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Past Perfect: Freedom from perfection in life and faith, by Stephen Mitchell

13 September 2019

Jennie Hogan is left with questions by a book on imperfection

THE title’s double-entendre first attracted me for its insouciance in the face of correctness, and then disgruntled me for its smug nod to the old guard for whom amas, amat, amamus brings a warm glow. When I learnt about the publisher, Christian Alternative, which describes itself as “a space on the edge where the light shines through”, I was expecting to be provoked and enlightened. But when I read its contents I mostly found myself unmoved and in the dark. It is hard to see why a retired clergyman, Stephen Mitchell, has written this, and at whom it is aimed.

Perfection is certainly a fascinating and timely topic to broach. The theological and philosophical heritage to draw from is unarguably rich. Mitchell certainly set himself a challenge with monumental chapter headings such as “Beauty”, “Humanity”, and “Goodness”. An early chapter, “Perfect Day”, seemed, however, a creative and gentle approach in enabling us to ponder how we might shift our expectations of reality and fulfilment. In five small pages, we canter through advertisements for pizzas, Latin and Greek etymology, Torvill and Dean’s Olympic ice-skating performance, the nature of perfect numbers, Lou Read’s folksy reminiscences of drinking sangria in the park, thoughts on a hymn, and a burst of Gospel hermeneutics. It is certainly broad, but, sadly, not very deep.

Ideas and anecdotes flit and clash as though Mitchell has simply decided to publish his musings on a theme. Yet there are moments when he writes about his experience of his deceased wife’s degeneration with motor neurone disease and we gain a glimmer of originality and insight. His description of the moment when his wife died is memorable and moving.

Despite our strivings, perfection belongs to God and not humanity; most of us require reminders of our delusions, but Mitchell’s attempt failed to quieten the “Must do better” voice in me.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is Chaplain at Goodenough College, London, and Assistant Priest of St George’s Bloomsbury.


Past Perfect: Freedom from perfection in life and faith
Stephen Mitchell
Christian Alternative £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20

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