Book of the Month Review: January
Faith Under Fire: What the Middle East conflict has taught me about God
Oxford: Monarch Books, 2011
pp. 1-160. $9.99 Kindle edition.
Faith Under Fire is a personal account of Andrew White’s experiences as the vicar at St. George’s Church in Baghdad, Iraq. It is an inspirational testimony of Andrew White, whose faith and knowledge of God has grown during his time there. His story is a frank and exciting read for anyone interested in the inner workings of a church facing persecution, the effects of conflicts in Iraq on daily lifestyle, or a bold exhortation for Christians to follow and trust God come what may.
Vicar White’s main argument in Faith Under Fire is that God’s presence is strong at work in Iraq, both despite and because of the challenges of living amidst violent persecution. His eyewitness account and relationships with local Iraqis build a story that reinforces his faith in God’s power.
As a doctor, Vicar White’s medical background allows him to recognize the immediate physical needs of his congregation when he opens a clinic in St. George’s Church. Mentors are another strong influence in Vicar White’s life. Several times, he quotes the Archbishop of Canterbury in what had become a life motto for him: “Don’t take care, take risks.” (15) By far, the most influential source in Vicar White’s life and writing is the Bible. When he is kidnapped, or a child dies despite much prayer, or he sees wanted posters with his picture all over the city, Vicar White goes back to Scripture to seek God’s peace and answers.
The organization of the book is very deliberate and reveals the author’s values. Chapters 1 and 2 are devoted to demonstrating Vicar White’s journey, from medical and theological training to getting married, and a great shift in the story when he discovers he is very ill. This segment will later show the reader how God’s path for Vicar White was preparing him precisely for his future in Baghdad. While many readers might expect the book to be consumed with a description of murders and kidnappings, these aspects only come out from Chapter 4 onward. Even at that point, Vicar White’s description of events includes an overarching focus on the strength of believers at St. George’s Church and God’s faithfulness amidst tragedy.
The remainder of the book is interspersed with stories connected to its main themes. The most recurrent theme, evident in the title, is the pervasiveness of fire or heat. It often appears in the book as the threat of violent persecution, but at other times is the literal heat in Iraq’s climate that ironically improves the author’s medical condition. It appears in yet a different context when the author points to the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego as the first appearance of Christ on earth. (132) Coping with mortality is also a major theme, demonstrated both through Vicar White’s personal illness and the murders of parishioners. Manifestations of the supernatural are a fascinating theme that comes up in the form of miracles, premonitions in dreams, and the physical presence of images like wheels in the air.
By Chapter 11, Vicar White presents a call to action for readers to support St. George’s Church. He stresses the urgency of the ongoing crisis in Iraq and quotes a church member saying, “Don’t the other Christians in the world care about us?” This urgency is felt strongly in an Epilogue that describes the massacre at Our Lady of Deliverance that took place in 2010. (130) The Conclusion engages the book of Habbakuk, in which Habbakuk looks on the destruction of his country and wonders how God can let it happen. In a final statement that summarizes Vicar White’s experience in Baghdad, he says “The heat of the fire is intense here, but so is the joy of the Lord.” (159)
Overall, Faith Under Fire is a phenomenal account of trusting God amidst a lifestyle of constant crisis. The Scripture Vicar White presents in the book goes far beyond a feel-good discussion of Christianity and leads the reader through a series of hard life lessons that all people face, presenting how to work through them spiritually. Vicar White’s book left me feeling challenged and inspired to broaden my perception of God’s capability and tune my ears more to His voice and direction in my life. It was convicting to read how Vicar White sacrificed his personal privacy, the comforts of his homeland and time with his family to give all he had to God’s call in his life. In the same vein, it was convicting to read about Iraqis sacrificing their lives to declare their faith in the Gospel.
I was disappointed that Vicar White did not dwell more on his parishioners. He defines them so much by the violence and persecution that constrains them, but does not clearly show the more personal side of their competencies outside of the church building. When I first picked up the book, I was hoping to learn more about Iraqis’ family and social lives, professional goals, personal hopes and accomplishments. It is possible that the vicar of such a huge congregation, especially in such a tight security environment, would have limited access to in-depth conversation or interviews with every single parishioner.
While Vicar White devotes much time to praising the faith and strength of his parishioners, there are a few points in the book where he seems to privilege his culture as superior and make broad generalizations. In one example, he refers to the difficulties of working with “disorganized Arab culture.” (154) Instead of recognizing competing values such as expediency versus thoroughness or single policy versus situational consensus, he makes a value judgment patronizing how Iraqis do business. His statement also ignores the fact that Iraq is partly non-Arab (Kurdish), and that Arabs in different countries have unique cultures. I do not think that Vicar White consciously implies any of the above, but his words could have the unintended effect of harming his credibility with readers that have ties to the region.
These points, while distracting in the text, are not representative of the entire book. In fact, they deviate from an overwhelmingly warm depiction of Iraqi Christians, as well as a hope and dedication to a better future for their country.