Play With Fire: Discovering Fierce Faith, Unquenchable Passion, And A Life-Giving God, by Bianca Juarez Olthoff
[Note: This book was provided free of charge by BookLook/Zondervan. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
This book is a hot mess. It comes in with its somewhat bracingly casual tone, showing up like a slightly overweight and obsessively dieting friend in yoga pants, breathlessly talking about life’s drama and struggles, even including an afterword that somewhat apologizes for its state by commenting on the fact that the author’s final edits were somehow lost shortly before the book was to go to print. It’s the sort of work that one is not harsh to because one has compassion on the author, even if one wishes the book was better put together. Still, this book is not one that one altogether rejects, not least because the author does strike one as a genuinely friendly person who is worth getting to know in the pages of a book, someone who may in fact resemble oneself in many ways, and given that most of us have somewhat messy and complicated lives and personal histories and struggle with the balance between the revelation of God in scripture and the personal revelation and divine providence that come through hints and suggestions and insight on a personal level, this book is written from the place of someone who has been where many of the readers of this work are.
The contents of this book reflect a somewhat hybrid origin for the theory of the book. The opening chapter and title of the book reflect the author’s desire that fire be a source of renewal and transformation like the heathen myths of the phoenix, which is definitely not a point in the book’s favor, but the rest of the book looks at a period of the author’s life, and not a short one, as being a wilderness experience of solitude and feeling unloved and unwanted and stuck without progress towards stability in life and marriage. I cannot be critical of this feeling, having it in massive and overabundant qualities as well. Indeed, most of the book, with its discussion on coping and on bad relationships and on the misery of finding that one’s family and friends and exes are getting married while one remains an increasingly aging virgin with a disastrous dating was particularly painful reading because of my high degree of empathy. Yet towards the end of the book, right around the 75% mark, one gets the feeling that everything will end up alright–noticing the fact that the author’s name reflects that she is married, and realizing that even before she married she turned her considerable efforts at awkward self-revelation into serving and encouraging others, which bodes well for her success in life whatever happens. This is a pretty tell-all kind of memoir, and one whose honesty and candor allows the reader to overlook its general messiness.
As someone who reads a great deal of works on the field of divine communication with believers  as well as memoirs of singlehood , it should come as little surprise that there were a lot of ways that I could relate to this book from an intellectual as well as an emotional level. In many ways, this book provides a variety of interesting insights, including a defense of the popular habit of women’s retreats, a view of a childhood and young adulthood by a thoughtful and sensitive Hispanic woman struggling with questions of identity as well as belonging and love. As many people struggle with these matters, it is little surprise that this work, with all of its messiness and imperfection and even its hint of heathen origins, will resonate with many people who long for a positive representation of fire to represent their own fierce passions as well as the refining fire of trials that they can see when they look at how God has operated in their lives. Without a doubt, these are matters that I myself can relate to, and that is without being a part of this book’s intended audience of young to middle-aged women who struggle, like the author, with feeling loved by God and others and with the general messiness of an honestly admitted life in our contemporary world. Yet, like many books, for all of its flaws, this is a book that hits a far wider target than it aims at, and there is a lot to be said in praise for that, and for the author’s willingness to be so painfully honest about herself and her own life and background without slamming others.
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