Book Review: Speak

Speak: How Your Story Can Change The World, by Nish Weiseth

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Zondervan Press in exchange for an honest review.]

Although I have never read anything written by the author (who is best known as a blogger about social justice and related concerns, and who is editor-in-chief of A Deeper Story, which provides a collaborative effort where writers (presumably politically liberal, given the contents of this book) talk about truths of God and caring for people in need), the contents of this book place her squarely within the very familiar area of socially activist Christians and prolific writers (this may possibly include me) with a base in the Portland, Oregon area [1]. Given how unchurched the area of Portland is as a whole, it is astonishing just how many Christian authors are from here given the negligible influence that Christianity in culture or behavior has on the culture of the area. This book begins to indicate why Christians from Portland may be highly motivated to write about Christianity and living faith but do not appear motivated to set a godly example of behavior or godly standards of belief. This is one of those books that passionately (and rightly) proclaims the love of God for the lowly and shows admirable success in personal generosity as well as political activism on behalf of the poor and marginalized. However, this book ultimately does little to arrest the moral decline of our nation, because it seeks to pit orthodoxy (particularly in terms of social matters) against orthopraxy. As a result, this book and its author remind the reader (if that reader is not a political ally of the author) that little in this world is more common than compassion that is wasted because it is not tied to the sorts of behavioral changes that are necessary in order for people to achieve a better life.

Yet there is one thing this book gets, and gets well, that deserves to be said. We have all (myself certainly included, and the author admits it of herself) been damaged by the cynicism and hatred and divisiveness of the political culture around us. The author’s central point, and it is a worthy one that deserves reflection and application, is that our salvation may ultimately depend on our ability to overcome this bitterness and division and judgmental nature by seeking to love people as they are and listen to their stories with compassion, not seeking to judge, but rather seeking to show that for those who repent of their wicked ways and turn to God, the door is always open, and that God is immensely gracious. This book speaks a lot about God’s grace and its messiness [2], as our lives are indeed messy and complicated, but it seems to deliberately avoid seeking answers and solutions and programs to that messiness. This book seeks to open a dialogue, a necessary step in our world, but certainly not the final step. It encourages people to speak their stories boldly, not just the good parts, but the whole parts, that people may see the sorts of lives we have lived and the experiences we have had that have shaped our fears and compulsions. God only knows we all have enough of both. The book encourages us to wrestle with the darkness and to avoid placing hasty and nasty labels on others without first hearing them out (the story of how the author herself provokes a fight with her husband over gender politics in the church without first hearing him out is spot on in showing how necessary and how difficult this can be). So long as this book is seen as advocating the first step in a larger process and not the be-all and end-all of dealing with our society’s brokenness and messiness, as well as that of people in general, this book can be treasured and appreciated regardless of whether you agree with the positions and opinions of the author or not.

The organization of this book is itself designed in an evangelical sort of way. The book opens with a discussion of the problem of a society and church deeply divided over political issues ,where dialogue between people in different camps (as defined by various labels of conduct and identity) is fraught with grave difficulty. Part of that grave difficulty is that we are called both to be righteous and to be merciful. This book seems to pit justice against mercy by appealing to mercy without an overarching belief in the moral standard of God’s ways, in the way in which it gives attaboys to an abortionist working for Planned Parenthood who claims to be a Christian leader (one of the reasons why traditional Christianity is unable to serve as a light to the world, because it lacks light itself). Yet this book is right that the issues of our society, or the church, or our own relationships with others, will not be solved without a great deal of conversation without agendas or knives drawn looking to pounce on errors and mistakes in behavior. We all stumble in many ways, we all live in a dark and broken world and we have all been deeply affected by the brokenness of the world around us and in our own families and experiences. Ultimately, healing our brokenness and isolation, in part by sharing our stories and being tender listeners to others (talked about in the second part of the book) is supposed to change our world for better, helping it to become less broken and more in line with God’s ways. If this book has its serious flaws, its virtues are enough for it to be worthy of reflection and application as part of a larger and more complete balance that does not pit law and grace, justice and mercy, obedience and love, but rather shows the complex wholeness of a heavenly Father who gives us His laws for our good, and who holds his hands out to us, and calls for us to forsake evil and turn from our wicked ways that harm ourselves and those around us. So too, when we speak of our own lives, those lives ought to be infused with the love and compassion of God towards others, so that people who might be inclined not to like our opinions at least may understand why we are the way that we are, and view us with compassion in turn. We can all hope for that, I suppose.

Ultimately, a book like this is not to be judged for its words or stories, which are suitably emotional in nature, seeking to tug at the heart-strings. This book as a whole is a strongly emotional appeal that seeks an audience that is female, politically liberal, more inclined to emotional than logical reasoning, and that is hostile to conflict (except when that conflict comes from being a bit of a nag). Rather, this book is to be judged for the action it provokes—building bridges, seeking justice and wholeness, and leading to a more open and sincere and vulnerable sort of behavior on the part of Christians. Some Christians may already do a good job about being authentic about their lives and honest about their own struggles and harrowing life experiences. Yet others will be encouraged to do so to the extent that we do not use our own experiences and backgrounds as a club to beat others with (and truth be told, this book has too much of that, especially with regards to gender and sexual politics), but rather as a way of letting others (and ourselves) know the extent to which we have been deeply shaped by our lives, so that we may seek our way back to God and ultimately walk in His ways, rather than in our own (or worse, demanding that others follow our ways rather than God’s ways). To the extent that it encourages its readers to behave better than the practice of the writer in being compassionate to others and gracious in hearing their stories, it will be a successful effort. We could all stand to learn from what it has to say even with a clear-sighted view of its bias and failings.

[1] See, for example:

[2] In that way, it is rather similar to a few other works:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: Speak

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