Tuesday, June 29, 2010

‘The Christian Atheist: Believing in God But Living as If He Doesn’t Exist’ by Craig Groeschel – Book Review

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Craig Groeschel, the author of ‘Christian Atheist: Believing in God but Living as If He Doesn’t Exist,’ is one of the most influential pastors in the United States today. When I learned he had a new book, and heard the provocative title, I knew I wanted to read what he had to say!

Here is the synopsis of this book:

Are you putting your whole faith in God but living as if everything is up to you?
Craig Groeschel’s personal journey toward an authentic, God-honoring life and the lessons he learned along the way are more relevant than ever. From his family and his upbringing, to the lackluster and even diametrically opposed expressions of faith he encountered, Groeschel’s frank and raw conversation about our Christian Atheist tendencies and habits is a convicting and life-changing read.
This honest, hard-hitting, and eye-opening look into the ways people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist is a classic in the making.

Here is the biography for the author:

Craig Groeschel is the founding and senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv, a pace-setting multicampus church, with over eighty weekly worship experiences in fourteen locations, including an online campus. Craig, his wife Amy, and their six children live in the Edmond, Oklahoma area where LifeChurch.tv began in 1996. Craig is the author of several books, including Chazown and It.

Here is Craig explaining the concept ‘Christian Atheist’:

In ‘A Letter to the Reader,’ Pastor Groeschel talks about the fact that Christian Atheists are everywhere:

Welcome to Christian Atheism, where people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist. As much as I don’t want to admit it, I see this kind of atheism in myself. People might assume that a pastor wouldn’t struggle with any form of atheism, but I certainly do. Sadly, Christian Atheism is everywhere. There has to be a better way to live.
This book is for anyone courageous enough to admit to their hypocrisy. I hope it pushes you, challenges you, and disturbs you. And if you’re honest before God – as I am trying to be – perhaps together we can shed some of our hypocrisy and live a life that truly brings glory to God. (pp. 14-15)

I so appreciate when people in positions of Christian leadership – particularly pastors – are honest enough to admit that they are only human and are flawed just like the rest of us. So many Christians have left the faith and the church because they placed humans on a pedestal, then were greatly disappointed when these humans fail in some way. That was a good opening to the book; I was excited to keep reading!

Craig explains how he came to faith when he was in college:

After finishing Matthew, we discovered that Mark, Luke, and John had several of the same stories. Three chapters into Acts, we got bored and skipped to Romans. Midway through Romans, I got so excited that I started reading ahead. When I reached Ephesians, I encountered two verses that would forever change my life: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Could this be true? We’re saved by God’s grace and his grace alone? It’s not by my works? Why didn’t anyone tell me? (p. 24)

That is the best news in the Bible!

Craig’s personality type and wiring sent him in a certain direction with his faith:

My mission had become a job. Instead of studying God’s Word out of personal devotion, I studies only to preach. Instead of preaching messages to bring glory to God, I preached to bring people to church. I promised hurting people I would pray for them, but I usually didn’t follow through.
At the age of twenty-five, I was a full-time pastor and a part-time follower of God. (p. 26)

So many churches seem to be started by self-starting, highly motivated men. Pastor Groeschel seems to be one of them. Those types of individuals really need to be careful of their motives – that they are God-honoring, not self-edifying. Fortunately, Craig saw his tendencies, and seems to have taken steps to keep himself on the God track, not the man track.

Pastor Craig explains what he feels when he is in communion with God:

It’s like somehow my spirit is connected to him, and I can hear what he’s saying. There’s kind of a buzz, a constant conscious awareness that as my day unfolds, God is orchestrating things and sending people into my life. That’s doing life with God.
At other times, God may not feel as close. But by faith, I know he is with me. No matter what I feel, I hold the assurance that God never leaves me. And he won’t leave you. (p. 39)

When we feel far away from God, we can always go back to Him:

If you don’t know him, you can. If you used to be close, you can be close again. Getting to know God is not difficult, and it isn’t about a bunch of rules. Yes, God wants your obedience, but he wants your heart even more. He says over and over again that if you seek him, you will find him (Deut. 4:29: Jer. 29:13; Matt. 7:7-8; Acts 17:27). You can find him by reading your Bible; he’s been there all along. And when you begin to seek him, you’ll find that he’s already running toward you, his beloved child. Get to know him and allow his presence to impact every area of your life, every day. (p. 43)

Craig explains that shame keeps many Christian Atheists separated from God. King David was a perfect example:

David didn’t try to pretend he was innocent – he was honest. But neither did he allow the guilt trap to rob him – or God – of the joy of a life redeemed and restored. He knew he couldn’t change the past, but he hoped he could change the future.
When we hope in what God has promised – commanded – our hope is the same as certainty. (p. 53)

Many Christian Atheists have a hard time believing God loves them. They don’t need to earn His love:

