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Book review: Field Notes for the Wilderness: Practices for an evolving faith by Sarah Bessey

10 May 2024

This author decided to break out of the system, writes Jennie Hogan

THE wilderness as a place of discernment, grieving, and transformation is one of the most ancient Christian motifs. This New York Times bestselling author takes us though her own testing journey from heavy investment in the prosperity-gospel culture towards a theology of mystery and openness (Features, 26 April).

Sarah Bessey reveals her own post-Evangelical coming-out story: her husband, a Texan mega-church pastor, has become a carpenter in Canada; LGBTQ+ communities are now embraced as life-enriching; prayer sometimes doesn’t work. The author offers an accessible and compelling narrative of deconstructed ways of living, thinking, and believing which had started to appear unhealthy, inappropriate, and even wrong.

“Stop pretending that your church didn’t break your heart,” Bessey urges those who may be struggling to find fresh ways of following Christ. She is a safe companion for others on this often fraught and frightening journey. Indeed, with reflections on her personal and family life, there is a maternal and nurturing tone throughout that is encouraging, powerful, and convincing.

Through sharing her own experiences, it is her fervent wish to enable others to develop their own minds and opinions rather than submit to a fixed and often patriarchal system. There are moments when she offers a rallying cry: “No more good girl!” She does not hold back in offering advice: find a good teacher; try different forms of prayer; visit other churches. A growing sense of freedom after a painful and costly struggle pervades throughout. As the book’s sub-title reveals, faith is not fixed, but can be ever evolving.

Encouragement to gain the confidence to know one’s own mind is at the heart here. There are moments of recognition and sorrow which may illuminate others’ way. For instance, she reflects on the ways in which the Canadian State and Church, presuming that they were doing the right thing, took First Nation children away from their families. Her aim is to emphasise that what may once have seemed “good fruit” is by no means good any more, but, rather, an abuse of power.

These insights may constitute a helpful guidebook for some; and they may strike a chord for others, not only Evangelicals, who feel that they have to conform and deny parts of themselves if they want to belong.

The Revd Jennie Hogan is a psychotherapist. She is the author of
This Is My Body: A story of sickness and health (Canterbury Press, 2017).

Field Notes for the Wilderness: Practices for an evolving faith
Sarah Bessey
SPCK £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

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