A gospel review of Trevor Noah’s book – Born a Crime and Other Stories

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Photo by panmacmillan.co.za

© February 7, 2018 | Schulter Etyang 

I have just finished reading Trevor Noah’s autobiographical non-fiction book — Born a Crime and Other Stories released in South Africa by Pan Macmillan in 2017. 

The book is about his experiences as a mixed child growing up in South Africa — a child of a white European father and black African mother. As his book title suggests, he was born a crime because his white European father and black African mother were in a relationship that was not sanctioned by the apartheid government. However, his parents the renegades that they were, decided to break the law, did the unthinkable, and thus he was born.

In his book, he narrates to us details of his upbringing and his views on race, love, parenting, religion, language, poverty, culture and tradition, masculinity, violence against women etc. He weaves these themes through the many stories he shares in his book.

My best story is early on in the book. The story centers on his poo incident and the ensuing chaos it brought to his family and the community in Soweto. (Pgs. 50-57) I laughed myself dry.

The stories about his mother are extraordinary. She had to make tough choices in order to live and thrive in a society that did not rate women at all. Her quest to have a child because she wanted something to love and something that would love her unconditionally. (Pg. 91) Her estrangement from her family and raising a mixed child on her own. Her subsequent marriage to a man who abused her in spite of the sacrifices she made for him. And her undying faith in God is beyond extraordinary. 

If you love Trevor Noah’s comedy, then you will love his book. You should get a copy.

Does the gospel (the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done for us) have a response to the many issues he poses in his book?

Absolutely, it does!

On religion

Trevor Noah’s mother is a deeply religious woman. Very Christian. (Pg. 5) His mother’s family is very religious. (Pg. 6) It is from this religious backdrop that Trevor lives and grows. It is the same backdrop that many people of South Africa are familiar with. Most South Africans are religious — regardless of their religious affiliation. Religion is a big player in the fabric of South Africa.

Religion was instrumental in the struggle against apartheid. Many religious leaders joined the movement against apartheid and provided the spiritual basis for these movements. The Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known all over the world for his vocal criticism and opposition to the apartheid regime.

Gospel response

You would assume that because South Africa is mostly religious, that issues such as racism, domestic violence, poverty, corruption etc. would be minimal or non-existent. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, apartheid was borne out of a misinterpretation of the Christian scriptures. Religion does not change men’s hearts. Religion many times is the issue behind our ills.

The gospel offers us more than what religion offers. Only the gospel offers real heart transformation. Why? The gospel tags at the heart. The gospel satisfies the heart with its deepest longings. The gospel saturates the heart with new affections that influence our behavior. Remember, we live from the heart. When our hearts are captivated, enticed and captured by the gospel, then we are able to change and influence our societies for good.

The answer to racism, poverty, crime, corruption, domestic violence etc. is not more rules. The answer is not more piety and religiosity. It is the gospel.

On race and identity

In chapter 9 — The Mulberry Tree — he shares stories about how the apartheid laws decided your race and identity. He opines that the apartheid system specifically used the coloured people to sow confusion and mistrust. (Pg. 138) The Afrikaners used to call Coloured people the amperbaas  ‘the almost-boss’. (Pg. 139) You must understand that the term “Coloured” in South Africa is not the same as it is used in the U.S. In South Africa, it meant a person of mixed race. In America, it generally meant a black person. The apartheid government had different methods of determining who you were. He writes, “You were what the government said you were”. (Pg. 139)

Gospel response

Each of us will get an identity either from the culture we live in, the government, our innate desires or impressions, religion, achievements etc. Something or someone besides us will determine who we are.

The gospel also defines who we are. The good thing about the gospel is that it gives dignity, diversity and certainty to race and identity. 

I know that race, ethnicity, language and the color of our skin matter. And they should. It’s called being HUMAN. Better yet, Jesus offers us so much more than what our race, ethnicity and color of our skin offers
Jesus offers you much more than being BLACK
Jesus offers you much more than being WHITE
Jesus offers you much more than just being COLORED
Jesus offers you much more than just being INDIAN
Jesus offers you much more than just being an ASIAN
Jesus offers you much more than just being an ARAB
Jesus offers you much more than just being an AFRICAN
Jesus offers you the NEW CREATION. In the NEW CREATION, your race finds meaning and expresses itself fully but not at the exclusion or expense of others. 
In the NEW CREATION, all are made equal yet distinct. In the NEW CREATION, we all are like Jesus and yet fully human.
In the NEW CREATION, you get to savor and enjoy what every other race, ethnicity and language brings to the table. The new creation is diverse — every nation and tribe and people and language. The new creation has every gender and age. The new creation has all classes — upper, middle and lower classes. The new creation has diverse tastes and cuisines. The new creation is both local and global. The new creation is gifted, talented and creative. The new creation is alive, fresh and exciting.

On violence — against women

His mother suffers at the hands of her exhusband. This was a man inundated with hopelessness because of the era he lived in. Apartheid destroyed the idea of who a man was with precision. Men were dislocated from their families and worked as slaves in mines that were in the cities. Some were in prison, and others in exile fighting for the cause. Women held the community together. (Pgs. 45-46) And because the men suffered, the women suffered too. (Pg. 316)

Violence against women is a serious issue in South Africa. The stats are amongst the highest in the world. Women in South Africa bear the weight of raising their families single-handedly. At the same time, they bear the brunt of violence against them from men who are supposed to be leaders and protectors of society. Violence against women is not a quintessential black problem. It is a human problem. Violence against women is found in all races — black, white, Indian, coloured, asian, latino, etc.

