Now and again, a book comes along which exactly what is needed, not what you expected, and a niche ‘hero-book’. Justin and Lindsay Holcomb’s book is just that.
The problem of sexual assault is massive. According to the authors, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men are victims of sexual assault. In the foreword by Mark Driscoll things are put simply, setting the tone of the book: ‘This book matters. There is an epidemic of sexual assault, and victims need the kind of hope and help that only the gospel of Jesus Christ can provide. Tragically, most churches and Christians are woefully unprepared‘. Now, I know that having Driscoll give the foreword will put some people off, but it shouldn’t. Neither should the fact that Justin is a pastor at Mars Hill Church, and his wife Lindsay a deacon there. Lindsay counsels victims of sexual assault and trains leaders to care for them. Justin has taught courses on sexual violence, as well as in studies of Women and Gender at the University of Virginia. This is not a book written out of naive hope, but instead genuine engagement with the multitude of issues around sexual assault, but with eyes fixed firmly on Jesus. I COMPLETELY recommend it – not least as it is one of very few (if any, in my experience) Christian books on the issue.
Anyway, into the meat.
Firstly, this is a hard book to read. This is a hard subject. This is not prosperity gospel, Christian self help, cosmic vending machine Christianity, or easy suburban middle class theology. This book is about, and composed of, hard truths. Do not expect this to be an easy read – it is very well written – but it is hard hitting, and engages with serious things. Anyway, warning done. The book is divided into three parts – 1: Disgrace and Grace, 2: Grace Applied, 3: Grace Accomplished. The opening section provides a concise overview of what sexual assault is, and a usefully deep look at what the effects are. For some, particularly those new to the issue, this first section will be incredibly useful. There is clear engagement with the mechanics and psychology of sexual assault. One concern that some express when the idea of Christian engagement with this issue is addressed, is to what extent blame is apportioned the victim. On this, the authors are clear:
‘The offender is guilty, not you. Nothing you did was asking for it’.
We can be incredibly grateful to the Holcombs for being blunt and honest on this issue.
Another area where the book is particularly useful – and I would imagine would be useful reading for pastors and leaders even if they are not currently engaged in counselling victims of sexual assault – is in the way it deals with emotions and feelings. The book deals with a multitude of emotions and feelings. And these are first put forward thus:
‘What this means for victims of sexual assault is that your emotions are important and valid. They are not just chemicals in your brain and physiological responses to stimuli. Your emotions are to be taken seriously and listened to. They reveal what you believe about God… What you believe has a huge connection to how you respond to disgrace, violence, denial, shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, bitternes, despair and so on.’
Having explained the issues, the problems, the many responses, and indeed the context, the authors are fantastic at starting to work out a pastoral theological response. Everything they say stems out of the statement that ‘what victims need are not self-produced positive statements but God’s statements about his response to their pain… Grace re-creates what violence destroyed‘. This is a stunningly powerful starting point, and in a very simple way, the rest of the book calmly but firmly backs this desire up.
Without summarising the book, I cannot really say more about it, other than to completely commend it to you. This is a book – that whilst coming out of the Mars Hill Church that has such a controversial pastor in Mark Driscoll, is one that is aware of the full gamut of being a Christian, as this quote proves;
‘Too many people want to separate emotion and suffering from faith and theology, but we will do the opposite. We wish to integrate suffering, faith, emotions and theology. Don Saliers writes: “whatever else it may include, the Christian faith is a pattern of deep emotions”‘.
This not a book written without hope – in fact the sections on hope are amongst its strongest. There are stern warnings about forgiveness in isolation, false hope, and internalising anger – amongst other things. At its core, this is a book about how the Love of God for his people can be practically worked out in creation, in the stage of one of the hardest issues of all. The book has a number of quotes about God’s love, and here I want to reproduce two, one from Kierkegaard and one from Luther:
‘The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it’ – M. Luther
‘For love is exultant when it unites equals, but it is triumphant when it makes that which was unequal, equal in love’ – S. Kierkegaard
I thoroughly endorse and recommend this book, and will probably revisit it on this blog, as well as using what I have learned from it in my occasional work with young people, and my friendship with Christians who have suffered from this issue.