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A Review of
All I Once Held: A Novel
Paperback: Quoir Books, 2015
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Reviewed by Amber Peace
In the current media, it’s difficult to not see stories and opinions of families falling apart. It’s almost with a sick glee the Duggars have been set upon by all walks of people on social media. Scores of church leaders will be admitting to having accounts on the adultery-focused website Ashley Madison in coming weeks. Finally, one of the last Christian communes from the Jesus Movement is facing accusations of cult-like behavior and abuse. In a sickeningly fast amount of time, the news and most people will forget these stories. There will be more scandal to keep the 24-hour reels going. The people and families involved will not forget. They will still be grieving and picking up pieces.
Regardless of if you believe in chance, fate, or a combination them, Gaylynne Sword’s All I Once Held has come out at good time. It is so easy to dehumanize the people we see on television and in other media outlets. While there is nothing inherently wrong with being disgusted with sin, what is sorrow and a broken heart for everyone involved. Perpetrators need the healing love of Christ and we are those hands and feet that give body to redemption. Further, it is the fear of shame and the need of pride that keeps the problems growing. When an affair happens, it needs to be addressed. The spouse doesn’t need to put on a happy face and take the blame. When depression hits at 10am, those who love them need to recognize medical intervention is necessary. Having joy in the Lord may not be all the medication a person needs.
The world is fraught with pain and disappointment and those who should be there for you – your church, isn’t always there. In fact, it may be what is holding you under.. All I Once Held brings the reader behind the pulpit into the world that can be church politics and white washed tombs. The consequences of not addressing broken relationships will strike a chord in those who work in ministry and hopefully in the hearts of those who don’t know the struggles of ministry. The pains of adultery and depression play a part in the story that Sword writes, but they are symptoms of a large problems concerning pride and shame. The unconditional love of Christ Katy Walton, the protagonist, hears about doesn’t have the ability to shines through the veil of perfectionism and judgment the church community covers her with. Katy and her family members are incredibly real. As the story unfolds I can connect each character with stories from the news and from my own life. I feel anger and indignation because I’ve seen the cruelty. I am sorry because I’ve seen the defeat and more than a few times passages jump out which summed up the problems so well. It’s not just one person sins and then another enables it, excuse it, and ignores it. Entire communities will engage in the behavior perpetuating a cycle passed on through generations leaving a trail of broken people.
Katy, Adam, Adam’s parents, and all the the others who come together in the book genuinely love Christ. I do not believe that a single character Swords wrote meant to harm anyone. Even with that knowledge, there were characters whose lives and points of views I hated. They were so well written that I could recognize them on my own streets. I want to say they are the problem. They are not though. As Sword repeated a few times in Katy’s voice, the problem is the system. I cannot harbor anger for those people without recognizing they have their own demons to fight.
As the book progresses, the players turning a crank that stretches them just a bit more. It’s not a question of if their body and souls will break, only when. They do, and it hurts my heart. This pain happens every day. The book ends abruptly leaving the question of generational cycles unanswered but helpful. It comes across as almost unfinished on purpose, since there is more living to be done and relationships to mend. The author has said since the book came out in an interview saying she is writing a sequel from the perspective of a secondary character and continuing the story.
In the desire for perfection, we lose sight of the grace and mercy that is unbounded in Christ. His unmerited favor gives us the opportunity to confess and repent. The fear of what our fellow Christians will say keeps us from using that gift openly and fully. The fear is even more concentrated in those who serve in Church leadership. You cannot be in leadership without hearing from others and from yourself James 3:1 “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” That verse keeps more than a few people awake at night. We forget that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. Nothing can separate us, nothing can separate those who have been victimized, and nothing can separate those who prayed on the victims. Absolutely nothing. All I Once Held wants pastors to stop pretending to be perfect and wants congregations to stop expecting perfection. Instead, demand honesty. Hope for healing. Give grace to everyone you met. The world is such a broken place, and the Church should be binding those wounds the best way known, not hiding them and hoping they’ll heal themselves.