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Friday, November 25, 2011

Book Review: "Behind the Veils of Yemen"

A while back I found out that Bethany House publishers have a cool program where you can sign up to get books from them in exchange for an honest review on the product.
To a book lover like me it sounded like heaven!
So now from time to time I'll be posting reviews of the books I've selected to read.

We will begin with: "Behind the Veils of Yemen: How an American Woman Risked Her Life, Family and Faith to Bring Jesus to Muslim Women" by Audra Grace Shelby.

To begin: When we consider the title of the book- or more specifically the subtitle- a myriad of questions spring to mind.
*Why would an American family go to Yemen as missionaries?
*How were they put into life threatening situations?
*How was her faith risked? and
*How did she reach out and reach behind those veils?
Those questions along with the cover art immediately drew me in and made me eager to discover what was inside. Unfortunately, by the time I reached the end I really wasn't sure what to make of what I had just read and I can't say I had any of my questions answered satisfactorily.

In the first two chapters of the book we are introduced to several different story lines. As the book opens Audra and her family are flying to the Middle East to begin their missionary journey. The story then jumps back to Audra's response to her husband feeling God's call to overseas missions- in Yemen. We discover that although she was raised on the mission field she is incredulous that God would be calling her husband- and her- to that as well. She resents this new direction and digs in her heels not wanting to follow her husband or God. When she finally 'gives in' it seems it is still with gritted teeth- an attitude I think continues in different ways throughout the book. From there the narrative again jumps, forward a bit, to the Shelby's missionary board candidacy interview where Audra's husband suddenly and unexplainable falls gravely ill. Audra is sent into a tailspin of doubt and anger with God, not understanding what is happening and why. As Audra prays in the hospital chapel she has a vision of God saying her prayers will be answered so she returns to her husband's bedside where he begins to improve. While I firmly believe that God speaks to us through His word and that 'still small voice' I don't know that today He reveals Himself literally as she seems to describe. For me it was rather uncomfortable reading such an 'experience'.
Overall, I'm not sure what this beginning part of the book is meant to convey and how it adds or becomes pertinent to the rest of the story as she only relates them as pre-events and not as a real means to say this is how God changed my heart and led us to his will for our future.

The next section of the book is chapters 3-10 and focus on an 18 month period where the Shelby's are in language school. Audra takes lessons with a newly married young local women, Fatima. This section, which is the bulk of the book, follows Fatima and Audra's relationship. They shop together; attend a Muslim wedding (where the men and women never meet and celebrate separately); they visit other women together and deal with Fatima's marriage, extended family and sick newborn problems together. Sometimes her attempts at influencing Fatima are good. When she discovers Fatima's husband is addicted to pornography -a vice that hurts his wife deeply- she reacts as any of us would condemning the action as wrong for any husband of any culture. When Fatima's first child is born with health issues that would be treatable here in the US but was ignored and passed over with a promise that if Allah willed the child would get better Audra is appaled. The diagnosis (or lack of one)breaks both women's hearts and for the first time Fatima opens up and asks Audra to pray for her son because she believes in the power of and behind her prayers.                 
This middle part of the book is mostly filled with stories that touch the reader as you get glimpses into the life of a Muslim women and wonder at the hopelessness and bondage of a culture against Christ.

The final four chapters of the book center around the Shelby's finishing language school and beginning over in their permanent city of ministry before going back to the States for Audra to give birth to their fourth child.   

When I finished the book I thought "Behind the Veils of Yemen" read more like a excerpts from a personal journal than a inspiring missionary story. To begin with it isn't until the publishers note at the very back of the book that we begin to understand who Audra Grace Shelby is. From the beginning of the book we are thrown into her story without knowing or understanding any of her background that led her to this point in her life. Even after making plain her fighting to stay 'home' we are never given the whole story on how she and her husband came to the decision to go to the field. Once on the field we never settle into her life there and only get snippets of how her family functioned in a very foreign land.  Through the course of the book it is never explained how Audra befriended the women she met/ministered to until the end when we learn it was through sewing- a detail that would have made so much more sense if explained earlier.    
Also, Audra's attempts at sharing the Gospel and influencing Fatima with Western thinking often come off heavy handed (for lack of a better term) and she scares Fatima off in the beginning. Audra seems to expect instant results and that bothered me. Shouldn't a missionary know ministry on a field like this one is a long term thing where you build bit by bit? Also troubling to me was her seeming forgetfulness/lack of knowledge of some cultural customs that led to roadblocks. It made me wonder if they had been properly prepared for immersion into the culture. On the other hand I was suprised at her acceptance of customs like wearing the hejab and balto (cloak) which are religous symbols of Islam and mark her as being a subject of the very false religon that wars against Christianity. I believe she could have dressed in a completely modest way, giving deference to the culture, without compromising her own religous beliefs- and I wonder at the mission board (assumably) asking this of her.

In the end I felt that "Behind the Veils of Yemen" was not about any of the things I was promised in the title/subtitle. While I did learn a little more about Middle Eastern women this story isn't about these women- it's about Audra. Much of the story I was supposed to get is eclipsed by Audra's fighting God, Audra's fighting the culture, Audra's crises of faith,
and Audra's family's multiple health crises. It leaves the reader wondering where is Audra's relationship with God? Where is Audra showing He makes a difference as she reaches out to these Yemeni women?  Where is the hope that sharing Christ should bring? And what was/has been the fruit if the Shelby's labour?
"Behind the Veils of Yemen" causes the reader to ask many questions but leaves them with answers to few of them.

Final Rating: Two Stars  (out of five)