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Moments of grace

by
12 June 2015

Naomi Starkey enjoys an autobiography by Joanna Jepson

A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, faith and fig-leaves: A memoir
Joanna Jepson
Bloomsbury £12.99
(978-1-4729-1317-3)
Church Times Bookshop £11.70

 

THIS book is a story of transformation at several levels. Most obviously, it is the story of a teenage girl, bullied and humiliated because of her facial abnormality, and how major surgery changes her looks beyond recognition. It is also the story of growing up in a particular Evangelical Charismatic culture that purports to provide all the answers, long before any questions have been framed.

The transformation is not only physical, but spiritual: the challenge not only to piece together enough self-confidence to face adulthood, but to shape a theology flexible and compassionate enough to relate to real life as it is lived by real, damaged people.

The early chapters are at times painful to read, as they evoke the anguish of public ridicule for looking different, and the desperate longing for acceptance. Paradoxically, the church culture, which later becomes so confining, offers Jepson a loving and secure haven during that difficult time. Eventually, however, that security becomes claustrophobic, as she reacts against the template provided for "Christian woman", which is apparently limited to "conservatively dressed home-maker".

Even as her own appearance is surgically changed, the author continues to reflect on the ambiguities of "normality" and "disability", not least through growing up alongside her beloved brother Alastair, who has Down syndrome. Such reflection leads to her mounting an ultimately unsuccessful legal challenge against a late abortion on the grounds of a cleft lip and palate.

Encountering and later working with young people from strict Muslim backgrounds, in her ministry as Chaplain at the London College of Fashion, encourages her to explore rather than simply react against religious values prioritising conformity.

Shining through her experiences are moments of grace: the girls at school who extend friendship beyond expectation; the handsome boy at youth camp who apologises for his brother's rudeness; her father, who urges her to go and study theology; the nuns at the convent where she retreats to clarify her calling. Her discovery of what it means to be herself, in God, includes my favourite episode - what she describes as her "Eric Liddell moment" - when she "felt God's pleasure" in getting 22 ordinands dancing in a night-club till 3 a.m.

Most powerfully, Jepson's story is about discovering that Christian faith can be far more generous than she ever imagined, that "conversion" is not just praying a prayer of commitment, but embarking on a lifetime's journey of self-surrender - and that the God who clothed Adam and Eve, even as they left Eden, longs to enfold us with equal affirmation, tenderness, and love.

 

The Revd Naomi Starkey is a commissioning editor for BRF and also serves as an NSM in the Church in Wales.

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