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In the Shelter: Finding a home in the world by Pádraig Ó Tuama, Hodder & Stoughton, 261pp
Pádraig Ó Tuama is a poet, storyteller, theologian and speaker, who I first encountered at a tenx9 storytelling session at Greenbelt, which encourages people to tell their real stories, in their own words. That session left me keen to read this book: part-theology, part-poetry and part-memoir.
The book title draws on an old Irish proverb: ‘It is in the shelter of each other that the people live’, and the book draws richly upon characters, their stories, and interactions upon journeys. As someone who has travelled extensively, Ó Tuama identifies that in travelling, we still bring ourselves with us, and no city is big enough to hide that. Instead, with echoes of Brian Draper for me, “it requires us to resist dreaming of where we should be, and look around where we are.”
The book deals with some complex themes including death, anger, power, homosexuality, body image, and the mix of science and religion. Accessible, but nonetheless challenging, theology is used, whilst topics are dealt with often in a gentle, poetic ways. Creativity and calls to imagination are heavily drawn upon in the book, as we question what it means to be human in lives that are not always straightforward. Vivid pictures are presented, and humour scattered throughout.
Ó Tuama is devastatingly honest about his own struggles and experiences within the church. His Irish heritage, particularly ‘the troubles’, and coming to terms with his own homosexuality are common threads throughout the book, without dominating the text. Of his journey with faith, he talks of feeling in a place of rules, burden, guilt fear and prison, until he understood that “The Glory of God is found in a human being fully alive.” He asks us whether we are in a ‘time of storm’, or whether we have ‘bread to share’, and indicates that our picture of God will deeply affect how we respond to the big questions of life.
The book emphasizes the power of language, the power of words, and the power of naming things: to some God is too powerful to be named; Mary’s barren cousin Elizabeth’s name would be whispered only, because of shame; and Pádraig remembers the names that he used to be called, and how he had even begun to adopt some for himself. Language defines us, but as we own our own names, we can change ourselves and those around us. We are called to tell stories gently, remembering, “upon whom is the burden of words”. Ó Tuama shares some of the exercises that he uses in storytelling sessions, including – if you were asked to write the story of your life, what would your first sentence be?
To be human means to be made in the image of God. Our everyday stories are tied to an exhortation to understand the whole story of Jesus, and his humanness: “in order to understand the death of Jesus, we must understand the birth of Jesus, the life of Jesus, the friendships of Jesus, and the tensions of Jesus.” Ó Tuama has been amazed at the ease with which some of the young that he has met undertake conversation with Jesus, including describing chats with him as being like ‘being next to a cosy fire’. Their imaginations draw upon the wisdom of friends and family, encouraging when too often theology encourages us to debate ideology, rather than engagement with Jesus.
In reading the Bible, we often glide over the familiar. Quoting Oscar Wilde we find that “endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naiveté, the simple romantic charm of the gospels.” Ó Tuama found that reading the Bible caused him discomfort, and questioned why he read it, but found that his heart was swelling with courage. We see that within British Sign Language there is a close relationship between the symbols of fear and courage, and that it’s all about the choices that we make when it comes to decision time. We are asked to consider the complexity of human emotions, to think more deeply about the over-simplifications: “it is usually fruitful to assume that most people do what seems reasonable to them at the time, most of the time.” For example, consider Judas, did he ‘betray’ Jesus because he believed that the people needed a revolution, a hero, and that Jesus resisting arrest would have helped the cause? He repented afterwards, but his story is told as that of the betrayer, rather than of the repenter.
The text encourages us to think about the questions that we ask. What untold stories are behind the questions that people ask? Should we draw upon the Japanese idea of Mu, which encourages us to unask the question and ask another one? Should we take the Bible literally, or see it as a composite of a range of styles? Should we always assume that “Jesus is the answer”, as if that finishes the question, rather than seeing that he is a help along the way? We need to embrace doubt as ‘the teachers of truth’. Written into science is to embrace the gift of being wrong, as this opens up other avenues of discovery. If we answer “Hello to changing out minds” “it should mean that Christianity would be known as the faith that regularly announces that it has, hitherto, been wrong, and is neither frightened nor undone by discovering error, or misdirection.”
Change is described as the fruit of responsibility, whether that be change for self (including allow others reactions to have less power), or change for society. People sought to silence Jesus because he was saying unpopular things “and we’ve been silencing him ever since.” If you’re thinking about your own story, and your place in the world, and you appreciate a poetic, imaginative style, you’ll enjoy, and be challenged by, this text.
This book was provided to me courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton and Third Way Magazine in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.
Dr Bex Lewis is passionate about helping people engage with the digital world in a positive way, where she has more than 20 years’ experience. She is Senior Lecturer in Digital Marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and Visiting Research Fellow at St John’s College, Durham University, with a particular interest in digital culture, persuasion and attitudinal change, especially how this affects the third sector, including faith organisations, and, after her breast cancer diagnosis in 2017, has started to research social media and cancer. Trained as a mass communications historian, she has written the original history of the poster Keep Calm and Carry On: The Truth Behind the Poster (Imperial War Museum, 2017), drawing upon her PhD research. She is Director of social media consultancy Digital Fingerprint, and author of Raising Children in a Digital Age: Enjoying the Best, Avoiding the Worst (Lion Hudson, 2014) as well as a number of book chapters, and regularly judges digital awards. She has a strong media presence, with her expertise featured in a wide range of publications and programmes, including national, international and specialist TV, radio and press, and can be found all over social media, typically as @drbexl.