Saturday, 23 November 2013

Book Review - Dazzling Darkness, by Rachel Mann

This post is a bit of cheat, as it's 'something I prepared earlier'. It's a book review.

Why now? Quite a few reasons, really, but here's one...

I was feeling worried and stressed today, and went for a walk in a little local nature reserve (Highfield Park, Levenshulme, if you're interested). I treated it as an 'awareness walk' as discussed in the book review. Listening to the bird calls, distant traffic, and the surprisingly loud sound of the leaves falling in a little copse, taking in the smells, looking at the shapes and colours around me, and feeling the roughness of bark and lichen, I was drawn into the present. Each time the worrying voice came back, I gently moved it aside and returned to the present (this learned from Mancunian Buddhists, but that's another story). 

So, to the author of the book I'm about to talk about, thank you: you've shown me a useful way to escape from the prison of my thoughts to the world that's around me now.

Anyway, without further ado...

Dazzling Darkness: gender, sexuality, illness, and God

A couple of years ago I attended a quiet day, led by an Anglican priest I didn’t then know, called Rachel Mann. She guided the day with a gentle touch, and I was both refreshed and calmed by the experience. During the day I learned that she had been an atheist before becoming a Christian. As the usual route with people I know seems to have been in the other direction, I was intrigued. Then a few months later I found out, quite by chance, that she was launching a book: lucky me!

Initially I found it hard to categorize ‘Dazzling Darkness’ (how we need to categorize!). It is not an autobiography: it is too selective for that. Nor is it a book of theology. Only after reading the whole thing did I realize that Rachel had told me what it was in the introduction and I hadn’t noticed: it is a Confession, following in the tradition of Augustine’s (which I haven’t actually read) and (in my opinion) C S Lewis’ ‘Surprised by Joy’ (which I have). It is an account of the journey of the writer into truth, and into reconciliation of the writer with themselves, and with the Divine. As Rachel puts it, ‘this is the story of a divided self seeking to live more or less at peace with herself’.

It is emphatically not a book full of easy answers and cosy platitudes. Rachel scrutinizes the uncomfortable and the difficult with an unflinching eye. She is not willing to settle for a sweet half-truth, when the true story is messy, agonizing, confusing, and unresolved. The former can often appear to be more honouring to God – we are all familiar with the stories of how God reaches out when things are worst and lifts the faithful out into joy – but the reality is that they dishonour the creator, by being content with a lie.

And so Rachel’s account of her battle with Crohn’s disease is not one of faith victorious over pain, but about a person sometimes worn down to defeat in a war of attrition with an unpredictable, capricious, and vicious enemy. Her story is about the God that she meets there, in the darkness where every shield and every comfort has been left behind.

I suspect, though, that many readers will be particularly interested to know what she has to say about being born male, but identifying as, and longing to be, female*: an interest that may come from a mixture of motives. But what I found most thought provoking here was her eventual recognition that her life as a boy and as a young man had value, and was good. It had never occurred to me before that part of the journey a transsexual person takes should, even must, include a thankfulness for the time lived in a gender the person has chosen to leave.

‘Dazzling Darkness’ is a challenge to the church. We need to learn that until we are willing to embrace all of life, including the messy, the paradoxical, and the unresolved, we will be selling people short, and selling God short.

But it’s also an encouragement. For those of us whose lives appear (at least to ourselves) to consist mostly of the messy, the paradoxical, and the unresolved we are reminded that right in the middle of this all is the Divine. Not there to show us a way out, but there to sanctify exactly where we are.

(Originally published in EF News, the newsletter of the Evangelical Fellowship of Lesbian and Gay Christians)

*It is perhaps worth noting that it took me a long while to get a version of the last sentence that even half-satisfies me, and I am not sure whether this difficulty is due to me, or to the limitations of language, or to both. I also wonder whether there is a parallel between sex re-assignment surgery (‘becoming a woman’) and conversion (‘becoming a Christian’): in both cases the official moment of change seems to me to the  - almost arbitrary – time when what was always there emerges from below the waterline.

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