*** DEBUG END ***

If it can’t kill you, it isn’t wilderness interview with Sarah Bessey

26 April 2024

Twenty years after her faith came apart, Sarah Bessey has advice to offer, she tells Sarah Meyrick

THE title of Sarah Bessey’s new book, Field Notes from the Wilderness: Practices for an evolving faith, is inspired by the Canadian writer’s experience of spiritual wilderness, but it also springs from her roots.

“Growing up in the foothills of the Rockies, you’re never more than a few minutes away from uncharted territory,” she says. “Our theology is really just autobiography, and I think that that might be part of why I felt drawn to that word.”

Her opening chapter describers the wilderness as a “strange, disorienting, lonely” place. “If the city is a metaphor for certainty and belonging, then the wilderness is for our questions and our truth,” she writes.

She tells me that a phrase used by the writer Barbara Brown Taylor has stayed with her. “I remember her saying that if it can’t kill you, it’s not wilderness. And I was like, listen, I’d rather be in a park. And she said that wilderness is what kicks faith into evolution.”

Bessey is a New York Times bestselling author. Jesus Feminist: An invitation to revisit the Bible’s view of women (2013) was followed by Out of Sorts: Making peace with an evolving faith (2015). Then came Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A story of unlearning and relearning God (2020), detailing her recovery from a serious car accident; and A Rhythm of Prayer (2021), a collection of prayers, which she edited.

All her books chart her faith journey. She describes herself as a “good church girl” who grew up in a strongly Christian family, much influenced by the Charismatic renewal movement. Her husband, Brian, was a pastor, although he’s now in the home renovation business. Then came the devastation of miscarriage (“I didn’t really have the option to choose the intellectual and spiritual dishonesty of pretending that I was fine,” she has written), which became the trigger for a painful dismantling of her faith. Later came a falling-out with her church over LGBT+ issues. (Her theology is liberal and inclusive.)

In the opening chapter of Field Notes from the Wilderness, Bessey writes that this is the book that she wishes she had had to hand 20 years ago. “Back then, I was in the early stages of what folks would now call ‘deconstruction’, but back then? I had no such language. It was just after 9/11, and I was a young pastor’s wife, a fish-out-of-water Canadian in south Texas, and everything I thought I knew about God was disappearing like campaign promises.”

She has spent a lot of time in the wilderness since, she continues. “This big sky and wide-open space have become a second home to me, even when I feel alone. It’s here I discovered that the wilderness isn’t a problem to be solved, it is another altar of intimacy with God.”

For readers familiar with the Bessey canon, what is new this time around? “One of the things that I really wanted to do was gather up more than a dozen years’ worth of walking alongside folks who have kind of found themselves in that sort of spiritual wilderness,” she says. “I wanted the sense that, if we were talking at a table together, then these are the things I would want to tuck into somebody’s back pocket, the things that I think would serve you well.”

There are chapters on cultivating hope; practising wonder; making space for lament, and finding good teachers. The idea of offering spiritual practices appeals to her, “because it implies that I haven’t got it entirely figured out yet, that we’re still all practising”, she says.

The tone is determinedly non-prescriptive: “This isn’t much of a rule book — rules rarely belong in the wilderness — but more of a field guide, a companion of sorts. Even theologically, I won’t have a lot of answers here for you,” she writes.

Chapters are structured as letters, addressed to imagined readers: Dear Wanderer, Wonderer, Heartbroken, Seeker, Misfit. She wasn’t sure that the letters would survive the final edit, but she says that the form helped her to remember that she was writing for actual people. “We ended up hanging on to it, because it did feel very personal.”

BESSEY has legions of fans, but there are also detractors. “When I published my first book [Jesus Feminist], I don’t know that I made a ton of friends. I kind of put the cat amongst the pigeons a little bit,” she says now.

The strength of reaction provided “a crash course in learning how to absorb criticism”, but also taught her to accept “thoughtful and wise critique”, she says. “There are always people who will not really understand, or who, you feel, are quite invested in misunderstanding. But then, at the same time, there are folks with whom it resonates, and with whom it really connects.”

Her conclusion? “I am probably not as bad as people say, but neither am I as good as people say. Ultimately, I think being really grounded and rooted in the love of God, being really rooted and grounded in people who know you in real life, can kind of put those things in perspective.”

