I’ve been looking forward to reading Vicky’s first book ever since she shared, on Twitter, that she was writing one. Vicky Beeching may or may not be known to readers of this blog – I’veactually been engaging with her online since around 2011. These days, Vicky is likely most known for her LGBT* activism (Which is a major theme of this book) but before coming out in 2014 she was best known to me as one of the more thoughtful and careful Christian bloggers in the UK. Before that, Vicky would be best known to most in the Christian world as a writer and singer of worship songs, some of which are some of the best of their kind. I say all this by way of introduction because to review a book like this – a memoir – is always a difficult thing to do. Which version of a person or part of their story will be left out? What kind of emphasis will the author (Who is also the subject) take?
Vicky’s book has attracted a lot of attention – which is hardly surprising. I think the best response to it is from Peter Ould, a Church of England Priest and Consultant Statistician, who read theology at the same theological college as Vicky, also is attracted to people of the same sex/gender (Yes, yes, I know it is more complicated than that, but Undivided isn’t talking about other aspects of the rainbow as presently conceived) but has come to radically different conclusions.
As a book, Undivided reads beautifully. This is clearly a book written by someone passionate about the craft of writing, gifted with words and the connections between them, and who understands how to engage an audience with a story. Words mean something – how do we explain complex ideas? Spin the truth? Explain and understand the things that happen to us? I found this quote, early on in the narrative of Undivided, quite revealing:
“As the news that I was moving to the States sank in, I began the process of applying for an American work permit. Eventually the voluminous paperwork was done, and I boarded a plane to Nashville. The first thing on my calendar was a signing meeting, where, on the top floor of the EMI building, I would put my signature on the long and detailed recorded contract.
My lawyer had already gone over it, so I knew I was getting a fair deal and had his approval. But I was worried about something else – the “morals clause”. Common in acting, athletics, and music deals, a morals clause allows the contract to be legally terminated if the person engages in behaveor that brings disrepute to the employer. What “disrepute” meant in mainstream contrast was open to interpretation, but in the Christian music industry it had faith-based overtones and would be judged by evangelical standards of behaviour. I knew that meant being openly gay or in a same-sex relationship would likely result in a one-way ticket out the door and the crashing and burning of my livelihood.
As Jennifer Knapp, another recording artist, wrote about her own journey in American Christian music: “It’s not unusual to have morality clauses woven into recording contracts … The principal obligation for every artist is to endorse and maintain that same evangelical standard, or look for another job.””
Here, Vicky has already taken a few steps into the evangelical/celebrity/industry culture of music and ‘worship’ that I’m pretty sure Jesus might have something to say about. I felt sorry for her – and deeply glad that I am not creatively talented enough to move in these kinds of circles. But, taking a step back, and noting Vicky’s own understanding of how some UK evangelicals have responded to her book, a few things are worth bearing in mind:
- Stories develop quickly, beyond our control, and with the input and imagination of people we can never fully know and never fully trust.
- Vicky was invited into a world she longed for (The Christian music ‘industry’) in spite of her reservations (she was not allowed to be, according to her own understanding, who she felt herself to be) – and this invitation came with caveats.
- Vicky, in her own words, knew what was going on. This is an observation I make based on her published words – not my opinion – that must surely be borne in mind when thinking about the story that follows. The ‘likely result’, it seems, ‘came true’ when Vicky came out in 2014.
This is a difficult book, then, to review. I don’t want to discount and degrade the personal story of someone earnestly attempting to follow Jesus – even as I might desperately want to interject and invite and challenge regarding a number of the assertions mine. As I wrote back in 2014 before Vicky came out, I don’t want to be inhuman towards her or her story. For example, I found it fascinating that ‘Undivided’ is the title Vicky chose, less nuanced than the lyrics to her song ‘Undivided Heart’.
Personally speaking, I found it very refreshing that Vicky wrote with such honesty about her experience of leadership, ministry, and worship – this opens the doors on the unhealthy aspects of what goes on, as well as giving readers a sense of what to expect. More poignantly, I found Vicky’s reflections on mental health issues, her grappling with eating disorders, and her experience of suffering to be powerful and and thoughtful. This is a personal book – you cannot read or review it without having a sense of the person – but at the same time, it is demonstrably and deeply impersonal. Vicky chose to sign the contract above, knowing what it meant. She chose – and the narrative of Undivided goes into this in fascinating detail to come out to a secular journalist, pursue relationships, and act as an advocate for change in the teaching of the church. Readers can choose, as I have, how to respond. And this is where reviewing an autobiography or memoir gets rather tricky. Undivided is a complicated book, because (I expect) Vicky is a complicated, rich, unfinished and gifted person.
There are also other things that Undivided forces us to think about. Firstly, what I might group into ‘Societa’l reflections. I think Vicky’s experience – even as recorded in this book – should cause those of us in charismatic and evangelical churches (or, indeed, any blend therein) to prayerfully reflect on and think about our idols, our power structures, and our vision of the good life. As an example – a rare example, where the blend of internal church culture, apologetics, social pressures, wider culture comes together on (you’d never guess it) an issue of sex and sexuality, Vicky writes about the writing and ministry of Joshua Harris and the infamous book I Kissed Dating Goodbye. This reviewer felt that it might have been good to note his repentance of the movement that he created, that following Jesus whole-heartedly should never be reduced to one popular book or one story. If that is something that provokes you, dear reader, please do listen to my talk at a conference back in November of 2014, about ‘Postmodern Popes‘. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
As I continue this review – not really engaging with anything new, mindful and sobered by another story of a human being made in the Image of God, I think that the conversation Vicky is trying to engage with (Should the church change it’s doctrine on marriage and sexuality) is actually not the key emphasis of this book. Instead, I think, that Undivided has two things to challenge us with:
- Firstly, the narrative of ‘conversion stories’, and the weaponisation of personal testimony. I think I’ll need to unpack this more in the future – but, simply put, in order to be ‘biblical’, we need to take stories seriously and at the same time not change our minds because one is particularly moving or well written. Similarly, personal stories should not (in my opinion) be weaponised as an agent for change, simply because they are the experience of just one person, and we could end up playing ‘testimony tennis’, playing one story off against another in a Machiavellian game of one-up-person-ship.
- Secondly, and most importantly, I think Undivided should challenge us to think more deeply about the contrast between commercial and Christian culture. This tension sings from the pages of Vicky’s book, and is something that I think needs to be talked about and named more often.
Overall, then, Undivided has not convinced me to change my mind about the church’s teaching on sex and marriage. It is, however, a powerful challenge to a number of other shibboleths, and another essential memoir of a person caught up in the tensions of our culture and our churches. I can’t recommend it, but I look forward to talking to friends who have read it and want to continue to dialogue about the multitude of things that Vicky touches on.
I think that Peter Ould has engaged best with this book. Peter Lynas for the EA has also made some good points, though some have criticised a few sentences for tone. For a more helpful and pastoral angle, in terms of books that take a similar method (Sharing a personal story) but reach different conclusions, check out Champagne Rosaria Butterfield’s Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting, and David Bennett’s forthcoming A War of Loves.
If, like me, you are involved in relating to and pastoring people grappling with this issue, then I’d encourage you to check out A Better Story and Mere Sexuality as two books which go much deeper and wider than any of the above. For my full bibliography on sex and gender issues, which I update regularly and try to cover all angles, check out this blog post.