Top critical review
Wonderful Book - But Misses the Light.
Reviewed in Australia on 14 April 2020
This is an edited version of a review I wrote on the Third Space website. Thirdspace.org
Julia Baird’s latest book is beautifully written, deeply personal, and at times incredibly moving and stimulating. The sub title of the book is intriguing – ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark”. Does that not sound like a perfect title for today’s world?
The book is largely a collection of essays (some previously published) which reflect Julia’s search for light and meaning – a search that many people can identify with – a search for “the kind of happiness that does not depend on what happens”(p.10). It is a search for ‘the light within”.
It is also a deeply personal book – clearly for Julia – but also for me, as a reader. I found myself identifying with much of what she says. The recovery of a sense of wonder after serious illness; a love for New York and Central Park, Sydney and the sea; love of family; appreciation of history; dislike of oppressive religion and of the body shaming culture of Instagram. I think I particularly resonated with her experience of hospital and could totally identify with this sentiment: “I grew intensely attached to the nurses, grateful for their kindness, and lay wondering if there was a more important job. I also grew attached to my surgeons…” (p.231)
Her writing about the beauties and benefits of nature is reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Three of my favourite quotes:
In her search for light what does she find? Are we enlightened? Her solution is in nature (especially swimming in the sea), in family and in good friends. “Social connection and relationships are the single greatest predictor of health and happiness throughout your life.” (p.27)
She emphasizes the value of silence - “In the Middle Ages, Christian scholars believe that noise was used as a weapon by Satan, who was bent on preventing human beings from being alone with God, or fully with each other, alert and listening.”(Page 64).
There are so many good and refreshing things about Phosphorescence, but in the end it is a frustrating book, because it leaves out the one thing that would bring light. It’s like being shown a room full of good things – only to find that the door to that room is locked.
Julia’s biggest mistake is to think that the Light is within us. “What has fascinated and sustained me over these last few years has been the notion that we have the ability to find, nurture and carry our own, inner, living light’ (p.12). But what if the light within is darkness? What if darkness is our only friend? What if, when we look inside, instead of finding goodness and illumination, we find evil and darkness? Julia’s teaching that we all have our own light, by which we can live is not an encouraging message. It is depressing and debilitating. If I am relying on my own inner light for salvation, I am in deep trouble.
As already indicated there were so many things about this book I loved – and Julia Baird sounds to me to be a fascinating, stimulating, vulnerable, confused and fine person. I would love to meet her. But it is precisely because she comes across as so likeable that I found Phosphorescence so frustrating. She gets so close and yet she is so far. I remember Russell Brand when he was being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman astonishingly declaring that he believed in God and when asked why, reply “why chase shadows when you can go to the source of Light itself”? Julia’s book is all about chasing shadows – not getting to the Source of Light. How I long for Him – for me as well as for her.
“With every day we walk on this earth, we must try to understand better, and act to ensure that every person can feel fully human, equal and free.” (p.274)
We will not be fully human, equal and free, without coming to know Christ. He became human to save humans. It is in Christ that there is neither male nor female, slave nor free person. It is Christ who said “know the truth and the truth will make you free… I am the truth”. If you look for the light within you will enter a world of delusion or descend down the helter skelter of darkness. If you look up – you will be able to see, along with John Newton: “I was blind but now I see. Amazing grace!”