“Review of Lamin Sanneh’s Summoned from the Margin” by Laura Bardolph Hubers

Laura Bardolph HubersLaura Bardolph Hubers is the copywriter at Eerdmans. In her second EerdWord post, she reviews Lamin Sanneh’s new book Summoned from the Margin.

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I’ve always loved those delightful little displays in libraries and bookstores that say “If you liked ____________, try reading ________________!” They’re very helpful for those of us who devour books at the pace that I do.

Here’s your helpful EerdWord display for the week:

If you liked Eat, Pray, Love, you’re going to love Summoned from the Margin.

If you didn’t like Eat, Pray, Love. . . well, I didn’t either. You’ll still love Summoned from the Margin.

If you haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love, don’t bother. Read Summoned from the Margin instead.

The two books have some of the same basic elements: they’re both memoirs, they both center on some kind of faith journey, and they both involve a lot of traveling, which led me to draw the comparison. But the similarities end there.

I’ll spare you my rather lengthy and sarcastic analysis of Eat, Pray, Love and stick to this succinct version: Elizabeth Gilbert seems to me horribly self-centered and whiny, qualities that she justifies with a vague and meaningless concept of spirituality. “I think you have every right to cherry-pick when it comes to moving your spirit and finding peace with God. I think you are free to search for any metaphor whatsoever which will take you across the worldly divide whenever you need to be transported or comforted. It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s the history of mankind’s search for holiness. . . . You take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and you keep moving toward the light.”

Lamin Sanneh, on the other hand, strikes me as humble, thoughtful, and intelligent throughout his memoir. Not only does he describe all the intense thought that went into his conversion from Islam to Christianity, he quotes from both the Bible and the Qur’an in explaining the basis for his thought process. He also discusses the long and painful process involved in being accepted into a Christian church after his conversion. This is not a shallow, meaningless faith; it is deep, rich, and hard won.

Summoned from the Margin
Summoned from the Margin

Sanneh grew up in a polygamous Muslim household in the Gambia, a tiny West African country. He seldom had enough to eat growing up, and his description of his whole family’s brush with starvation when he was eight might make you rethink the hyperbole so many of us use around dinnertime: “Children cry only if they think the situation they are in is intolerable and can be changed. With its unrelenting grip, hunger has a way of stanching tears and draining emotions. We would fuss and fidget and be cantankerous, but we were too weak to carry on being a nuisance. Our mothers could forget about trying to keep us in line and focus on the more urgent business of keeping us alive.”

Sanneh also had to fight for his education every step of the way. At the age of nine he was washing plates and cleaning floors for a Catholic family in order to pay his own school fees, and he later reports that he was thrilled at the “rare opportunity for boys of [his] generation” to attend high school.

Getting from there (marginalized Muslim boy in a poor African country) to where he is now (Christian Yale professor) is impressive, considering both the physical and spiritual journeys that were required of him. But he narrates the process calmly and modestly. “When you begin to live life from choice rather than on terms dictated by circumstances, you see things in a wholly different light. Living could not be a happy-go-lucky game, for one misstep could cost me dearly, while a single opportunity could make all the difference. I could not sit back and wait.”

As an added bonus to a good story, Sanneh is uniquely qualified to discuss Christianity and Islam, having as much first-hand knowledge as he does about both religions. “It behooves us on each side,” he says in his introduction, “to spare no effort in love and trust to believe the best in the other.” In a discussion that can so easily get hysterical, his point of view — and his respect for the faith he left behind — is refreshing. There is also a great deal to be learned about Islam from Sanneh’s honest account of how he wrestled with questions of faith as he moved toward conversion — what confused him, what made sense, and what grabbed his attention about Christianity.

My mom would refer to Eat, Pray, Love as “fluff.” It doesn’t affect you at all. It has the nutritional value of cotton candy. If that’s what you’re looking for, then go ahead and read it.

But if you’re looking for an enjoyable book that will make you think, broaden your perspective, and enrich your life, pick up Summoned from the Margin instead.

And isn’t that the point of reading a book?