Featured Reviews

Sarah Bessey – Field Notes for the Wilderness [Feature Review]

Sarah BesseyA Worthwhile Guide for
Any in the Wilderness

A Feature Review of

Field Notes for the Wilderness: Practices for an Evolving Faith
Sarah Bessey

Hardcover: Convergent, 2024
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Reviewed by Lindsey Cornett

Sarah Bessey published her first two books (Jesus Feminist: An Invitation to Revisit the Bible’s View on Women and Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith) in 2013 and 2015, respectively. Though neither of them used the word deconstruction, that was very much what they explored. Since that time, with the 2016 election, rise of Christian nationalism, and ever-accelerating cultural change, deconstruction has become enough of a buzzword to almost lose its meaning.

It’s with that background and into this environment that Bessey has released her fifth book, Field Notes for the Wilderness: Practices for an Evolving Faith. Note the similarity between the subtitle of this new book and 2015’s Out of Sorts. The two books Bessey published since Out of Sorts differed significantly from the tone and format of her first two. Miracles and Other Reasonable Things was more memoir than theology, and Rhythm of Prayer was a collection of prayers, letters, and poems from a variety of writers. And so, in some ways and as the parallel subtitles subject, Field Notes is a return to form for Bessey.

The book begins this way: “Dear Wanderer, Welcome, welcome, my friend. Here you are, at the beginning. Isn’t that a sacred place to be? There are a lot of reasons why folks like us find ourselves in the wilderness.”

Those first few sentences imply a common understanding of this idea of “wilderness,” but she does fill out her definition a bit in the first chapter. Her idea of the wilderness is “strange, disorienting, lonely.” She contrasts wandering the wilderness to living within a city’s gates, writing, “If the city is a metaphor for certainty and belonging, then the wilderness is for our questions and our truth. You wouldn’t have picked up this book if you didn’t understand the wilderness in some way.”

She hashes out some of the cultural conversation around the idea of deconstruction, but she doesn’t use the word much after the opening chapter. Instead, she relies on language like “faith shift” (a phrase borrowed from a 2014 book by Kathy Escobar) and, of course, “evolving faith.” She does briefly explore the “four stages of faith formation,” as conceived of by Brian McLaren. She encourages her reader to embrace change, mystery, and a comfort with the phrase “I don’t know.”

Notably, the book never references Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness, nor the Israelite’s wandering after their exodus from slavery. Initially, one might wonder if Bessey is avoiding references to Scripture so as to accommodate those whose view of the Bible itself has evolved in some significant way, but no. She does not avoid Scripture. The book is full of it, including long narrative summaries of some Biblical stories. It seems like a miss to leave out any reference to the Biblical stories from which the book takes its title.

Despite this, Field Notes hits in many ways.

The chapters are formatted like letters, each addressed to a different moniker to describe how someone in the wilderness might feel or exist: Dear Wanderer, Wonderer, Heartbroken, Seeker, Misfit. Some of the other addresses reflect what Bessey wants the readers to know and believe about themselves: Dear Growing, Beloved One, Pathfinder, Courageous One. The tone throughout the book is one of comfort and nurturing, which will not be a surprise to any who are familiar with Bessey’s work.

She also draws heavily on the work and writing of others. She quotes and references many from the Evolving Faith community (Rachel Held Evans, Barbara Brown Taylor, Kate Bowler, Austin Channing Brown, Kaitlin Curtice), progressive Christianity (Richard Rohr, Soong-Chang Rah, Brian McLaren, Lisa Sharon Harper, Chanequa Walker-Barnes), contemporary spiritual poetry (Christian Wiman, Mary Oliver, Naomi Shihab Nye), and others.

These references are not the only evidence of the wide tent she has pitched. When quoting Scripture, she relies on The Message translation (no surprise to Bessey readers), but also the NIV, NRSV, and First Nations Version. And additionally, she frequently reminds the reader that she is not trying to be prescriptive in any way, but simply sharing her experiences and hard-won beliefs, in the hope that others will find encouragement and resonance.

Published alongside the book is also a guided journal. Though I’ve only just begun to dig in, it is extremely robust, coming in at over 200 pages. It intersperses full-page quotes from the book with reflection questions that are thoughtful, challenging, and therapeutic. Were you to sit down and complete the journal in full, you will have basically retold the story of your own evolving faith, from the beginning to the present day. I do take issue with the format of the journal, however. It’s printed in the same size and on the same paper as a typical trade paperback, which any journaler or writer will tell you is not ideal. (The paper texture isn’t great for writing, and the book doesn’t lay anywhere close to flat.) I am confident that cost-saving was a factor here, but the journal would be much more appealing were it a hardcover or at least had smooth writing paper. Nevertheless, it’s worth pulling out your own notebook and doing the work the journal outlines.

Field Notes for the Wilderness is not a book of systematic theology, nor has Bessey set out to debunk or deride the many critics of deconstruction. She isn’t naive to or dismissive of the many factors that might lead Christians to deconstruct, but they are not her primary focus. She could have chosen to critique where she came from, but instead chooses to affirm where she has landed.

If we were to give this book an alternative subtitle, we’d do well to replace “Practices” with “Pep-talks.” Bessey’s faith has been evolving for a long time, and she has used her writing to light the path for many of us. She does that again here, using her typical effusive, lyrical language. She is not afraid to say she still loves Scripture, the church, and Jesus. (I do wonder if some whose faith evolution has led them further into cynicism or deconversion might find Bessey’s tone grating or hard to connect with. Deconverted or not, you also have to not mind occasionally being addressed as “luv”.)

Field Notes opens with a poem called “Patient Trust,” written by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ. The poem begins, “Above all, trust in the slow work of God.” The same year Bessey published Jesus Feminist, my own deconstruction began in earnest in 2013. Much about my faith has been shifting for a long time, with Bessey’s books on my shelf. Then, just last year, my beloved church closed its doors, ushering in yet another evolution in how I relate to God and my Christian spirituality.

Though I sometimes wished for more from Field Notes, I found so much in this book to be a balm, truly helping me to cultivate some of the “patient trust” the book casts vision for. It’s a worthwhile guide for any in the wilderness.

Lindsey Cornett

Lindsey Cornett is a loud talker, obsessive coffee drinker, and lover of the written word who lives in downtown Indianapolis with her scientist husband, 3 kids, and crazy Bernedoodle. Most days, you’ll find her wrangling the dog, managing snacks, reheating her coffee, and trying to savor as much joy and gratitude as she can in the middle of these very full days. Lindsey writes a monthly-ish email newsletter about the intersections of faith, community, and curiosity at lindseycornett.substack.com.

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