Refiner’s Fire: The Struggle And Triumph Of John The Baptist: Tools For Navigating Doubt, Reclaiming Faith, And Discovering The Gospel All Over Again, by Rachel Starr Thomson
[Note: This book was given free of charge by the author in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.]
The story of John the Baptist is a compelling one, and the author provides that story as well as a lot of context that helps the reader to understand why it is that the messianic prophecies that we take for granted in understanding were not well understood by the Jews of the day (or even by the Jews of today, it must be admitted). While I found the book to be nothing particularly new personally, there are likely people who will be surprised to hear about the doubts of John the Baptist and the implicit way that Jesus dealt with those doubts by praising John the Baptist while also avoiding making obvious claims about Himself that would lead people to think that He was a different kind of messiah than He was because His mission was not what was expected of Him by those at the time. And there is certainly a great deal of worth in general in reading books that subvert one’s expectations, making this certainly a worthwhile effort.
This book begins with an introduction that discusses how the author was led to think about John the Baptist as a series she was writing on her blog. After that the author talks about the doubt expressed by John the Baptist based on his question from prison (1), though she does not comment on the remez nature of the conversation that John the Baptist was having with Christ where what is omitted is as important as what is said. The rest of the book talks about John the Baptist himself and how he was shaped by his destiny and his experiences, and how Jesus Christ proved to be a different Messiah than he was expecting to be the forerunner of. The author also discusses doubt and seeks to defang it a bit by pointing out the positive sides of recognizing when we struggle to understand what God is doing. Mixing her own personal stories along with plenty of material she has gathered from previous writings, this book is certainly not original but it is encouraging all the same that even the heroes of faith can struggle to understand what God is doing and need encouragement from time to time.
Admittedly, this book would not be very long without its context, as the actual material in this book that is specifically about John The Baptist would not be enough for it to be a full published book. But it is the larger context about biblical prophecy and how layered it is and how it is to be interpreted that makes this a particularly interesting book to read. The author has some strong views about justice that are expressed at the beginning of the book, though the author could have made it more clear that she was hostile to imperialism, because the author’s hostility to colonialism does not make as much sense in context, not least because the author is herself as an American a descendant of colonists whether she likes it or not. By and large the author takes a serious view of the Bible that seeks to provoke the reader to reflect and not merely take one’s understanding of the Bible for granted, and that is definitely something worth appreciating in a book. This book deserves a good audience and is likely to get it.