A Review of
Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma
Michelle Van Loon
Reviewed by C.S. Boyll
While my friend and I went on a road trip recently, her husband searched for chitlins—something he only makes when her nose is far away. His quest took him hither and yon with no luck. Via phone he sounded so discouraged, so we asked the Lord to intervene. Sure enough, Ted found pork intestines 60 miles away and spent the day preparing them. He once told me, “I don’t know what you’ll be eating in heaven, but I’m having chitlins!”
In different ways, what we bring forward from our pasts is always more than just preparing chitlins. For Ted, his mother’s recipe recalled boyhood memories of the Saturday chitlin truck arriving in the neighborhood. It’s about his mother cleaning and cooking the time-consuming meat and giving her children a teasing bite at bedtime. It’s the Sunday after-church feast. Ted’s mom died last year; his solo chitlin meals are all about honor and love.
Michelle Van Loon’s seventh book Translating Your Past—Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma addresses such blessings and legacies, but she’s also interested in helping readers dive deeper into their ancestral histories for clues to why they are the way they are—the good, the bad, and the ugly. “Our history is not destiny, but it is a living preface to our experience” (25). Scripture tells us to remember well, but how do we do that when histories are disjointed?
Van Loon uses the word translator to describe a person who does the hard work of understanding the past: “As we seek to make sense of the story of our ancestry, genes, and generational trauma of the past, we are engaging in a sacred call to listen, understand, and transmit meaning. Some might view the subject of exploring family stories as a self-indulgent exercise in nostalgia, but if a cache of wistful, melancholy, sepia-toned memories is the sole product of this effort, then we are missing the profound gifts of identity, purpose, and hope that come with the redemptive work of translating the past” (7).
How to begin? Van Loon reminds us to frame our small stories in God’s historic redemptive story. We also carry the language of imago Dei in our DNA. That’s our firm foundation and hope. She then surveys topics as varied as deciphering the latest DNA research including epigenetics; adoption; generational transmission of dysfunction; racial, ethnic, and religious impacts; understanding how trauma encodes itself into our family history and handling negative spaces of mystery and silence. If this all sounds too heavy or academic it isn’t. Her goal is to help the layperson with spiritual formation. As someone who has examined her Jewish ancestry and spent a lifetime in communications and discipleship careers Van Loon is effective. She tells the stories of those she interviewed who overcame horrible pasts, sometimes through lengthy counseling as well as their faith and perseverance.
I appreciated how Van Loon brings in appropriate scriptures to fortify her points, but not in a sugary, dismissive way. For example, she challenges the fatalistic interpretation of generational curses as found in several passages like Exodus 20:5-6 and writes, “That focus carries with it a temptation for some to view humankind as helpless victims of evil, and to think of God and Satan as equal opponents in a heavenly cage match. This kind of thinking is steeped in error and diminishes the victory over sin already won for each one of us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (87).
She continues, “God does not punish a new generation for the sins of a former generation. But God does hold accountable children who don’t learn from their parents’ mistakes. It is the responsibility of every generation to not repeat the mistakes of those that came before them….When we observe brokenness within our families and choose a different path, one that aligns with God’s redemptive plan for humanity, we can see clearly the loyal love of God” (89).
Each chapter of Translating Your Past ends with reflective questions, for personal and group study. Appendix A provides more “tool kit questions,” and Appendix B provides 13-pages of resources for further study. One quibble about this book is that I wish it had more guidance on how to incorporate reconciliation and shalom into families. I know many Christian friends estranged from adult children, and I know of at least four divorced fathers who pay child support but have little to no relationship with their offspring due to vindictive ex-wives. Perhaps that is another book?
Van Loon and Herald Press have done a good service to offer a book tackling the wounds and scars we suffer in a culture of broken hearts. Much hope and healing await those who reflect and seek truth and love. Van Loon closes her book with this encouragement:
“We cannot dictate how we’ll be remembered by our families and friends any more than the generations who came before us can tell us how they’d like to be remembered by us. But translating the past holds the promise of a more sure, solid sense of identity for us as we gain a more complete understanding of our story. The past may be prologue, but is also a melody line that carries us into the future as we learn to sing the songs of our ancestors to our children” (158).
The Lord is my inheritance and my cup,
You are the one who determines my destiny.
Your boundary lines mark out pleasant places for me.
Indeed, my inheritance is something beautiful (Ps. 16:5-6 GW).
Cynthia Schaible (C.S.) Boyll writes from Colorado Springs. Because of her German American ancestry she had relatives who fought on opposite sides of World War II. Her website is wwwcsboyll.com.
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