Dangerous Surrender: What Happens When You Say Yes to God

October 2, 2008

That opening tells more about the book than the author may have intended. The decision to read and review this book was triggered by reading a short announcement of its publication, noting that the wife of one of the most prominent evangelical Christian preachers active in the United States today had come to recognize the challenges of HIV and AIDS and to speak out about the issues. This seemed like a “conversion experience” worthy of exploration.

That opening tells more about the book than the author may have intended. The decision to read and review this book was triggered by reading a short announcement of its publication, noting that the wife of one of the most prominent evangelical Christian preachers active in the United States today had come to recognize the challenges of HIV and AIDS and to speak out about the issues. This seemed like a "conversion experience" worthy of exploration.

What I found on opening Dangerous Surrender: What Happens When You Say Yes to God was not quite what I had expected. Each of the 11 short chapters is followed by a challenging question, a prayer, and a series of "getting started" suggestions. The suggestions, occasionally specific to HIV/AIDS, are more often about spiritual growth and exploration of religious belief. A reader who is a convinced nonbeliever, or is highly suspicious of others' spiritual journeys, may not want to venture further than the book's introduction and suggestions on how to use the book as a self-development plan.

I was pulled along, however, by the description in the opening pages of the author's shock at reading, in the spring of 2002, a weekly magazine article about AIDS in Africa and disbelieving the report that there were 12 million children orphaned by HIV in Africa alone. That any conscious, newsmagazine-reading American could, in 2002, be astonished and even disbelieving about the number of children left without parents by this horrendous epidemic made me want to know more about her journey.

This is not a book for anyone seeking an education about HIV or the epidemic. The focus on Africa and, later, on Southeast Asia leaves out much of the American experience. There are many descriptions of tearful meetings with the infected and dying in African villages, Indian hospices, and a Philippine leprosarium. The one passing reference to the misguided perception that most people with HIV/AIDS are gay is used to move attention quickly back to the heterosexual transmission in Africa. The author describes her acute distress during the International AIDS Conference in Thailand in 2004, completely discomfited by the attention to the plight of commercial sex workers and calls for attention to the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons and the frequent anti-American comments.

Although the book gives space to the need for caring and support for the dying, there is little about the immense challenges of prevention in a world where not everyone subscribes to the norms of Warren's conservative Christian perspective. Her own experiences with surgery and che­mo­therapy for breast cancer during the period described in the book were, apparently, helpful to her in forging a connection with the experiences of living with HIV/AIDS. Even her admission of being sexually abused as a teen, and of sexual adventuring before marriage, does not seem to lead to full acceptance of what might have to change if we are to fully protect everyone from HIV.

Her solution will leave many discouraged: personal religious growth and surrender to biblical injunctions to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, and the sick. Her rationale is that the church as an enduring social institution is more ubiquitous than other organizations, more consistent than governments and businesses, and more able to reach people in need.

While I agree that many religious organizations have had tremendous positive impact on the epidemic and the populations affected by it, the notion that Christian churches are an unchanging and universal solution to HIV/AIDS is naive. A more balanced view would be to see churches and other religious institutions as viable partners in care, prevention, and outreach, where they are not themselves subject to persecution and are willing to work with others, including governments.

This is not an answer book for everyone, or even for many. It may, however, open the world of HIV/AIDS to some who have been looking the other way. The primary beneficiary of Dangerous Surrender, as understood by this reviewer, would be a conservative Christian who has been trapped in a view of being above, and even holier than, those ignorant, evil people who bring AIDS on them­selves as punishment for sinful behavior. Warren's discovery of the humanity in those with HIV/AIDS, and the admission of her own imperfections and challenges, may guide others to a more open understanding of this devastating epidemic, and even to actions that are caring and helpful.

Kristine M. Gebbie, DrPH, RN
Center for Health Policy
Columbia University School of Nursing
New York