Brief Reviews, VOLUME 12

Belinda Bauman – Brave Souls [Review]

Recovering Empathy.

A Review of

Brave Souls:
Experiencing the Audacious Power of Empathy

Belinda Bauman

Hardback: IVP Books, 2019
Buy Now:  [ Amazon ]  [ Kindle ]
 
Reviewed by C.S. Boyll
 
In Brave Souls, Belinda Bauman seeks to enlist followers of Jesus to lead the charge for empathy. She admonishes Christians to live without excuse and care more deeply and fearlessly.

Psychology Today defines empathy as “the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own.” Bauman says research indicates we are hardwired for empathy; it’s good for our neighbors and it’s healthy for ourselves. Trends, however, indicate we are losing our grasp on this cultural-saving quality. One example Bauman cites is a University of Michigan study that tracked more than 14,000 college students over three decades. The results indicated a whopping 75 percent of students cared significantly less about others than they did 30 years ago (9). How can such empathy loss be turned around?

Bauman, a self-described teacher, advocate, and activist, asks a solid question about the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you:  “What if the Golden Rule was never meant to be the ultimate standard for social ethics? What if, instead, it was meant to be a common denominator, something everyone could strive for, no matter…[their] background, geography, or faith?”

She continues, “You may be thinking, Still, better a world with the Golden Rule than a world without it. Right? …I can’t escape an important niggling question: Aren’t we supposed to expect more than mutual backscratching, quid pro quo, and tit for tat? To be ‘done unto’ is something every human should expect in their experience. It seems to be the low bar….Why then do we treat it as something we should aspire to when it is merely expected? If the Golden Rule is our aspiration, what the heck is the point of the gospel? When Jesus said, ‘A new command I give you….As I have loved you, so you must love one another,’ (John 13:34), what did he mean?” (25).

Before Bauman could write a book that explores this question she had to come out from under personal apathy and numbness. Her epiphany is squirmy because, by her admission, she had been in the Christian trenches for social justice and education a long time. It seems incredible that a seasoned global citizen would be so insulated to the gospel, but she admits believing a faux faith that included: “God loves nice people” and “God will never give me more than I can handle” (35).






In 2012, Bauman was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with her friend Lynne Hybels hearing stories of women and children ravished by war. When refugee Esperance gives her thumbprint permission to Bauman to tell her story and advocate for her and others, Belinda’s numbness melts away. She becomes afire to represent Esperance and so many who need help. Because of this “beautiful collision,” Bauman and others form One Million Thumbprints, an organization that asks people to be in solidarity with these oppressed women, cataloging their stories, and giving them aid where they live. Two years later, Bauman rallies 14 other leaders, all women, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and plant thumbprint flags on the summit.

Why Bauman needs such an extreme activity for empathy growth is not clear, but she explains: “For me, climbing Kilimanjaro was a quest, not an adventure. The difference? An adventure happens to you. You happen to a quest. A quest requires a question, a conflict, a mission, and a goal. Kilimanjaro was a grand quest to see if we ordinary humans could take on the extraordinary discipline of empathy to overcome an obstacle found both outside and inside us.”

Bauman’s retelling of how she helps the weakest member of her climbing party succeed in reaching the summit and the wisdom of Tanzanian  mountain guides are some of the richest parts of the book.

Although Bauman switches back between the stories of Esperance and of her own mountain quest, I came away still not connecting these experiences to my journey for holy empathy. Bauman touches on key scriptures including the story of the Good Samaritan and the Sermon on the Mount, but I desired deeper mining. The rest of the book offers basic tips on practicing empathy like active listening, intentional acts of kindness and being mindful of self-care. There are even a “Listening Reflection” assessment tool and study questions.

Another concern was Bauman’s dismissal of sympathy. “Sympathy is easier—a quick response, an attempt at caring, but without understanding. Often it just makes us feel better but does little for the hurting person” (52). Of course detached sympathy exists, but I also believe sympathy has value through acts of care such as casseroles and cards to the sick and the grieving. Surely there is goodness in the many sympathetic donors who write checks that relieve pain for people they never meet?

A discussion that would have widened the scope of audacious empathy would have helped. This might have included the faithful spouse who cares many years for the Alzheimer’s patient, the Life Group that rallies around parents and their special needs child, or the monastic prayer warrior doing spiritual warfare in a sparse room. Definitely, Belinda and Esperance emulate brave empathy in their worlds, but others in different environments with different callings express holy empathy too. They even might be brave and audacious.

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C.S. Boyll, Colorado Springs, writes “There’s A Blog in My Eye” at csboyll.com. She occasionally deploys as a Billy Graham Rapid Response Team chaplain in tandem with Samaritan’s Purse.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This review has been updated to remove an errant observation rooted in a misunderstanding.



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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com


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