Out of Sorts: Making peace with an evolving faith
DLT £9.99 (978-0-232-53239-5)
Church Times Bookshop £9
IN HIS book Good-Bye to All That, the poet Robert Graves wrote that, when a Christian lost his or her faith, the last element to “die” was the belief that Jesus was the ideal human being. Sarah Bessey’s passionate and wry memoir of the death and rebirth of her faith brings to mind Graves’s dictum. Unlike Graves, she rediscovers a Jesus who is at the centre of all that makes life valuable.
Bessey, then, is writing spiritual autobiography, and her account of her faith’s evolution from churchy, rule-constrained youth to the messy complexity of adulthood is, by turns, smart, wise, and, well, occasionally irritating.
First, the book’s strengths. Bessey addresses an important issue for a person who wants to “grow” in faith in post-modern times: what happens when the old formulae of belief fail and one’s relationship with God becomes “out of sorts”? Bessey’s account of the collapse of her faith while living in California, of giving up on Church, and of her retreat to the Canada of her youth is moving. There is real delight in her determination to find God through the slow reading of the Gospels and in openness to the alien (for her) cadences of the Book of Common Prayer. Finally, she discovers that “Jesus isn’t our mascot and he isn’t the magic word. . . he is the image of God for us.” Anecdote, theology and personal confession weave to make a charming and often raw case for the power of the Good News.
Despite her lightness of touch around potentially stodgy thinkers such as Paul Ricoeur, however, and her courage to speak of wilderness and darkness, there are times when Bessey’s approach feels a bit “hokey”. When she tells another tale of her children, aka “the tinies”, I feel overwhelmed by the sweetness of it all. Then again, no one does sentiment like North Americans.
Yet, for anyone who wants an accessible and intelligent exploration of what we can authentically believe in an age of doubt, Bessey’s book is a solid place to start. Her case for the centrality of “Jesus” — the Jesus who walks with us in the wilderness, meets us in the austerity of ancient liturgy, and waits with us in both shadow and light — is a vital one.
The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.