Book Review: Dazzling Darkness by Rachel Mann

I first came across Rachel a few years ago via Twitter. Since then I think she’s published two books, of which this is the first (The Risen Dust being the other) but I only got round to purchasing this at the Greenbelt festival last year when we passed each other like ships in the night.

Opening with the full trio of a foreword, an introduction and a preface, we get to see that this is a work of testimony, intertwined with theological musings.

We begin with the tonka truck Christmas, where, as a 5 year old boy who was struggling with their gender identity, a decision was made to try to embrace masculinity. But this didn’t last and as one could tell from simply reading the back cover, Rachel underwent a sex change. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Citizen Kane and the role of rosebud, only the tonker truck had the opposite effect if anything.

The book has a certain flow to it, but it doesn’t feel like a sequential memoir. So of those I’ve read recently, it is most unlike Moltmann’s and much more like Augustine’s (though with a similar level of swearing to Hauerwas’). It is quite confessional in tone, almost as though we are hearing Rachel tell her story a little after after she had first recounted it painfully and fragmentary to family, a close friend or psychologist. But by now the story has been thought through in whole, seen afresh and told with a purpose. So although the reader is taken along a journey, the author knows in advance where we are going, even if the reader doesn’t.

At times, particularly early on, one feels as though Rachel is beating us over the head with an array of philosophers who are name-dropped by way of referencing how they viewed things and how aspects of their thinking were adopted. Being relatively poorly read in philosophy, I struggled to get a grip of the points being made. But given philosophy was the subject Rachel studied at university and lectured on for a while, this is a forgivable point. I mention it here so that any potential reader may consider themselves duly warned that there will be some mental exercise needed.

One thing you cannot do is read through it at a jaunt. For all the way through the reader is made to stop and think. It’s not that Rachel implores us to do (so rid yourself of the awful triteness of Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle) but her writing compels us to. It varies from page to page, either where she looks at something in a different light, sometimes implicitly asking the question “[have you seen things this way]” or “[how does your church deal with this]”. So as I read it, mostly on public transport, I couldn’t help but keep looking out of the window at the world going slowly by and trying to marry up the grotty end of south London that I pass through with the world as Rachel see it.

One of the reflections that was always going to capture my attention was Rachel’s take on the evangelical church, for this is the broad end of the spectrum where I find home within the larger Church. Now I read various takes on the evangelical churches, some of which are fiercely defensive, overlooking the flaws (both historical and present) and some which are wholly condemnatory, with a haughty “older brother” attitude, presenting evangelicalism as something that one ought to grow out of. Neither are views I find helpful, but thankfully Rachel doesn’t go too far into either one. Rather, there is critique that is carefully measured and an acknowledgement of the good the evangelical churches have had in her life.

One of the aspects that I confess I struggled with was the appeal to poetry. It’s an art form I’ve never really “got” and, aside from the war poets (who she does cite), those parts of the book that rely on an appreciation of poetry were rather lost on me. I guess I’m too much of a rationalist. But if poetry is your thing, then you’ll get more out of this book than me and you may well want to follow up with The Risen Dust.

One phrase that I don’t think Rachel used but that came to mind more than once as I was reading was the phrase “an incomplete gospel”. In her critique of evangelicalism, one of the concerns that comes across is that the gospel preached by the churches she visited or was a part of didn’t quite reach the place where she was. As someone who had undergone a sex change and who was also a lesbian, I hope it’s not transphobic or homophobic to say that that’s a fairly niche place that isn’t too well populated. Regardless, any gospel preached by any church must be one for all. That’s a message of Rachel’s that I wholeheartedly agree with.

One of the running themes of the book is the idea of the “dark God”. Coming again at the incomplete gospel from another angle, we often speak of God as light, not least in reference to John 1. Yet Rachel’s contention is that God has a dark side. This isn’t an assertion of dystheism, but rather saying that when we speak of gospel bringing people out of darkness into light, Rachel contends that sometimes God will stay with us in the darkness. I may have misunderstood, and while I could see some merit to it, I wasn’t wholly convinced. I did wonder if, as many do (myself included), God is envisaged as a projection of ourselves and that the dark God was Rachel’s expression of such a projection. I might be wrong about that. While I would certainly agree that God does meet us in dark places, what I was less sure about was the idea that he would stay with us there and not lift us into the light.

There’s much more to the book than I have space for here. For example, I’ve not mentioned her health struggles – especially with Crohn’s disease or her call to be ordained (although she uses the term priesthood, I wouldn’t echo this, holding as I do a priesthood of all believers). I will leave that for you to discover. As I said in the introduction, this is a work of testimony. I conclude then with an amendment to that: it is a work of testimony that I recommend you read, listen to, think on and grow with.

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