Gospel response

What is the source of all this violence? Trevor somewhat points us to its source. He writes, … there’s a condition kids suffer from, a compulsive disorder that makes them do things they themselves don’t understand… once the hiding was over I’d say to myself, I’m going to be so good from now on. I’m never ever going to do a bad thing in my life ever, ever, ever, … and then I would pick up a crayon and get straight back into it, I never understood why. (Pgs. 94-95) This is the same thing that plagued his stepfather. His stepfather was a violent man, and every time he hit his mother, he would change but only for a while. The change would last a few years and then he would slip right back. (Pg.318) It is the same thing that causes us to remain in toxic environments and repeated cycles of violence. (Pgs. 323-324) What is this thing?

The gospel calls it sin. Sin is the source of all violence, crime, poverty, and all ills in our societies. It is what plagued Paul as well. He wanted to do good, but he couldn’t. We are all slaves to the sin that is within us. (Romans 7:23)

Then Paul offers us the solution to our problem. Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 7:25) Jesus is the solution to this addiction — sin. Jesus is the solution to Trevor’s pattern of sin. Jesus is the solution to his stepfather’s anger. Jesus is our only hope.

On being an outsider

In chapter 11Outsider — he writes about how he felt as an outsider. He was a mixed child — he was neither coloured, black, white and definitely not indian. So he had to employ skills to fit in and survive. He writes, “Ever the outsider, I created my own strange little world. I did it out of necessity. I needed a way to fit in. (Pg.161) … I floated. I was a chameleon still, a cultural chameleon (Pg. 163) … the weed guy is always welcome at the party. He’s not part of the circle, but he’s invited into the circle temporality because of what he can offer. That’s who I was. Always an outsider. (Pg. 164)

Gospel response

In a surreal way, South Africa still has this feel of the outsider. We live and treat each other as outsiders. I have been living in South Africa for the past ten years, and I still get the feeling that am an outsider even as I interact with people who were born here and have lived here all their lives. I get the sense that we are all outsiders.

The gospel says it’s a spiritual thing. We are all outsiders. However, the gospel also has a solution to our “outsiderness”. Jesus became an outsider so that we can be invited into the circle. How did he do it? He left his home in heaven. He came and suffered at the hands of his own people. His own people considered him an outsider. They then crucified him outside the gates of Jerusalem (Hebrews 13:12) Jesus became the real outsider. Why? He did all this for us. He did all this so that we can be brought home. He did this so that we would not be like the weed guy who’s only invited in because of what he can offer. 

The gospel is this — Jesus comes and brings outsiders home. WE are brought home. WE are welcomed into the circle. WE are invited and given everything that WE ever dreamed or hoped or desired. That’s the gospel.

On culture and tradition 

In chapter 18 — My Mother’s life — his stepfather took his family to his traditional home. At his village, the women were well-mannered, bowed down to the men, and did all the house chores. The man is king. Every woman was at his service. Trevor was in heaven. (Pg. 256) His mother, the free roaming spirit that she was, didn’t embrace that ideology. She rebelled against it.

The gospel response

Tradition, culture and the modern man movement are hard, tough and cruel on men. They produce a pseudo man — male chauvinists or passive aggressive men. Men who rely on their maleness or a lack of it to determine their social standing.

Only Jesus on the cross shows who a true man is. A true man dies for another — lays his life down for others. True masculinity is death for another — sacrifice for another. Jesus offers death to men so that they can be true men.

I personally don’t like this offer at all but I’ll take it…

Why do bad things happen to good people?

Trevor Noah asks this pertinent question through a series of statements after he heard that his mother had been shot. I was angry at the world, angry at God. Because all my mom does is pray. If there’s a fan club for Jesus, my mom is definitely in the top 100, and this is what she gets? (Pg. 335) This is a question that every human being will be faced with at one point in his or her life. Usually, something drastic happens that begs for this question. In Trevor’s case, it was his mother’s shooting.

Gospel response

Is this a fair question? Yes, it is! It’s written in the Bible that if you are a true God fan, then God must do something in return. It’s the reason why some people choose religion. Religion says that if you stay close to God, things will turn out right. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Bad things happen to all of us because we live in a fallen world. This world wasn’t meant to be like this. It was created for us to live in bliss but Adam and Eve messed up. Since then everyone — all of humanity deals with the consequences of the fall. Bad things happen to everyone — whether religious or irreligious.

The gospel’s response to this is this — there was a man who was perfect, more perfect than all of us. His name, Jesus. And yet at his weakest point, his father, the God of all the universe abandoned him. He was falsely accused and sentenced to death on a cross. Bad things happened to the perfect man who ever lived. If bad things happened to this man, then bad things will happen to us.

Moreover, the gospel arms us with the wisdom and knowledge on how to respond when bad things happen. The gospel fortifies us against bitterness, disappointment and despair that ensue after bad things happen. Eventually, Jesus works all things for good according to us who love him. (Romans 8:28)

On his mother’s shooting

At the end of the book, he writes in great detail what happened when his mother got shot. His stepfather pointed the gun at her head point blank, execution style. Then he pulled the trigger. Nothing. The gun misfired. Click! he pulled the trigger again, same thing. Then again and again. Click! Click! Click!  Four times he pulled the trigger, and four times the gun misfired … (Pg. 329) 

Gospel response

The gospel has a term for such an occurrence. A MIRACLE! Miracles – things that we can’t explain — things that bamboozle our minds. Why? So that we don’t get a boxed-in idea of who God is. So yes, the tragedy is that his stepfather shot his mother. The gospel is this — God worked good in that bad situation. He was present. He was right there. He controlled the outcome of the shooting.

Oh yes Trevor, miracles do happen. Miracles are means that God uses to dazzle and create wonder in our lives. Trevor Noah, miracles do happen.

That’s what grace looks like