In short, there’s nothing we can do to earn God’s love. We are already and always loved simply because God made us and loves each and every one of his creations. There’s nothing we can do to get God to love us more, and there’s nothing we can do to cause God to love us less. (p. 66)

Many Christian Atheists don’t think prayer is effective for them, so they don’t pray. Craig explains how prayers work, and that we can always go back to Him:

God will answer some prayers the way you want, and others he won’t. That’s the mystery of prayer. Even though we can’t reduce prayer to a formula, we are instructed to pray honestly, openly, and continually. Part of our prayer lives will be not only talking to God but also listening for his voice. We communicate with our God who is always present, always listening, and always caring – and the One who does all this is love.
Why not start praying now? Talk to God about whatever is on your heart. Cry to him if you need to. If you’re hurting, unload on him like Habakkuk did. He can handle it. If you feel alone, ask him to comfort you with your presence. If you’ve been away for a while, tell him you’re ready to come home. If you’re angry, let it rip. (p. 90)

One of the hardest things for any of us to do is to forgive. Craig described what happened in his life when he finally let a man who molested his sister (and many other young girls) off the hook, and followed God’s directive to forgive as he was forgiven (Colossians 3:13):

I didn’t realize that Max’s sickness had advanced. He was losing the battle with muscular dystrophy. In fact, at the time he received the letter [of forgiveness that Craig that written], Max was under the care of a hospice nurse, waiting for inevitable death.
Months after Max passed away, his nurse sent us a letter asking she could talk to us. When we agreed, she told us about the last days of Max’s life, believing we needed to know. The caretaker explained that Max’s eyesight had deteriorated and that he had asked her to read him my note. Although she wasn’t aware of what he had done (and I never told her), it was obvious to her that he had done something grievously wrong. According to the nurse, he listened with tears streaming down his face. He asked her to pray the prayer with him. She recalled that his whole countenance changed as he asked Christ to forgive him and make him new. He died a few days later.
We Christian Atheists can rationalize as many excuses as we need to avoid forgiving. We Christians, forever, can find in God the sheer strength to battle through the feelings of anger, hatred, and bitterness, and forgive our way back to the cross. That’s where Christ forgave us. And that’s where, by faith, we can find the ability to forgive those who’ve wronged us. (pp. 121-122)

I cried when I read that one. It makes it easier for me to forgive someone who has wronged me in a far less egregious way, yet I’ve still held onto the anger and bitterness. It is time for me to release that person – and me.  

Many Christian Atheists use the excuse that they can’t change. Craig explains that often we can’t change under our own power; we need a stronger and higher power:

If you believe you can’t change, you’re right – sort of. Your strength is limited. Your willpower isn’t bottomless. Your determination will eventually run dry. That’s why to change for good you will need the power of the only one who is good – Christ!
In Colossians 1:29, Paul says, “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” The word translated as “struggling” is the Greek word agonizomai (ag-oh-NID-zohm-ah-hee). It means to struggle or compete for a prize. It literally means to compete with an adversary – and win. It’s important to notice how we’re supposed to struggle, to fight. The Bible says we agonizomai with “all Christ’s energy.” We change by his power, not ours. (pp. 138-139)

This reminds me of one of my favorite verses, Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Knowing we have access to all of Christ’s power makes us excuses pretty weak, don’t they?!

Worrying can be a big issue for many Christian Atheists. We really need to follow God’s advice:

…Philippians 4:6-7 tells us, “Don’t worry about anything.” And it doesn’t just tell us what not to do. It tells us what to do as well. “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. If you do this, you will experience God’s peace, which is far more wonderful than the human mind can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (NLT). That make it sound so easy, but if we do what’s wise, we can peacefully leave the rest to God.
If you do catch yourself worrying even after you’ve done what was wise, remember that God is bigger than our problems, and that he wants us to hand them over to him. Worry then becomes a signal alerting us that it’s time to pray. Any time you hear the alarm start to blare, stop. It’s time to stop worrying and start praying. (p. 153)

Craig offers the following advice to conclude his book:

Are you a Christian Atheist? Do you believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist? I am praying that God leads you beyond first-line faith. Believing in Christ enough to benefit from him is at best shallow Christianity. At worst, it’s empty, deceptive religion, leading many down the broad path to eternal devastation.
Step across the first line – but don’t stop there.
Line two will feel much better than line one. Believing in Christ enough to contribute comfortably may seem right. But even that is a human-centered Christianity. Keep moving.
Consider the third line. Ask what separates you from a wholly surrendered, Spirit-filled, kingdom-driven life. Weigh your options. Life as it is…or life as it could be.
          Consider the costs.
Do whatever it takes.
Step across the line.
Welcome to true Christianity. (p. 240)

What a terrific book! I thought 'The Christian Atheist' included a lot of practical information. And, again, I appreciated the honesty and openness that Pastor Groeschel provided in the book. I recommend this book to any Christian; we all have a little bit of atheism left over from our unsaved days.

