Truth telling. It is a fundamental of Christian community, if I can call something a fundamental. We are a community that is called to tell the truth.
Anne Jackson, in her book Permission to Speak Freely: Essays and Art on Fear, Confession, and Grace gives us a glimpse of what truth telling within the Christian community looks like. Jackson proclaims the gospel. She shares her own story. She allows others to tell their own stories of brokenness and shortcoming and pain and difficulty and abuse and addiction. She draws those stories out with a gentle call.
Jackson begins her tale with her own story of being battered within the church, not with fists, but with words. She remembers the hardships of adjusting to new communities. She recalls the pressures unique to being a pastor's child. In what I imagine was incredibly difficult, she opens up about her past as a victim of abuse and as a porn addict. And she does so in a way that you never forget that there is a God who loves her beyond all depth and height and breadth and width, even with such a past. She recasts her life in light of Christ's redemption, and encourages others to do the same.
On the whole, I liked this book.
But if I have one complaint, it is one that I have expressed toward other Christian writers, teachers, and preachers. Though this might not be frustrating for other readers, Jackson's book begins with what can be labeled as a particular form of Christian narrative that fits the "negative church experience story arc," and, having heard so many stories of this type lately, I'm weary of it. This does not mean that such stories, like Jackson's, are not true. It also does not mean that such stories do not, at times, warrant a telling. But oftentimes such stories do inevitably include "cartoon villains," two dimensional characters that lack depth, often taking shape in the form of blue haired old ladies typecast as modern day Pharisees (of a sort). That is, they are harshly legalistic, bitter, and mean. They lack complexity. They are often depicted as heartless. They are commonly used as a foil for a more positive form of Christian spirituality, most often a particularly Protestant, American, Reformation theology of the solas. I can't help but think that even amidst Jackson's negative experience of growing up in the church, with a father who endured the challenges of ministry as long as he could, coming away deeply wounded, there were moments of hope, glimmers of Jesus, and hints of a different type of Christian life that at least embedded within her the possibilities that eventually flourished as she returned to life within the church as a leader, servant, and needed voice.
My preference in Christian literature usually brings me to read books that are very different from Permission to Speak Freely. But as someone who has followed Anne Jackson's blog, and who was impressed by the uniqueness of Jackson's work in Mad Church Disease, I did not hesitate to request this book. And I'm glad I did. Jackson writes with clear prose, and her willingness to bare her soul for the reader will most definitely pay dividends. It isn't very common to find someone speak so candidly about porn addiction, a past experience of sexual abuse, her difficulties while on the inside of church leadership, her heartbreak at the hands of God's people, and her hope for a church that more fully embodies the gospel of grace. This is why I think Anne Jackson is an important voice. She speaks clearly about issues that are more prevalent than any of us would like to believe, and her honesty gives us the type of space needed to "go second," sharing our own confessions of hurt, shortcoming, pain, and brokenness.
If you are a Christian leader, you may need this book to find the encouragement to be honest about your own brokenness and sin. You may need it to spur you on to foster a type of environment where the truth can be spoken even when it hurts, providing the church with the opportunity to become a place without, or at least with less, pretension. You may need it to learn a thing or three about grace.
But this book isn't for church leaders alone. It is for skeptics as well. It is for people of all stripes, really. It's for you. Pick it up.
DISCLAIMER: I received this book as a participant in the Thomas Nelson BookSneeze program, meaning, I got it for free in exchange for a review. If I love the book, I will say so. If I hate it, I will say so. Free is nice. But programs like this give books away for free to generate conversation, and I'm glad to help generate some buzz.