You don’t get to apologize for your work.” In the writing classes I help teach, we peer-review every student’s work. Inevitably, students in the hot seat of critique will open their mouths and begin to explain what they meant. Before the students can get the words out, however, the professor will raise her hand and remind them that writers don’t get to apologize for their work.
It’s the governing principle of peer-reviewing one’s writing. An author’s work either stands on its own, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t—if the book or article needs an apologist—it fails to accomplish its goal.
Even more, when non-fiction writing overuses metaphor and ill-defined terms, the author loses clear meaning and risks misleading his or her readers.
A Beautiful Display of Creative Ambiguity
The universal praise coming from early-release readers prompted me to pick up Ann Voskamp’s recent New York Times bestseller, The Broken Way, published by Zondervan. In nearly every pre-release interview, Voskamp shows herself passionate about all people who suffer internally or from violence in the world around them.
Voskamp’s very unique writing style has also earned her high praise. Painting with “poetic prose,” Voskamp sets out to address the topic of “brokenness” in the human experience. The Broken Way displays candid vulnerability in personal stories—communicating fears common to parents, friends, and spouses of all kinds.
Against brokenness, Voskamp finds help in a cross penned on her wrist. The book aims at unpacking the practical how-tos of what she terms a “cruciform life.” She points her readers toward the sufficiency of Christ in the midst of their “brokenness.” Her anecdotes connect quickly and deeply with the reader’s own struggles, pain, and fears.
Voskamp’s poetic and story-driven prose, however, introduces ambiguity that becomes problematic throughout The Broken Way. By employing personal epiphany, jargon, and absolute statements, Voskamp surrenders authority and clarity for creativity.
And, ultimately, this is precisely where the book proves so dangerous. The book’s contents are, indeed, creative. By speaking through metaphors and personal anecdotes rather than plain language, she allows the reader to conclude almost anything about the meaning of the book. For any reader without a solid theological grounding, Voskamp’s writing opens the door to heterodoxy.
Lots of Ann. Not a lot of Jesus.
Throughout the book, her personal epiphanies introduce a Gnostic flavor that goes unchecked—Voskamp’s source of authority is often a spiritualized higher knowledge instead of revealed scripture.
For example, when she attempts to answer the question posed at the beginning—“How in the holy name of God do you live with your one broken heart?” (15)—Voskamp leaves her Bible untouched and instead relies on her own introspective musings. When she does cite scripture, she often uses paraphrases, quotes from The Message, or mashups of verses taken out of context that support her personal “higher up and deeper in” knowledge (15).
In the first chapter, Voskamp offers one of these personal epiphanies while musing over her question of brokenness: “Bad brokenness is broken by good brokenness” (21). She then sets out to discern what the epiphany means—not by investigating God’s revealed truth in scripture, but by embarking on a dare motivated by her husband’s comments about agriculture.
The primary authority for the conclusions of The Broken Way seems grounded less in the inspired word of God and more in Voskamp’s personal, inner-reflection.
Trust in your determination? Exercise your compassion?
In one vignette, she describes a conversation with a friend about Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee. In the short exchange, Voskamp makes the sudden realization that Peter sank into the waves, not because he took his eyes off Christ, but because he failed to believe in himself (85). After all, her argument proceeds, Jesus believed in Peter, so all Peter needed to do was to believe in himself.
The Broken Way veers toward a “believe in yourself” flavor throughout the book. Voskamp appears to form the “broken way” out of personal revelation and calls readers to believe in themselves and “gift it forward” (chapters 5 and 15).
For Voskamp, the ultimate job of the Christian is showing love to the world—not making disciples as Jesus commanded in the Great Commission. This is most evident in the book’s epilogue where Voskamp concludes, “What’s the answer to suffering in this world? Destroy it with co-suffering, with compassion, with givenness” (270).
Her work does not arrive at Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection as the answer to suffering, but stops short at humans showing compassion for one another.
What do you mean by that?
Voskamp’s creative language introduces a second problem: lack of clarity. For instance, she never defines her titular concept “brokenness.” Instead, she discusses it as if her meaning is self-evident.
Her solution to brokenness—“living cruciform”—also lacks definition. Generally, she illustrates “cruciform living” as “gifting it forward” through small acts of humanitarian kindness to the community, which leads to the problems addressed above.
Voskamp adds further ambiguity by misusing Greek terminology. She introduces the word koinonia, which she rightly defines as “fellowship,” but imbues it with mystical, marriage-like force that exceeds the plain, biblical meaning.
She then asserts that the miracle of her “broken way” is “always, always” koinonia. In other words, if believers gift it forward, they will experience communion with God and others. Always.
Her many “always” phrases create an undue burden that her argument simply cannot carry. The superlative wording binds Voskamp to biblically indefensible assertions about the character of God—“Your one broken heart always splits God’s heart in two” (56)—and the nature of the Christian faith—“The way you always find the light in the dark is to make your hand reach out” (57).
This way is broken indeed.
In the end, the style of writing that made Voskamp’s blog so successful (for example, the story of adopting a child from China, or the picture of life-giving thankfulness) obscures the potentially good, biblical teaching in The Broken Way. Voskamp’s tendency toward the poetic threatens to cross the line into purple prose—beautiful but lacking clear meaning.
Unfortunately, the metaphorical language and anecdote-driven arguments obscure the absolute authority of God’s word. Without clarity, readers may insert their own opinions into most of the content.
Voskamp is by all accounts a committed Christian—filled with compassion and dedicated to the faith—who would quickly acknowledge in person the importance of clear and orthodox theology. However, like all writing endeavors, she cannot personally explain to her readers what she meant.
No matter how laudable the intentions, the author who needs an apologist for her work ultimately risks misleading her readers.
Cover image by Noah Silliman.