A Review of Sarah Bessey’s “Miracles and Other Reasonable Things”
To say that Sarah Bessey has had a tough go of it in recent years would be a huge understatement. The Canadian Christian author of the books Jesus Feminist and Out of Sorts has endured a nearly life-ending minivan accident, her father’s near-fatal heart attack, a book being rejected by her publisher, and the death of a very good friend, the great Rachel Held Evans. She has also, more recently, pulled away from her church over the issue of the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community. In her more distant past, she has seen four children die as miscarriages or stillbirths, though another four of them have lived. If you’re looking for someone as a Christian to write about pain and suffering, Sarah Bessey is probably the best candidate that we have to write with some level of personal expertise on the subject. And, would you look over here, she has done just that with her third book, Miracles and Other Reasonable Things.
Before diving into the contents of the book, you should know that Sarah Bessey is becoming a very big deal in Christian publishing circles. Her latest comes with advance praise from a litany of successful Christian authors such as Jen Hatmaker, Barbara Brown Taylor and Jonathan Martin (who wrote the very thought-provoking How to Survive a Shipwreck, which guided me through a difficult season). The foreword of the book was penned by none other than Shauna Niequist, a New York Times bestselling author. These are some powerful heavy-hitters in the Christian publishing field, so you get the sense that Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is a bit of a coronation and that the publisher expects big things from Bessey. I’m happy to report that she more than delivers.
This book is a bit of a departure from her other volumes in that the first half of it is more of a straight-up memoir. It is an account of Bessey’s life after her minivan accident, and includes a section about going to Rome, meeting the Pope and encountering strangers who gave her a healing touch that straightened her spine (which is the miracle alluded to in the title). Before you think this is another book about the prosperity gospel and that cures are easy to come by if only you believe in God and Jesus hard enough, the book doesn’t end there. In fact, it comes down to earth. The latter half of the tome details Bessey’s struggles with chronic pain after the fact (including a newly-discovered broken foot), and offer more reflection on her life in this new normal.
What makes Miracles and Other Reasonable Things work well is that it is much more focused than Jesus Feminist or Out of Sorts. Bessey has grown as a writer and isn’t the original “happy-clappy” Pentecostal Christian that she set out to be. She has grown as an individual and her writing has matured for the better. Oh, and she can throw a zinger of a punchline, and this ability to smile through the pain works wonders for this book. I found that in Bessey’s earlier works, she could be a little vague about her theology and, more importantly, about herself. None of those faults are really in evidence here. The mood is reflective, and the author has clearly thought long and hard over her words, and we get — as an addendum tucked away at the back of the read — the most honest and gut-wrenching eulogy I have yet read about Held Evans, who died earlier this year.
But what really is the icing on the cake is that even though Bessey probably has good reason to retreat into herself to spare personal details from being shared, she does the exact opposite — which is the exact tonic that her writing needed. I don’t want to sound like a nosy neighbour, but I find that a lot of Christian writers find ways to say a whole lot of nothing about themselves when they really need to show off a little more of their personality. They all have interesting stories to tell, but what comes across on the page is a lot of self-censorship covered by the words of the Bible to justify it. There’s very little of that here, and what little of it is in evidence is certainly forgivable. It’s the moments in Bessey’s life that make for compulsive reading, and not just the bad things. One of the most memorable parts of the book is when Bessey gets the chance to visit the home of her childhood hero, L. M. Montgomery. It’s a relatively happy memory on the journey to healing, so not all of this is doom and gloom and trying to find God when he’s seemingly in the next room over on coffee break.
If Miracles and Other Reasonable Things was one of the most anticipated Christian books of the Autumn of 2019, it is with good reason. It’s good, very good. In fact, it is the best book that Bessey has turned in by a country mile by far, and that’s high praise considering that there were parts of Jesus Feminist, her first book, that resonated with me as I read it. (Which, again, is high praise, considering that I was probably not part of the target audience for that book.) Bessey has fleshed out her character, filled in some of the gaps, and become more human along the way. She has learned a great deal from her original book’s rejection, and even she admits in the acknowledgments that this is a pretty weird book from her vantage point of writing — probably because it is so different in structure from what has come before. While nobody can replace the sassiness of a Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey may now be the next best thing that we have to that author: warm, remarkably human, and willing to confront some hard questions about faith. I can say with great confidence that somewhere out there, Held Evans is present in these words, and I’m sure she would be damn proud of what Bessey has turned in here. Miracles and Other Reasonable Things is a book that both evangelicals and progressives will find something to love about it, and it bridges the gap between those two faith expressions, the personal and the Holy, and the humourous and the excruciating. It may well be the very best Christian book of this year, or any other year. It is, in a word, divine and you should really go and read it.
Sarah Bessey’s Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God will be published by Howard Books / Atria / Simon & Schuster on October 8, 2019.
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