Into the Spotlight
Sixteen-year-old Gabrielle Douglas’s jaw-dropping performance in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition, just edging out her closest Russian competitor to win gold, was certainly one of the most memorable moments in the 2012 Olympics. Perhaps even more noteworthy for Christian fans of the games was her response on her Twitter account, “I give all the glory to God.”
Like Mary Lou Retton and other all-American-girl champions before her, Douglas drew attention not only for her athletic prowess, but for who she is. As a young woman who was then only sweet-sixteen, she was youthful, talented, and (despite the ridiculous talk about her hair) as cute as a button. And while Americans savor a hard-charging Michael Phelps, we absolutely adore our sweethearts of the balance beam. And that means Douglas came home to fame and fortune, as well as a platform for her to speak about faith that is rivaled only by someone like Tim Tebow.
My Initial Reaction
My first inclination upon hearing she had released an autobiography was excitement mixed with trepidation. Tim Tebow was at least a college student when he was thrust into the limelight, sending millions of people “Googling” Bible verses with his face paint during games. (And while I am a Tebow fan, some immaturity does show in his autobiography…see my full review.) But Douglas only recently turned 17, and as someone who spent most of her short life in a gym, I worried that she might be far more prepared to turn a somersault than represent her life and faith to a critical world.
The second big worry I had was on learning that Zondervan had hired Michelle Burford to help Gabby write her story. Burford is the founder of Oprah’s Magazine, O, and while I’m not an officianado on her writing, I am familiar with Oprah’s take on faith. I was very concerned that Burford might twist Douglas’s Christian faith–which seems to be genuine–into the anti-gospel of mere positive thinking of which Oprah is so fond.
A Lot to Be Thankful For
However, there is a lot here to be thankful for. First of all, Douglas’s family life isn’t one that’s been white-washed or even brought to a simple conclusion. She devotes a separate segment of each chapter to her relationship with her father, and it includes both disappointment, heartache and a striving for forgiveness that seems both honest and full of grace. I think a lot of readers who have experienced an absent father in their own lives will find it resonates without giving in to despair.
The arc of her story is a traditional rags-to-riches story, but it is fleshed out in a way that I found fascinating. As an infant, Douglas’s family was so poor that mother, father, two children plus Gabby all lived (and slept!) in their Dodge van. They had received years of help from Gabby’s grandparents, and at some point, they simply refused to take anymore handouts. They had to make it on their own, and they were determined to die trying. The fact that Gabby had a life-threatening blood disorder is relayed in matter-of-fact terms, and we’re told that her mother simply prayed that Gabby would be healed rather than taking her to a doctor. Remarkably, she was healed.
The rest of the book follows her climbing the rungs of the gymnastics world, seasoned with poignant and insightful moments outside of the gym, all the way through her Olympic success. From beginning to end, her faith is a large part of the story, and surprisingly, I think Burford did a very good job allowing Gabby’s own voice to come through. Overall, it is compelling reading, and I admire Douglas’s stand for God in the public square more than I can communicate here.
Not a 10 Out of 10
But that brings me to one of the biggest caution I have about the book: Douglas was brought up in the Word of Faith movement. I’m not sure that she has personally accepted the most extreme positions of Word of Faith, but many of its distortions show up in her story. One big example would be here, when her mother thought it was sufficient to pray over Douglas rather than seek proper medical care. But she was healed, you say! And to that I say, the Lord is so gracious not to punish us for every confusion of doctrine, and I am so grateful Gabby didn’t have to pay the price for her mother’s roll of the dice. (I don’t know how dangerous not seeking treatment really was either, since I’m not familiar with her particular blood disorder. I’m just basing my comments on what she says about the episode.)
That said, if I were a mom or dad of a young person reading this book, I would definitely want to talk about it. There are men and women who choose today to forego cancer treatment because they believe God wants them to pray it away. And it is that kind of logic that can be not only be deadly, but can spiritually devastate those left behind.
Two other places that an immature kind of faith shows up is 1) in at least one superstition. On one day during the Olympics, she and her mother tweet back and forth that they know rain here is a sign from God of His blessing on her; and 2) Gabby’s prayers, especially those leading up to the Olympics. Rather than asking God to bless her efforts, she uses her prayers to create her reality, or in other words, to get what she wants–such as sticking every landing. Why? Not because of the finished work of Christ, and not because He has “regarded our helpless estate and has shed His own blood” for her soul. No, the reason she gives God that He should bless her is because she has the “God-given talent and desire to do so.”
And that last point brings up the most significant criticism I have of the book. Often times, young Christian athletes are quick to credit God with their success. And that is a huge step up from the kind of Kaepernicking worship of self that usually occurs in man’s heart. But the God of the Bible isn’t just about helping you reach your goals. He is the ultimate goal-setter. And being a Christian, being born again, means dying to self and finding new life through faith in Him–entrusting our entire lives to Him not merely as the One who blesses our efforts but the One who makes us new. As such we become “his workmanship” seeking His goals for our lives “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:10)
Why Its Still Worth Your Time
I don’t see this deficiency as a reason for everyone to avoid this book. It’s an all-to-common failing among Christian biographies. But I would encourage my kids to ask this: How might Gabby have found more comfort and joy in her journey if she had trusted God to set her path, not just bless her results?
I would also be remiss if I didn’t tell you what a wonderful book this is apart from the above failings. Douglas’s mother is a picture of resilience, as she works two jobs and pinches pennies until she is able to bring her family out of poverty. Douglas’s descriptions of her relationship with her brother and sister are often hilarious (she writes of sneaking together to try to make a sweet treat and failing miserably) and provide many loving examples of familial devotion. And I haven’t even mentioned until now that Gabby is an African American, which brings another layer of interest to the story. She faces discrimination, albeit slight compared to other generations, and learns to succeed in spite of it.
Overall, it’s a book I think many readers will enjoy, and parents or educators who take the time to talk through some of its problems may find it worth its weight in gold.
Literary Value: 3.5 out of 5
Worldview: 3.5 out of 5