A Review of
Notes from a Prodigal Soul
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2017
Reviewed by James Dekker
In Night Driving , former pastor and seminary teacher Chad Bird has given us a short, intense book, one that is hard to put down. All told, this is a confessional memoir, but in that telling Bird regularly shifts genres like the gears on the Mack Truck he drove for some years after his affair and divorce.
Sometimes a cautionary moral tale, Night Driving travels deeply personal, often wrenching theological-doctrinal roads exploring sin and grace. Not content to leave this book merely as a chronological narrative of sin, confession, forgiveness and restoration, Bird traverses landscapes of human lostness and eventual forgiveness, inviting readers into his passenger seat on his journeys, both physical and spiritual.
He first tells climbing hills of remorse after his affair. But on the downhill he recognizes that remorse is an attempt to rescue himself, to win God’s favor. It leads not to true repentance, but down wicked hairpins of dangerous pride and self-deception. Only after almost completely losing control does he manage to bounce to a jarring halt in the literary form of an emergency truck runout on mountain roads.
From there, Bird finds that God is always ready to tow him and all sinners back on his own honest, rigorous route of spiritual self-awareness and utter dependence on divine mercy. Bird’s tortuous, always compelling route doesn’t lead to “’the victorious Christian life’ . . [which is] a fairy tale version of a life no one actually lives” (69). Rather, sinners who are merely remorseful are really trying to save themselves. So, it’s no wonder they “feel deceived by hope, tricked by God” (68). God surely forgives sinners who go straight, but still suffer heartbreak—like the reformed gambler whose wife runs off with the neighbor, like the recovering alcoholic pastor whose church dumps him.
Bird drives home well-known, but usually not well-lived points again and again. Throughout this fascinating pilgrimage, he follows road maps of classic Christian spiritual piety without triteness, boredom or redundancy. As he gradually recognizes that he had long tried to live by “wielding absolute control,” I was reminded of what Parker Palmer calls “’functional atheism,’ the belief that ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us” (Let Your Life Speak, 88). Thus Bird admits to being a “spiritual engineer . . . constructing a vast theological edifice . . . the whole of which was built on sand” (50) This amounts to an “if-then theology” of what he should do to make himself worthy of forgiveness: confess, take a low job feeding pigs—or driving a truck. Fittingly, Bird identifies here and elsewhere with the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable, who was loved fully, even though he considered himself a “conditional son,” dependent on himself to earn forgiveness.
Such a self-help attitude screams loudly in the lives of many of the Bible’s forgiven sinners, yet saints despite themselves. In Bird’s convincing telling, God always makes unlikely friends of sinners like Abraham, Lot, David, Jacob, Peter, Jonah and their ilk. They lived much of their lives in disobedience, doubt, lust, infidelity, fear—all amounting to distrusting God. Bird’s point is that their ilk is also his own and ours. All need severe, divine mercy.
The mercy that awakened Bird and saved him from his proud past harmonizes with Leonard Cohen’s description of love: “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and broken ‘Hallelujah.’” That’s the sharp and painful pastoral hook of honest, hard grace that prodded, awakened and grabbed Bird from his past. But that awakening pushed Bird through terrible losses of family, home and career that he boldly, yet humbly describes.
At first I wondered if this book was a product of the “Me Generation’s” urge to reveal all, in an almost boasting narrative: “See how bad I am. But if God can save me, he can save you too.” Yet Bird steers away from those potholes on his dark road. He describes his sins honestly, with restraint, never tempting the reader with salacious details.
Bird does eventually find Light beyond the darkness of his own failings and betrayals of all he once held too dear before trusting God more fully. Thus he had to lose family, reputation, a career in teaching, preaching, lecturing and writing. He wishes that on no one, but recognizes that necessary part of his own path to reveal and destroy pride and self-sufficiency.
In one profound reflection that should be obvious to forgiven sinners, but usually isn’t, Bird cites an old lesson from St. Jerome who couldn’t rid himself of lust even after he moved to a desert monastery. Just as a couple in a troubled marriage cannot repair it by moving to a new house, so Bird comes to Jerome’s conclusion that “We can’t escape our problem, because it is not external to us. It is within [sic] us” (90).
As a complement to his gripping personal theological-doctrinal discourses, Bird illustrates the boundlessness of God’s mercy by concisely exploring the lives of biblical misfits cum “heroes of faith”—an ironic term neither Bird nor the writer to the Hebrews uses, though generations of saccharine Bible teachers have. Instead Bird has written a plain-spoken account of the misunderstood doctrine of Total Depravity in action within his own life, implying that is the case for all humanity. That is, Bird illustrates how we are not as bad as we can be, but can do nothing good ourselves without God—which briefly defines the doctrine.
All of that then, amounts, to a novel, accessible understanding of divine sovereignty. Without using the term, Bird implies that God—as the only Being who can forgive sin—is indeed sovereign, in the biblical sense because sin is the root of all human and cosmic suffering. The only solution to such horror is submission, surrender to God. Bird’s memoir memorably reminds readers of that truth throughout and thus makes a fitting book for personal or group reflection.
James Dekker is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor, now working with Resonate Global Mission as Pastor to Missionaries.