September 2013 Zion Book Club: Blog by Cindy Bushey
To start our new reading season, Zion’s Book Club plunged into “Out of a Far Country” by Christopher Yuan and Angela Yuan. One of our readers had heard this mother and son duo on National Public Radio and been intrigued about the contents of this memoir. Having briefly perused the reviews and finding most, if not all, to be five stars, our readers were prepared to be greatly impressed. We were . . . just not the same way!
The book is subtitled “A gay son’s journey to God. A broken mother’s search for hope”. (More about that subtitle later.) Our readers found a story of perhaps the most dysfunctional family we had ever encountered. Angela evidently grew up with a single mother who was constantly searching for love in all the wrong places, to paraphrase a song, and who never gave any to her daughter. Leon came from a supposedly normal family who morphed into parasites once Leon and Angela emigrated to the United States for college and dental school. While barely making ends meet, Leon insisted on sending money back to his parents and withdrew into silence when Angela objected. The Yuans had two children, boys who were groomed from an early age to follow their father into dentistry and take over his practice for which Angela was office manager. While physical abuse was absent, the portrayal of their family life shows cold silence, two parents who do not talk to each other or their children and never show affection, let alone love. Somehow, the older son disappears from the story which then concentrates on Christopher’s realization that he is gay, his mother’s total opposition, his father’s silence, and Christopher’s search while in dental school for the love and acceptance he did not find at home. This search led him to promiscuous sex, a national nightclub subculture, and addition to drugs which grew to the point that he ran a business dealing drugs from his apartment complete with meticulous record-keeping learned in his father’s office (guess they must have talked a little bit).
Angela is ready to kill herself in front of a train over her mostly non-existent marriage and Christopher’s gayness, but suddenly finds God speaking in her ear. Despite an avowed lifelong hatred of Christians, she turns to prayer so much that she transforms an unused master bedroom shower into a prayer closet, and does an abrupt 180 degree turn within one month from disowning Christopher to professing undying love for him. All sound a little unbelievable? That’s what we thought!
Meanwhile, Christopher’s very open business has finally come to the attention of the police, and he is arrested. Suddenly, his mother and father are people of value to him! After helping to convict his drug supplier, Christopher ends up serving an amazingly light prison sentence for the felony of drug dealing, especially on the scale at which he was involved. During his time in prison, he discovers he is HIV positive, not surprising considering the choices he made. Christopher starts reading a Bible since it was the only reading material available, and becomes convinced of God’s unconditional love. He begins a self-taught education in Bible Studies and plans to attend Moody Bible Institute upon his release. Miraculously, Angela and Leon reconnect and begin talking and jump feet first into evangelical Christianity, attending conferences and giving talks. Upon his release, Christopher does indeed attend Moody Institute and is now on the staff and travels giving speeches, often with his mother.
As mentioned above, Zion’s readers were greatly impressed by these people as a totally dysfunctional family. We felt that a great deal of character development was omitted, whether intentionally or not, and we could never develop empathy or sympathy for them. Our strongest impression was of the lousy parenting theme that seemed to run through the book. Indeed, one reader declared the book was papered with “egregiously bad parenting” not only in the Yuan family but in Christopher’s friends and fellow prisoners. Although the book was short and an easy read, we were disappointed with it on many levels. The idea that conversion means you have found God and therefore your road through life is now rosy does not ring true. We also found the Yuans lacked an awareness of the hurt they caused others by their choices. Angela never expresses sorrow at hurting her husband or her children by her need to control them; Christopher never acknowledges ruining other peoples’ lives through his drug dealing. It is as if conversion absolves them of the need for repentance and Christopher’s choice of celibacy redeems him.
The book purports to be a story of redemption much like the parable of the Prodigal Son. However, it strikes us as more a work of self-promotion aimed at a particular evangelical audience who would be inclined to purchase it. The subtitle referred to earlier seems carefully chosen as a marketing ploy. The book never delves into the deeper questions of homosexuality at all but seems to imply a prayerful “cure” by the subtitle. Effecting a change through prayer was a claim espoused by the Exodus program mentioned in the book and by other programs. These claims have not held up over time and have effectively been disproved. Based on some of our readers’ conversations and discussions with homosexual friends and acquaintances, people are born a certain way and do not change.
The truth of prison conversions was another area of skepticism for Zion’s readers, although one of our readers who is involved in prison ministry attested to the reality of such conversions that he has seen. The jury is still out on whether the conversion lasts once the prisoner returns to the outside world.
Reading this book did bring home to our readers the desire for love and acceptance that is in everyone and to what lengths people will go to find it. While we recognize the immaturity of Christopher’s reasoning and choices, we also understand that the immaturity was probably a result of smothering, loveless parenting. If nothing else, the book plainly demonstrates the need for parents to show love to each other and to their children. We just wish it had been a little more believable!
As we prepared to vote on this book, we realized how difficult it is to rate when compared with other non-fiction and fiction choices since it is a memoir. We considered readability as well as content and had one reader give one thumb up, six readers remain neutral, and one reader give two thumbs down.