Could she have written this field guide 20 years ago? No, she says. “I was a mess. There was a lot of anger, for me, and there was a lot of questioning and flailing. I’ve included things that I had to learn the hard way, that came from a lot of loss or pain or even regret.”

She mentions the chapter on reclaiming repentance. “A lot of folks think it’s kind of an odd thing for someone who’s known as a ‘progressive author’ to include in a book. But it was actually really key for me, and I think there’s something really beautiful to reclaim there.”

istockHelmcken Falls, British Columbia, Canada

Bessey’s breezy style is highly accessible. An experienced blogger, she is a storyteller to her bones. The book is full of chatty anecdotes about her life and her family (she and Brian have four children). Did she always plan to be a writer? She laughs. “That’s something that will endlessly surprise me,” she says. Her writing career sprang from her blogging, something she began in 2005 as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family.

“At the time, I think, in a lot of Christian publishing, there was this sense of there [being] a certain type of person who gets published. A certain type of story that we’re interested in, a certain type of authority that we will listen to. One of the things that I really loved about coming up through blogging was that nobody paid attention to me for at least the first seven years. I could grapple with finding my voice and finding my community.”

It was a golden moment. “I don’t know of any other time in the history of the Church that anybody would care what some happy-clappy mom from Western Canada had to say about anything. About scripture and how we embody the gospel and how we move through our life with an eye on wholeness and shalom and goodness. I don’t know that that would have happened at any other time.”

Blogging offered a way of figuring out what she believed, she told the Church Times a decade ago (Interview 30 May 2014). It also provided a route “past the gatekeepers of Evangelicalism”, she once said, hinting at how radical some of her thinking is perceived to be in the conservative North American context.

ONLINE, Bessey found her tribe. One of those was another writer who became hugely influential, the late Rachel Held Evans (News, 10 May 2019); others include Barbara Brown Taylor, Kate Bowler, Jen Hatmaker, and Austin Channing Brown. “It was a lot of fun,” Bessey says. “It did feel kind of rebellious.”

Bessey and Held Evans became such close friends that she was asked to speak at Held Evans’s funeral. Before the latter’s death at the age of 37, the pair had founded the Evolving Faith community. “We were always kind of riding alongside of each other, grappling with similar ideas at the same time, and enjoying those conversations,” Bessey says. “I was really, really grateful for all the years that I got to be alongside of her. She is so, so missed.”

Evolving Faith came out of those conversations. Held Evans’s Searching for Sunday: Loving, leaving and finding the Church came out in 2015, the same year as Bessey’s Out of Sorts. They thought there might be merit in gathering people for a weekend — “you know, a one-off kind of thing” — and put together a programme of speakers, expecting a couple of hundred people to attend. In the event, 1500 people turned up (“a logistics nightmare”).

Evolving Faith continues as a loose community of approximately 12,500 people. There’s no formal membership, no joining fee. The lack of structure is deliberate: “A lot of people came up in a very high-control version of faith, where to be faithful ended up feeling a bit restrictive and small,” Bessey says. “Some of the appeal of Evolving Faith is for people who say, ‘If I do it differently than I was taught, when I was initially introduced to God, does that mean I don’t get to be a Christian any more? Does that mean that I don’t belong in the story any more?’

“That’s part of how we’ve tried to approach Evolving Faith, and how I tried to approach the book: through that lens of hospitality, where there’s room for figuring it out together.”

Bessey still holds her Christian faith very dear. “I love Jesus with my whole heart, and I love the Church with my whole heart. I believe deeply in the gospel, even though I read it so differently than I used to. And I think there’s still room for people like me.”

That faith should evolve now seems entirely natural. “I think that there is this sense of normalcy to it. There’s this sense [that] this is actually a really healthy part of spiritual formation, part of our development. And I think, oftentimes, that, if we get to the end of our life thinking the same thing we thought at 20, then we’re missing a lot of invitations from the Holy Spirit.”

Field Notes from the Wilderness: Practices for an evolving faith by Sarah Bessey is published by SPCK, £14.99 (Church Times Bookshop £13.49); 978-0-281-09029-7.

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)