You can order this book here.

This book was provided by Zondervan Publishers for review purposes.

Monday, June 28, 2010

‘Evolving in Monkey Town: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions’ by Rachel Held Evans – Book Review and Giveaway

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Many Christians struggle with issues of doubt with regard to their faith. In ‘Evolving in Monkey Town: How A Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions,’ Rachel Held Evans shares her struggles in growing up in a Christian home and  making her faith her own as she comes of age.

Here is the synopsis of this thoughtful book:

          Knowing All the Answers isn’t As Important As Asking the Questions
Eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial made a spectacle of Christian fundamentalism and brought national attention to her hometown, Rachel Held Evans faced a trial of her own when she began to have doubts about her faith. Growing up in a culture obsessed with apologetics, Evans asks questions she never thought she would ask. She learns that in order for her faith to survive in a postmodern context, it must adapt to change and evolve.
Using as an illustration her own unique perspective to the ongoing dialogue about postmodernism and the church that has so captivated the Christian community in recent years.
In a changing cultural environment where new ideas threaten the safety and security of the faith, Evolving in Monkey Town is a fearlessly honest story of survival.

Here is the biography of this author:

Rachel Held Evans is an award-winning writer whose articles have appeared in local and national publications. She is a graduate of Bryant College. She lives in Dayton, Tennessee, with her husband, Dan.

Here is the book trailer featuring Rachel telling her story:

In the Preface, Rachel shares this:

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m not exactly an impartial observer. My culture, my childhood, my gender, my prejudices, my hopes, my imagination, my virtues, and my vices – these things color my view of the world and infuse it with meaning. I’ve got baggage just like everyone else, and it’s as big a part of my faith journey as the high peaks, the low valleys, and the long, lovely stretches of road that I wish could go on forever.
I’m a lot of things, but fair and balanced I am not.
So now that you know what you’re getting into, read on.

Rachel explains her mindset before she started experiencing her great bouts of doubt:

I used to be a fundamentalist. Not the Teletubby-hating, apocalypse-ready, Jerry Falwell type of fundamentalist, but the kind who thinks that God is pretty much figured out already, that he’s done telling us anything new.  I was a fundamentalist in the sense that I thought salvation means having the right opinions about God and that fighting the good fight of faith requires defending those opinions at all costs. I was a fundamentalist because my security and self-worth and sense of purpose in life was all wrapped up in getting God right – in believing the right things about him, saying the right things about him, and convincing others to embrace the right things about him too. Good Christians, I believed, don’t succumb to the shifting sands of culture. Good Christians, I used to thing, don’t change their minds. (p. 17)

I can certainly relate to that mindset.

Rachel explains what happened in her thinking about life and faith:

It started small – a nagging question here, a new idea there, an ever-changing, freshly accessible world everywhere – but before I knew it, just as I was preparing to graduate from a Christian college ready to take the world for Jesus, twenty years of unquestioned assumptions about my faith were suddenly thrown into doubt.
No longer satisfied with the easy answers, I started asking harder questions. I questioned what I thought were fundamentals – the eternal damnation of all non-Christians, the scientific and historical accuracy of the Bible, the ability to know absolute truth, and the politicization of evangelicalism. I questioned God: his fairness, regarding salvation; his goodness, for allowing poverty and injustice in the world; and his intelligence, for entrusting Christians to fix things. I wrestled with passages of Scripture that seemed to condone genocide and the oppression of women and struggled to make sense of the pride and hypocrisy within the church. I wondered if the God of my childhood was really the kind of God I wanted to worship, and at times I wondered if he even existed at all. (p. 22)

I loved this description of herself as a child, growing up in a home where her father was a theologian:

I guess when you grow up listening to Ravi Zacharias on your way to kindergarten in the morning, you kind of turn into a Jesus freak. I was the nutcase kid who removed wise men figurines from manger scenes at Christmas to more accurately depict the historical time line of Advent. I gently corrected my Sunday school teacher when she referred to Jonah getting swallowed by the whale (everyone knows that the word is literally translated “big fish”) or referenced the forbidden apple in the garden of Eden (which was more likely some sort of Middle Eastern fruit, like a fig). My mother reminded me daily that my primary responsibility in life was to go to a good Christian college and marry a good Christian boy. I guess I just assumed that I would stay a Christian forever. It was like being an American – not something you just go and change (pp. 31-32)

Rachel explains how she thinks her hometown – Dayton, Tennessee –  and the evangelical world was affected by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial:

The evangelical community has a curious reputation for resisting cultural movements before suddenly deciding to embrace them, and believers in Dayton are no different. These days most Christians, even conservative Christians, acknowledge that the Monkey Town approach of stubborn isolationism and anti-intellectualism is an outdated and ineffective strategy for expanding the kingdom. (p. 64)

