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The Beauty Of An Honest Christian Memoir: Ashley Cleveland’s ‘Little Black Sheep’

Ashley Cleveland

Ashley Cleveland by Steve White aka echobase_2000 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Back in July, I wrote about the controversy attending the discovery of substantial fictional elements in Tony Anthony’s book ‘Taming the Tiger’. I noted the evangelical obsession with celebrity, and the lust for dramatic conversion stories as drivers in promoting such books, with an attendant risk of pastoral damage for Christians who do not have a spectacular story to tell. I began the piece with reproducing a cartoon from Ship Of Fools when it was a print magazine, not a website. ‘Born Again Testimonies’ asked, ‘You may be, but has your TESTIMONY been born again?’

Now I’ve found an antidote in Ashley Cleveland‘s memoir, ‘Little Black Sheep‘. i have loved her music for a good twenty years. Many say she sounds like Melissa Etheridge: I say she makes Janis Joplin sound like Janet Jackson. A blues-rock singer with notes of soul, she sings with passion and honesty about faith and life. In the book, she writes with the same passion and honesty about faith and life.

Superficially, her story has elements that Christian publishers and readers love. Blaming herself as a young child for the divorce of her gay father and vain mother, she slides into multiple addictions – food, alcohol and drugs. She seeks love in all the wrong places and believes that God only wants to punish her. She has no concept of a personal, loving God – although eventually she is – if I may borrow Brennan Manning‘s word – ‘ambushed’ by God.

But hers is no quick fix fairytale of the ‘When I met Jesus, everything was happy ever after’ variety. She slides back, still fighting alcoholism while winning Grammy awards for her music. She struggles to establish a healthy  marriage. The Christian community is locally welcoming, in the non-judgemental members of her church, but the wider Christian constituency is offended when she dares to sing about sex – even as a married woman. But hers is the tale of the God who lifts her up by love every time she falls.

There is much more that I could say about the book, but what I essentially want to say in this post is that all sorts of people would profit from reading this book:

* Music fans should read it;

* Pastors should read it;

* Most of all, broken people should read it.

I’d better end this with some music:

The song which provides the title for the book:

Queen Of Soul – her take on being a woman of God:

An exhortation to others, based on her own experience:

Covering the Rolling Stones:

 

A Year For Memoirs

I won’t be foolish to try a review of 2011 in its entirety, not even my own 2011. But I thought I would just highlight the fact that one thing I have enjoyed this year is reading memoirs. They have been a refreshing contrast to the linear arguments of theology that I often read, and a useful reminder of the truth I often proclaim that God wants to draw us into his story.

Here are three I especially commend. I certainly discovered the first two from Scot McKnight’s blog, and I think possibly the third one, too.


Rachel Held Evans
, Evolving In Monkey Town is a book I have wanted to read for a while. Evans comes from the town in Tennessee that was the storm centre of the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, and is thus a bastion of fundamentalism. Evans grew up in that faith, and her memoir details where her questioning led her. Some of her conclusions will not surprise those who have grown up in mainstream churches, but they are a hurricane all of their own for someone with her background, and she writes engagingly, with both modesty and passion. Read her blog, too, or follow her on Facebook.
Then I would commend Flirting With Faith by Joan Ball. Ball is an atheist who is  dramatically apprehended by God in a church service. Don’t read it for intellectual arguments in favour of Christianity and against atheism, but do read it for the humour and honesty she displays. It is both fun and poignant to read how her faith grows, and disturbing to hear how she is attacked from within the community of faith for it. Nevertheless, her faith endures, and she never stops questioning. Like Evans, there is a beautiful honesty in her reflections. You feel like you are living someone’s real life, rather than one of those ‘When I came to Jesus, all my problems were solved’ stories. Ball knows better than that, and so her story is not at all remote from the average reader.
Last of all, let me add my praise for Ian Morgan Cron‘s wonderfully titled and powerfully written Jesus, My Father, the CIA and Me. Cron is an Episcopal priest in the States. For some he will be too sacramental, but even if his expression of faith is not quite the same as yours, do not be put off. This is a book in which to encounter grace and the healing work of the Holy Spirit, as Cron battles the demons of his father’s life and his own inner struggles. The book will be like a magnet, attached to your hands.

Yes, all three books are American. That’s just a coincidence. There is plenty in these for those of us east of the Big Pond to appreciate.

Have any of you read these books, and if so, what did you think? What else have you read this year that you would recommend, and why?