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Book review: Fully Alive: Tending to the soul in turbulent times by Elizabeth Oldfield

17 May 2024

Rachel Mann reviews a Christian reflection for troubling times

IT IS hardly news to say that active Christian faith is a minority pursuit in the UK. Ours is a society in which belief in God is readily parodied as weird, naïve, or absurd; and that’s the polite version. Yet, as Elizabeth Oldfield reminds us, such assessments sit alongside pervasive longings for meaning, sense, and hope. These are anxious times. It is hard to shake off the sense that the world is coming to an end.

Foreclosure signs have been erected on the future. Despite this, Oldfield suggests, there is value in building up what she calls our spiritual core strength. Indeed, with humour and self-deprecation, she argues for the goodness of Christianity’s near-discarded wisdom. In a world falling apart, maybe . . . just maybe . . . there is good news in the stories of God.

Oldfield’s book is part spiritual memoir and part self-help manual, and it takes its title and impetus from that famous line of St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Where it finds its nuance and weight is in how tenderly it handles that claim. This is no pious manifesto. She describes the book as “my search for a deep life, for a place to steady myself amid the waves”. Indeed, the excellence of Fully Alive lies in its thoughtful consideration of the trip-hazards placed in the path of human flourishing in this era of chastened faith.

The book uses a simple framing device: each chapter presents a modern take on the classic seven deadly sins. Each sin is translated into contemporary categories, and Oldfield offers intelligent ways to negotiate those sins seriously sans the stench of piety. Wrath, for example, is read as the human gift for self-righteousness, a tendency that leads to polarisation and othering. Oldfield plausibly suggests that our best balm for this abiding modern sin is in intentional peace-building. If anyone wants to witness how she models that in real time, listen to her podcast, The Sacred, in which Oldfield invites guests from a range of positions to engage in the deep conversation that helps us move from judgment to understanding. Fully Alive reveals the scaffolding that holds that excellent podcast in place.

Equally, accidie is read, powerfully and helpfully, through the prism of distraction. Quoting Patricia Lockwood, the author reminds us that our phones and iPads are “portals” that promise us connection and significance, and yet often only feed fractures in our souls. Hope, Oldfield suggests, can be found in steadfastness and rhythm — in finding sabbath and community (she is a member of a small intentional community) — as well as in giving holy attention to precious texts, from scripture to poetry and fiction.

Oldfield is not interested in playing a spiritual master or holy woman for the TikTok age, dispensing woo-woo self-help advice. Rather, she sifts the wreckage for signs of promise. This is done with wit, unexpected vulnerability, and moments of laugh-out-loud honesty. Oldfield was a high-flyer: a former BBC journalist and the head of the think tank Theos for ten years. Like many during the pandemic, she reassessed her situation and decided to walk away before she burned out. This is a woman who studied theology at university and knows the force of Charismatic Evangelical conversion, but equally has learned how life forces reappraisals on us. Hers is a faith tempered by reality. She is a trustworthy companion for the mess that we have got ourselves into.

I can offer no higher praise than to say that this is a book for those who found oxygen and hope in Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic; that is, for those who can’t quite give up on the Song of Love despite all the evidence to the contrary. Oldfield is fully aware that God — or “the G-Bomb” as she calls him — is a turn-off for so many. Perhaps, Fully Alive might just be a way for many at the edge of faith and beyond it to dwell in the beauty and challenge of our Christian inheritance.

The Ven. Dr Rachel Mann is the Archdeacon of Bolton and Salford, and a Visiting Fellow of Manchester Met University.

Fully Alive: Tending to the soul in turbulent times
Elizabeth Oldfield
Hodder & Stoughton £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.19

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