A Fair Trade Book
Title: This Blessed Mess
Author: Patricia H. Livingston
Author's web site: https://patricialivingston.com/
Publisher: Sorin Books
Length: 139 pages plus bibliography
Quote: “[T]here will be blessing in the mess.”
On pages 23-24 of This Blessed Mess, Patricia Hickman discusses scientific “chaos theory,” the idea that the biblical language used to describe creation was not creation out of nothing at all but creation out of chaos, and the chaotic story of her life.
The Old Testament is full of stories of chaotic events, some of which resolve into spiritual meanings, some of which do not. Livingston makes room for only a few of these stories because she’s giving so much space to her own story. This allows her to miss an important insight into the Old Testament. Livingston overlooks the reality that sometimes, as in the last two chapters of the book of Judges, God leaves humans to work with chaos on their own. In the New Testament, chaos continues to prevail, but people who come to know Jesus receive insight into how to help one another create from the chaos.
Non-Christian readers don’t like this reading of the Bible. They can say, fairly enough, that the recorded words of Jesus may be succinct or picturesque but are not radically different from things Jewish rabbis had been saying for years. They can say, fairly enough, that what the title “Christ” means to Christians is a strange, illogical belief that departs drastically from what monotheistic Jews and Arabs had traditionally believed. What evidence exists, or could exist, to support the Christian understanding?
The only real answer Christians can give is that the Christian understanding has transformed our lives; that in our (annoying cliché alert) personal relationships with Jesus we become enlightened, stop flailing about in chaos, stop opposing our own interests to those of everyone else and start seeking the Highest Good for all people, the Will of God. Not suicidally bent on meaningless “martyrdom,” not stupidly devoted to self-destructive “altruism,” we ask objectively whether any person needs to sacrifice self for the highest good of anyone else, or whether there may be an alternative kind of solution to whatever the problem is.
We don’t see a great deal of this real and radical Christianity. Many churches try to avoid ever stating, and many so-called Christians avoid ever accepting, the challenge of the Christian life. Some people want to confuse themselves and believe that Christians are called to something different. How many Christian children have asked what “being good” or “acting like a Christian” was supposed to mean in our case. Be killed for refusing to sacrifice to idols? Go to foreign countries and preach in the local language? We never even saw anyone making clothes for the poor; in our world clothing was so cheap and plentiful that the poor had a good selection of secondhand clothes at thrift stores. So what were we to do? “Well, of course you can’t preach—you’re only seven years old—but you can obey your parents and teachers and be cheerful about it.”
Funnily enough the Bible writers didn’t waste precious ink and parchment telling people to smile all the time. So far as history can enlighten us, this may have been because, prior to the twentieth century, most adults had reasons to be ashamed of their teeth, and smiling was not something people demanded. In most cultures, other than twentieth-century North America, cheerfulness has been a pleasure not a duty.
Jesus didn’t even condemn the spoilt children of his day who whined when their friends didn’t conform to their moods and play their little games...much less the people who quietly went on feeling whatever they did feel. His audience’s “burdens” were easier to identify, and to lift, than “depression.” Some people literally had to carry burdensome objects, and real pain could be alleviated by carrying someone else’s load for a mile. Blindness was common; not all blind people had helpers to lead them about. Not everyone was able to meet physical needs for food and shelter. People were thrown into prison for political reasons, and then not fed; if they weren’t visited by friends they might starve. The children who whined because their friends didn’t fit in with their moods were no more than a joke. Everyone knew what real practical generosity looked like.
I think that what the Bible writers tell us to do, either to achieve or to express Christian enlightenment, is to find ways to do things that are a little closer to what the Bible writers had in mind than merely pulling a face.
Perhaps the worst enemy of Christian practice in our day is “psychological help.” Other people’s burdens aren’t supposed to affect our lives in any way, we indignantly squawk. Lacking the enlightenment that allows us to discern whether we ought to share our homes with disaster victims or not, whether that unemployed relative is becoming dependent on us or not, we oversimplify the decision into “What I can safely give people is pep talks, and some sort of agency ought to handle all people’s other needs.”