Rachel explains that the apologetics movement has created an unintended consequence, and how 
it affected her personally:

You might say that the apologetics movement had created a monster. I’d gotten so good at critiquing all the fallacies of opposing worldviews, at searching for truth through objective analysis, that it was only a matter of time before I turned the same skeptical eye upon my own faith. It occurred to me that in worldview class, we laughed at how transcendentalists so serenely embraced paradox and contradiction, but then went on to theology class and accepted without question that Jesus existed as both fully God and fully man. We criticized radical Islam as a natural outworking of the violent tone of the Qur’an without acknowledging the fact that the God of Israel ordered his people to kill every living thing in Canaan, from the elderly to the newborn. We sneered at the notion of climate change yet believed that God once made the earth stand still. We accused scientists of having an agenda, of ignoring science that contradicted the evolution paradigm, but engaged in some mental gymnastics of our own, trying to explain how it’s possible to see the light from distant stars. We mocked New Age ambiguity but could not explain the nature of the Trinity. We claimed that ours was a rational, logical faith, when it centered on the God of the universe wrapping himself in flesh to be born in a manger in Bethlehem (pp. 79-80)

It is so common for Christians to not question anything, but when we do, especially when it comes to matters of faith, more often than not we see that there is an answer in Scripture for our questions.

Rachel decided that a good way to find the answers to her questions was to study Jesus:

If Jesus was really the most complete and comprehensive revelation of the divine, if he was indeed God in sandals, then that means he cared about what God cared about, hated what God hated, and loved what God loved. The incarnation gave God a face. It gave him literal tears, literal laughter, literal hands, literal feet, a literal heart, and a literal mind. What the Spirit of God said and did while living among us in the person of Jesus must say a lot about what matters most to him. So in spite of my doubts, or perhaps because of them, I decided to see if Jesus had the answer. (p. 102)

Rachel explains what she learned studying Jesus in the book of Matthew:

….it was the summer I encountered a different Jesus, a Jesus who requires more from me than intellectual assent and emotional allegiance; a Jesus who associated with sinners and infuriated the religious; a Jesus who broke the rules and refused to cast the first stone; a Jesus who gravitated toward sick people and crazy people, homeless people and hopeless people; a Jesus who preferred story to exposition and metaphor to syllogism; a Jesus who answered questions with more questions;….a Jesus who had no list of beliefs to check off, no doctrinal statement to sign, no surefire way to tell who was “in” and who was “out”; a Jesus who loved after being betrayed, healed after being hurt, and forgave while being nailed to a tree; a Jesus who asked his disciples to do the same. (pp. 106-107)

Invariably, Jesus will never disappoint when you study Him, and not be distracted by His flawed followers, etc…

When she studied the character of God, she discovered she had not known Him as well as she thought she did:

We’ve got our own ways of dealing with our enemies, and God has his. Our way involves retaliation and punishment; his way involves forgiveness. Our way involves equal justice; his way involves disproportionate grace. Our way is to make someone pay with blood; his way is to bleed. Even when Jesus hung on the cross, when God has been insulted to the highest degree imaginable, left naked, humiliated, beaten, and bruised, he said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Now that is a higher way. That is the kind of goodness and grace my childish view of equality can never fully grasp. God’s way are higher than our ways not because he is less compassionate than we are but because he is more compassionate than we can even imagine. When we forsake our way of doing things in favor of his, we experience the kind of joy and peace that inspires mountains to shout and trees to applaud.
What a comfort to know that this loving and merciful God will not be disappointed, that his word falls over the earth like rain, covers it like snow, and nourishes it for an abundant harvest. What a comfort to know that God is a poet. (p. 137)

Rachel’s life was profoundly changed when she traveled to Hyderabad, Indian, to visit her sister, who worked there with various ministries and nonprofit organizations. She met a young lady named Laxmi, who was grateful for being HIV-positive, because it allowed her to be introduced to Jesus. There was an unmistakable joy in India that Rachel had never experienced before:

In India, I was introduced to the kingdom of heaven – not as it exists in some future state but as it exists in the here and now, where the hungry are fed with both physical and spiritual bread, where the sick are saved from both their diseases and their sins, where an illiterate widow taught me more about faith than any theologian ever could, and where children from the slums sing with God. In India, I learned that the gospel is still special. Jesus still matters and can make a difference in people’s lives.
I guess that’s close enough to spiritual awakening. (p. 144)

I could really relate to this paragraph:

When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that the people I most identify with in all of Scripture are the Pharisees. Like the Pharisees, I know a lot about the Bible and am familiar with all the acceptable –isms and –ologies of orthodoxy. Like the Pharisees, I am skeptical of spiritual movements that don’t conform to my expectations about how God works in the world. Like the Pharisees, I like to try to cram the Great I AM into my favorite political positions, theological systems, and pet projects. Like the Pharisees, I am judgmental, crave attention, and fear losing my status as a good believer. (p. 155)

