Featured Reviews

John Starke – The Secret Place of Thunder [Feature Review]

The Secret Place of ThunderA Meditation on Being Loved by God

A Feature Review of

The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ
John Starke

Paperback: Zondervan Reflective, 2023
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Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon

When she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1985 for her work in the film Places in The Heart, Sally Field’s unfiltered, effervescent response caught the sophisticated audience of industry professionals by surprise. She gushed, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now, you like me!”

That desire to be noticed, appreciated, and celebrated resides in each one of us, but it’s been amplified as a modern virtue via the rise of social media and digital communication. In this environment, it isn’t an easy thing to interrogate what this yearning for platform, fifteen minutes of fame, or a few extra “likes” on a social media post is doing to our souls.

John Starke’s The Secret Place of Thunder: Trading Our Need to Be Noticed for a Hidden Life with Christ offers far more than a critique of this innate desire for attention. He invites readers to a remedy, though the remedy is anything but a quick fix. Instead, Starke situates the cure in pursuing a healthy, honest relationship with God rather than perfecting our ability to perform for the approval of others. If popularity is a virtue in the eyes of the world, Starke is advocating for vice. But it is a “vice” that offers us blessed freedom. He writes,

“Remember the Beatitudes of Matthew 5? Blessed are the meek, the peacekeepers, the poor in spirit. But also, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for there is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me’ (Matthew 5:10-11 NIV). Jesus envisions this life as one not simply of loss but of blessing. We can spiritually and emotionally thrive when we are culturally and socially diminished.”  

Starke, a pastor, notes that during a period of emotional and spiritual darkness in his own life, he discovered that he was especially tempted to perform for others: “During that time, the idea that others would experience me as weak felt threatening to me.” Starke came to recognize that Jesus himself had called him into this darkness in order that he could experience it “in an undefended state in order…to receive his love.”
 

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Followers of Jesus will recognize the classic spiritual disciplines of hiddenness and humility highlighted throughout The Secret Place of Thunder, it is a safe bet to say that not many of us have a handle on those disciplines in our own lives. I appreciated the fact that Starke framed his discussion throughout the book not in terms of choosing to give up the desire to be noticed, but instead in highlighting the goodness of what it means to be seen in the unblinking gaze of the One who loves us perfectly.

It may seem at first to be counterintuitive to the thesis of his book, but Starke also highlights that there is an emotional component that requires community to his remedy leading to the flourishing of our souls. Hiddenness with Christ does not mean we disconnect from relationships with others. In fact, the opposite is true. He tells of a pastor friend of his who was nearly undone by the criticism he felt he was receiving from his congregation before he sought counseling at the direction of the elders in his church,

“This friend had actually been receiving healthy feedback about his weaknesses, but he was receiving it through the filter of the experience of his broken family life growing up and his inability to be close to his parents. When he heard criticism, his heart was paying attention to the lack of acceptance from his father and mother. Recognizing that dynamic was a game changer for him.

“But it’s important to understand that self-awareness is not the same thing as transformation. Once we’ve noticed how our family history has informed our responses to God, we must then allow God to define who he is apart from our experience with our families. Or once we’ve noticed what our culture tells us to be afraid of, sorry for, or ashamed of, we must allow God to speak his truth to us.”

The subject matter of this book could have lent itself to harsh, prescriptive advice in less-mature and gracious hands, but Starke writes with grace and pastoral care. In the book’s conclusion, he addresses those of us who have “safety schemes and salvation plans” that are working for us, noting that some who are reading his words have popularity, a rising career path, or a good and growing measure of success in their lives. But he prods even those who are coasting right now with a loving goad of a question: “If your life were to continue on this trajectory, would it be the life you want?”

Self-actualization isn’t the goal of life, he contends. Instead, our cure is found in communion with God that flows into a self-giving life “that can happen only when we are vulnerable and known, first in secret with the Father then in love with others.” The Secret Place of Thunder offers a reminder that the way of Jesus is always a narrow path, and will never be confused with a horde of Twitter “likes” or membership in the clique of popular people at work or church. My only critique of the book–and it is a small one–is that I wish it had a couple of reflection questions or journaling prompts at the end of each chapter. That said, the book itself is an extended meditation on what it is to be loved by God, which is a far greater thing than all the “likes” the world has to offer.

Michelle Van Loon

Michelle Van Loon is the author of seven books, including Translating Your Past: Finding Meaning in Family Ancestry, Genetic Clues, and Generational Trauma (Herald Press). Michelle has a wide range of published work to her credit including articles, curriculum, devotionals, articles, and plays. She is a founding member of The Pelican Project, a women's theology organization, and the co-founder of ThePerennialGen.com, a website for midlife women and men. Learn more about her work at MichelleVanLoon.com

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