Book Review: A Wilderness of Mirrors

Do you like the movie Forrest Gump? It is most definitely among my favourites. The humorous heartwarming bittersweet story of one man and his quest for love and meaning in a world that doesn’t quite understand him. Interwoven amongst the great historical events of recent history, with Gump popping up in Vietnam, alongside Richard Nixon at Watergate, and excelling at Olympic ping-pong. It stars Tom Hanks, that most trustworthy of actors. Yet it isn’t a true story. Superb editing of historic film, and some creative storytelling, combine to make a narrative that is oh so believable yet ultimately not true. Enjoyable, but most definitely a collection of alternative facts.

The book I’m reviewing today is a bit like that film. The opening is a pepper pot your of the last hundred years or so of history. The character we are looking for is trust. And, thanks to the excellent writing style of Mark Meynell, and his careful examination of history and culture, this trust is nowhere to be found. Some might find this book rather hard going – Meynell doggedly goes through the various ways, over time, in which trust has been betrayed and destroyed in powerful individuals, institutions, and traditional power structures. The key, as some might recognise but others might ignore, is power. This is not a book about power – except, subtly and carefully and cruciform, towards the end – but instead a book about the restoration of trust, rooted in the restoration of all things.

But this review is getting ahead of itself.

From the beginning to the end of this book, and interwoven along the journey, is Mark’s personal story, some of the struggles he’s faced, and some friends he’s made and lost. Like Forrest Gump, some of these friends were bit players in some of the 20th century’s great dramas. These stories are woven in to his argument and ‘literature review’ of recent history in a way that isn’t trite but faithful. This is a book rooted in real human experience – but written with sensitivity and depth of genuine reflection that is occasionally disarming. I regularly read books where there are quotes I want to come back to, or ideas I’d like to mull over. When I do, I turn a page corner. This book, or at least my copy of it, is nearly twice as thick at the back as at the front, due to the number of folded corners, some of them folded with largesse. This was a book I raved to my wife about, smiled at on the tube, and have been encouraging people to read. It is timely, and perhaps prophetic in parts.

This book is also deeply practical. Whether it is the simple summaries at the end of each chapter, the book’s embedded-ness in history and current affairs, or the ever-relevant biblical medicine applied so well towards the end, this is a book for normal people, people who are thinking but troubled by the world we find ourselves in. I would hope that this book is widely read – certainly by anyone presuming to be a ‘leader’, but by anyone concerned by the degradation of society, the simplification of debate, and the threatening rise of ‘post-truth culture’ and ‘alternative facts’.

Mark has also written the brilliant When Darkness Seems my closest friend, on life and ministry with depression.

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