A compelling faith beyond appearance

by
08 January 2016

Lucy Winkett enjoys Joanna Jepson’s ‘bracingly honest’ A Lot Like Eve

Warm faith: the Revd Joanna Jepson

Warm faith: the Revd Joanna Jepson

FROM the very first story in what turns out to be a funny and moving collection of vivid personal stories, Joanna Jepson sets the tone for her reflections. Aged 17, in a short skirt, queuing ("no, longing") to get into a nightclub, with fake ID and an intimidatingly glamorous best friend, she starts meditating on the themes of fashion, faith, and the various fig-leaves behind which, she suggests, we all hide from time to time.

Joanna describes her appearance as having a face that "literally didn’t fit": her upper and lower jaws didn’t meet properly. Relentless taunting at school gave her a litany of nicknames until facial reconstructive surgery, pushing back her upper jaw and reshaping her lower jaw, was carried out in her twenties. For Church Times readers, the fact that a note was slipped into her Bible when she was a teenager, at a church youth group, and said "You’re so ugly. Why don’t you just kill yourself?" is sobering.

An unbearably moving description of a conversation with her brother Alistair, who has Down syndrome, lays bare, in the intimacy of a family setting, universal themes of "normality", "acceptability", and the sheer humanity that lies underneath what, Joanna would suggest, are the masks we all wear.

Her observations about her conservative Evangelical upbringing are by turns affectionate and bracingly critical. The verbatim account of her first experience of speaking in tongues, and the hilarity and division it causes among her friends, may strike a chord with some Charismatic Christians, and discomfit others.

Her observations about her teenage years at a summer camp are acute. It was, on the one hand, a rare place of relaxation and belonging, but, on the other, a place where "I couldn’t shake the fear that I too might have unwittingly contracted a demon, like a virus that suddenly, unexpectedly, announces its presence with an embarrass- ing manifestation of symptoms."

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Her reflections seem designed to challenge this brand of preaching by telling us of the effect it had on her.

Underneath the stories, though, is a movement which, with hindsight, seems inexorable, from an image of God who is judgemental, angry, and particularly worried about Muslims’ taking over the country to a God in whose company "we begin . . . to sense the presence of someone who says It’s OK, you don’t need to pretend. Who gently, leaf by leaf, helps us to let go of our disguises and our attempts at independence and instead clothes us warmly with Love."

It is a book whose first part describes the fig-leaf of a harsh faith in which Joanna was covered almost without knowing it; and, in the second, describes her shedding these perspectives after a breakdown in her late teens, and slowly stitching together a new set of clothes, this time made by God.

Spending an extended period in a convent and discovering the power of silence, as well as reclaiming old photos of her face before surgery, seems to start soothing the lacera-ting effects of bullying both at school and from the pulpit.

She is always respectful of the church families of various communities who welcomed her and taught her the power of Christian hospitality, but the deeper journey home leads not so much by way of church, but by way of her poignant friendship with Joe, or a moment of truth-telling with her father. Her final reflections are powerful, as she works with young Muslim women in her Empty Hanger project, an interactive educational workshop that she develops with the Bible Society. It looks at the biblical characters of Eve, Jacob, Joseph, Rahab, and Jesus through the prism of design and fashion.

As for ordination, when her friend Vicky says she might like to be a "lady vicar", after they watch the General Synod vote on TV while at school, she writes: "All I could think of was Vicky trussed up in a man’s oversized, grey clerical shirt and ugly shoes, having to engage in constant facial depilation to erase any signs of a beard. What an awful job for a woman."

The desire to be a priest, "but not in a church", is ignited, however, after a friend suggests it years later. True to her word, she finds ministerial meaning in contexts such as the London College of Fashion, and other areas of chaplaincy.

Joanna’s combination of vulnerability and robust self-knowledge ("the self image in my head was still held hostage somewhere between 1 Peter 3.3, and the vital statistics of an original ’90s supermodel") make this an entertaining and, at times, tear-jerking read.

From nuns’ having "jumper envy" ("What’s so holy about black?") to the lipstick given to survivors of the Holocaust, the themes are explored unashamedly from a consciously female perspective and, in so far as contemporary feminism wants women to be able to choose whether or not to wear high heels or shave their legs, this is a contribution from modern-day Christianity to that debate, too.

A priest who didn’t want to be one, but whose faith is warmly and compellingly expressed, has written a bracingly honest memoir about what it is like to be her. In a society in which appearance is fetishised, and in a Church in which the world of fashion is often despised, this is a memoir that explores an unusual boundary. Many others, not just women, will find themselves here, too.

 

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Picadilly, in London.

A Lot Like Eve: Fashion, faith and fig-leaves: A memoir by Joanna Jepson is published by Bloomsbury at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70); 978-1-4729-1317-3 (Books, 12 June).

 

 

A LOT LIKE EVE — SOME QUESTIONS

 

What does A Lot Like Eve teach us about bringing up children in a church context?

 

What did you think of the book’s exploration of women’s place in the Church, and of female Christian role-models?

 

What picture does the book paint of the part a Christian should play in the wider world?

 

Did the book change or challenge the way you think about disability?

 

What distinction does Jepson draw between faith and religion?

 

To what extent is A Lot Like Eve a book about control, be it self-control or the external influence of institutional and cultural expectations?

 

Where do you think God is to be found "in our search for the elusive perfect outfit"?

 

After reading Jepson’s story, what do you think Christians should do to promote positive self-image?

 

Where is sin in this book?

 

Jeremy Paxman called current attitudes to abortion "a very British hypocrisy". Do you agree? Did the book alter your thinking on this subject?

 

 

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It is published by Wellcome Collection at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-8466-8582-8.

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Book notes

The triumphs of medical science — the elimination of many diseases, the successful treatment of illnesses once seen as a death sentence — have made us the longest-lived society ever to have existed. But how does our ability to prolong life affect our attitudes towards growing old and dying? Being Mortal explores the ethics and challenges of end-of-life care, asking how we can best come to terms with mortality when treating the elderly and the terminally ill. Atul Gawande draws on extensive research, and his own surgical and personal experience to ask how end-of-life care can ensure "not a good death but a good life — all the way to the very end".

 

Author notes

Atul Gawande is a surgeon, writer, and public-health researcher, practising general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in the United States. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1998, and in 2014 was chosen to give the Reith Lectures for the BBC. Being Mortal is the fourth in a series of bestselling books that address the challenges of modern medicine. Dr Gawande lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife and their three children.

 

Books for the next two months:

March: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

April: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

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