Rachel closes out 'Evolving in Monkey Town' with this assertion:

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that serious doubt – the kind that leads to despair – begins not when we start to asking God questions but when, out of fear, we stop. In our darkest hour of confusion and in our most glorious moments of clarity, we remain but curious and dependent little children, tugging frantically at God’s outstretched hands and pleading with every question and every prayer and every tantrum we can muster, “We want a conversation with you!” (pp. 226-227)

I have to admit that I was a little worried about Rachel for a while as I was reading this book! I was glad she was able to get over her major doubts, and that she did not camp out there too long. I have been there myself for extended periods of time over the years and nothing good ever comes of it (that’s just my opinion!). I could certainly understand her mindset, being that we are both skeptical and questioning of the deeply held truths of others. For a while, I used to think it was dangerous to question and rail at God; then I looked at how David, a ‘man after God’s own heart,’ did that quite consistently in the Books of Psalms. If it were verboten, God would have told us in His Word!

This book is amazing! This book is especially perfect for young people who are doubting the faith with which they were raised. Rachel is a tremendously gifted writer; she has a real way with words! She is obviously a very intelligent, very thoughtful young woman, and it is exciting that she stayed with God! I appreciate her honesty about what she has gone through, and am glad she landed where she did! I look forward to seeing what she has to offer in the future!

You can order this book here.

This book was published by Zondervan Publishers and provided by the Blog Tour Spot for review and giveaway purposes. I am proud to be touring this book with these others bloggers.

How would you like to win a copy of this book?! I have a copy that I would love to send along to one of you! 

There are several ways to gain entry:

1) Leave a comment here on the blog, telling me what you think about this book and its message; how can you relate to it?  Please make sure to leave your email address in this format – sample[at]gmail[dot]com.

2) Follow me on Twitter; I will more than likely follow you back!  If you are already a Twitter follower, that counts, too!  Please leave a new comment to that effect.

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So there are five chances to enter!  Please limit one entry per option.

This giveaway is for U.S. residents only.  The deadline for entry is Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:59 p.m. EST.  A winner will be chosen via the Random Number Generator on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 and will be contacted via email.  The best to all of you! 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Random Number Generator Has Chosen an 'Exponential' Winner!

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The Random Number Generator has chosen the winner of 'Exponential' by Dave and Jon Ferguson. 

That person is.......

lotus82 aka Steph

Congratulations, Steph!

For the rest of you who'd like to read this terrific book on how to start a missional church movement, you can order your copy here.

Thanks to everyone who entered. There will be many more giveaways to come, so please drop by again soon!

Friday, June 25, 2010

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot – Books Review

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Very rarely in the creative world is there a work that will stand the test of time that brings forth important information on potentially difficult topics in an interesting, artistic and entertaining way. ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot is that rare gem.

Here is the synopsis of this remarkable book:

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ tells the rich, enthralling story of Henrietta Lack, the forgotten woman behind one of the most important tools in modern medicine, and of Lack’s descendants, many of whom feel betrayed by the scientific establishment.
Her name was Henrietta Lacks, but scientists know her as HeLa. She was a poor Southern tobacco farmer who worked the same land as her slave ancestors, yet her cells – taken without her knowledge – became one of the most important tools in medicine. The first “immortal” human cells grown in culture, they are still alive today, thought she has been dead for more than sixty years. If you could pile up all HeLa cells ever grown onto a scale, they’d weigh more than 50 million metric tons – as much as a hundred Empire States Buildings. HeLa cells were vital for developing the polio vaccine; uncovered secrets of cancer, viruses, and the atom bomb’s effects; helped lead to important advances like in vitro fertilization, cloning, and gene mapping; and have been bought and sold by the billions.
Yet Henrietta Lacks remains virtually unknown, buried in an unmarked grave.
Now Rebecca Skloot takes us on an extraordinary journey, from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in the 1950s to stark white laboratories with freezers full of HeLa cells, from Henrietta’s small, dying hometown of Clover, Virginia – a land of wooden slave quarters, faith healings, and voodoo – to East Baltimore today, where her children and grandchildren live and struggle with the legacy of her cells.
Henrietta’s family did not learn of her “immortality” until more than twenty years after her death, when scientists investigating HeLa began using her husband and children in research without informed consent. And though the cells had launched a billion-dollar industry that sells human biological materials, her family never saw any of the profits. As Rebecca Skloot so brilliantly shows, the story of the Lacks family – past and present – is inextricably connected to the dark history of experimentation on African Americans, the birth of bioethics, and the legal battles over whether we control the stuff we are made of.   
Over the decade it took to uncover this story, Rebecca Skloot became enmeshed in the lives of the Lacks family – especially Henrietta’s daughter, Deborah, who was devastated to learn about her mother’s cells. Deborah was consumed with questions: Had scientists cloned her mother? Had they killed her to harvest her cells? And if her mother was so important, why couldn’t her children afford health insurance?
Intimate in feeling, astonishing in scope, and impossible to put down, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks captures the beauty and drama of scientific discovery, as well as its human consequences.

