by Mark Herringshaw & Jennifer Schuchman.
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (2009)
This book is an ambitious attempt at retelling stories of God speaking in such a way that people will be moved beyond the expectation or lost hope of hearing a voice in the sky, and so begin to listen for God in the variety of other ways that he may choose to communicate.
The word ‘always’ in the title is relatively spurious. It put me off when I first skimmed through the book and I was relieved to see that the book was not some kind of how-to guide for getting a slot machine God to drop out messages on demand. The general message that God wants to speak to us is useful, and for some lay-people this book may offer some neat or inspirational stories.
Better to get the Bible stories from the Bible, though. The story-telling is a bit flat – more like narrative information listed quickly to get you to the point – and so the Bible stories do suffer from a kind of compression and perhaps even a bit of misinterpretation. The result is that I was suspicious of other the included stories. Between the lines one discovers a book with stories gathered only to make a point, rather than a book reflecting on stories or anecdotes to see what point they stories might actually be making.
The power of the stories is further lost because of the volume that seem to come back again and again to the same point – “see that, they heard God too!” A large volume of stories is no substitute for the quality of one that forces larger questions. A focused book of 1/3 the size might have more power for people who really doubt whether God’s speaks. Lacking an investigative tone, and a deeper exegesis of the stories included, the redundancy makes the book a bag of candy rather than a substantive meal. Like candy, as I read the book, I kept wondering if 344 pages of the diet would prove spiritually healthy.
This concern was exacerbated whenever the movement of the argument came from speculative illustrations. On pg 174, for example, the book wonders whether people’s attachment to their pets actually reflects “a misplaced desire to talk to God”. It then wonders if this is really God’s purpose for pets: that our response to animals would teach us something about ourselves so that we would become aware of our desire to relate to God.
I’m sure these are neat ideas for speculative and inconsequential conversations over a beer, but they are no grounds for theological argument or apologetics. If a book refers to the fanciful or quirky ideas of the author once or twice it can be charming. More than that and the whole book feels indulgent, and perhaps even just opinionated.
For a skeptic concerned about whether God does speak, or a person desperate for an answer from on high, the ground for the argument must be solid, and the stories must be potent, direct, and verifiable. As soon as you read authours defending their own stories and their means of collecting and verifying them – right in the book itself – veracity flags go off. If the story is neat and inspirational, but needs extra defense because sincere doubters won’t buy it otherwise, then you can only hope to be heard by the converted. Only when stories are compelling to the point that they cry out for the reader’s engagement can you expect to interact well with open-minded skeptics or people who are wracked with doubt or even have lost their faith.
A couple of further comments.
– An occasional rhetorical question is fine, but two or three on a page gets tired quick, especially when there is page after page of them. Worse still, it’s just pretentious if the author is clearly acting open minded to the possibilities of the universe. If you think something might be so, just say it. Don’t feign wonder, it makes you untrustworthy.
– Lastly, I might note too, that the format of breaking up sentences or listing occasional short sentences as though they were poetry just made the book plain hard to read. This isn’t Jean Vanier writing, it’s not poetry, and neither the profundity nor power was near significant enough to ask me to meditate on sentence fragments.