How to Survive a Shipwreck:
Help is on the Way and Love is Already Here
Paperback: Zondervan, 2016
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Reviewed by Douglas Graves
There are a great deal of “how to” resources for Christians these days. We hope for easy answers and are drawn to step-by-step instructions on how to live a healthy, happy, pleasant Christian life. Yet despite what seems like a recent rise in conversation around deconstruction–especially in regards to faith–there isn’t much writing on how to deconstruct gracefully. Jonathan Martin, however, has written an exceptionally moving book that does just that, and so much more. Despite the title, to classify How to Survive a Shipwreck as another “how to live the Christian life” book would be like calling Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath one of his best works; it most certainly is, but it ignores and belittles the heartache and pain found in the pages of that great American novel. Likewise, Martin’s attempt at “how to” delves into the deepest parts of the soul and comes out not only alive, but hopeful.
As mentioned, Martin has creatively fashioned a discussion about the deconstruction of faith using the metaphor of a shipwreck. Most of us have never experienced a real shipwreck, but we’re familiar with the stories — many of which Martin weaves into his writing. Whether or not you’ve experienced spiritual shipwreck, in the form of deconstruction, doubt, loss, or death, you’ve got plenty to learn from Martin’s own experiences. If you have, then you may find great comfort and hope in knowing you’re not the only one. But even if you haven’t, Martin’s perspective is important nonetheless, and as with most advice we’re given in life, what we learn from others’ experiences may save us a great deal of pain in the future. The words in How to Survive a Shipwreck offer something for all of us, on either side of the wreckage.
Throughout the book, Martin brings into question many of the ideas and attitudes in Christianity that often lead to shipwreck; his main method is learning to see and experience God in everything. The implications of this perspective are very broad, but ultimately require us to break down the walls between the sacred and secular and embrace the presence of God within us, whether we’re still afloat or on our way down.
Jonathan is able to find great beauty and significance in the simplest things in life. In a chapter titled “Eating, Breathing, Sleeping,” Martin demonstrates how some of the most basic activities result in magnificent spiritual consequences, reminding us of God’s provision, presence, and peace. Often times in our pain and heartache it is the simplest pleasures that remind us of our blessings, “let the cheesecake tether you again to what is good about the earth,” Martin encourages his readers (95). “Whatever means would make you feel like giving thanks is provision that syncs you again to the Provider,” (95). Celebrating our most basic needs–food, breath, and rest–are the best way to remind us of God’s presence and promise to provide for us; it is a way to remind us that God has not abandoned us. If God can be present in cheesecake, where else can he be found?
Perhaps finding God in Cheesecake seems a little trivial, maybe even irreverent. However, this is far from the most scandalous place Martin points to God’s presence. In his chapter “God Loves Monsters,” Jonathan searches for God with the monsters of the deep. It doesn’t seem like a place we’d find God, and certainly not a place we’d intentionally look for him, but in a shipwreck, if it wasn’t a monster that caused it, we can be sure there are some nearby. Martin is adamant that repressing or ignoring the monsters is the last thing we should do, “The monsters we repress are the ones that control us,” (113). Yet, to face the monsters on our own would be as foolish as ignoring them.
Martin looks to Job’s exchange about the Leviathan with God, who puts a leash on the monster and parades him around like a pet; he looks to the creation story where God is seen brooding over the waters, the Hebrew symbol for chaos. All of this suggests that God is at home in the chaos and “our only recourse is to welcome God into the depths that are his natural habitat, inviting the beautiful Spirit back into the place where she has always belonged,” (131). Martin never identifies the monsters, because they’re different for everyone, but no matter where, what or who the monsters are, they “are not nearly as dangerous to us as our fear of them–a fear that pushes us into hiding from the safety of God and community,” (130). If we are not willing to join God in confronting the monsters, we are destined for isolation and failure. Instead, “The first and largest step toward wholeness is always to invite the light of God into our depths,” (131).
If God can be found in something as simple as cheesecake and something as dangerous as monsters, then surely we can find him in the people he created in his image. In an attempt to help us understand this, Martin moves on to encourage his readers to choose perspective over position. Unfortunately the church has often taken such strong positions that we are incapable of assuming a different perspective, and perhaps that is why Martin suggests that, “God can only be truthfully experienced from the underside of things,” (176). When we resist seeing other people as God created them we are incapable of seeing the whole of God, and are destined for shipwreck. Therefore, “We cannot merely make a decision to see the world differently; something has to happen to make us go blind first,” (179). Many in the church would reject this diagnosis and claim something along the lines of, “all lives matter to God,” but Martin asserts this more often translates into “loving people from afar,” which “is little more than a way of purging your conscience, a way of alleviating your guilt,” (177). But all of this is dependent upon perspective and whether we are genuinely willing to forsake our positions in order to see from the vantage point of others less like ourselves.
The truth is there is no graceful way to survive a shipwreck. Martin demonstrates the fear and pain that surrounds us on all sides of the wreckage. But despite the chaos that seems to so quickly surround us, Martin’s experiences encourage us that the chaos is where God makes his home. That does not mean that God is the source of chaos, and Martin’s honesty about his own lack of answers is encouraging, “The truth about the sea and the chaos is that there are no explanations,” (213). We can’t explain where the chaos comes from, and what makes it at times build up around us and suck us down, but if we descend with the current, confront our monsters, and forsake the barriers between the sacred and the secular–us and them–we may be surprised about where we find God to be the closest. “We live in a world where somehow…God is always working to bring something beautiful in and through the chaos,” (133).
Douglas Graves is currently participating in graduate studies at the University of Tennessee preparing to teach high school English. He and his fiancée, also an English teacher, are a part of a church body intentionally seeking the peace of Knoxville. They love books (obviously), coffee, and adventure.