Here is the biography of this author:

Rebecca Skloot is a science writer whose articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; Prevention; Glamour; and others. She has worked as a correspondent for NPR’s Radio Lab and PBS’s NOVA scienceNOW, and is a contributing editor at Popular Science magazine. A former vice president of the National Book Critics Circle, she is on the faculty at the University of Memphis, where she teaches creative nonfiction, and she blogs at Culture Dish, hosted by Seed Magazine’s science blogs. Skloot has an undergraduate degree in biomedical science from Colorado State University and an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh. She lives in Memphis, Tennessee. This is her first book.

Rebecca has established a scholarship fund for the descendents of Henrietta Lacks. Donations can be made at www.HenriettaLacksFoundation.org.

And here is a feature story about Henrietta with Rebecca discussing this book:

Admittedly, this book is a little different than the types of books I usually review. But when I heard about this book and read the synopsis, I knew I wanted to read it. It covers many of the topics of interest to me – science, medical research, mistreatment of minorities, etc…

By way of introduction, Rebecca explains how Henrietta Lacks’s cells have been used over the years:

Her cells were part of research into the genes that cause cancer and those that suppress it; they helped develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, and Parkinson’s disease; and they’ve been used to study lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases, appendicitis, human longevity, mosquito mating, and the negative cellular effects of working in sewers. Their chromosome and proteins have been studied with such details that scientists know their every quirk. Like guinea pigs and mice, Henrietta’s cells have become the standard laboratory workhorse. (p. 4)  

Rebecca explains that she and Deborah, Henrietta’s daughter, couldn’t be more different:

Deborah and I came from very different cultures: I grew up white and agnostic in the Pacific Northwest, my roots half New York Jew and half Midwestern Protestant; Deborah was a deeply religious black Christian from the South. I tended to leave the room when religion came up in conversation because it made me uncomfortable; Deborah’s family tended toward preaching, faith healings, and sometimes voodoo. She grew up in a black neighborhood that was one of the poorest and most dangerous in the country; I grew up in a safe, quiet middle-class neighborhood in a predominantly white city and went to high school with a total of two black students. I was a science journalist who referred to all things supernatural as “woo-woo stuff”; Deborah believed Henrietta’s spirit lived on in her cells, controlling the lives of anyone who crossed its path. Including me. (p. 7)   

At the time that Henrietta was being treated for cervical cancer, the tissue samples were taken from her. Not only was that shocking, but so also was the method of treatment – the insertion of the radium tube seems quite primitive (fair warning…):

With Henrietta unconscious on the operating table in the center of the room, her feet in stirrups, the surgeon on duty, Dr. Lawrence Wharton, Jr. sat on a stool between her legs. He peered inside Henrietta, dilated her cervix, and prepared to treat the tumor. But first – though no one had told Henrietta that TeLinde was collecting samples or asked if she wanted to be a donor – Wharton picked up a sharp knife and shaved two dime-sized pieces of tissue from Henrietta’s cervix; one from her tumor, and one from the healthy cervical tissue nearby. Then he placed the samples in a glass dish.
Wharton slipped a tube filled with radium inside Henrietta’s cervix, and sewed it in place. He sewed a plaque filled with radium to the outer surface of her cervix and packed another plaque against it. He slid several rolls of gauze inside her vagina to help keep the radium in place, then threaded a catheter into her bladder so she could urinate without disturbing the treatment. (p. 33)

The tissue was passed along to Dr. George Gey, head of tissue culture research at Johns Hopkins, where they grew amazingly quickly:

But Henrietta’s cells weren’t just surviving, they were growing with mythological intensity. By the next morning, they’d doubled. Mary [Dr. Gey’s wife] divided the contents of each tube into two, giving them room to grow, and within twenty-four hours, they’d doubled again. Soon she was dividing them into four tubes, then six. Henrietta’s cells grew to fill as much space as Mary [Dr. Gey’s assistant] gave them. (p. 40)

Dr. Gey distributed the cells worldwide:

