Christian Book Reviews Spring/Summer 2019

Here’s a tasty round-up of non-fiction books I’ve read over the past few months for your summer reading – one general market memoir and eight truly superb Christian books. Enjoy this great collection!

Out of Control – Natalie Collins.

You need to read this. This is THE Christian book to buy on domestic violence and abuse, and Natalie Collins is the perfect person to write it: she has a Masters qualification on it, she has spent years working with both abused and abusers, and above all she is a survivor of abuse herself. Even though I’ve followed her work for a number of years, I still learnt so much from Out of Control – and it’s especially good at exploring the psyche and motivation behind the abusers as well as uncovering myths about abusers ‘Is it because of their childhood?’ and abused, ‘Why don’t they just leave?’

Everyone should read this, but especially pastors as a matter of necessity – there are still so many harmful ways that abusers groom the community, especially religious communities, and we need to make sure we’re not a part of this. In some ways, it’s not an easy read but it’s also well-written and not as bleak as I feared, because she writes in a clear and engaging way. Essential reading for churches – highly recommended.

Learning to Breathe – Rachael Newham.

Rachael Newham offers an utterly engrossing, well-written memoir of how it really feels to be a teenager and young adult battling severe mental illness, and the reality of the limitations of the NHS and children’s mental health services in the UK. There’s been a lot written about depression and faith recently – but few things written about depression so dark or severe it consumes you with thoughts of suicide.

The solutions she offers are woven into her story, but they centre on the love of Christ expressed in genuine friendship, without fear. The whole church should read this book – with rising mental illness especially among younger people this is a timely call for greater understanding, compassion and above all, hope for all suffering from depression. This is another vital book for the church.

(NB If you are feeling suicidal or have attempted suicide in the past then I would advise you talking through the book with a trusted friend as you read it, in case it’s triggering for you. It has frequent references to suicide, though it doesn’t glamourise or describe suicidal attempts in detail in the way that, for example, 13 Reasons does.) Important and compelling – highly recommended. 

Glorious Weakness – Alia Joy

“No one wants a ministry of weakness.” So many bestsellers focus on being a successful Christian, shiny and perfect: this part-memoir, part theological exploration of the value of weakness is a healthy dose of biblical truth-telling and a breath of fresh air.

Alia Joy presents a compelling yet uncomfortable truth: glory and weakness go hand in hand, both in Jesus’ life and ours. She had me at the first chapter:

“We admire pain only if it’s healed, only if it’s endured with perfect grace, with perfect faith, and never succumbed to in weakness, in f-bombs, and rants and curses raised to the heavens.”

I kept highlighting other tweetables too:

“It’s easy to say God is good when we’re #blessed.”
“Why would we need a Comforter unless he knew we would be uncomfortable?”
“We’re going to have scars too if we want to look like Jesus.”
“In lament, we acknowledge we are powerless to fix it. The good news is God never asked us to.”
“What if we started to see weakness not only as something to endure, but as our spiritual gift?”

Alia Joy talks with authority on suffering, having experienced abuse, poverty, and severe mental illness and she does so with grace and truth. Her writing is lyrical and poetic, with beauty in every sentence, and her storytelling is hypnotic. I found myself underlining line after line to go back and think more deeply. Her work will unsettle the comfortable and provide rich comfort for those who feel weakened or excluded by their suffering. Beautiful and profound – highly recommended. 

The Making of Us – Sheridan Voysey.

If you’re secretly thinking ‘what should I be doing with my life?’ or even ‘is what I do enough?’ then this book is a must-read. Sheridan is a writer who manages to give space for those big questions of our identity and purpose, especially for those over thirty and offers gentle wisdom and refreshing spiritual perspective. The real joy of the book is how he does this: through a memoir of walking and talking with his friend along a pilgrimage path in the North East of England, walking in the steps of Saints Hild, Bede and Cuthbert, learning from their wisdom and mistakes.

Part travelogue, part memoir, part exploration of saints, and part Christian practical wisdom, it’s all masterfully woven together and beautifully written. This felt like a precious and timely gift to me. Outstanding memoir – highly recommended.

