Book Review: “Raised Right” by Alisa Harris


You: You know what this world needs more of?

Me: What’s that?

You: Your awesome opinions.

Me: In that case…

*****************************************

File Under: Read in part at a Taco Bell in Wyoming

Title: Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith From Politics
Author: Alisa Harris
Pages: Paperback, 219 pages
ISBN: 978-0-307-72965-1
URL: http://alisarharris.com/
Publisher: WaterBrook Press*
Release Date: September 6, 2011

“A wonderful story for political misfits of all shapes and colors.”
Shane Claiborne 

Something I’ve noticed about myself is that while I’m willing to consider new and different angles on a given issue, when it comes to using what I’ve learned in order to take a side on that issue my firstborn brain often hesitates if I don’t have a feeling of permission to make the choice I’m about to make.

Alisa Harris’s new book “Raised Right” gave me the feeling of permission I needed.

***We interrupt this review to bring you the reviewer’s Life Story for the sake of journalistic transparency in background comparison between her and the book’s author.
– Management
***

The oldest of three kids, I was raised in a warm, nurturing, politically conservative Christian home by parents who loved their kids, their families, and the world around them. To the point, even, that they sold their home in the Chicago suburbs to live in South America for three years where my mom taught grade school and my dad built schools, churches, a drug rehab facility, and whatever else came up. They loved God. They loved people. They loved each other. Luckily that love rubbed off on their kids.

While our family rejected the absurd stereotype of many culture-Christians who live to call This, That, or The Other politician either a Saint or an Anti-Christ, we were a Republican-voting family. My parents never specifically instructed me as such, preferring to keep politics out of their children’s lives, but I still knew which box I should check when I reached 18. In fact, I was in my early 20s before it occurred to me to even think about listening to- not just hearing- the whys and wherefores behind the reasoning of the American Left. Not even to agree with it, mind you, but just to listen to it.

Not my family.

I didn’t really need for there to be alternatives growing up. What I knew was working just fine. My folks weren’t crazy religious or political extremists. They didn’t demand all Christians be Republicans, yell at people who disagreed with them, crack mean jokes about people they weren’t voting for, or make me wear culottes. They simply stood behind a set of political ideals I could identify with. A set of ideals most of my friends’ families seemed to identify with, too. It was just part of our community. A community which included going to church, reading the Bible, watching “The Simpsons,” and having epic sleep-over birthday parties where mom would make crafts with us with no regard to our messes while dad told us scary adventure stories with strong female protagonists. (The parallels between mine and Harris’s upbringing are many, but clearly not universal.)

As I grew older it still made sense to me to support those ideals because I was raised seeing the heart behind those ideals, not the loud-mouthed pundits spewing them on TV. I was raised on the “best case scenario” of those ideals being put into play, not on the distorted logic behind “worst case outcomes” like blowing up abortion clinics. I was raised seeing that some people really do live out a commitment to justice from a standpoint of loving God, wanting to do right by the world, and who are willing to make real and significant sacrifices to bring peace to others. And I strongly believed that if we all did our part we could see those “best case scenarios” coming true.

(Another firstborn thing, I suppose. You know- work hard, work smart, and things will fall into place. If they don’t you probably just didn’t work hard and smart enough. There’s a lot of pressure to this whole “firstborn” thing. Thank God we’re all so awesome.)

But then I began my own life and met people and lived through situations that forced apart my faith life and my political life, all the while speckling my black-and-white understanding of the world with flecks of moderate gray. Again and again I faced people I loved in situations that caused them pain, and there I was with a political map that didn’t feature the roads they were walking, let alone viable exits or much needed rest points to serve their needs along the way. I didn’t feel like I needed to toss my map just because it lacked way points, but I did recognize that it was incomplete, and that if I didn’t start adding those missing roads to it myself no one else was going to do it for me. The world is too complicated and life too short to allow ourselves to rely on invisible routes to paper towns.

Every time I thought about those new roads, I worried. Was it okay to look at the same facts and draw different conclusions? Would I still be welcome in that warm community I grew up in? I really needed to know. I still need to know, actually, if I’m gonna put that “Hillary 4 Prez” sticker on my car. And while intellectually I know it’s okay, it still hurts a little to wonder, to differ, to change without permission.

“I see both sides telling us that to be uncertain, to dialogue instead of rail, is to betray the cause.” (p. 174)

***We now return you to the Book Review you’re actually here to read and apologize for the reviewer’s interruptions, though we cannot guarantee she will not make another such attempt.
– Management
***

Totally my family- some of us, anyway ("smoking" FDR-style at mom's suggestion).

“Raised Right” is about growing up in a home where Christianity and the Republican Party are considered to be two sides of the same shiny, home schooling coin. Where Ronald Reagan is practically neck and neck with the prophets. Where a gal could find herself believing “…Jesus was not Someone who gave victory over the sin in [one]self but a shadowy figure who had left us to work for the salvation of the world through politics.” (p. 39) Where the gospels of preachers and politicians often get crossed. (p.72) It’s about changing without permission. Boldly. And in spite of the “shell-shocked” exhaustion that can follow such changes. (p. 144)

In it, Alisa Harris shares an intimately detailed look into her younger years, spent picketing abortion clinics, stuffing ballot boxes for the Republican candidate du jour, and arguing for Reagan’s supremacy as an American president in exchange for a calendar bearing the great man’s likeness. Her narrative goes on to cover her careful, tenuous shift toward becoming Alisa Harris, “Teetotaling Theologically Ambivalent Christian Feminist Honors Program Enrollee” (p. 127) and “liberal feminist.” (p. 145) It’s a bumpy ride- it’s a bumpy road- but it is delivered in such an approachable and well-penned way that readers should be hard pressed to find her conclusions unexpected or unreasonable.