He sent shipments of HeLa cells to researchers in Texas, India, New York, Amsterdam, and many places between. Those researchers gave them to more researchers, who gave them to still more. Henrietta’s cells rode into the mountains of Chile in the saddlebags of pack mules. As Gey flew from one lab to another, demonstrating his cultural techniques and helping to set up new laboratories, he always flew with tubes of Henrietta’s cells in his breast pocket. And when scientists visited Gey’s lab to learn his techniques, he usually sent them home with a vial or two of HeLa. In letters, Gey and some of his colleagues began referring to the cells as “his precious babies.”
The reasons Henrietta’s cells were so precious was because they allowed scientists to perform experiments that would have been impossible with a living human. They cut HeLa cells apart and exposed them to endless toxins, radiation, and infections. They bombarded them with drugs, hoping to find one that would kill malignant cell without destroying normal ones. They studied immune suppression and cancer growth by injecting HeLa cells into immune-compromised rats, which developed malignant tumors much like Henrietta’s. If the cells died in the process, it didn’t matter – scientists could just go back to their eternally growing HeLa stock and start over again. (pp. 57-58)

Henrietta was very aware that her cancer was spreading:

In early June, Henrietta told her doctors several times that she thought the cancer was spreading, that she could feel it moving through her, but they found nothing wrong with her. “The patient states that she feels fairly well,” one doctor wrote in her chart, “however she continues to complain of some vague lower abdominal discomfort…No evidence of recurrence. Return in one month.”
There’s no indication that Henrietta questioned him; like most patients in the 1950s, she deferred to anything her doctors said. This was a time when “benevolent deception” was a common practice – doctors often withheld even the most fundamental information from their patients, sometimes not giving them any diagnosis at all. They believed it was best not to confuse or upset patients with frightening terms they might not understand, like cancer. Doctors knew best, and most patients didn’t question that. (p. 63)

On a personal note, my mother had told me that her father, who died of lung cancer in the 1950s, was never told that he had the disease. Being the skeptic that I can be, I have a hard time accepting the idea that people don’t question their doctors, even in the present day.

I was appalled at some of the medical practices that Rebecca included in her book. This example is in a chapter entitled ‘Illegal, Immoral, and Deplorable’ – aptly titled:

As HeLa grew like crabgrass in laboratories around the world, a virologist named Chester Southam had a frightening thought: What if Henrietta’s cancer cells could infect the scientists working on them? Gey and several others had already shown that some rats grew tumors with live HeLa. Why not humans?
Southam was a well-respected cancer researcher and chief of virology at Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer Research. He and many other scientists believed that cancer was caused by either a virus or an immune system deficiency, so Southam decided to use HeLa to test those theories.
In February, 1954, Southam loaded a syringe with saline solution mixed with HeLa. He slid the needle into the forearm of a woman who’d recently been hospitalized for leukemia, then pushed the plunger, injecting about five million of Henrietta’s cells into her arm. Using a second needle, Southam tattooed a tiny speck of India ink next to the small bump that formed at the HeLa injection site. That way, he’d know where to look when he reexamined the woman days, weeks, and months later, to see if Henrietta’s cancer was growing on her arm. He repeated the process with about a dozen other cancer patients. He told them he was testing their immune systems; he said nothing about injecting them with someone else’s malignant cells.
Within hours, the patient’s forearms grew red and swollen. Five to ten days later, hard nodules began growing at the injection sites. Southam removed some of the nodules to verify that they were cancerous, but he left several to see if the patient’s immune system would reject them or the cancer would spread. Within two weeks, some of the nodules had grown to two centimeters – about the size of Henrietta’s tumor when she went in for her radium treatments.
Southam eventually removed most of the HeLa tumors, and those he didn’t remove vanished on their own in a few months. But in four patients, the nodules grew back. He removed them, but they returned again and again. In one patient, Henrietta’s cancer cells metastasized to her lymph nodes. (p. 128)

Southam went on to solicit volunteers in the Ohio State Penitentiary in order to inject healthy patients. His tactics reminded me of those of Dr. Josef Mengele, the notorious ‘Angel of Death’ in Nazi Germany, who conducted unspeakable experiments on concentration camp prisoners.

Many organizations profited from the HeLa cells:

There’s no record of [Johns] Hopkins or Gey accepting money for HeLa cells, but many for-profit cell banks and biotech companies have. Microbiological Associates- which later became part of Invitrogen and Bio Whittaker, two of the largest biotech companies in the world – got its start selling HeLa. Since Microbiological Associates was privately owned and sold many other biological products, there’s no way to know how much of its revenue came specifically from HeLa. The same is true for many other companies. What we do know is that today, Invitrogen sells products that cost anywhere from $100 to nearly $10,000 per vial. A search in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office databases turns up more than seventeen thousand patents involving HeLa cells. And there’s no way to quantify the professional gain many scientists have achieved with the help of HeLa. (p. 194)

Although no one is sure why Henrietta’s cells are ‘immortal,’ Ms. Skloot explains how they are:

