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Light in the darkness

06 July 2012

Sue Atkinson on books to help when life is difficult


Sunk by greed? The Wreck of the Halsewell (an East India Company ship lost off Purbeck), 1786, by Thomas Stothard, engraved by Edmund Scott, is discussed by Geoff Quilley in a chapter on the moralisation of shipwreck in Empire to Nation. See caption on previous page

Sunk by greed? The Wreck of the Halsewell (an East India Company ship lost off Purbeck), 1786, by Thomas Stothard, engraved by Edmund Scott, is disc...

God in the Dark: Rebuilding faith when bad stuff happens
Peter Longson
Wild Goose Publications £13.50
Church Times Bookshop £12.15

Encountering Depression: Frequently asked questions answered for Christians
Andrew and Elizabeth Procter
SPCK £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT187)

The Five Wounds: Sanctuary for the sick, balm for the wounded spirit
Ann Farmer
Gracewing £6.99
Church Times Bookshop £6.30

PETER LONGSON's God in the Dark is an exquisitely written exploration of the problem of suffering - the biggest question about faith for many people. His daughter was sexually abused as a young child, and then, just as she was getting her life together as a teenager, she was raped.

Longson's style is relaxed and poetic, with just the right amount of personal information within his carefully argued search to understand why "bad stuff happens". I particularly liked his work on science, building on some of the work of John Polkinghorne, and linking the Big Bang and evolution into a section on "the way the world is".

The book is utterly honest, and his section on the things we say to people when they have had their world rocked by tragedy is essential reading for any who try to care for those who are suffering. "It could have been worse" and "God was with her" don't help, because of the deep pain that this kind of statement can cause. Everyone who has suffered and has had this kind of trite nonsense told them will identify with the author's hurt - and then with his exploration of why humans deliver this kind of glibness, seemingly unaware of the grief caused.

With a mixture of science, theology, and philosophy, Longson pulls off an astonishing, deep, and coherent argument - by far the best and most life-affirming book that I have ever read about the problem of pain. It has a profound conclusion that is deeply satisfying.

The Procters' book Encountering Depression is divided into 20 shortish chapters, each one answering one of the questions that Christians frequently ask when their lives are devastated by depression. For example, "Does my depression stem from my lack of faith?" and "Why do I keep thinking of ending it all? It scares me."

My first impression of the book was that it looked daunting. The publishers have chosen small, feint print, and, with the authors' long paragraphs, the book wasn't at all inviting - and, I thought, unsuitable for depressed people. But, once I started reading, I saw that my first impression was quite wrong.

The text has a light touch, with sensible and creative advice from the authors. Andrew is a priest and a counsellor, and Elizabeth is an experienced psychiatrist. They use a huge number of quotes to pull together a very useful resource for Christians suffering depression, and those who care for them.

Each chapter has four short sections, "for information", "for inspiration" (often stories from their wide experiences of working with depressed people), "for meditation" (making the book just for Christians: I can't imagine my depressed agnostic friends coping with these), and "for perspiration". The last was always my favourite bit of each chapter: some excellent ideas for a huge range of things to do to chase off the dreaded depression.

As with most books on depression, it would not suit someone deeply depressed, but it is a really valuable resource book. It can be read in any order, making it a dip-into book. It is such a shame that the publishers did not see the need for larger, bolder print to make it seem less overwhelming.

Ann Farmer's book The Five Wounds is a meditation on the five wounds Jesus suffered when he was crucified. This is written for a Catholic readership, and could be especially helpful for disabled people or those with terminal illness. It covers issues such as the betrayal and humiliation that some disabled people feel, and there is a discussion against abortion and assisted suicide. The text moves quickly in and out of a range of different issues, images, and quotes, making it quite hard to follow in places - but that is sometimes the style of meditations. The tone feels a bit "headmistressish", and, with the prayer section at the end in the language of "thee" and "thy", it has an old-fashioned feel.

Sue Atkinson is the author of several books, including Breaking the Chains of Abuse (Lion, 2006).

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