One thing that’s wrong with this decision is that, although we do have huge expensive agencies that are supposed to handle things like helping an intelligent paraplegic to go to school, get a job, or get physical therapy, in reality many people (especially intelligent, employable paraplegics) fall through the cracks of “agency policy.”
Another thing that’s wrong with the decision to “help” others only by preaching at them is that it’s anti-Christian. Jesus rather notoriously did not say anything like, “For I was hungry, and you gave me a lecture. I was sick, and you recited a prayer for me. I was in prison, and you sent me a book...”
Even in the apostolic church, in the generation after Christ, St. James was already warning people: “If someone comes to church poor and hungry, wearing a miserable garment, and you say to him, ‘Go in peace! May you be warmed and filled [somewhere else]!’, you have done nothing to help him.” People were already forgetting that when someone comes in wearing “a miserable garment,” the nearest Christian who has a coat to spare is supposed to offer his extra coat.
But in the twentieth century we find a really alarming gap between what people like Livingston have experienced and what they seem to offer to others. What actually resolved the major crises in Livingston’s life? The child who might have been horribly injured turn out to be all right. The facts were fixed first. The feelings followed. Yet Livingston still blathers on to other people about “the gift of vulnerability.”
I suspect that Christians would get more respect if most of us resisted the false, essentially anti-Christian notion that what we need to offer people is “psychological help.” When people’s problems really are psychological they say things like, “I don’t know what’s the matter with me. Everything in my life is going fine but I feel tense, tired, depressed, irritable, restless, guilty, prone to angry outbursts...” Then we can safely steer them to a real psychologist or psychiatrist, and the challenge is to find a good one who will insist on a complete physical work-up before complicating the issue by handing out medications.
Having spent many years observing all this to be true in real life, I find that there are parts of This Blessed Mess that may be worth reading, but they’re unfortunately placed after a smarmy chapter about “The Gift of Vulnerability.” Sometimes people use words carelessly, but there is never any good reason why anyone wants anyone else to “be vulnerable.” (If you want someone to do the things that make some people feel “vulnerable” in therapy, such as saying “I’m sorry,” it's more helpful to describe in specific and concrete terms what you want that person to do.)
Pages 60 through 77 of This Blessed Mess are about faith in God, as Livingston understands faith and God. (During the crises of my life I can’t recall ever having been interested in someone else’s religious views.) On page 77 Livingston begins a discussion of things that might actually help alleviate the emotions of grief—nurturing others, appreciating nature, rereading old books, laughing, praying. Then she retreats back into attempts to preach at the feelings. Isn’t it interesting that, in the Gospels, we never once read that Jesus tried to fix anyone’s feelings?
I don’t think This Blessed Mess is the best book about grief, life crises or crisis counselling on the market. However, not everyone appreciates Joan Didion’s or C.S. Lewis’s writing style as much as some readers may appreciate Livingston’s, so there may be someone out there who can use this book. Reading it is like having a conversation with a literate but unpretentious, down-to-earth, warmhearted friend. If you’ve ever wanted the fictional character Pollyanna for a friend, then This Blessed Mess might be a good book for you.
This Blessed Mess is a Fair Trade Book. To buy it online, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower left-hand corner of the screen, and I'll send $1 per copy to Livingston or a charity of her choice.
(Y'know, I sort of miss those "long-tailed tags" Wordpress uses. Not to be confused with the labels I use to help people classify and read selectively at Blogspot, these "tags" are meant to be as quirky and one-of-a-kind as possible, to help people find one specific take on a topic via search engines. Here are the ones for this post: Christian counsel, Christian living, Christians who disagree with this reviewer,life and work of Jesus . They got goofier as I posted more at Blogjob.)