Once We Were Strangers – Shawn Smucker

This is a moving yet unsentimental story about the friendship between an introvert Christian American father (Shawn) and a tenacious Muslim Syrian father (Mohammed) who came to America as a refugee. When faced with the refugee crisis, it’s tempting to ask, ‘how can I help refugees?’ Shawn and Mohammed’s story, immaculately and compellingly told, calls us to ask a harder question, ‘how can I love and be friends with refugees?’ In a society that increasingly is suspicious of the ‘other’ and looks at refugees as problems to be fixed rather than people to be embraced, this beautiful example of friendship shows that it’s love that will slowly, stubbornly change the world. What makes this memoir so special is its ability to handle with respect and dignity the friendship without falling into stereotypes or tropes – Mohammed is struggling, but he’s not a victim; he needs help from Shawn, but not rescue.

I devoured it for the wonderful storytelling: I held my breath as Mohammed watched his village bombed, gasped at his struggle to find a country to live in, raged at the racism refugees face, cried when reflecting on the astute observations Shawn makes about our attitude to the other. It has stayed with me as a beautiful challenge to reflect on what it means to love people different to us, without expectation or obligation. Outstanding memoir – highly recommended.

Endorsements of another three superb Christian books:

I’ve also just read advance copies of these three terrific books, which are coming out this year.

The View from Rock Bottom by Stephanie Tait

This was my endorsement for it:

“The church sorely needs books that are truthful about the reality of suffering, borne out of walking through pain – and this one’s a gem. Through sound biblical exegesis and fresh insight, Tait offers confused Christians the chance to find intimacy with God through suffering. Warm and clear in style, this book will be a great help and hope for all who struggle and feel like they’ve missed the promises of God.”

Details are here, pre-order it for August 6th 2019. 

Image of the Invisible – Amy Scott Robinson

I was also delighted to endorse a beautiful advent book by one of my favourite writers:

“Sometimes we need a poet’s eye to see the God of the Bible afresh. Poet, storyteller and theologian Amy Scott Robinson uses the Bible’s own metaphors of God as artisan, metalworker, consuming fire and others to lead us more deeply into our understanding of God. If you like CS Lewis, Malcolm Guite or Lauren Winner, you will love this outstanding book of thought-provoking, gasp-inducing, beautiful devotions to enrich your vision of God.”

Details are here, pre-order it on September 26th 2019.

The Gladstone Tales Trilogy – Amy Scott Robinson

In addition to the Advent book for adults, Amy Scott Robi

nson also has a wonderful imaginative trilogy of short novels for children aged 6-9, narrated by three children who encounter an alive and lively gargoyle (called Gladstone) at church who needs to find his way back home again. My boy and I had a sneak peek at the first one and we both LOVED it.

Details are here, pre-order the whole set for 19th September here.

General Memoir

The Salt Path – Raynor Winn.

This is a memoir everyone’s talking about: the author’s husband is diagnosed with an incurable, debilitating illness just at the moment they lose everything after a bad investment. Rather than stay in council-provided temporary accommodation, they embark on a seemingly crazy adventure – to walk the whole of the South West coastal path, surviving on £30-40 per month and camping in the wild.

This is a good book, as long as you don’t read it expecting it to be another Wild by Cheryl Strayed, which I did. With Wild, Cheryl is honest about her flaws whilst generous about others and her walking adventures prompt a fascinating inner journey where she comes to terms with her past. The Salt Path offers criticism of those who judge homeless people, yet in several places the narrator also judges others, including homeless people, harshly on first appearances, and there’s not much sense of personal growth.

What it does very well, however, is to highlight the difficult and distinct plights of the urban and rural homeless, the relentlessness of poverty and hunger, and how vital it is to maintain dignity when you lose everything. Where it shines is with the descriptions of the landscape, and how Britain’s feudal history influences even now our relationship to the land. I enjoyed it, but (pun intended) I wasn’t ‘wild’ about it, and if you had to choose one walking memoir I’d pick Cheryl Strayed instead.

Have you read my book Those Who Wait yet?

It’s the perfect creative journey for those who are in a season of waiting or feeling stuck in their life in some way. Do check it out (or leave a review if you have read it).

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