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
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
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
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
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
"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
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;
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.
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
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
August: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold
Fry by Rachel Joyce