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Lightness of storytelling

by
03 May 2013

Jo Bailey Wells on The Recovery of Love  by Naomi Starkey

A clerical friend told me recently that, in his later years, his preaching has become all storytelling. This is not because he has left the Bible behind, or because he is no longer interested in teaching the faith, but because he has found that nothing is as effective as a good story - for conveying truth, and for captivating afresh both the weary and the stranger: in short, for inspiring faithful imagination.

A story usually presents itself lightly enough, even when it bears up heavy shelves of theology. Its apparent newness seems contemporary and personal, even when its essence is classic and universal. And it can be engaged with on many levels.

Here is the beauty of The Recovery of Love by Naomi Starkey (above). Some of it reads like a gripping romance - following tragedy and joy through the twists and turns of life. In other places, the biblical scholar in me was scribbling notes, thanks to some original biblical theology and far-reaching intertextual connections.

The book offers these two strands throughout: the human meeting the divine, and the "bottom-up" in conversation with the "top-down". Each chapter is an interweaving of a messy nameless human story (it could be yours or mine - probably the more colourful parts of both), alongside an imaginative reflection on the biblical narrative.

It calls itself a "mystery tour . . . inspired by . . . The Pilgrim's Progress, Piers Plowman and The Great Divorce" (page 7). It is misleading to name some of the spiritual classics, however, in case we overlook that the effectiveness of each began with its contemporary idiom. The Recovery of Love undoubtedly speaks in a contemporary (post-modern, urban, emotive) idiom.

I should confess that some of the intertwining is tantalising - I might even say exasperating, where the flip-flop between modes veers towards the formulaic and invasive. Precisely because of this, I would suggest that this is the ideal book for a group. Each member will be drawn to different details, frustrated by different features, and inspired by different insights. One session for discussion might not be enough. Reading it on my own, I found too much cud for chewing alone.

The more mixed the book group, the better. Even if you have not previously found your group diverse, I dare say this book might change that - so long as there is a willingness to let it connect with the life stories around the room. If you long to get more real with each other, this book could be the catalyst. If your meetings already verge on group psychotherapy, then you might need to rein one another in.

In a mischievous moment, I found myself imagining Sigmund Freud, Bridget Jones, John Stott, Bill Clinton, Eugene Peterson, and J. K. Rowling in a group together. I predict that it would get lively, each enjoying this book, but for different reasons. Such reasons would include vividness of expression, evangelistic potential, narrative art, pastoral sensitivity, and psychological depth.

With hindsight, it is not so much the details that linger about the tale of betrayal and endurance unfolded in the book: it is the mode of expression, the mechanism for "bipolar" narration, as well as some magnificent poetic language that stays with me. While some might be drawn in search of information (perhaps "how to recover love"), I would favour reading for inspiration (for the recovery of love, as the title suggests).

That inspiration includes the way in which scripture and experience engage in fruitful conversation. I shall not forget an exploration of the topic of shame in chapter 16, for example, through the acute perspective of the woman with the haemorrhages (Luke 8.43-48).

Storytelling becomes not so much about end, but means; about process, not product. My imagination is renewed to take the risk of connecting afresh scripture and tradition with reason and experience.

I am reminded once again: it takes the exercise of imagination to be faithful. I am grateful to Naomi Starkey for the risk of this book.

The Revd Dr Jo Bailey Wells is the Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The Recovery of Love: Walking the way of wholeness by Naomi Starkey is published by BRF at £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.30 - Use code CT347 ); 978-1-84101-892-8); Books, 25 January.

 

THE RECOVERY OF LOVE - SOME QUESTIONS

Naomi Starkey describes her book as something like a "mystery tour". Did those words in the introduction appeal to you, or are you someone who prefers a more direct route to a known destination? Is her description of her writing apt?

How much of the description of Planet Babylon do you recognise?

"One question must be pondered and eventually answered: what do we really want?" (page 8). How would you answer that question?

How do you feel about the thought of meeting Jesus in person?

What does loving God mean to the author - and to you?

Where have you seen the footprints of God in your life and in the lives of others?

The author had John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress in mind when she wrote her book. What similarities and differences are there between the two?

Were you challenged by anything in the book? If so, which parts of it affected you in this way?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 June, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. It is published in the Everyman's Library Classics series (among other editions) at £10.99; 978-1-85715-124-4).

Author notes
Ivan Goncharov was born in June 1812 in Simbirsk, Russia. His father, a wealthy grain- merchant and state official, died when Ivan was seven; after this, the boy was brought up by his godfather, who provided him with a good education. He studied literature at the University of Moscow, before working in a variety of posts as translator, secretary, and government censor. His first novel, A Common Story, was published in 1847; Oblomov followed in 1859, and The Precipice in 1868. In September 1891, Goncharov caught a cold; three days later, he had died of pneumonia. He is buried in St Petersburg, where he spent much of his adult life.

Book notes
Ilya Ilyich Oblomov has been given all the ad- vantages of life, but cannot move himself to make the most of them. He procrastinates, fails to make decisions, and finds it hard to take any action. For much of the book, he re- mains in his bedroom, often in bed. His torpor is interrupted when he falls in love with Olga, but she calls off the engagement when he is not able to make the necessary adjustments to his life; she marries one of his friends instead.

The book was praised as an incisive portrait of Russian society, and described by Tolstoy as "a truly great work".

Books for the next two months:
July: A Walk across the Sun by Corban Addison
August: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

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