a review of Sarah Bessey's new book, Out of Sorts

I'm reading a lot of solid, "good" new books these days from other spiritual writers with Pentecostal/charismatic and evangelical backgrounds. Sarah Bessey's new release, Out of Sorts, is not one of them.

Among the burgeoning crop of gifted writers coming from those worlds, there is plenty of robust theological reflection, and even increasingly artful literary construction. There is certainly extraordinary, exciting academic work out there these days. But in the broader landscape of true spiritual writing--books that speak the universal language of spirit--there just aren't that many new voices distinct or soulish enough to produce new classics. That rare air has been almost exclusively the domain of Catholic, Orthodox and mainline Christians, transcendent voices that have bypassed the evangelical book empire altogether. This is the space reserved for Henri Nouwen and his sparse, soul-bare prose, all those deceptively simple little books that translate to any earthling with a pulse. This is the space reserved for the ferociously eloquent Barbara Brown Taylor, who was kissed by all the writing gods, virtually incapable of writing an imperfect sentence. It is Thomas Merton territory, who was dropped here from another planet. It is Frederick Buechner, Annie Dillard, Brennan Manning territory, ground where mortal spiritual writers do not trod. Even Anne Lamott, who belongs in that canon on the sheer merit that her voice has such a distinct sound. The rest of us (i.e., people like me) can play a few of their riffs, along with a few new sounds here and there, and call it a book. Many are called to cover bands, few Chris Martins are chosen (and even less Bonos).

The sound you'll hear in Out of Sorts is of Sarah Bessey moving out of the pack of good, solid, up-and-coming spiritual writers, and taking her place in the pantheon of the greats. It's a more refined, prophetic, poetic sound, a sound all her own. I loved Jesus Feminist, and I love Sarah's blogs. But the book as a whole is in a different sphere, in equal measure vulnerable and confidently written. Sarah is not just a blogger-done-good. She's cemented herself here as one of the defining spiritual voices of a generation.  I am aware that she is not looking to be knighted, and I'm in no position to confer anything, anyway. But hell...I know greatness when I see it.

What is perhaps most remarkable about this is that in terms of an overall thesis, Sarah doesn't do anything especially novel in Out of Sorts. "Making peace with an evolving faith" is the subtitle, and I can't imagine too many people who would be blown away by the notion that faith is of a transient nature, that a life of instability and constant renegotiation makes trust both possible and necessary. And it's a much more common trope now that doubt and questions, and even protest, are a normal part of the spiritual life. Her approach to Scripture and Jesus-centered faith, while decidedly fresh in its articulation, is also hardly novel; as is her general metaphor of spirituality as a rummage sale. It's deceitfully simple, see--like Henri Nouwen's books, or a Lennon/McCartney melody you felt like you knew forever the first time you heard it. It sounds like something anybody could come up with--when there aren't but a handful of people on the planet capable of channeling such a thing.

Because with Sarah Bessey, it's not what she says--it is the way she says it. She speaks with an authority foreign to the scribes and pharisees. It's not prose, it's prophecy. Perhaps I should work for something that sounds more sophisticated than "Sarah Bessey has the Holy Ghost," but it would be a, less accurate and b, not give me the opportunity for clever wordplay on the concept of "ghostwriting." (Because see, the Holy Ghost is like her "ghostwriter" and...this, this right here is why I'm staying back with the pack) In fact, I would go so far as to say the title/construct is arguably not entirely representative of what the book is about. I think Out of Sorts is really a book about the Holy Spirit. She's on nearly every page here, implicitly and explicitly. Sarah is writing about the Spirit, but more significantly, she's writing in the Spirit. "Part of my own journey has been to finally admit and embrace that I am a bit of a mystic. I'm thirsty for the Spirit. Speaking in tongues is my first language when words fail--which, in this life, happen often." You'll read that on pg. 157, but you'll know it within the first twenty pages, if you are paying attention.

In fact, this non-academic book that makes no claims whatsoever about being a work of constructive Pentecostal/charismatic theology is the brightest, most blazing thing I've read on the Spirit in ages. It's not just that Sarah talks openly and unapologetically (yet somehow without self-conscious piety) about dreams, visions, signs, wonders and tongues-though she does-but that the writing itself embodies the Spirit she bears witness to. In her cocktail of boldness and humility, and in that first-person, prophetic, talk-to-the-reader-thing that Sarah has mastered without a single false or condescending note--the Spirit is all over this book. "My words are Spirit and life," Jesus said. And such is the power in Sarah Bessey's Spirit-filled voice--the transaction with the reader is one of transformation, not of information. She isn't giving you six steps towards renewed spiritual whatever whatever; she is prophesying over a valley of dry bones. Perhaps this is why the book so easily transcends the right/left cultural divides many of us capitulate to-she's doing something more ancient, here. Sarah Bessey isn't going for "Christian living"--she's going straight Ezekiel on your ass. 

This could read pretentious, of course, if Sarah's voice was not so genuine, not so thoroughgoingly authentic. But hence my quite partial review comes full circle: Sarah Bessey has a voice unlike few others, in our time. In a world of commentators, she's a prophetess. Out of Sorts is a book that you don't read for the ideas, but for the wind beneath them. While the theme of messy, evolving faith is consistent throughout the book ("If our theology doesn't shift and change over our lifetimes, then I have to wonder if we're paying attention," she writes), that construct is not really the point. Put concisely, Out of Sorts is a trojan horse for resurrection; a book that doesn't convince you of anything, so much as breathe onto you, and into you.

It is not just the unique sound of Sarah Bessey you'll hear, but the sound of a rushing, mighty wind. 

(you can buy a copy here-and clearly I hope you will!)