By the early nineties, a scientist at Yale had used HeLa to discover that human cancer cells contain an enzyme called telomerase that rebuilds their telomeres. The presence of telomerase means cells could keep regenerating their telomeres indefinitely. This explains the mechanisms of HeLa’s immortality: telomerase constantly rewound the ticking clock at the end of Henrietta’s chromosomes so they never grew old and never died. It was this immortality, and the strength with which Henrietta’s cells grew, that made it possible for HeLa to take over so many other cultures – they simply outlived any other cells they encountered. (p. 217)

Henrietta’s nephew, Gary, shared with Rebecca his beliefs about how he thought God used Henrietta, and Rebecca’s interpretation of same:

….”Those cells are Henrietta,” he said, taking back the Bible and opening it to the Books of Romans. “Read this,” he said, pointing to a chunk of text. I started reading to myself and he covered the Bible with his hand. “Out loud,” he said.
So I read aloud from the Bible, for the first time in my life: “Those who believe in me will live, even though they die; and those who live and believe in me will never die”…
“Henrietta was chosen,” Gary whispered. “And when the Lord chooses an angel to do his work, you never know what they going to come back looking like.”
Gary pointed at another passage and told me to keep reading. “There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, the beauty that belongs to heavenly bodies is different from the beauty that belongs to earthly bodies”…
I kept reading: “This is how it will be when the dead are raised to life. When the body is buried, it is mortal; when raised, it will be immortal. There is, of course, a physical body, so there has to be a spiritual body.”
“HeLa?” I asked Gary. “You’re saying HeLa is her spiritual body?”
Gary smiled and nodded.
In that moment, reading those passages, I understood completely how some of the Lackses could believe, without doubt, that Henrietta had been chosen by the Lord to become an immortal being. If you believe the Bible is the literal truth, the immortality of Henrietta’s cells makes perfect sense. Of course they were growing and surviving decades after her death, of course they floated through the air, and of course they’d lead to cures for diseases and had been launched into space. Angels are like that. The Bible tells us so…
Jesus told his followers, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never die.” Plain, simple, to the point.
“You better be careful,” Gary told me. “Pretty soon you’re gonna find yourself converted.”
“I doubt it,” I told him, and we both laughed.
He slid the Bible from my hands and flipped to another passage, then handed it back, pointing at one sentence: “When do you who are here find it impossible to believe that God raises the dead?”
“You catch my drift?” he said, smiling a mischievous grin.
I nodded, and Gary closed the Bible in my hands. (pp. 295-296)

In the Afterword, Ms. Skloot made a very valuable point regarding the medical industry:

The debate over the commercialization of human biological material always comes back to one fundamental point: like it or not, we live in a market-driven society, and science is part of that market. Baruch Blumberg, the Nobel Prize-winning researcher who used Ted Slavin’s antibodies for hepatitis B research, told me, “Whether you think the commercialization of medical research is good or bad depends on how into capitalism you are.” On the whole, Blumberg said, commercialization is good; how else would we get the drugs and diagnostic tests we need? Still, he sees a downside. “I think it’s fair to say it’s interfered with science,” he said. “It’s changed the spirit.” Now there are patients and proprietary information where there once was free information flow. “Researchers have become entrepreneurs. That’s boomed our economy and created incentives to do research. But it’s also brought problems, like secrecy and arguments over who owns what.” (p. 325)

Ms. Skloot did an incredible job in her research with regards to how the corporate medical industry has treated minorities and ‘the least of these’ over the years, as well as many other interesting topics. I thought I was reading about Hitler’s Nazi Germany at some points (another topic of great interest to me). The way the Lacks family was treated is deplorable, in my opinion. I am so grateful for what Ms. Skloot has done on their behalf, and how they are finally being made whole to the extent that they can be sixty years after their mother’s death. I am also glad to see that many of her children and their children are finally get to the point of forgiveness – looking at the good that Henrietta’s cells have done for mankind over the last sixty years as opposed to holding on to the idea that they have been robbed. However, I still am incredulous that there are some people and organizations out there that have profited tremendously from the HeLa cell line (you can order a vial of your own online on many different sites).

This is a remarkable book; it completely lived up to my high expectations! It is the type of book I’d like to read again, and I am not normally a more-than-once book reader. It is written at a level that is understandable to the scientists and the non-scientists (that would be me!) in the crowd. The structure was incredible; she had to interweave the medical aspect, the family aspect and ethical/racial aspect, and Rebecca kept the story moving along in a brilliant fashion. With her education background in biomedical science and nonfiction writing, it is as though she was born to be the person to bring Henrietta and her family’s story to the light of day for some many more people. I truly am glad to see its success, and hope to see Ms. Skloot captures some awards for this decade-long labor of love.

There have been several developments since the release of this book in February; it remains on the New York Times Bestseller List. HBO announced that Oprah Winfrey and Alan Ball would develop a film project based on Skloot's book; I am greatly looking forward to that. And on May 29, 2010, there was finally a headstone erected at Henrietta’s gravesite.

You can order this book here.

This book was provided by Crown Publishers for review purposes.

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