier, Wiesenthal refused; he did not believe that he had the authority to forgive deeds committed against others. Immediately following the refusal, Wiesenthal began to ask people he respected to critique his decision. The book contains Wiesenthal’s story and responses from thoughtful people representing different faiths.
A second, related dialogue missing in Volf’s book is with the Reformed conviction that though law cannot redeem, it has value. Volf is rightly concerned with the power of forgiveness to set others free, but he fails to address the persistent need to withhold forgiveness as a means of restraining public unrighteousness.
Of course, Volf might say that my critique reveals that he wrote the book for me, as well as for himself.
ART ROSS is pastor of White Memorial Church, Raleigh, N.C.