One of the things I appreciated in particular about her book is that in spite of the quirky conservatism- and sometimes outright extremism- of the people who shaped her life and values, she never speaks with anything resembling mockery or disdain toward those individuals. Quite the opposite. In writing about their strengths as well as their struggles, she traces her journey’s history back to how their love of and commitment to God, justice, and humanity taught her to value those things as well. This applies to her parents in particular. “What did my parents teach me that I will pass on to my children? To care… To love… To take heart.” (p.218) We the readers are given the gift of seeing the sacrifices they made for her and her sister, the time and love and effort they put into building their relationships with each other. It’s a peek behind the Christian Curtain, and I liked what I saw.

“Raised Right” gives an insider’s look into a religious group many in this country look at with fear, and many others with folly. It’s broad, it’s deep, it’s touching, and somehow it still doesn’t pull any punches. For these reasons I would strongly recommend this book not only to fellow Christians raised in conservative homes who have found themselves wandering left of Square 1, but also to people for whom this subculture and lifestyle are totally foreign. People who’ve ever asked themselves why so many Christians believe they “must” be Republicans, and why they then do what they do, support what they support, and picket what they picket. It’s an eye opener without being a raging political alarm clock. It’s more of an unexpectedly early sunbeam through your bedroom window on a trip back home for Christmas.

Harris has produced a real gem in “Raised Right.” It’s part memoir, part apology, and part field guide to modern Christianity in the American Right. Regardless of where you stand in regard to religion or politics, there is something to take away from this book. Be it permission to admit to yourself as a Christian that you, too, have explored these ideological territories and that “people can hold blends of belief that seem incongruous to someone else,” (p. 144), or permission to view conservative Christians in a more accepting light and not to “[define them] only by [their] political characteristics and which special-interest group claims to represent [them].” (p. 126)

I struggled to find an appropriate excerpt from the book with which to conclude this review. The struggle was not for a lack of quotable material, but for an almost overwhelming abundance of poignant thoughts begging to be shared. So I will end with the following in the hope that it will prompt your spirit as it did mine:

We seek in one another the assurance that there is just one correct interpretation of the world, that everything is so simple anybody can see it unless they’re malicious or stupid or willfully ignorant; and we punish one another for proving with our differing conclusions that truth is not that easy. We think we must suppress dissension to present the unified front we need to gain power over our enemies. But there are pro-life Democrats, pro-choice Christians, feminists who love their families, and conservatives who care about poor people. Not all of them are right, but neither are they heretics.
(p. 146-7)

*I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. I don’t owe it to them to like, or not like, this book. The opinions in this blog are mine and mine alone. All it really means that I was given this book for free is that I’ll have paid less for my copy than you’ll pay for yours. And you should really consider paying for a copy.

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8 comments

  1. I feel like I’ve seen so many people go through this struggle unsuccessfully – either they come out torn and heart broken, or bitter and jaded. Or all of the above. But I like her perspective – especially the last bit you quoted “Not all of them are right, but neither are they heretics.” She sounds thoughtful – intelligent but kind – like someone I’d like to have a conversation with.

    1. I felt the same way, like she was someone I’d be interested in having coffee with. Not even necessarily to talk about faith or politics, but just about… stuff. Things. Life. Like it would be safe to do so, knowing that whatever rabbit trails we ended up on she wasn’t going to throw a fit if we disagreed.

      Not that I’m surrounded by fit-throwers, I am just so plagued by worry of offending friends by holding different opinions from them that I end up withholding my opinions and bowing out of conversations before they can really get going… It’s no kind of way to live, let me tell ya’.

  2. A witty, insightful, personal review of the book, its author, and its reviewer. As a non-Christian liberal, this is a book I would not have considered picking up. But I find I’m now interested in the author’s journey to examine the powerful impact of all those unspoken childhood messages, perhaps discarding a few along the way.

    1. To tell you the truth, I was a little unsure about picking up the book myself at first. I worried it was going to be one of those “I grew up in Sunday school, tried the big bad world on for size, realized it was evil, and crawled right back into my old rut.” But her story was told so honestly, and with no attempt to hide even her most embarrassing moments, so the whole thing is really quite endearing. The fact that where she is now is a result of self-education, blunt conversations, difficult growth experiences, and opening up to new ideas makes her a fairly inspiring character given today’s religiously political (and politically religious) climate.

  3. I enjoyed your review. I’m interested in reading her story from your description. My journey is a bit opposite. I started out as a liberal activist teen and then attended a liberal activist college. My self education led me in the opposite direction of where I started.

  4. You–“Hello, this is Ruth.”
    Caller–“Hey Ruth this is South America we just wanted to know if you were going to visit.”
    You–“Uh, you’re kinda putting me on the spot.”
    Caller–“I know some people who would help you out down here.”
    AWKWARD silence

    Just kidding. You said “all the while speckling my black-and-white understanding of the world with flecks of moderate gray…” I respectfully request you get out of my head. I was talking with someone about this same subject last night. Just after that I wrote my self a note to use as blog fodder.

    Thanks for the book review. I’ll have to check it out.

    1. Bwaahaa! I was just talking to your wife about that very prospect the other day, as a matter of fact. :D I just need to find a place I can leave the ferrets while I’m gone. For some reason people seem to be a lot more willing to host cats that use litter boxes and dogs that use yards than weasels that use corners…

      I’ll bring the book with me. My apologies in advance for all of my notes in the margins. Most of them are just stars, arrows, and then a lot of “Yes”s and “Me too!”s

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